Once More, With Feeling: The “Cinderella” You Won’t Find In Children’s Books
Guest post by Jim Thomsen
Last week, somewhere between Sublimity and Silverton, Oregon, between spitting rain and a sliver of sunlight far to the north, I broke the morning silence with the first CD of the second day of a road trip. The CD was “Firefall: Greatest Hits,” and the second song was “Cinderella.”
After the song was done, I punched replay. Then did it again. And again. Over and over I played it; my best guess is between nine and eleven times. By that time I let the CD advance to “You Are The Woman,” Firefall‘s biggest hit, I was on the outskirts of Boring, a boring town, and bearing down on decidedly non-boring Portland … and musing on the subject of stark differences.
“Cinderella,” see, is a lovely tune, full of lilting acoustic guitars, the occasional chime of an electric, and a flute part that floated atop the bobbing bass line like a seagull on the bow of a sailboat. It’s also one of the most hateful, misogynistic songs ever written, a caustic dismissal of a woman whose crime was loving a man who apparently let her love him until she committed the second crime of allowing him to have unprotected sex with her. (The chorus: “Cinderella, can’t you see? I don’t want your company. Better leave this morning, leave today. Take your love and your child away.”) On the last refrain, the song gets bouncier than ever, with some swampy harp urging along the beat, before settling in a sweet low fade.
Kind of makes you wonder about the songwriter, doesn’t it? I did some research online, and what I found revealed a lot about how songwriting sausage is made. Firefall’s primary songwriters were guitarist Larry Burnett and singer Rick Roberts. Roberts, who wrote Firefall’s biggest soft-rock hits, often did so with “his head in a big bag of cocaine,” according to a Burnett interview. Burnett, who by his own admission also had drug problems, insisted in another interview that he wasn’t the man in the song, and that he had in fact written “Cinderella” when he was 16. “I certainly didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant and I was working my butt off trying to support us,” Burnett said. “None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people’s lives.”
OK, I can buy that. Then I thought, kinda makes you wonder what sort of discussions went on among the members of Firefall and their label, Atlantic Records, when it came time to choose songs to record and include on their 1976 debut album. “Cinderella” not only made the cut, but it was chosen as the second single. I can’t recall having heard “Cinderella” on AM radio, nestled between “Lonely Boy” and “Undercover Angel,” but I wish my parents had, just so the 11-year-old mean could have gauged their stricken expressions. I might not have ever been allowed to listen to the radio again if that were the case. And if my socioculturally staid parents would have soiled themselves, then imagine the feminist response. In an interview, Firefall member Jock Bartley explained what happened:
“’Cinderella’ ended up being an AM single that ironically enough we found out later was climbing the charts and got into the 40s and suddenly dropped with an anchor,” Bartley told classicbands.com. “We went, ‘What the hell happened?” We found out later that a number of women’s organizations on the East Coast; Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, kind of banded together and used their clout to tell this song was an inappropriate lyrical song, that basically says a guy kicked out a girl because she got pregnant.
“It was a fictional song. We certainly were not holding up the banner for any abusive kind of behavior or chauvinistic bullshit. It was a great song and one of my favorite Firefall songs. We found out that on the AM hits, it really dropped off the charts after there was an exerted effort put by some feminist groups, which was fairly ridiculous.”
Not sure I really follow Bartley’s reasoning there … but, whatever.
As for Burnett, the song doesn’t square very well with his current reality. At age fifty-six, he launched a regrettably short-lived blog in which he discussed life on the cold downslope of rock fame. At the time, he was living in Northern Virginia, scraping for performance gigs wherever he could and making ends meet by working for $10 an hour in a UPS store. Around age forty, he became a father to a son. And while he says it hasn’t been easy for either, given that he and the son’s mother divorced when the son was two years old, Burnett writes: “I love him. He loves me. There is no doubt between us of these two facts.”
Then he reveals something that reveals something, perhaps, about “Cinderella”: “A few days before my boy’s arrival home, I become uncomfortable. I wonder about my fitness as a father… as his father. What will we talk about? Will we talk at all? What will we do? How will he greet me? Should I wrap him in my arms? Is he too old for that? Does he think I’m an idiot, yet (he is a teen, after all)? Does he see through my charade? Sense the fatherly fraud in me?
“This,” Burnett added, “is a small part of the influence of my own father’s absence on his son.”
I thought about that as I continued east on my road trip, to Walla Walla, Washington. Where I stopped to see my own dad. Or, rather, my own dad’s grave. He broke his back just trying to keep his head above water, my dad, but he did it with his children and wife at his side. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, and for that I am profoundly glad.
(Postscript: I contacted Larry Burnett by e-mail and asked him if he’d be willing to let me interview him about “Cinderella.” He agreed, and I sent him some questions. I didn’t hear back from by him by the deadline for this essay, but if and when he does get back to me, I’ll write a follow-up piece.)
Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at email@example.com.