If I found a genie in a bottle, I’d wish for Christina Aguilera to disappear. Backstreet Boys, Brandy, N’Sync—they’d all vanish in a puff of smoke. Surely I’m not the only consumer who’s tired of teens. Do you shield yourself from the Oxy-10 and Pepsodent radiance of chart-topping teenyboppers like a vampire deflecting sunlight, too?
Fortunately, history’s cyclical nature tells us their celebrity will be brief. Then the real fun begins—watching as they struggle with the onset of age and irrelevance. Some will wind up robbing 7-Elevens and running West Hollywood escort agencies, resurfacing in grainy mug shots on Fox-TV exclusive When Teens Turn Terrible! Others will follow Debbie Gibson’s footsteps to Broadway or headline bus-and-truck tours of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
But going gently into the good night isn’t an option for them all. Emboldened by Alanis Morissette and Ricky Nelson’s examples, they’ll make bids to be taken seriously as mature musicians. At best, they may match the overseas success of Robbie Williams (currently on the US charts with “Angels”), who left best-selling UK boy band Take That for critical and commercial solo success, even after packing on the pounds.
Or, if the planets are aligned just right, they might make a record as unbelievable as Shaun Cassidy’s coming-of-age LP, Wasp.
In 1977, Shaun was America’s heartthrob. Like other youngsters, I tuned in weekly to watch the foxy blonde’s sleuthing on The Hardy Boys. That year, Cassidy racked up three top-10 hits: “That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Hey Deanie,” and “Da Doo Ron Ron.” According to the young superstar, the Crystals’ 1963 original was the first record he’d ever purchased. Coincidentally, Shaun’s version, which I procured at the local Woolworth’s, was the 45 that started my collection.
Four years later, everything had changed. I’d started high school and discovered punk rock. Now when I visited Woolworth’s, it was to snatch up the three-for-a-dollar 8-track tapes that languished unsold, building a library of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed titles that played endlessly while I did homework.
One afternoon, I recall coming across a Cassidy album I’d never seen before in the bargain bins. On the cover, a slightly older, puffier Shaun peered through a pane of broken glass. The titles listed included “Rebel, Rebel,” which I immediately recognized from Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. Appalled by the ex-teen idol’s crass grasp for credibility, I passed over the platter. I never saw another copy.
Dim recollections of that moment have haunted me through a lifetime of record-collecting. Periodically, I’d flip through C sections of used-vinyl dealers, always in vain. Recently, when a colleague wrote a rhapsody on Shaun for a music periodical, I quizzed him about the disc I was beginning to believe I’d imagined; he’d never heard of it.
Then, a few weeks ago in Portland, it happened. Amongst the stacks at Everyday Music, I found Wasp. After 18 years of searching, I didn’t dare repeat the same mistake. What I heard when I finally got to drop the needle on this rarity proved my mystery had been worth solving.
The record carries a copyright of 1980. Shaun had turned 21, and his plaintive yelping sounds like a young man being drawn and quartered by opposing impulses of adolescence and adulthood. Producer Todd Rundgren seems completely at sea as to how to showcase his charge, and thus resorts to casting him in arrangements reminiscent of more celebrated clients: the Tubes, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith. Were it not for the singing, the sole Cassidy co-original, “Pretending,” could be a leftover from Meatloaf’s bombastic masterpiece Bat Out of Hell.
But the choice of cover tunes makes Wasp one for posterity. “The Book I Wrote,” featured first on Talking Heads: 77, becomes a flight of vaudevillian histrionics. The Who’s “So Sad About Us”—later covered by the Breeders—turns relentlessly peppy, while the Animals’ “It’s My Life” is transformed into a turgid power ballad. Cassidy’s stab at Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” sounds so tinny you’d swear the production budget ran out midrecording.
“Rebel, Rebel” leaves them all choking in the dust. The track opens with a synthesized bass line cheesy enough to make Devo blush with shame. Cassidy’s vocals are multi-tracked, an Iggy Pop-esque baritone doubled with irritating falsetto squeals. The singer’s delivery flattens Bowie’s gender-bending subtext, and despite a spoken bridge where Shaun proclaims his outsider status (“I never do what I should,” he growls), the original’s lyrical reference to Quaaludes is MIA.
Shaun Cassidy turned 40 last month. He’s continued performing on screen and stage, starring in the long-running New York production of Blood Brothers with half-sibling David. Currently he works as a television producer. But of all his achievements, Wasp surely stands as the strangest. It gives me hope for what happens when Britney Spears discovers Sleater-Kinney.