The beat goes on

Sonny Bono looked so fragile the day we met, wearing an insurance salesman's suit and a politician's smile. The suit was brown, the smile enormous. That was seven years ago, and Bono was in town at the Adolphus Hotel receiving reporters during his trip through town, just another stop on the promotional tour pushing his autobiography, The Beat Goes On. Later that afternoon, he went to some bookstore to autograph copies for the surprisingly large crowd that lined up out the door, eager to meet the man whose last name used to be "Andcher." The man who once found himself trapped on the Love Boat with Charo and Jamie Farr was respectable now, and he appreciated every second of it.

For the better part of that afternoon, the Man Who Would Be Congressman answered questions about his rock and roll past, his Vegas mistakes, his Washington future; he was eager to be taken seriously, happy to talk about his days working for Phil Spector and his nights dropping in on Brian Wilson. Bono was there at the birth of modern rock and roll, present for the erection of the Wall of Sound; he even put a few bricks there himself, though the history books would have you think otherwise.

He was mayor of Palm Springs and a restaurateur at the time, and hinted of wanting to run for something much bigger. Although he now preached the Republican gospel, he remembered fondly his days campaigning for Robert Kennedy. But he spent the most of our time together talking about his time as a musician--writing a handful of hits, making films, then going to television when the curtain rose on his second act.

You could tell that Bono wanted to reclaim a bit of the legacy that history and Cher, who later spent more than a decade referring to him as a Svengali and worse, had taken from him. You could hear the zeal in his voice, see the enthusiasm in his body as he leaned forward and recounted story after story about his days with Philip, as Bono referred to Spector. Even now, seven years later on a shoddy cassette tape stored at the bottom of a cardboard box and forgotten about till last week, he sounds like a man who wanted to be remembered as more than just a "a straight-man doofus" (his words) who lucked into a career only to watch it disappear when America grew tired of his silly antics and awful clothes.

"If there's any one thing I would do over in my life," he said that afternoon, "I would hone in on what I was and who I was. That's where I'd go and stay and be true to it. Yeah. The achievements were...You know, I had nine or 10 songs that were around number one, so that's a pretty amazing achievement." He paused for a second, then reconsidered his words. "Maybe not amazing, but it was an achievement."

Bono, during this interview, often stopped and poked fun at himself, offering one self-deprecating comment after another to undercut his accomplishments. Perhaps that's what happens after years of being told you were nothing but a joke. He didn't write the song "Laugh at Me" for nothing.

"You really can't place the responsibility on someone else," he added. "It has to be assessed to you. Some mistakes were made; some wrong things were done. That's been a nemesis of mine. That's the situation today."

It's a shame that Bono's talents are being noticed only after his death; he would have appreciated knowing he was regarded in death as more than half of a comedy team that self-destructed in public, more than just a punch line to Cher's scripted jokes.

Bono's career began 40 years ago, when he was a 22-year-old staff producer at Specialty Records. He scored a modest hit with a forgotten little something called "High School Dance," the B-side to a nothing A-side. Salvatore Bono, who moved to Los Angeles from Detroit when he was seven and got hooked on black music at Inglewood High, got what he wanted--a career in show business. From there, he landed a gig with Johnny Otis as a singer and songwriter at Otis' Dig label; he scored his first major hit with "Needles and Pins," co-written with Jack Nitzsche.

Bono soon hooked up with Spector, working as his promo man, schlepping his records around to local radio stations. They cruised the Sunset Strip in garish clothes, stayed up all night recording and partying. Spector perfected the art of making dumb pop songs. "He would always say, 'Sonny, is it dumb enough?'" Bono recalled, "meaning he wanted it real bubblegum"--and became a legend for it. Bono was relegated to the periphery, singing background and learning the art of production.

He tried to get Spector to record his then-girlfriend Cherilyn Sarkisian, but Spector didn't like her voice. Spector did give her a throwaway single, some silly love song to Ringo Starr; so Bono took it upon himself to write for and record Cherilyn. Only she was too shy to perform alone, and so the duo was born first as Caesar and Cleo, then as Sonny and Cher. Their first hit was "Baby Don't Go," in 1965, soon followed by "I Got You Babe," "The Beat Goes On," "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," and "You Better Sit Down Kids." Each single cracked the Top 15. They were perfect pop confections drenched in Southern California sun; they were silly and complex all at once, wonderfully arranged love songs that only a giddy boyfriend and girlfriend would sing to each other. And hell, back then, Sonny and Cher made for an interesting vocal duo: He sang like a Holiday Inn Bob Dylan; she, like a man trapped in a woman's body. Together, it somehow worked: They were the pot-smokers' Frankie and Annette.

Yet when they started going on and on about how drugs were bad for kids, their popularity tanked; in a moment, they were replaced by acid, Woodstock, the summer of love, and the autumn of their career. They moved the act from the Sunset Strip to Las Vegas and went from hanging out with Mick Jagger to schmoozing with David Brenner.

"We were in the thick of it, then the carpet got yanked," he said. "We were out. Music took a turn. Where we were once considered hip, we were now out of it and corny."

Eventually, they would land on CBS, hosting a replacement series that lasted from 1971 to 1974; then their marriage and act fell apart. Cher hooked up with Gregg Allman and Gene Simmons and anyone else who'd advance her career; Sonny booked passage on a Love Boat heading straight for Fantasy Island. Luckily, he jumped off the entertainment Titanic and landed in Palm Springs, where a feud over zoning turned into a mayoral bid, which turned into a congressional seat.

Sonny and Cher would re-team only once more after that: They appeared a decade ago on Late Night with David Letterman, performing "I Got You Babe" one last time. The performance was electric, awkward, poignant; the chemistry was gone, and it was like watching two people who had never met before singing a love song they had never heard before.

"When we did Late Night, part of it was fun, and part of it was, 'We are such two totally different people, it's amazing,'" Bono recalled. "You wonder how did we ever make that connection earlier. Here we were singing 'I Got You Babe,' but none of what caused that magic was there. There's still something strange when the two of us get in the same room, and I don't know how to describe that."

Then, last week, Cher delivered her tearful goodbyes (and apologies) to her ex, who died in a place called Heavenly. Sonny crashed into a tree on a ski slope doing more than 25 miles per hour. He would have been 63 next month.

Bono had long ago given up music for politics; he had a new family, kids, a job he loved and one that garnered him the respect he never received during his recording days. He regretted only that his musical past was thought of with a chuckle instead of admiration, but lamented nothing else.

"I don't regret any of the past," he said that day. "I've had fun, and once you get over the hard knock of it, I'm having as much fun today as I did then, maybe more. When you hang on to the illusions of the past, you recall the best parts of everything.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky