A few weekends ago I was driving to Sedona for a girls weekend and my iPod shuffle served up the song “Snow Queen” by Elton John, a song Elton and Bernie Taupin (and others) wrote about Cher when she was in her Paris Hilton phase: all paparazzi and no respect. A grandiose idea occurred to me that Cher was a Proustian novel. Actually, my full thought was that Cher was a Proustian novel and Sonny was a Proustian character within it.
Proust is famous for long, stuffed sentences but there’s another aspect of “In Search of Lost Time” that applies to Cher, the long scope of the novel over a lifetime and how the characters evolve over the entire piece. In some places, characters seem admirable and plucky and other times pathetic and clueless. Considering Sonny in this context is a good exercise in understanding complexity. He’s not an easy character to define; and from different angles and according to different people you’re likely to hear different stories about Sonny.
Cher, other ex-wives and his children are probably most likely to see the positive side of him. Other colleagues not as much. It's like those difficult people at work whose children admire them and imagine them as heroes in the office. It’s awkward but it’s also life. People behave differently with different people, within and outside of their private circles.
From a scholarship standpoint, you try to see the whole picture. Typically, fans will disagree about this, but what good is sycophantism? It’s not really healthy for anyone.
There are aspects of Sonny that are completely underrated: writing unique cowboy songs, launching unlikely superstars from street waifs and providing them with the skills to sustain an entertainment career spanning over 50 years, parenting, a particularly personal show biz sense that predated reality television by 30 years. He was tough and smart, fashion-fearless and yes, like Cher has said, he had beautiful hands. He was a great cook, too. There's probably a lot more.
On the negative side, he couldn't sing well, his acting was a bit hammy and not everybody enjoyed working with or for him. I've been mulling over the pros and cons of Sonny all year as books and links about Sonny have come my way.
When my parents visited this summer, we watched an Al Franken correspondence dinner speeches from 1994 and 1996. At about 36:20 I shouted out “There’s Sonny” like I was 7 years old again. You see him prominently walking around with his wife, Mary. Were they late for dinner? Were they on Hollywood time?
Doing a search for the clip I discovered Sonny himself gave a speech in 1995 at a Freshman Dinner (as a newbie congressmen). It’s very bad footage but Sonny makes the other U.S. congressmen laugh. He breaks the ice with that joke about nobody knowing what he went through to be serious and he refers to Cher saying, “Remember the other woman? She wasn’t easy to shake when I wanted to peruse this career." Then he goes on to say that Mary is “way better looking than Cher,” taller and 33."
Wow. Why be so mean-spirited about your meal ticket, dude? He then talks about wining the Mayoral race in Palm Springs and how the guy he fired (that being the defeated mayor) is his gardener now. Huh. A power joke. He then said he had originally wanted to be a U.S. Senator (instead of a congressman) because the prestige of a Senator eclipsed the prestige of show biz and he admired the power and respect Senators received. Well, at least he's being honest.
With all humility he says he respects the job, the new environment and he is trying to learn. He talks about how he’s ironically learning a lot from Democrat Barney Frank: “The guy’s amazing…he does the best Shecky Greene I’ve ever heard, the best I’ve ever seen. Haven’t figured out what you do but it’s good.”
His outsider humor was very effective. He goes way over his allotted time. Says he was supposed to do 3 minutes but he does a half an hour. His demeanor reminds me a lot of Chaz.
A very thorough Cher scholar alerted me this spring to the self-published book Sonny Hit a Tree from 2015. There’s a conspiracy theory out on the Internet about Sonny possibly being murdered by political or international operatives. I’ve avoided learning about this conspiracy theory because, well…it’s an awful idea and I hate conspiracy theories.
But I felt, for due diligence, I should check this out. I read the 17-page tract on a camping trip to Conchas Lake last spring. Here's my review: do not buy this book. The conspiracy theory isn’t explained or even mentioned. Sonny is mentioned only once in an introductory letter addressing his widow Mary. The rest is a full plunge into the head of mental illness. One-hundred percent incoherent and rambling accusations that run the gamut from Saddam Hussein to Putin to the L.A. Police Department. It makes you fear for what kind of letters Mary Bono receives these days, let alone Cher. It feels icky on every level.
And speaking of self-published, one of the actors from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Murray Langston, also known as The Unknown Comic on The Gong Show, has published his memoirs, a much more coherent book called Journey Thru the Unknown. Yes, “through” is spelled “thru so you know it’s self published. That and the highly pixelated cover.
It’s a long book and not much of it concerning Sonny & Cher, although there are a few glimpses of the show, the social lives of the cast and what they all thought about Steve Martin, which was fascinating. However, Langston is crystal clear about his feelings around Sonny. He didn’t like him. In fact, Sonny makes it into his top 2 list of Hollywood’s biggest megalomaniacs. Langston also says he and Cher were on friendly terms for decades until Langston admitted publicly his true feelings about Sonny.
It’s never great to hear negative things about a loved one. And yet, Murray Langston does have the right to tell his own truth about a work situation. Interestingly, he did remain close friends with other S&C show alums, Ted Zeigler and Freeman King, until their deaths. And by now it's clear that the cast of the S&C shows did not cohere in an artistic or social sense like the cast of The Carol Burnett Show did. There are no show reunions, cast members are absent from DVD reissues. Steve Martin and Bob Einstein don’t talk at all about their experiences on the show. Teri Garr barely does. It’s not like they’ve all been out trash-talking the show either. They haven't. But the silence adds up and might be one of the reasons the show has been undervalued all these years.
And the idea of Sonny as a megalomaniac is believable. According to Langston, Sonny always referred to the cast as 'furniture' and 'atmosphere.' Imagine Tim Conway or Harvey Korman putting up with this? And maybe a variety show with a duo is more crowded than a variety show with a solo. Maybe the cast never fully bonded for whatever reason. It’s also very possible that Sonny wasn’t on his best boss behavior. And to see him in this light is far from condemning him entirely. Assistants and colleagues have been slow to come out about this but you read stories in “Strong Enough” by Josiah Howard and from Cher herself. The existence of Cher Enterprises kind of speaks for itself. Sonny could be unkind in business. People are complicated, multi-faceted and not everybody had the same experience with your loved ones. Sonny has a very complicated legacy. Can we even get our head around it? It's Proustian.
I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend Langston’s book to Cher fans as the book is mostly not about the TV show era, but Langston has his point of view and it gives the story of the Sonny & Cher shows another perspective.
Sonny as a Cult Classic
I was a pretty synchophantic Sonny & Cher fan as kid, even after they divorced. But it was Aaron Spelling shows that eventually killed my fandom of Sonny. They were pretty bad performances....or so I thought. Lately, I’ve been searching for Love Boat episodes to capture his four appearances on that Aaron Spelling show. So far I’ve only come across his appearance with Marty Ingels (truly terrible) and his episode as Deacon Dark. As a kid I did like this episode. To me it was an obvious send-up of Gene Simmons in KISS, who Cher was dating at the time: the face paint, the long, protruding tongue, a human being feeling stifled by the gimmick of makeup.
As I was looking up the show’s air date, (March 17, 1979), I found a whole slew of articles about the Deacon Dark episode. In fact, for many Love Boat aficionados, this is their favorite episode. And it’s fascinating to read their comments. They have no context for the Cher/Gene Simmons reading at all. So they see more Alice Cooper (snakes) in the performance. They're not Sonny or Cher fans. They just like the episode for what it is!
There's no substitute for actually seeing the episode, but these are the two songs Sonny sings on the show:
"Smash It" and "Now That I've Found Sarah."
From The Deacon Dark Files:
"As you may or may not know, I am a huge fan of The Love Boat. I am such a big fan, I even watched Love Boat: The Next Wave. Yes sir, it's true. If I had to narrow down my favorite episodes, I'd be hard pressed because I just adore them all. However, there is one that keeps popping up in my forever clouded childhood memories that I think is probably the best episode. Ever.
On March 17th, 1979, Love Boat unleashed Deacon Dark on an unsuspecting audience. The Deacon is a culmination of Alice Cooper and KISS mixed with a whole lot of TV sensibility towards the then-current pop culture crazes. In effect, Deacon is thought to be a dark rock and roll soul, but underneath his satanic pantomime makeup, he's just dying to write a ballad….
I love every second of it and apparently I'm not the only one. Just today I discovered a Deacon Dark fan page on Facebook! The Deacon lives folks!"
"The Love Boat of Hate! Sonny Bono is DEACON DARK!" - this article links to Sonny’s heated Palm Springs mayoral debate.
From “Smash It”: The demented, the dangerous and the disgusting Deacon Dark:
“There’s not a lot of originality to be found here, of course — seems to us like the writers Joyce Armor and Judie Neer wanted to parody both 70s-era sensitive schlocky singer-songwriters and satanic heavy metal rock singers — and the costume and makeup people didn’t have to work too hard to come up with Dark’s garish demonic look either because they pretty much just ripped off KISS bassist Gene Simmons’s full face makeup. The writers also apparently threw in a little bit of Alice Cooper’s stage theatrics too, particularly because it involves fire (Arthur Brown could have been mentioned here too, we suppose).
Today, the demonic Deacon’s face makeup seems like it may have inspired or at least prefigured the black and white corpse face makeup favored by Danish black metal bands, or perhaps even the Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalo clown face….
We hear Backstrom’s alter ego being introduced as the “the demented, the dangerous, the disgusting Deacon Dark!,” then see him taking the stage to sing his hit song “Smash It!,” which you can watch at the clip at the top (we also learn during the episode that Dark is also known for two other songs: “Screaming Voodoo Devil Boogie Woman” and “Step, Step, Step On Toads”).
After the performance, Captain Stubing still appears unimpressed: “He’s no Jerry Vale.” (We should point out here that “The Love Boat” was one of the only hour-long American-made TV shows that consistently used a laugh track).”
“There’s also quite a few blogs online where clever writers have created entire backstories about Deacon Dark, including this one ...(read the entire thing though, it’s pretty great).”
It is brilliant. My favorite excerpt:
"The destruction of Deacon’s works continued down to individual albums and 8-tracks. The only account I’ve ever read of the “event” was in a old copy of Kerrang! magazine I found, uncatalogued, in the New York Public Library’s Chinatown branch. According to Kerrang!, readers reported strange winds would sweep their Deacon Dark 8-tracks out of their cars; that unorthodox rays of sunlight would melt Deacon LPs and that some albums would simply disappear. I know for a fact my dad owned a vinyl copy of Deacon’s third album, “Luvin’ The Coven,” but I’ve searched his stacks of wax again and again over the years, and the thing is just gone."
Deacon Dark has inspired Fan Fiction!! How awesome is that for Sonny. Who knew this episode had such a cult following. It’s pretty cool.
The Facebook page, well, I won’t spoil it. Just scroll all the way down and don’t forget to look in the photo album. It's full of fake album covers and allegedly historical photos. (Do not miss the Jerry Vale joke).
Okay I will spoil it.
Here are my favorites (click to enlarge). Just the funniest damn thing I ever did see.
I found the fan fiction completely compelling and it's inspired me to ask you to compare this: Deacon Dark's “Smash It” to Def Leppard’s “Argmageddon It.”
Punk Rock Sonny
And finally, over the last few months we've been watching old 80s videos on MTV. Yes, when the moon hits the mountainside to reveal a keyhole after the thrush trills, MTV plays videos. We watched “Punk Rock Girl” by the Dead Milkmen and there was a Sonny reference.