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SHE'LL MAKE ME CRY UNTIL THE DAY I DIE
I have to say that I was expecting it.
Still, the first time that my relationship with Cher was mentioned in my campaign for mayor of Palm Springs, I stumbled. I was shaking hands outside a local senior citizens' center, where a long line of people were waiting to get their cholesterol checked. It was a few minutes after 7 A.M. on the second-to-last day of February 1988. The hot sun was covering the vast Cochella Valley like a first coat of paint. I sipped from a cup of coffee.
I noticed two gentle, grandmotherly-looking ladies point at me and whisper. I thought I was ready for them. After declaring my candidacy, I had telephoned Clint Eastwood for advice. Unfortunately, Clint was out of town, but I spoke to the woman who had managed his campaign. Her advice was simple: Drink lots of coffee and talk to everyone in town.
That's what I was trying to do. So, coffee in hand, I approached the two women.
"Hello, I'm Sonny Bono." I smiled. "I'm running for mayor."
"You used to be married to Cher," one of the ladies said abruptly.
"That's right. A long time ago."
"Well, dear ..." She considered for a moment. "I've got to tell you, that hair of hers and those clothes--"
"When she wears them," her friend interjected.
"I don't know about her," the first lady said. "I just don't know."
"I don't know what to say," I replied. "I'm running for mayor, did you know? I hope you vote for me." I gave them my best smile and moved on.
If it seemed as if I was following Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood by trading celebrity for political office, the similarity was unintentional. The way I saw it, I was merely an outraged citizen, Joe Average, who was fed up with the old-boy network that had run city hall for years. A few silly bureaucratic battles over the remodeling of my house had pushed me to the breaking point. By running for mayor, I was simply standing up for my rights.
My opponents chided me for being the ex-Mr. Cher. They called me Sonny Bonehead. They labeled me Mr. Anti-Establishment, an upstart rabble-rouser and rock and roller. Ironically, I was a registered Republican who had voted for Reagan in 1984. They also criticized me for having no experience in government. Not even student-body president.
Nevertheless, I was the front-runner. The polls indicated a wide lead.
Like most of my endeavors, from meat packing to music and later from pasta to politics, I entered the race for mayor with little more going for me than good gut instincts, a sense of right and wrong, and total honesty--exactly what I wanted people to expect from Salvatore Bono, a hardworking guy with a strict, blue-collar Italian background. It was also, I found, the stuff that gives great irritation to full-time politicians.
I tried to slough off anything to do with Cher, since she was not the issue, though, in truth, she was partly responsible for my living in Palm Springs. My love affair with the jewel of desert cities began during the breakup of our love affair, which ended in divorce on June 26, 1975. Since then we had had little to do with each other, crossing paths irregularly, like sagebrush blowing across the sand.
Our daughter, Chastity (Chas), a film student, served as a loving and trustworthy go-between. She kept us up to date on each other's personal, social, and business calendars. Cher was dating bartender-turned-actor Rob Camilletti, and my wife, Mary, was pregnant, Cher was starring in the movie Moonstruck, while I was running for mayor. That was as far as it went. No telephone calls, no Christmas cards, no requests for "Sonny for Mayor" T-shirts.
Then, in the midst of the campaign, I received a surprising phone call. But not from Cher. On the line was a producer from "Late Night with David Letterman." After some pleasant chitchat, she got to the point.
"We wonder, ah, if you would like to be a guest on the Letterman show," she said. Then there was a slight pause. "Ah ... with Cher."
I loved it. Chas had told me that Cher was trying to revive her recording career and had a new album about to come out. If I guested on "Letterman" with Cher, it would draw a tremendous amount of attention to the show, and to her. For a brief moment, we would be Sonny and Cher again. I grasped the ploy immediately and thought it was a brilliant move. I also figured that Cher was behind it.
"If you have any hesitations, Mr. Bono," the producer said, interrupting the silence, "think about the exposure it will bring to your campaign."
Exactly. One of my primary concerns was gaining a higher profile for Palm Springs. Going on national television, on a show that promised to be a ratings bonanza, fit into my program nicely.
"Sure, I'd love to do the show," I said. "Just give me the details."
The show was several weeks away. The week after accepting the invitation, I received another out-of-the-blue phone call. This time the voice on the other end was familiar. It was Cher. There was no how-ya-doin', no what's shaking, no how's the campaign going. Instead, Cher was all business and got straight to the point.
"Son, I'm really concerned about this Letterman show," she said. "I don't know if I can handle it. I've been freaking out about this for the past few days."
"Woe, wait a minute," I said, remembering too well Cher's preshow anxiety attacks. "What do you mean freaking out? You've always had stage fright, and you've always gotten through it. Relax."
"No, Son, you don't understand."
Then Cher explained that the last time she went on Letterman's show, she and Dave got into a sarcastic tiff that ended with her calling him an asshole. I laughed. An asshole? On national television? And he wanted her back?
"That's why I'm worried," she continued; "I know his sense of humor, and I know yours, Son. I don't want both of you ganging up on me."
Together for more than a decade, we developed a kind of telepathic understanding, an intimacy that didn't need to be articulated. Cher was keenly aware that I could needle her as no one else could. I also knew that she was equally adept when it came to hitting my jugular. Our routines were rarely scripted. The much-publicized, spirited digs we traded about her nose and my height were only one aspect of this intuitive connection.
I told Cher not to worry. I was hip to the game plan. I was going to be there to support her.
"Well, you can go out first, test the water," she offered. "You should go out alone and talk about running for mayor. Then I'll come out. It'll be okay."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you." I laughed. "Don't worry."
A few days later, I got the distinct impression that my private telephone line was becoming a clearing board for surprising calls. It was Letterman's producer again. Her voice was more tentative this time, lighter than before. She apologized for bothering me again, but said that a question had popped up since we had last spoken. Would I, she wanted to know, sing with Cher?
"Oh gosh," I hemmed, "I don't think she wants to sing with me. She wants to do her record. I think Cher's into her own thing now."
"Let me ask you this," she said diplomatically. "If Cher will sing with you, will you sing with her?"
That was the big question. I can't even fathom a guess as to how many times I'd been asked that question. When our ill-fated, post-divorce "Sonny and Cher Show" went off the air after one season in 1977, that was it. Cher and I quit performing together. Still, our songs, such as "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On," continued on the radio, while the breezy, romantic image of Sonny and Cher never lost its appeal.
So will you and Cher ever sing together again? My answer never varied: I'd love to sing with Cher again. I had a great time doing it. I've always believed that something special happens when we're onstage with each other. But it would have to be a mutual decision. I've had my days of scraped knees. I'd only want to perform with Cher if she wanted to perform with me.
That's what I told the producer. If Cher was amenable, then I was too. Obviously, Cher was going to be asked the same question. Would she sing with me? I wouldn't know until it happened. The producer told me nothing was going to be planned. But if something did happen, if sparks flew, would Cher go along with it? She was the star. If anything was going to happen, it hinged on Cher.
It was early evening when my wife, Mary, and I arrived at our midtown hotel. That morning Mary and I had boarded a plane in Palm Springs, flown to Los Angeles, and landed at New York's JFK International Airport six hours later. A car took us into Manhattan. Mary, who was seven months pregnant, was exhausted by the traveling and dozed through the bumpy ride. I spent the bumpy ride staring at her with a mixture of love and awe and gratitude.
Meeting this bright, energetic, and outspoken woman, who also happens to be quite beautiful, had been the single most positive occurrence in my life since, well, since the late 1960s or early 1970s, and that was long before Cher and I split. I was an old-fashioned Italian at heart. I liked to impress my girl, and Mary believed in me in a way that no one had, including Cher. Mary gave me the spark that had been lost. She provided me with the fuel I needed to soar.
By the time the car stopped in front of our hotel I was ready to join Mary in a little snooze. However, the bellman's enthusiastic greeting reminded me that we were in New York City, not Palm Springs, and I was jolted awake by the undeniable awareness that this skyscraper-filled megalopolis was just waking up.
My daughter, Chastity, the most valuable legacy of Sonny and Cher, phoned that night and delivered an enthusiastic hello. She and I have had a pretty close relationship. Though she grew up living with Cher, I was Chas's pillar of stability. I might not have been as exciting as her mother, but I was always there. I had my place in her life. When, for instance, their mother-daughter arguments got a little too heated, I'd enter the picture. If she had a sensitive issue to discuss, Chas knew that she could always talk to me.
Chas rendezvoused with me and Mary at the hotel the next morning. As I saw her come bouncing into our suite I couldn't help feeling proud. Cher and I had shortcomings and failures as parents, but Chas had grown into a remarkable young woman. She'd survived the double whammy of having parents who were divorced and in show business--talk about the ingredients for a messed-up life--and landed solidly on her feet.
Chas was as excited as I was about her mom and dad's mini reunion. Over breakfast, she and I entertained Mary with Sonny and Cher stories from the road and our television series, not the best of times for us. However, it's funny how time makes the bad bearable and the hellish humorous. The three of us laughed straight through the meal. Chas also gave me the latest on Cher.
"Now, Dad, let me ask you an important question," she said. "What are you going to wear?"
"I don't know," I said. "I brought some casual clothes."
She wanted to see them. I opened the closet and showed Chas the jeans and sweater that I had brought to wear on the show. She didn't look too impressed with my selection.
"That's no good." She shook her head. "Mom's going to dress to kill. You know that. She'll be awesome. So you'd better have something nice too."
My hipper daughter insisted that I yield to her sharper sense of fashion. I didn't put up an argument, though I didn't know where to go. At Chastity's suggestion, the three of us cabbed it down to Greenwich Village and Chas took over as guide. She knew all the stores. I tried on shirts, pants, shoes, jackets. The works. Finally, I settled on a real hot silk shirt and a pair of baggy black trousers.
"And you've got to comb your hair back," she said back at the hotel. "Remember, Mom is going to look spectacular, like fireworks on the Fourth of July."
"Maybe worse," I joked, and all of us laughed.
A car provided by the show dropped Mary, Chas, and me off in front of the NBC building at Rockefeller Plaza, where "Late Night" is taped. Up until that point, I was really pretty calm. We had been talking about the show in the car as if it were an everyday sort of thing. Which wasn't true. But it didn't hit me until I strolled past the revolving door and into the lobby.
That's when I began to sense the full magnitude of Cher and me appearing together again. Up to that point, the fact that both Cher and I would be sitting next to each other on Letterman's show didn't seem like such a big deal. I'd be grabbing some national visibility while helping to draw attention to Cher and her new record. It was the kind of fabricated event television lives on.
However, as we moved through the skyscraper's lobby, I felt myself surrounded by the stares and whispers that charge a spectacle. The reality I was entering was much different than I had let myself believe, and I began to feel the sort of preshow jitters that I hadn't felt for years. Like everyone else, I found myself wondering, What is going to happen? Are Cher and I going to sing?
Suddenly my mind was flooded with memories. Sonny and Cher had meant a lot to other people. That had always been obvious. But I'd forgotten how much Sonny and Cher had meant to me. I'd blocked so much of that turbulent part of my life and now it was coming back in one enormous, overpowering tidal wave of emotion. It was yesterday. all over again.
There was Cher, the skinny, homeless waif she'd been when we first met. Scared but strong. Certain that she wanted stardom. I pictured her hanging out in the studio with me and Phil Spector. I remembered having to calm her nerves during our first tentative attempts at recording. Then the release of "I've Got You Babe" brought the stardom and the craziness that seemed to stay with us throughout our relationship, no matter whether we were on top of the world or down in the dumps.
"Dad?" asked Chas. "Earth to Dad?"
"Huh?" I snapped out of it.
Mary and Chastity are two of the biggest Sonny and Cher fans I've ever encountered. In the elevator, the three of us suddenly fell silent and tense, then started to laugh.
"This might be a really big deal," I said. "Bigger than I expected."
The elevator ride became a metaphor for my tension. The higher we went, the closer we got to the source, the greater it became. I had learned that there's a huge difference between being in show business and being on top. It's the difference between turning a light on and sticking your finger in the light socket. Then the doors opened, and before we could step out, we were greeted by a phalanx of photographers. They formed a virtually impregnable wall, flashing lights and thrusting microphones in my direction. I thought of Muhammad Ali stepping into a ring before a fight.
Chas turned to me and said, "Oh, this is big!"
After a few moments of smiling and posing for pictures, we made our way down the hallway. The show's staffers seemed unusually nervous, the way they nodded and skittered beside us. Someone mentioned that Cher was already in the studio, rehearsing.
But as Mary, Chas, and I rounded the corner, we walked straight into Cher and Rob.
Cher's and my eyes locked. It was a hard stare that melted into a smile. Strained but genuine.
We were together for 11 years. But the Cher whose eyes I was looking into was a completely different person--redesigned, remade, redefined. Physically, we were the same two people--well, mostly the same. But all those shared emotions and events that had once charged us with passion and urgency were gone.
I felt strange standing face to face with Cher that day. Here was this mercurial woman I knew so well and yet there was so much about her that I didn't know at all. Cher too was uneasy being with me, and I knew why. She had no use for the past. She hated to be reminded. Cher had become such a beautiful creation, one that had taken her so many years to perfect, and she truly found it distasteful to have to confront any part of her background, least of all Sonny and Cher.
There was a moment of awkward silence, which Chas cut through with a bright "Hi, Mom!"
Then, like that, we were all old pals. Or pretending to be so. Cher and I gave each other a hug. It was just that, a mendly hug; and nothing more. I'd met Rob briefly once before, and we shook hands. I've gotten along with all of Cher's boyfriends, at least those whom I've met, except for entertainment mogul David Geffen, whom I credit for destroying much of my and Cher's relationship. Mary and Cher talked briefly about being pregnant. It was easy, nice, and friendly.
Then, with a mixture of excitement and urgency, Cher pulled me aside.
"Son, come in the booth," she said. "You've gotta hear my new single. Listen to it."
Leaving the others behind, we walked into the engineer's booth, where Cher instructed someone to put on her new song.
"I want Son to hear it," she said.
In the old days I listened to everything. As far as Cher was concerned, my opinion was the acid test. Suddenly, after what seemed like a hundred years, here was Cher, doing the same old thing again--asking for my opinion. It was like a time warp. We were hanging out in the booth, Sonny and Cher, listening to her latest single, while Chas stood in the background.
I tried listening as objectively as possible but was overwhelmed by an emotional deja vu. There we were--mother, father, child. Once a family. There we were-Sonny and Cher. We'd struggled together, created together, married, thrived, divorced, and gone our separate ways. There was a deep and complicated history there, and soddenly tears and sadness began to choke me.
I tried hard to figure out what I was choking back, since the sentiments I felt were both strange and bittersweet. Cher and I had loved each other, then fallen out of love and traveled our different paths. What we had, what we did together, it was locked away somewhere in the past. Gone. Then we found ourselves in this abnormal resurrection of Sonny and Cher. The nostalgia was impossible to sidestep. I don't know what it did to Cher, but it smacked me in the jaw real good.
I didn't miss Sonny and Cher. I was comfortable, delighted, and happy with my life. But it was like turning a corner and thinking that you've caught a glimpse of a long lost friend. Maybe you have, maybe you haven't. You don't know. But you're still hit with all these mixed emotions.
"That was great, really great," I told Cher when the song finished playing. I had been able to listen enough to know it was OK. "I loved it."
"You did? Really?"
"Really," I said.
After watching Cher rehearse with Paul Shaffer, a longtime friend of mine, and his band, it was time to wait. The old schmooze and snooze. Mary and I hung out in my dressing room. Then, as the time grew close, we moved to the greenroom. I don't know who was more excited, Mary or I. If "I Got You Babe" comes on the radio, she'll crank the volume. I looked at her glowing face and felt so grateful that we shared a genuine and mutual love. Mary didn't know what to expect from the show, but, like everyone else, she hoped it was going to be special.
"Do you think you guys will sing?" she asked.
"You know, Mary," I said, "I don't have the slightest clue. I kinda hope so. But I don't know how Cher feels about it."
There was always a part of Cher that was impossible to read. As close as we were, as much as I thought that I knew this superstar whom I'd watched grow from teenager to woman to mother, she was always surprising me. In the greenroom, I recalled the time when we were headlining at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas in 1972. We were at our peak. Cars were lined up and down the Strip for blocks, waiting to park. Getting tickets to our show was as easy as breaking into Fort Knox.
To enter the stage, you'd have to pass through the hotel's kitchen. Cher and I always thought that was funny. She'd be dressed in her sequined gown, I'd be in my tuxedo and all around us would be food flying, waiters yelling at cooks, outright madness, which, in a way, reflected our lives at the time. So one night, we're surrounded by all this activity, waiting to step out before a sellout audience, and Cher turns to me.
"Son," she said, "I wish we were really big."
Well, you could've knocked me down with a feather.
Although I had met Letterman in the hall before the show, it wasn't until he introduced me to the audience--as the songwriter of ten gold records, an actor, restaurateur, and political candidate--that we had any real conversation. Letterman has an unpredictable, zany, combustible quality that I like. That's what makes his show so exciting. There's no telling what he's going to say or ask, which makes sitting across from him like catching bullets in your teeth.
He mentioned that I was on my fourth marriage, that I was running for mayor, and that I had left show business.
"Uh, I didn't leave show business," I corrected. "It kind of left me. It got hard for me after Sonny and Cher broke up."
"Oh, rub it in." Dave shook his head, alluding to Cher. "She had nice things to say about you."
Prior to airtime, there is a quick briefing when the producer provides the guest with a rough sketch of the questions Dave plans to ask, and for the first couple of minutes he stuck close to the script. We talked about the mayor's race, which was a nice plug. National television. Millions of people watching. Can't beat that exposure. Then I noticed that mischievous spark in Dave's eye.
"Enough with the politics." He chuckled. "Let's get to the good stuff."
Oh no, I thought. I knew what was coming. It was time to rag on Cher.
"What happened?" Dave continued. "Where did it all go wrong? You were responsible. You molded her. You had the look, the sound. You wrote the songs. You had the idea for the television show.... And then one day, bingo, it all goes south on you."
"I ... I ask myself that every day." I laughed. "No, not really. It's just too hard for two people to have a marriage and to be in show business. Comes a time when you lose the relationship and discover you're a business. I look at Sonny and Cher almost as two other people. I love them, like any other fan."
As smooth as my ten minutes with Dave went, it seemed obvious to me that we were simply killing time until Letterman brought Cher out. There was no sense denying reality. She was the headliner. The Academy Award nominee for her work in Silkwood. The big star. Still, I knew that my presence added an extra spark that Cher couldn't provide on her own. There was no denying that, either. Nonetheless, as Letterman introduced Cher, I got as excited as anyone in the audience.
Coming out as only Cher can do, she launched straight into a spirited rendition of her single, a nice but ultimately forgettable rocker. Yet the song didn't stand a chance against her outfit. Chas was right. Cher was dressed to kill. Her outfit was a quadruple homicide. It personified the difference time had placed between us. Sexy, black thigh-high stockings and boots were met by the underside of a black leather jacket that covered--well, how to describe what it covered?
That was Letterman's first question when Cher finished and sat down.
"What the hell are you wearing?" he asked. "Was there a fire at the hotel?"
"It can be anything you want it to be," Cher said.
The tension between Letterman and Cher was apparent in the care that they took in speaking. They were like two boxers feeling each other out in the first round. I had the best seat in the house. I knew Letterman was merely warming up with his comment on Cher's outfit. While she was singing, the genuinely surprised, and perhaps shocked, talkshow host had whispered to me, "Are those tattoos on her ass?"
"Uh-huh," I nodded. "Butterflies."
Naturally, then, Letterman started in on Cher's bum artwork. Shortly after our divorce, she had gotten the two butterfly tattoos. I'd seen them when she had sunbathed nude at my house, something she did occasionally when we were still on friendly terms. I didn't particularly care for them then, and didn't now, but I understood their shock value. Letterman had a field day with them. He feigned disbelief, He compared them to billboards, a Rorschach Test. He, said, "Gosh darn," and acted stunned. He'd heard rumors about her tattoos, he confessed, but never realized they were so elaborate.
"I've got everything but the Late Night. logo," she snapped.
"Well, let's get to work," Letterman countered.
I got as much of a kick from watching Cher work as I did from being onstage with her for the first time in ten years. When Letterman asked her how she felt being back together with me, Cher deadpanned that she felt nothing. She quickly recanted and said she was joking. But I didn't know. Cher had an icy, unemotional, calculating side to her. I hoped she felt something, but then experience had taught me better. I reminded myself to sit back and enjoy the moment.
"We have a very strange relationship that no one will understand," Cher said. "I don't understand it. Sonny says that he doesn't understand it either."
"Do you ever think of getting back together again?" Letterman asked Cher.
"In what capacity?"
"I don't think Mary would like that," Cher said. "She's pregnant."
"Are you friendly with Mary?" he asked.
"And is Sonny friendly with--"
"Ah, with her husband?" I chimed in when Dave stumbled.
Quipped Cher, "I'm not even friendly with my husband."
The immaculate timing was still there. Ten years had passed and we didn't miss a beat. Ba-boom. The audience howled. Letterman laughed. But Cher felt on the spot. Letterman was pushing her into a place that made her uncomfortable--her personal life. She told Letterman outright that she felt he was just "bullshitting." To the audience, she then reprised her description of Dave by mouthing "asshole."
Finally, Letterman asked the question that everyone hoped he would ask. Was there any chance of our singing together? We looked at each other. I was game, but Cher clearly didn't want to. She was uncomfortable. I could see it in her eyes. A backward move, sliding into the old Sonny and Cher shtik. She was a movie star now. Above the din of the audience's encouragement, she professed to have a bad throat. Letterman led the crowd on.
"None of this has been discussed," he said.
"You're full of shit," Cher said.
"I can't believe the way she speaks." He turned to me. I shrugged.
"This is a dirty show," I said. "I'm leaving."
I stood up, looked at Cher, and gave her a nod that said, "What the hell." That did the trick. Her resistance to performing live caved in. Reluctantly, she rose from her chair and, backed by the audience's hoots and cheers, followed me onto the floor. Cher laughed to herself, as if someone had pulled a fast one on her, which, in fact, they had.
Paul Shaffer was already leading the World's Most Dangerous Band through the opening of the song most identified with Sonny and Cher--"I Got You Babe." A pair of microphones were handed to Cher and me. Suddenly we were standing beside each other, feeling out the music, shifting from one foot to another, drifting back in time--or trying to, at least. Once it had been second nature for us to sing together. Now ...
Strangely, it was still second nature. There was no denying that Cher and I were different people. Nothing about me was attractive to her, I was sure, and vice versa. But put Cher and me together and you'll get an explosion. That's just the way it is. Once we got onstage, the magic was still there. That chemistry we'd once shared was still there, which made singing to Cher especially hard on me.
I had to force myself to look into Cher's eyes because what I saw wasn't real. In ours married days, through good and bad times, the looks we exchanged onstage were the glue that held us together. No matter what was going on in our lives, those looks carried us through anything. They told of the life we shared, of the hurdles we overcame, of how much we achieved, of how we needed each other. Those looks said, "Don't worry. Screw whatever's happening in Ours lives. I'm here, you're here, let's do what we do best."
But on "Letterman," I looked into Cher's eyes and what I discovered wasn't I love you and you love me or I got you, babe. It was more like What the hell is going on? A Sonny and Cher reunion was an emotional event for me. But I found myself dealing with immense curiosity about the woman who had once been my wife. I saw this person with the tattoos, the leather and stockings, and I was dumbfounded. What the hell had happened?
Of course, I loved singing with Cher again and everyone else loved it too. I saw Chastity and Mary crying in the booth. It was impossible not to be affected. Actually, I was choked up and sad. I felt as if I were watching a timeless love story replay itself, except that the story was all screwed up, which added a slightly bittersweet taste to the sentiment. Ironically, Cher and I forgot some of the words, but we latched on to the cue cards and finished singing.
Cher: "I got you to hold me tight."
Me: "I got you to walk with me ..."
Soon after the taping, Cher and Rob left the studio and disappeared in the midtown traffic in a stretch limousine. Mary and I said good-bye to Chastity, who was going out with her friends. Then we caught a taxi and went out for a nice steak dinner at Smith and Wollensky. Cher and I had exchanged no teary parting words after the show, nothing that might have indicated she'd been touched. It was just a simple "Thanks" and "So long." Still, Mary was anxious to relive every moment.
"How do you think Cher felt?" she asked.
"Honestly, Mar, I don't think she cares about those memories,"I said. "I think if she could blow them all up, she would."