No seriously, someone really did ask me. S. Josh Brooks wrote to Cher Scholar asking me to list my 10 favorite Cher songs. I swear. Handily, I already have a list of my top five Cher songs, just in case I'm out on the street and anybody should ask—so picking off five more should be easy-wheezy, I thought. Well, not so! The more I tried to pare the list down, the more favorites ended up being left out—and I even had auxiliary favorites separated out into categories! Needless to say, chaos ensued. This was hard—much harder than narrowing down my favorite albums or movies. But make those difficult, agonizing, sleepless-night choices I did because I'm a trooper. Maybe these lists will spark some of your own.
10. There But For Fortune (Cher, 1967) When I was nine years old (1979/1980), before I could peruse the local used record stores which were all inconveniently located downtown (and inconveniently, being 9 years old, I couldn't drive), I had no way of hearing songs from Cher's many, many out-of-print albums. Until I started making album lists from the LP-collector guides at B. Dalton bookstores, I didn't even know what was out there. I hit gold one day when a friend's parents took me to the library (just for fun!). I filled my little arms with Encyclopedia Brown & Nancy Drew books and a small stack of Cher albums I had never, in my four or so years of Cher fandom, seen before. One such gem was the double-gatefold anthology: Cher Superpak. It was packed with 60s Cher songs I hadn't heard. Immediately, my favorite was the haunting vocal from There But For Fortune. As a child, the violins, guitars and lyrics hinted at a worldliness that was exotic to me and a politics I could not yet comprehend. It was way beyond me but I loved it anyway. I didn't even know what the title meant at the time: 'there but for fortune' being another way of saying 'there but for the grace of God, go I'. The smooth sound of her pre-drawl 60s era vocal asserted an innocent wisdom which matched the material. But as a kid, I liked the glamour of her 70s drawl myself, so there weren't many 60s tunes I didn't find dull and lifeless. But this song was an exception from the beginning and has stood test of time: her precise vocal, the keyboard punctuations, the drum and the deep, solid bass. It's a song that highlights Sonny love for a strong bass sound (distinctive of their 60s records). I loved the drums, their pied piper quality which turned into gypsy dance of percussion mid-way through while the bass plucked away. Toward the end, Cher sings: "There but for fortune go you or I" and her voice floats away on 'I' to punctuate the gravity of the point. It still gives me chills. The lyrics are typical of the time—a simple, vague political message (what seemed incomprehensible to me back then, seems too simplistic today): basically, thank your lucky stars you're not a prisoner, homeless, a drunkard (complete with whiskey stains on the floor), or living in a war-ridden country where "bombs have to fall." All which should go without saying. Vague message or no, Cher voice carries the song well and fades out like the sage angel-child of exotic hippiedom she wasn't really, but who cares.
9. Taxi Taxi (Believe, 1999) The song is too long. In fact, nothing interesting happens in last minute or so. The dance beat is forgettable. Actually, it's dance beats like this that give dance tunes a bad name. And the vocal is a little swallowed. So what do I like about it? Lyrics, lyrics, lyrics!! This song has great lyrics, thrilling lyrics, mesmerizing lyrics which trumpet a surreal expression of love with odd combinations of moments and subjects. Nothing about the drive in this weird little taxi is unoriginal. And the oddness never comes off as indecipherable or lazy, as free associative weird lyrics sometimes can:
Take me to your meditation
Take me to your door
Show me love's sweet revelation
Lying on your floor.
You're as cool as Colorado
Orpheus on fire.
And again I am lured by Cher's haunted singing. I always lump this song as a medley with its following track Love is in the Groove with its crazy but less decipherable similes. Taxi Taxi is also oozing with a surreal and smart sort of joy de vie, which begins right at the start with:
All the streets are never ending
Tied up in a knot
Drive me through a red light waiting
For everyone to stop
Sing to me like Pavarotti
Sing to me of Spain
Take me to you operetta
And make it rain
8. All I Ever Need Is You (All I Ever Need Is You, 1972) Admittedly, this is a sentimental favorite. I've loved this Sonny & Cher song since I was six or seven. This was the song that started it all for me, the first track on an album my Aunt and Uncle sent my parents from Alaska (they were record distributors) as a Christmas present back in the early 70s. And now, after all these years, there's something incredibly comforting to me about this song. It takes me back to childhood tout suite! I get an immediate feeling of security and peacefulness right from the opening guitar strums and the heartbeat drum. It "keeps me hanging on...ah honey...All I ever need is you." Cher's syrupy drawl fascinated me and the sound was pure adult contemporary glamour circa 1972, if there was such a thing. Sonny comes into the song with the strings. He's sounding less abrasive on this record for some reason. I don't know what producer Snuff Garret must have said to him. The easy listening tempo would win Sonny & Cher no accolades from the critics, but kids like me, we didn't care. This love song is a real toe taper and I still think its sentiment is sorta sweet.
Winters come and they go
And we watch the mountains snow
(It took me years to realize she was singing 'mountains')
Some men follow rainbows I am told
Some men search for silver some for gold
I have found my treasure in your soul...honaaay
All I ever need is you
I could almost see Sonny & Cher on a green, snow-capped mountain singing arm and arm and all is right with the world.
7. Angels Running (It's a Man's World, 1996) Patty Larkin's version of this song is very different. And she titles her version A Good Thing which puts the emphasis on a different part of her thesis: that a good thing (love, presumably) should not be let go of because "it's a bad thing to let go." The title Angels Running throws the emphasis over to the angles, so caught up in a backlog of broken hearts, they can't keep up. There's the implied 'hold on to the good thing...because catch up those angels will—but it's the angles who gain center stage. It's a good switch, I think. This song not only has evocative lyrics, a super-fine Cher vocal, and a lovely lush music, but the central idea is so fascinating, I think about it all the time:
All those angels running
Picking up the pieces,
Putting back together hearts broke long ago
...this bureaucracy of too many broken hearts, overloaded angles and the corresponding decision to hold on to a good thing because the angels will get to you, hold tight. Explains a lot, really. Patty's version is more stripped down. Cher's has more volume and by that I don't mean loudness or quintessential Cher belting; I mean Cher's is a more lush version. The piano is melancholy but has a lightness to it that is almost hopeful. It's a pleasurable kind of gloom created possibly by the combination Cher's voice ("with your world all in motion, it's gotta put a ball and chain on your soul") and the lilting piano. The lyrics are full of isolated gems like:
You may charge across in a golden chariot
But you will never be at home
There is nothing less than perfect
In a less than perfect world
and the pure simplicity of:
I've heard enough and I've seen enough
and I know enough to know
I know a good thing when I see it
and it's a bad thing to let go
—but a simplicity which adds up to large ideas: wish fulfillment and a heavenly bureaucracy, the idea that if you hold on long enough, the angels will catch up and fix what ails your heart—which is either a very dangerous and destructive idea or a very tender one, depending upon your romantic worldview. Cher has covered many songs to varying effect. She does this song a great service.
6. A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done (All I Ever Need Is You, 1972) Of all Sonny's western metaphor songs, this one is the best, using the game of playing cowboy to illustrate a childhood to adult progression from innocence to experience. William Blake would be proud. The song begins Clint Eastwood style with wah-wah sounds as heard in Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Then, a drum roll and a musical tumbleweed strolls across the frame; with strings and horns, a cowboy comes strutting in, bowl legged, invincible. Then "Ride...I used to jump my horse and ride." Sonny had been perfecting this metaphor for years (see also "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)") but he nails it here. The song is full of six-gun details and hyperbole: "I was so handsome women cried / and I got shot but I never died." In the beginning, we think the song is about the unrequited love of of a girl for a cowboy:
I could play
If I'd do everything he'd say
Girls seemed to just get in his way
Those days we weren't considered fun
A cowboys work is never done
then comes the surprise:
He'd fight crime all the time
He'd always win
Until his mom would break it up
And call him in
Aha! These are little kids and she's just a girl trying to horn in on all the cowboy fun. Layers of horns, percussion, lots of western drama:
He was tough,
He was hard but he was kind—
And he was loved cos guys like him were hard to find
(What a guy; what a western staple)
Ride! I'd like to ride again someday
I think I'd still know how to play
I play games now but it's not fun
There's a big stab in the gut: the mature realization that adult games cause pain not fun.
From the Cher Zine, Superpak Vol. 1: "The Gunslinger Ballads"
"Playing cowboy is almost spiritual for young American boys. The game is full of vanquishing evil and the good guy always conquering the villain in a duel at the end. But the whole process is simply a game, no more real than the game of superhero. The process of a man looking back over innocence and naiveté is a heartbreaking scene. Life just didn't turn out the way the game promises it should.
"But the cowboy must grow up. In a bitter turn, the adult says he would like to play cowboy once again. He thinks he remembers all the moves. He plays "games now, but it's not fun." Games are hurtful now, he loses more often. And a cowboys work is never done, the game of bravado is never done, the fighting is never done, adult work is never done but ironically, this childhood game of playing cowboy, where a boy happily always wins and never dies, has ended and is done forever."
5. Love & Pain (Take Me Home, 1979) This song embodies what I feel is the perfect ratio of ballad to belting. I've loved this song ever since 4th grade when I got my copy of Take Me Home from the Record Bar down at the local Sears mall. I used to re-enact the song with my own mock-torch singing in our living room where our family record player was. There's a slow build to the belting and the backup singing is not obvious (which is what I don't like most about Turn Back Time ("turn back time/find a way"). "There's a hunger in my veins" (and she draws out veins) "and it's drivin' me insane...but I guess it all comes down to love and pain" and then the guitar comes in out of nowhere for a solo and Cher takes us home with the climax. There's a smooth transition to the belting and then another slick transition that settles us back into the somber denouement and the song ends right where it begins. This song heralds more rock belting ahead—but at least here, the belting is where it should be (in the climax, not throughout the whole piece—leaving little room for any drama). Great Cher vocal. Quiets the room on a record full of disco.
4. I'd Rather Believe In You (I'd Rather Believe In You, 1976) One simple but efficient little pop song with a good consistent vocal which is more tentative here, less strident, more vulnerable. I have to say I hate the lyric. Co -dependent to the hilt:
Got another phone call
Someone wants to help
Time I leanred the truth they said
About that lies you tell
I know it's hard to hide my fear
If what I've heard is true
I'd rather trust the memories
And years of loving you
Huh? People are calling you! Don't stick your head in the sand, lady! Ah, love is blind, especially in the time of war and roses and Gregg Allman, who Cher was married to at the time. And "what you've heard" probably entails his many trips to the heroin-mart. But aside from that messiness there, this is a nicely constructed pop song with a simple piano start, drums that tumble in and Cher singing ("yes") almost gospel-like (I always fall for the gospel thing). The bridge of drums and strings build up with "I don't wanna hear anymore/Oh don't cha know/that I've heard it all before") where she plays tug of war with the back ups. The piano, guitar, and strings—all understated pleasentness.
3. You Take It All (Living Proof, UK Version, 2001) Cher's ventures with Warner UK took a good turn as far as the lyric is concerned. From vague, simplistic lines like "if I could turn back time/if I could find a way" to lyrics with more subtlety, more nuance, like the extended metaphor in the lines of The Gunman:
Love is a gunman and he's coming to town
You'll met his glaze both barrels blaze
Staring you down
Love is the gunman and no mercy has he
This time his sights are set on me
and from this song:
Every light that we ever held
Just the fire from a dark dark spell
and the lines of Angels Running and Taxi Taxi above.
Not only are the lines more compelling, the music acts as a suggestive echo that clarifies the chorus:
You take it all
Like the sea takes the sand from under my feet
...illustrating a love that undoes your footing, making you feel helpless. The music has an electronic aquatic sound and replicates the sand slipping words. You can almost hear the water and the sand dissolving. Cher cuts off "you take it all" with a cruel, decisive slice. This tide, the water on the shore, a cynical underwater scene affected me very strongly the first time I heard it and it was refreshing to have love given this new fresh simile. The lyrics in the bridge are vague and the quality of the listed items in the verses are uneven and seem to add up to little or nothing profound, but who cares when the chorus and the music together work so well.
2. Geronimo's Cadillac (Stars, 1975) This bluesy cover of Michael Martin Murphy's song was a perfect match for Cher. The song starts with Cher and a piano: "Put Geronimo in a jail down south/where he couldn't look a gift horse in the mouth." She wails in all the right places. Allegedly, Cher really put her full effort into this album and her vocal control was never better. She's complimented here with smooth backup singers and lyrics more PC than in the earlier fare of songs like Half Breed.
From the Cher Zine, Superpak Vol. 1: "The Gunslinger Ballads"
"The Indians in this song are empowered spiritually by the knowledge that they are right and "in the sunset, too." The song is less of a caricature of Indians and more of a political statement. The lyrics address more subtly the depth of the predicament of the Native American peoples, directly referencing Geronimo, the famous Apache war leader who terrorized the southwest for fifteen years after being incited by the brutal slayings of his wife and three children. Geronimo surrendered to the US Calvary in 1886 after killing more than 2,500 white US citizens.
In "Geronimo's Cadillac" we find Geronimo on the reservation after his surrender. The US government has made peace with Geronimo but he is still a prisoner of his physical reservation and the relocation policy that displaced thousand of tribal peoples. And instead of releasing Geronimo, the US government sends him a car. But what use does he have for a car? "You never see a car on the Indian range." It's an attractive distraction, Geronimo and his pals enjoy it, the narrator even wants to ride in it, but it won't give them freedom. They have no place to go. The main plea is to set Gerry free. In her appeal to this effect, Cher works her way up the government line starting with Sargent, Sargent, Warden, Warden, Gov'nor, Gov'nor, People, People.
And I love the voluptuous piano. From the Cher Zine, Superpak Vol. 1: "The Soul of Cher: Stars is Born"
Flip the record over and you hear the soul piano intro dipping and twirling while Cher wails the memorably arresting first lines of "Geronimo's Cadillac." This song is soul, soul, soul and Cher makes no vocal missteps. A steel guitar blips and accents her while Cher is supported by marvelously soulful back-ups.
"Ahhh...listen to me/be brave and set Geronimo free."
1. Somebody (All I Ever Need Is You, 1972)
What could I say about this one? It's my favorite Cher song and has been for most of my life. It just keeps getting better and I love it from start to finish. It has my favorite Cher opening:
In a world of wonderland
One thing's plain to see
And it don't take no mystic mind at all
I used to think Sonny meant that "it" was a very elemental principle, this one thing which was so plain to see.
Lot's of people they're looking now
And they're searchin' just like me
Trying to find the answer to it all
But after finding out Sonny's true political leanings and feelings about the youth movement in the 60s, I had to re-evaluate his attitude about the word "mystic." Although Sonny supported kids in a vague way because they were the big S&C record buyers, he was too conservative and too-past-his-youthful-idealism to fully support counterculture initiatives involving drugs, free sex and the new psychedelic rock. See his lyrics in songs "Plastic Man" and material from his solo effort Inner Views to get a glimpse of the Republican that was yet to come. Sonny & Cher did support democratic candidates in the 60s, but they were split on candidates by the end of the 70s and polar opposites by the 80s when Sonny began running for offices as a Republican. My new interpretation of his use of the word mystic: this was a subtle dig at hippy spiritual ideologies. But unless you know the songwriter's back story, the line is vague enough to remain open to interpretation and it can withstand a non-partisan reading.
Someone told me long ago
Cher you just can't see
You miss a forest looking for the tree
As a little kid, I had no clear idea what Cher was talking about — but I thought it was something about Sonny being a tree.
When I think about it now (and here she wails like a gospel singer)
It's very true you see
Cos everything I want is next to me
How utterly groovy, Cher.
Somebody (and the a horn punctuates it like an exclamation point)
The bass dancing in the back as the song moves into a list:
It aint power
It aint freedom
It aint long hair
It aint short hair
And then rolls into full frontal gospel: "Somebody/ when you're happy/ somebody." Here, on my long playing record, a gospel choir comes in. This choir is mysteriously taken off the one existing CD re-release and from the alternate single version of the song, as well as many lp copies I've heard from those who have sent me bootlegs. This is a a cryin' shame, folks, because there's some superfine awesome wailing at the fade out:
Danny's Song (Sonny & Cher Live, 1971)
It makes me cry; it surely does.
As I was paring down my top ten, a list of other loves developed. These didn't make the cut because I don't re-listen to them as often as those on the top ten—but I think they're swell, nonetheless:
She's No Better Than Me, The Gunman, Needles & Pins, Walk on Guilded Splinters, Stand By Me, When the Money's Gone, Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, Masters of War, It's the Little Things, Carousel Man ("met an older man who taught me his own way to live"), United We Stand ("and if your backs should ever be against the wall"), Little Man, You Don't Love Me, Look at Me, Il Camino Di Coni Speranza, Once in a Lifetime ("This is my moment! My destiny calls me."), Song For You, Bell Bottom Blues, Mr. Soul, The Harder They Come, She Loves to Hear the Music, Holdin Out For Love, All or Nothing, Love is in the Grove, The Fall, Real Love, Sirens.
There are also sublime moments in: Behind The Door, Stars, and Just This One Time.
My favorite Cher hits
Dark Lady, Train of Thought, The Beat Goes On, I Got You Babe (Live 1971 version), Heart of Stone (an 80s stand-out with great lyrics, just not from an era I re-listen to all that much), and Gypsys Tramps and Thieves (one of the greatest adult contemporary songs of the 70s by anybody).
And my favorites from her television and live performances
Didn't We (1973 from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. She sang this as her last torch song on their last show before their divorce...and there's a great moment near the end where she wrenches out the words "that long hard climb"), Stagger Lee (1976 from second version of their show, The Sonny & Cher Show—this song is funky in the tradition of Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown), Rhinestone Cowboy (1975 from The Cher Show—perfect match of cover song to Cher), Don't Get Hooked on Me (1976/7 from The Sonny & Cher Show—so pleasurable to hear Cher sing this one, I don't know why), What Can I Do For You (1975 from The Cher Show with LaBelle—watch Cher keep up with Patti LaBelle—or do a stunning job attempting to) and Out Here On My Own (1982 from Celebration at Caesars).