“Just like what Keith Strickland did after Ricky passed, doing music is a very healing thing. It’s the same with me,” says Cindy Wilson — best known as one of the iconically bee-hived glamour girl of pioneering new wavers the B-52’s — as she chats with Yahoo Entertainment about her second solo album, Realms, which she recorded with producer Suny Lyons during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I use music as a way of getting my emotions out. I’m kind of quiet as far as my personality goes, but singing has been a way to express myself and grow. It’s been really good for me personally that way.”
Cindy says that while making Realms, she and Lyons tapped into “the disco and new wave influences that would make sense coming from me, what my history was.” But the techno-leaning record is still a bit of a departure for the 66-year-old singer — who, in a one-door-closes/another opens sort of way, is releasing Realms just as her legendary band is in a “season of ending” and “winding things down.” (While the B-52’s are playing a brief Vegas residency this month — kicking off Aug. 25, the actual date of Realms’ release — and the occasional one-off festival show, they embarked on their official farewell tour last year.)
Reinvention, renewal, and healing through music-making are of course nothing new for Cindy, who with the B-52’s once pulled off one of the greatest, most against-all-odds comebacks in pop history. Following the tragic 1985 AIDS death of her older brother and bandmate, above-mentioned B-52’s guitarist Ricky Wilson, they returned four years later with fifth album Cosmic Thing, a mainstream breakthrough that unpredictably catapulted the band of Athens oddballs to MTV superstardom, thanks to hits like “Love Shack” (the video for which starred a young, unknown RuPaul) and “Roam.”
“Oh, it was wonderful. It was surprising, and it felt like a great vindication because we thought the record label had abandoned us,” recalls Cindy of that fraught time. “It felt very healing to be performing again for the fans, and they were right there with us.”
The B-52’s’ pre-Cosmic Thing album, Bouncing Off the Satellites, was recorded while Ricky was secretly battling AIDS. Only drummer and co-songwriter Strickland — who would later take over guitar duties for the band, teaching himself Ricky’s distinctive, three-string, spy-movie-sonics style — was aware of Ricky’s illness at the time. “Keith knew. I don’t know what happened,” Cindy says softly. “Keith and Ricky and I lived together. I was in the basement part of the building, the apartment. We had a garden there and I would see them, but we had a lot of privacy. I didn’t know. I could only guess what Ricky was thinking. Keith said that he meant to tell me, but it just happened so fast. Ricky got sick, and it was in the beginning days of AIDS, and it [progressed] fairly quickly, the disease. It was hard, not talking to Ricky about it, but since I’m older I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all OK. I mean, I had the chance to have this really cool brother, and he was amazing soul, and we did this amazing thing: being in this crazy band together, getting to tour the world. You know, as far as a sister/brother thing, that’s pretty hip.”
The B-52’s carried on Ricky’s legacy with the release of Bouncing Off the Satellites 11 months after his death at age 32, but the heartbroken survivors — Cindy, Strickland, and vocalists Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson — didn’t tour or do much promotion for the album, and the entire future of the band seemed in doubt. “It was very depressing days. It was a dark time. It was just so awful with what was going on with the AIDS epidemic and so many lost loved ones and friends. We were all so depressed and didn’t know what was going to happen,” Cindy says. “It seemed like the end of the world, really. It was really, really tough. But I felt better being with the band — with Fred, Kate, and Keith. It felt good to be with them.”
And, as Cindy notes, the B-52’s have “always done things upside-down and inside-out, and wonderful things have happened to us too,” and that is when the “unexpected” happened.
“Keith, who is an amazing guitarist in his own right, the way he dealt with Ricky’s death was he moved to Upstate New York on a pond in Woodstock and was writing music, and that was very healing for him. And so he contacted Kate, Fred, and I, and asked if we wanted to give it a go and see if we could jam on the music and if we could work together without Ricky,” Cindy recalls. “And so, we agreed: ‘Sure, let’s try it.’ We rented a place near the Wall Street area in New York, a cheap space, and that’s where we wrote Cosmic Thing. And it was really about the nostalgia of looking back at our better times in Athens when we were so much happier. If you listen to Cosmic Thingwith those ears, you can hear that [on tracks like “Love Shack” and “Deadbeat Club”]. We wrote a lot of really amazing, positive songs, and I think people were touched by that. … And we had the record company behind it this time.”
It’s a fascinating story overall, one that dates back to 1976, when the Wilsons and their bandmates “used to freak people out” in Athens. Ga., and “people threw shoes at us, people threw bricks. We had backlash, definitely,” Cindy chuckles. “It was kind of punk, the way we were doing it. It was a straight kind of college town, but there was a hip element, with a lot of artists here in Athens, so we would go to the parties and dress up and just be freaky. It wasn’t necessarily sexual, but I guess it had just the gay element of just having fun — hairdos and wigs, just turning stuff on its head.
“Sometimes you can write off the B-52’s as frivolous, but creatively, it was a pretty good band, how we wrote and came together and how the songs have lasted this long,” Cindy says with no small amount of modesty, noting that the group proved that rock music doesn’t have to be “all about hardcore technique, but is also about creativity.” John Lennon was an early fan, even once stating that the B-52’s’ sci-fi surfabilly classic “Rock Lobster” was an inspiration for his Double Fantasy album. “It was definitely amazing that he dug what we were doing and thought we were original; we had been influenced by him and Yoko, so I think he appreciated that,” says Cindy.
Another ‘60s legend, Paul Simon, once had the young B-52’s electrifyingly perform “Rock Lobster” in his “hokey” 1980 film One-Trick Pony — a casting which sort of backfired, since the viewing audience was presumably supposed to sympathize with and root for Simon’s character, has-been singer-songwriter Jonah Levin, only for Levin/Simon to be totally upstaged by the new wave newcomers. “He picked the wrong band! That was hilarious, the way that happened,” Cindy laughs.
Decades later, the B-52’s’ music, unlike the washed-up Jonah Levin’s, sounds as fresh and futuristic as ever — holding up nicely next to the electronic music that Cindy is now creating as a solo artist. (Side note: While Cindy “got burned out from all the touring” after Cosmic Thing because she was “still kind of mourning the loss of Ricky,” and she took a “time-out” from the group from 1990 to 1994, she’s feeling energized these days and is hoping to do a solo tour in support of Realms.) And the B-52’s’ epic story will soon hit the big screen as the focus of its own film: an anticipated documentary executive-produced by super-fan Fred Armisen. “There’s a lot of history, and I don’t know how they’re going to edit all of it, but it’s going to be really interesting!” Cindy promises.
The story, of course, is far from over. Looking back on the B-52’s’ influence, Cindy recalls getting “so much fan mail, and then later emails and Facebook messages, telling us how much we helped people when they were in a conservative place or a place where they could not be themselves — that we showed them it was all right to be different. That is really wonderful, and to also see the changes that were happening back then culturally for the gay community, how it was starting to strengthen — there was an amazing energy. … There was a big comeback for the [LGBTQ+] community, pulling together after [the AIDS crisis].”
Now, in an increasingly conservative era that reminds Cindy of the “devastating time” when “Reagan wouldn’t do anything to help find a cure [for AIDS] or anything,” her unique voice is seemingly needed more than ever, so Realms is perfectly timed. “It’s worse now. There’s actual hatred. I’ve never seen it before like this. It just blows my mind,” she says sadly. “Oh my God, it’s a horror story. I can’t believe what’s going on; if you would’ve told me this would be happening during these days, I would’ve never believed it. It’s just insanity. It’s treacherous times. But I’m just hoping that politically, people come to their right minds and see how much we could lose.”
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