The B-52s’ Cindy Wilson: Still cosmic after all these years

By Mark C. Horn

To local Arizona music fans, the power of the sun, mountains, and vistas have always been a part of what energizes us.

The national acts who have made tour stops over the decades in the Valley have often spoken out about their initial jaw-dropping reactions to viewing the vast expanse of the region and the awe-inspiring hold it has had on them.

So, it would only make sense this cosmic feeling was

felt by members of no less than [‘the world’s greatest party band”, The B-52s

at one time a few decades at the most pivotal time in their band’s history.

With memorable quirky song  that revamped camp and kitsch such as “Rock Lobster”, “Private Idaho”, “Roam and “Love Shack” the band the band experienced its own Arizona vibe that set them on a course to healing and happiness and gave them a worldwide fan base just prior to the release of their pop break-through album Cosmic Thing in 1989.

“We were playing Phoenix, but we went on a side trip

to Sedona and went up to some positive energy vortex. I guess we climbed up on

Bell Rock, and I saw people doing ceremonies,” recalls Cindy Wilson. “So, we

had an idea, we were all up there, we held hands, the whole band.

“We put out the energy that the world would be a

happier place, and also that this would be a successful album. It was an

amazing time. It was a magical record, and Ricky was on it too in his own

special way.”

Ricky Wilson, Cindy’s older brother and co-founder of the band had passed away from Aids four years earlier. Cosmic Thing was the band’s attempt to get back into music after a near-permanent break-up of the band due to the devasting loss of its musical leader.

Whatever swirling centers of energy the group conjured

on their AZ vortex adventure; it would somehow help to jettison the B-52s from

new wave pioneers to world pop sensations. Cosmic Thing would go on to

climb to a band best No. 9 on the Billboard 200, while singles “Roam” and “Love

Shack” would each reach No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Both album and singles would also chart in no

less than seven other countries and overall achieve 4x platinum pop plateau.

Move ahead 20 years, and Wilson, along with fellow

chanteuse Kate Pierson and front man-singer Fred Schneider, are the remaining

trio of the original band. The threesome is marking the 40th

anniversary of the release of their eponymous first album The B-52s with

a 32-date North American tour.

“I was 19 when we started, so I had no clue that we would keep going after 30 (years),” confesses Cindy Wilson. “But, it’s amazing to think about having multiple audiences at different points of our career, and some of those have stayed with us the whole time.”

It was in 1976 when events led to the band’s formation. As Cindy Wilson had from a very early age been the doting little sister to brother Ricky. The Wilson’s and brother Ricky’s longtime friend Keith Strickland all grew up in the farm town that is also the home of the University of Georgia.

Wilson’s brother and Strickland ventured to Europe and

see the explosion of self-expressive art and music, and they would come back to

the US energized and hungry to test the waters of their findings back home.

After Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson found their way

to Athens via their native New Jersey, it would be kismet when the five met and

began hanging out.

“There really weren’t that many places to play as a starter band,” recalls Wilson. “You had to play parties and that was cool. And then we went up to New York to get our careers going, but we really had no idea what a career would be. It was really just to entertain ourselves and our friends.”

The legendary story of the band’s birth came by way of the five sharing a Volcano Rum Drink at Hunan Chinese Restaurant in Athens, in 1976. What better liquid catalyst to fuel the birth of a new music style to an unsuspecting world.

Musically, the quintet’s musical blender of

influences, ranging from James Brown, the Velvet Underground, Joni Mitchell, Martha

and the Vandellas, Captain Beefheart, and just for good measure tribal pygmy

music, to mention a few.

At a time when the punk scene was starting to slow

down and experimental new wave was on the rise, the B-52s timing was perfect.

Considered now the “Liverpool of the American South, back

in the mid-70s, Athens provided space as a practice ground for the B-52s playing

house parties. There was little going for it in the way of scene-happening

favorite club haunts. Ironically, Athens eventually spawn the likes of REM,

Love Tractor and Pylon, and down the road Indigo Girls among others.

The group would make regular tracks in the Wilson’s

parent’s family station-wagon to New York in 1977 and 1978 and gained exposure

to the burgeoning NY alternative music scene, playing at legendary clubs like CBGBs,

Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club and Hurrah’s.

It would be in ’78 that Schneider and Wilson would pen

the song that launched a thousand new wave club fans, with the

stream-of-consciousness kaleidoscope tale of, beach crustacean discovery of “Rock

Lobster”.

The song put

out by Atlanta label DB Records would get the band to No. 56 on the Billboard

Hot 100 and straight to the top in Canada in 1980, with “Private Idaho” as the

flipside.

The buzz in the UK got the band its first

international dates, and soon a record deal was struck with WB and legendary Jamaican

producer and Island Record’s Chris Blackwell.

The band would record its self-titled debut album and the next two albums at Compass Point Studios in Jamaica, furthering their off-beat  sci-fi, surf, and alt new wave blues sounds, with “52 Girls”, “Planet Claire” and even a Pierson, Farfisa-led remake of Petula Clark’s 60s hit “Downtown” sung by Wilson. The album would reach No. 56 on the Billboard album chart and eventual go platinum.

The second album release, Wild Planet would not

have a sophomore jinx. Led by Wilson’s solo plea on “Give Me Back My Man”, the frenetic

dance songs “Private Idaho” and “Strobe Light favorites, the album would reach

No. 19 om the Billboard 200.

After the 1983 album Whammy with hit “Legal

Tender” reaching No. 29, the members needed a break as the songwriting by five

members living in the same house was wearing thin.

Determined, the group would wrestle its way through to a fourth album, Bouncing off the Satellites recorded in 1985. While the album had some fun songs such as “Summer of Love” and "Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland" it had ditched some of the kitsch for a more somber and melancholy mood.

The year also proved to put Wilson and band on an emotional rollercoaster. In April, Wilson married her brother’s onetime guitar tech, Keith Bennet.  However, the passing of her brother best friend and musical hero at 32, in October was devastating. Ricky Wilson had only confided in his longtime friend, Strickland about his illness, apparently not wanting to bother anyone with his dire state, as the story goes.

“It takes many years to get over the loss of my brother and for my family, it was like a nuclear bomb going off if you can imagine,” explains Wilson who was only 28 when her brother passed.” I had never lost anybody, you know, I had never had death in my family. It was devastating. And I didn’t have any closure with Ricky.”

“But I guess later on I came to the conclusion that he

might have been in denial himself. I mean I was just a mess; mad at everything,

God and country, and just everything. I was very, very lucky to have had a

really great brother who was so funny, so witty, and so talented, and that we

got to so this big project, is amazing.”

For Cindy, the world stopped rotating, and the band went on hiatus, already having needed a break, but now in need of answers on to how to carry on minus a brother. Finally, after nearly three years, it would be Strickland who would convince the remaining trio of B-52s that it was time to get back to their passion for songwriting, recording and performing.

To come out with strong support for the fight against the dreaded disease that took Ricky’s life, the remaining B-52 foursome first would put a PSA together with a collage of artists supporting the cause for what is now called the American Foundation for AIDS Research,  as they worked their way back into the music.

The band enlisting disco, soul and R&B great Niles

Rodgers to produce the comeback album. The co-founder of disco band Chic was

just what the doctor ordered. Rodgers, along with veteran funk rocker and

producer veteran Don Was would each produced several of the album’s songs.

The themes were more environmental, anti-capitalistic

and yet energized with a sassy and funk sensibility. Of the four singles

released, “Roam” and “Love Shack” blasted their way each to No. 3 on the

Billboard Hot 100.

By Pieter M. van Hattem

From the release of the 1992 Good Stuff and

sixteen years later in 2006 Funplex, the band members began branching

out on solo efforts and performing with as guest on other group’s albums. Schneider

was the first to drop a solo album, debuting in 1984 Fred Schneider and the

Shake Society. Pierson would in 2015 release Guitars and Microphones,

with guest performer Sia Furler.

Finally, in 2017 Wilson would release her debut solo

effort, the psychedelia-laced Change. The album consisted of dreamy,

aural landscapes with Wilson showing a softer side to her delivery. The homage

“Brother” stood out a Sonic Youth-style post-punk punch to it, giving the album

some diversity.

 “So, the solo

(album), I was always into experimentation, and working with Ryan (Monahan) and

Suny (Lyons) it was really great to experiment, and they were younger. I really

wanted a really modern sound yet have a definite “me” in there,” explains

Wilson. “I can hear “Dance This Mess Around”, my softer vocal in there.”

For Wilson and the other B-52 members, it has now been

11 years since the release of the last B-52 album, Funplex, and fans are

aching for new B-52 material. What so you, Cindy?

“You know, I’m not supposed to talk about it, cuz I

don’t want to jinx it, but there’s talk about getting together and doing more

music, so cross your fingers.”

While looking forward, Wilson also occasionally looks

back on furthering causes. In addition to the band’s support of the LGBT

community, they have promoted women in music.

“It was great for women to be in music and working with men, so it was great to have a mixed-sex of women and men in a group. It was a lot of diversity, so creatively it was really good.”

As Wilson and Pierson unwittingly were New Wave

barrier-breakers for women artists. For that, they were acknowledged just last

year at the 6th annual She Rocks Awards (WiMN) for their

accomplishments as leading women music artists. 

Now, Wilson, husband Bennett, and their daughter India

and son Nolan (who have their own band Array) live in Atlanta area. Wilson made

sure that even her children keep their uncle’s spirit in their hearts, even

without ever having met him.

“My kids, they’re thrilled to have Ricky as an uncle.

They know the whole story, sadness in the country and the world with Aids. They

couldn’t believe what was going on. So, it’s been really interesting.”

And what would Ricky think about the LGBT world today?

“I think he would be real happy about that (the progress of gay acceptance and rights), but I think about that too, that there is horrible stuff going on too. You know you think, ‘what would Ricky think?’ It feels like we’re going backward.”

In the end, music is her default for bliss and her place to go to escape a weary world.

“Music can lighten your load, and when you feel like you’re beaten down, you can go see a good concert, or go put on a record or turn on the stereo; you can dance and just get it out of your heart and live in the moment.”

So, whether she is 53 miles west of Venus, in the

basement with heavy equipment, or roaming around the world, Cindy Wilson is

grateful for her incredible life, and each day she continues to seek out the cosmic

cool.

The B-52’s are currently on tour. Visit

theb52s.com for all band-related information.

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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