On the surface, this book could be just another story of rock and roll excess and the struggle for fame – if it wasn’t for the fascinating addition of the transition of wannabe female rock star Cindy Bullens to that of male Americana singer/songwriter, Cidny Bullens, and that’s really what gives this autobiography its considerable edge. Apparently, an early reading from the book, at a Nashville bookstore, was standing-room only, with friend and former collaborator, Rodney Crowell conducting a Q&A and an audience that included Lucinda Williams, Beth Nielson Chapman, Mary Gauthier and Jaime Harris, among others.
Cindy/Cidny Bullens’ name won’t mean a great deal to the majority of British readers who, if they know of him at all, it will be as one of the backing singers on early Elton John tours or for singing on the Grease soundtrack album. But Bullens’ name was far better established in the U.S, where, as Cindy Bullens, he carved out quite a career for himself, putting out eight solo albums between 1979 and 2010. Cidny transitioned from Cindy to Cidny at the age of 61, some 12 years ago now, and this amazing memoir is the story of his early life as a wannabe rock star as well as the story of his transition from the woman he was to the man he knew he should be. As Elton John says in his brief but emotional forward to this book, “This is an amazing story. Bravo, Cidny”
The early part of the book is really full of the sort of story we come across quite frequently with rock biographies – leaving home at 15, feeling at odds with the family and with society in general; a strong desire to succeed and a feeling that performing and songwriting was the way to go, getting into drugs and alcohol and developing a dependency that leads to seeking out the AA community. Hardly an ordinary life, but one we read about in the music business often enough not to be particularly phased by it. It is in the detail around Bullen’s life away from the music business and the growing awareness that he’s not comfortable as a woman that is the compelling part of this story and the author gets that across well, carefully placing the building blocks of his story as the general narrative progresses. There’s interesting reference to his time with manager, Tony Defries, who, at the start of their professional relationship suggests that Bullens sees himself as a man and that this can play in his favour, particularly at this time in the 70s, with the androgyny promoted by one of Defries other clients, one David Bowie, being very much to the fore. Later, as the author is forced into a more traditional female appearance by subsequent managers and the record company, the cracks start to appear, but Bullens continues to live an almost hybridised life, marrying a gay man who is a close friend and even conceiving two daughters through the relationship, while still wanting to return to work as a musician and still feeling that he’s a man trapped in a woman’s existence.
Bullens’ story is fascinating, and he tells it with an honesty that pulls few punches and makes you appreciate the turmoil that transgender people live through. Cidny Bullens was into his sixties before he started the treatment that would see him transition to the person he’d always known he was, and that’s a long time to be living someone else’s life which, in many ways, is what you feel has happened to Cidny when you read this book. To give too many details is difficult without revealing spoilers and this book really deserves to be read by the widest possible audience. Suffice to say that this memoir is moving as much for the everyday life experiences as for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. Cidny suffers a fair share of the ordinary problems and even major tragedies that can beset a life, as well as the particular problems of being transgender, and the importance of Bullens’ friends and some of his family is something that shines through. That many in the music industry were so supportive of his journey clearly means a great deal to him and underlines the fact that it’s not always the self-serving community that many might imagine.
“TransElectric: My Life as a Cosmic Rock Star” is a true story of resilience and a man’s determination to be recognised as just that, and it is very much a story for our times. For those who don’t understand the complexities and sheer frustrations of transgender life, this book goes a long way towards giving those problems some real context. Fascinatingly, it may be that Bullens’ early life and his desire to be a rock star actually helped him in his quest to transition, helped him to deal with the setbacks and the compromises that had to be made along the way – just as there are few shortcuts to real success, his transition required dedication and a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve.
Cidny did successfully transition and is now married once again, this time to a woman, and living his life in Nashville, Tennessee. One passage of the book that stays with me is from his epilogue. He recalls retrieving his old journals from storage (the author kept journals throughout his life, something that helps to make this memoir so detailed), “The day finally came in October 2020 when I tore off the yellow packing tape and started to dive into my past. Reading the oldest ones nearly killed me. I am the same person I have always been.” That’s really the truth at the heart of this whole story, but the challenges the author had to face in order to become himself, in his own eyes, make for compelling reading. An outstanding memoir.