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Bono of the Desert : Palm Springs Put Him Back in the Spotlight. Can He Return the Favor?

<i> Alice Kahn is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears in The Times' View section on Wednesdays and Sundays. Her latest book, "My Life as a Gal," will be published in paperback by Dell this fall. </i>

AFTER THREE DAYS in the blazing, money-laden, 45-mile-long Coachella Valley desert, it became clear to me why Palm Springs went Bono. Everything you think of as glamorous Palm Springs--the poshest new resorts, Walter Annenberg’s golf course, Jerry Ford’s and Frank Sinatra’s houses, the Betty Ford Clinic, Bob Hope Drive and Dinah Shore Drive--are actually in nearby Rancho Mirage. And that’s the problem.

That’s why Sonny Bono has been born again here, not as a lounge lizard or some other desert reptile but as mayor of the town. He has followed the increasingly familiar pattern of show biz to restaurant biz to politics biz.

Quite simply, old Palm Springs has been experiencing a cash drain as money flows down valley. Compare the mean family income of Palm Springs--$29,885--with that of the nearby town of Indian Wells--estimated at about $80,000. Palm Springs has the history but not the cash, and its budget deficit grows yearly while neighboring towns have bucks to burn.

The city of Palm Springs funds the regional visitors’ bureau that delivers tourists to glitzier rival towns. Bono has vowed to stop this. Palm Springs’ permanent population of 53,000--28% of them retirees--does not want to see city services cut. Bono promises to raise money.

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But the question remains: Can Sonny Bono pull off a comeback for Palm Springs as he has for himself?

“What I’ve accomplished so far is a whole overall change in attitude in the community,” says the mayor, reflecting on his first 63 days in office. “Six months ago it was all apathetic. Now it’s enthusiasm. There’s life again where life was almost gone. We’ve hired a PR firm. We’ve accepted an entrepreneurial approach. We have to make money.”

Sonny Bono is speaking from the mayor’s office. He looks tired but he has a terrific, face-transforming grin. So great is the power of celebrity that even though he’s just Sonny Bono, I keep thinking: It’s Sonny Bono! Sonny Bono, a little man of 53 who works hard, works out daily and, except for several depressed years after the demise of the “The Sonny and Cher Show,” has been hustling nonstop for 35 years.

Bono’s checkered resume began with a stint as a meat-delivery man on Sunset Boulevard. Just a few years out of Inglewood High School (class of ’52) he already had a wife, Donna, and a baby girl. “I got the Sunset route so I could deliver the meat real fast and still have time to try out my songs,” he says. “There was a little Tin Pan Alley on Sunset. The only entree someone like me could get was in what they called ‘race’ records. I’d run in and sing a song with the bloody apron on and then get back in the truck and deliver more meat.”

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Salvatore (Sonny) Bono had been writing songs since he was 7, when his family moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. He acquired a ukulele and, before he turned 12, appeared on “Peter Potter’s Hit Parade.” His first break as a songwriter was with Dig Records, one of the small independent black labels owned by rhythm-and-blues legend Johnny Otis (who is actually white). Bono got a tune on the flip side of Larry William’s 1957 hit “Bony Moronie” and the rest, as they say, is music history.

He learned the importance of trend spotting as an artists-and-repertoire man for Specialty Records, whose star at the time was Little Richard. Bono foresaw the coming of rockabilly. “I told the owner we had to change over to that kind of music, but his true love was in black music, so I left and became a promotion man.” His flexibility was always his strength.

In 1964, after his first divorce, while working as a promoter for chaotic genius Phil Spector, he met a teen-age stray named Cher. “She was kind of a waif and real lost as a person, and I was kind of a waif and real lost as a person, so I told her she could stay with me.”

Bono says he wasn’t the first hippie. He was the third. “We had our own little clique and enjoyed dressing up and stuff. I started wearing long hair from Phil Spector, who patterned himself after Beethoven.”

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When Spector refused to record Cher, Bono wrote “Baby Don’t Go” and went out on the road with her, singing along with Cher as he had with Spector’s girl groups. “I never looked at myself as a singer,” Bono says. “I liked having my hair long, and then it became evident it was working.” Bono possessed an intuitive sense of packaging. First he called their act Caesar and Cleo, then changed it to Sonny and Cher. But he knew “The Salvatore Bono and Cher Sarkisian Show” wouldn’t have worked.

While recounting the days from the bloody apron to “The Beat Goes On,” Sonny Bono sits at the mayor’s desk signing proclamations and requests for autographs. Just outside, on the road to the airport, you can see a giant bust of John F. Kennedy. Bono himself is a Republican who says he admires “Lincoln and all those glamorous politicians.” (The local press club plans to spoof his Lincolnian politics by having a Bono look-alike sing “I Got You Abe” at its annual show in December.)

The Indian paintings around the office are relics from the previous mayor, Frank M. Bogert, an old cowhand and expert PR man himself. Bono plans to redecorate soon. “I want something kinda deco, kinda brash. I’m going to get a local decorator in here and make a real statement,” he says as he goes to his coffee machine and pours a cup, sweetening it with Equal.

Initially, Bono was motivated to join six other people in running for mayor because he was frustrated with the bureaucracy. He was a local restaurant owner prevented from putting up a bigger sign. He ran against the town’s old-timer preservationist elite, the kind of people who pass sign ordinances. “There is an old guard here who have passed on the belief that this is a sleepy desert town,” he said during the election.

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He’s found that making a campaign promise is easier than actually carrying it through. “When you’re campaigning you go--boom!--there’s the answer for that and--boom!--there’s the answer for that and--boom!--there’s the answer for that. Then you go to implement it. . . .”

What Bono will implement has become hazy. During the campaign, he vowed to promote artistic activity as a way to raise money: “I see Palm Springs as the French Riviera of the United States. There is a lot of art and culture here.” He also promised to revitalize downtown: “There used to be nice stores here. Now you see all these ‘for lease’ signs in the windows and an abundance of schlocky T-shirt shops.”

Ironically, his campaign was financed by the sale of “Sonny Bono for Mayor” T-shirts. Bono says they brought in an astonishing $68,000. With a campaign kitty of $110,000, he had enough money for him to win the election and still donate $5,000 to save a drug program cut from the city’s deficit-ridden budget. His 4,858 votes didn’t come cheap.

He explains his political philosophy to me: “There is an inevitable metamorphosis that’s occurring in the whole country, and it’s the growth and you can’t stop that growth. This town was once little tiny quaint hotels, and now it’s all big hotels. It does impact the mom-and-pop merchants. What was can never be. It’s almost the same as Sonny and Cher--when the times change you have to change with them. Like, if we would’ve kept wearing bobcat vests and bell-bottoms, we never would have made it on TV. To stay in the mainstream you have to grow.”

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The breakup of his marriage and career with Cher is the pivotal event around which Sonny Bono explains everything that has happened in his life and the world. When talking about his election, Bono says with complete sincerity: “In a strange way it’s a major comeback for me. It’s splashed over into show business. It’s very attractive to that industry as well. I haven’t had this much attention since Sonny and Cher were at their hottest. . . . And it’s all me. I did it.

“There were a lot of things I had to deal with on Sonny and Cher--non-confronts, where my life went when it caved in, the loss. I sat for many years when the career split, and Cher rocketed one way and I was always compared. . . . So then, to come back--to get a target and pull it off--was just a tremendous win for me.”

I wondered if Palm Springs, like Sonny Bono, can come back. This could be paradise, I thought, if it weren’t for everything that’s happened in the past 20 years.

PALM SPRINGS OWES ITS existence to the miracle of a hot spring in the desert. De Anza saw it 200 years ago. Later, a series of white settlers, led to the gushing waters of Agua Caliente by the local Cahuila Indians, came to be healed and to acquire land. For years, the Agua Caliente Indians held La Fiesta de Los Monos, “the feast of the images,” where the gray concrete Spa Hotel now stands on the corner of Indian and Tahquitz-McCallum. The fiesta was to aid the spirits of those departing from the earth. Today Palm Springs, a place where many still come before departing this earth, seems obsessed with what to do about its fading image.

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Should it compete with newer, more imperial towns down the Coachella Valley such as Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert--where hotels have oddities that range from a faux waterfall to a lagoon with gondolas, where a shopping center has a huge enclosed ice rink? Should it become an upscale tourist haven, the “Saint-Tropez of the Desert” that Bono has promised to pursue?

Most of the recent developments in Palm Springs range from the boring to the hideous. To see the spectacular beige-rose-mauve beauty of the desert smack against the stark gray San Jacinto Mountains is a wonder. But in that extreme environment, everything else seems unnatural--industrial parks, suburban tract houses, grotesquely green golf courses, not to mention the Maxim’s de Paris Suite Hotel with atrium lobby and shopping mall or the Ralphs market with tile fountains, mission details and bell tower--truly a Ralphs where De Anza could have shopped.

The 1939 Works Progress Administration masterpiece, “California: A Guide to the Golden State,” describes Palm Springs in its heyday: “Buildings are uniformly of California pseudo-Spanish architecture . . . hotels that range from the palatial to the modestly magnificent . . . no lack of masseurs and masseuses; dude cowhands for atmosphere and branch brokerage offices for the bigger businessmen. . . . Los Angeles and New York promoters got to work, and the modern town sprang up almost with the speed of a movie set.”

Sonny Bono, a promoter who pulled his own major show-biz success out of thin air, is eager to try his luck at bringing back Palm Springs, a place that helped heal him 14 years ago, when he originally came here “as a refuge from Cher.”

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When Tammy and Jim Bakker took refuge in Palm Springs last year, they came to Bono’s restaurant to learn from the comeback king. “We sort of hit bottom,” Bakker told a talk-show host. “Sonny ministered to us. . . . He talked to us about how he rebuilt . . . gave us formulas maybe he’ll share with you someday.” No one understands resurrection better than Sonny Bono.

One night at the restaurant, over a dinner of Bono Salad, Salmon Sonny Bono and bottled Bono-label water, Bono tells me what he told the Bakkers. “They came to celebrate his birthday, but Jim and Tammy looked so sad my heart went out to them. The same thing had happened to me in Las Vegas when Cher said, ‘That’s it.’ One night everything was wonderful. You’re on top of the world--money, everything. Then you drop so low. ‘Put a reality on where you are now,’ I told them. ‘Don’t make big moves--make small ones.’ ”

It was a philosophy he learned after his friend Mimi Rogers (the actress who is married to Tom Cruise) introduced him to the teachings of Scientology. “There were all these simple statements I had to learn. It took me a long time to learn them, like: mess around in your marriage--no marriage.”

“Messing around” helped destroy Bono’s three previous marriages. The breakup with Cher and the cancellation of the top-rated “Sonny and Cher Show” in 1974 was the most costly and painful. Cher went on to a successful solo show while Sonny’s was canceled after a critical roasting. “Constant viewer nearly threw up,” wrote a critic for the Detroit Free Press.

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As Cher’s star rose, Sonny’s faded into obscurity. He attempted to get his third marriage ceremony, to model Susie Coelho, televised. (Coelho now runs A Star is Worn, a used-clothing store on Melrose where you can buy Cher’s fake fur for $425.) Bono had occasional movie parts and guest spots on TV. “This is where the reality hit me,” he says, popping a few herbal diet pills he began taking this year on Cher’s advice. He and Cher are pals now. “When you’ve achieved a lot, and you were big-time at one time, then you work this guest-star circuit on TV. You go to ‘Fantasy Island’ and ‘Love Boat’ and all these shows. You’re a guest star who used to be a good star. One day I realized that when you do these things you’re either on the way up or on the way down, and I was not on my way up. Then I opened a restaurant, and that changed my life.”

“Why a restaurant?” I asked him as a waitress wearing a ‘Sonny Bono Is Mayor of Palm Springs” T-shirt poured me another glass of Bono water.

“I’m a yellow-brick-road kinda guy,” Bono says, drinking more coffee. “I just follow it. The vision, I think, is Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca'--this suave person. It got me back in the game.”

Bono’s first incarnation of Bono, the restaurant, on Melrose in Los Angeles, was a financial disaster. But it provided the backdrop for meeting his current wife, Mary. Mary told the story of how they met as she showed me around the Palm Springs home she and Sonny share with their 7-week-old son, Chesare, born just after the mayoral election.

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Mary is the epitome of the robustly healthy, positive-thinking Californian. The daughter of a South Pasadena physician, she met Bono at the restaurant four years ago on the night she received her bachelor’s in art history from USC. He called her the next day and asked her to work out with him and from there, Mary says, they had “an old-fashioned romance.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Not having sex on the first night,” she says, without irony.

Mary credits her restraint, in part, for her success in landing Sonny. “Maybe that’s why I got to marry him and all the other girls didn’t. He was a ladies’ man, a definite player.” It never seems to occur to her that Sonny--who through four marriages has never had a wife out of her 20s--might be the lucky one.

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Mary’s favorite phrase is “giving 100%.” When she talks about how hard she and Bono worked on the mayoral campaign, she says, “When we were giving 100%, we doubled that.” Or when she describes her father’s shock when she first brought Bono home she adds: “Now my parents are behind him 100%.”

Certainly Mary’s attitude must have enhanced Sonny’s comeback. “I don’t project bad things,” she told me. “The motion picture I have for my future doesn’t have bad things.”

Asked whom she admires in politics, Mary’s immediate answer is Nancy Reagan. “I love Ron and Nancy Reagan,” she says. “A lot of people like her because she did something. Let’s face it, a woman won’t be President soon, but women have so much power. A good way to the husband is through the wife.”

Mary mentions Cher, whom she credits with making her feel accepted. Cher helped her get along with Sonny and Cher’s daughter, Chastity, now 19, and Sonny and Donna’s daughter, Christie, who at 30 is four years her senior.

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She asks me what I thought of Cher’s performance in “Moonstruck.” Bono had asked me the same thing. Didn’t I think Anjelica Huston could have done even better? Then, talking about how Bono’s election came just one day after Cher’s Oscar, Mary says: “Eight hundred people vote for the Oscars. Twenty thousand voters are registered here, and they’re voting for you , not a performance.”

As we tour the house, Mary hands Chesare to the au pair and tries to keep China, Chan and Cheeta, the pet chow chows, out of our way. The main house is a one-bedroom, thick-walled mini-hacienda built by the Gillettes, of razor fame, in the ‘20s. It is eclectically decorated with thick sofas, Chinese art and a huge wood dining table surrounded by eight leopard-skin chairs. There are two books on the coffee table--an antique dictionary and the Holy Bible.

Outside, the Bonos have added a tennis court, a pool, several guest houses--one will be Chesare’s soon--and a gym room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and all manner of Nautilus machines.

After the tour, Mary shows me the campaign scrapbook she kept, including articles in national magazines that were not entirely favorable to Bono but great publicity nonetheless. At one point in the campaign, an organizer for another candidate, Agua Caliente Tribal Secretary Ray Patencio, complained about Bono. “That little twit gets on television for free,” she said.

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Mary’s scrapbook is filled with congratulatory telegrams from celebrities. Besides a phone call from the White House, Sonny Bono received telegrams from Tony Orlando, Alan Thicke, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk and Anne Douglas, Richard Roundtree, Stephen Bishop, Mickey Rooney and the Bakkers. Clint Eastwood wrote: “Call me if you need a councilman. I am an unemployed politician.”

After the baby was born, a telegram arrived from Cher: “Dear Son, Congratulations on both of your victories.”

But now, 63 days into the Bono Administration, the glory is over and the hard work begins. Besides speaking to real estate agents, touring the area by helicopter, attending subcommittee and executive sessions, Bono must perform twice a month as emcee at the City Council meeting. All this for a paltry 15 grand a year. It’s a far cry from the days when 4 million copies of “I Got You Babe” could buy a 22-room mansion in Bel-Air so close to Johnny Carson that he reportedly once filed a complaint against Bono over his noisy dogs.

BEFORE AN AUDIENCE of 70 townsfolk, Sonny Bono pulls the mike right up to his mouth like the pro he is and begins the salute to the flag. He will play a fairly passive role, only showing that Bono wit once, when Dr. Lewis Friedman, a retired dentist who received 27 votes for mayor, begins shouting about decadence in Palm Springs. “I went into the plaza and held up a $100 bill,” Friedman says, “and I said, ‘I’d like to have marijuana, smack and cocaine.’ Within 10 minutes, I could get it.”

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“You must have had a nice night,” the mayor quips.

Bono had told me that he expected to zip through the agenda. But soon we are bogged down in The Battle to Save Louise’s Pantry.

What Bono thought would be simple--changing some old buildings to create the Plaza de Las Flores downtown--has brought out a cast of characters familiar to development-battle devotees in any American city. We begin with the bureaucrats talking about “the need to rehabilitate Louise’s Pantry to bring it into conformity with the Plaza de Las Flores project . . . space for ingress and egress. . . .” etc.

Then Friedman ups the emotional level: “Louise’s Pantry is a landmark! I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who are coming here from all over for Louise’s Pantry.”

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A local attorney accuses a council member of conflict of interest and says, “The taking of Louise’s Pantry is not necessary.”

A Beverly Hills attorney goes into his summation: “I submit to you that if you place a trash receptacle out in front you have taken over property!”

The frustrated developer gets up and says, “I listened to people in the audience sneer at something I was trying to do for this town.”

After an hour and a half, Bono calls for a vote on the Louise’s Pantry issue. It is unanimous: Table it.

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AT 7 THE NEXT MORNING, I rush downtown to have breakfast at Louise’s Pantry. The sign on the window--"All Goods Baked on Premises"--is inviting, but the restaurant is closed for the summer. I peer in the window. It is a nondescript ‘50s booth-and-counter place. Not jazzed up to be trendy, not tres elegant like the pompous Maxim’s de Paris down the street, not hit-you-over-the-head mission quaint--"La Cocina de Luisa.” It’s the kind of perfectly ordinary-looking place that no one thinks “the tourists” (whoever they are) want.

As a tourist, I have to find someplace else for breakfast and, true to form, my thoughts turn to that fake waterfall at Rancho Mirage, the sign of the Ritz-Carlton. Travel always sensitizes you to the contradictions, and during this drought year I was struck by the headline in the local paper that morning: “In Desert, Water Supply Still Plentiful.”

Coachella Valley water is pumped from wells replenished periodically by water from the Colorado River (courtesy of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California). But it still seems weird that while water is being rationed in San Francisco, the desert golf courses are green, 7,000 pools in Palm Springs are full, the Oasis Water Park is jumping, and the waterfall fountain outside the new Rancho Mirage Ritz-Carlton is flowing.

As I drive toward the aptly named Rancho Mirage, a town with an $11-million budget reserve, I think about Mayor Sonny Bono coping with a $2.3-million deficit. The opening of the Ritz-Carlton this past year gave Rancho Mirage a shot in the arm by increasing its hotel tax revenues.

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At the waterfall, I turn up a pristine desert canyon road that leads to the Ritz. De Anza was startled by a hot spring; I’m stunned when I see sprinklers going in the desert along the roadside. Inside the hotel, I gaze at dark wooden walls, marble floors, opulent crystal chandeliers and giant gilt-framed oils that depict scenes of 18th-Century French country life. At breakfast, if you ask for a patio table, you can see it out there beyond the pool--the vast beautiful expanse of American desert, as different from this antique French movie set as you can get.

This is the kind of contradiction that doesn’t worry Sonny Bono. He understands that even as people in Los Angeles are rushing to outbid each other for art of the Southwest, even as people in New York are flocking to restaurants with names such as Arizona and paying a fortune for Indian frybread, we must have Versailles or Saint-Tropez in the desert. In some perverse calculation, we have come to equate luxury with what doesn’t belong.

MY LAST NIGHT IN Palm Springs, I decide to cash in my chip for a free margarita at the hotel bar, hoping to find someone who wasn’t part of a publicist-arranged view of Palm Springs. This being the off-season, the bar is packed with locals. One of Palm Springs’ fleet of lounge singers--a man who in a crueler world might have been Sonny Bono--begins singing,"Guan-tan-e-mer-a, chi-kong chi-kong . . . .” The Lakers are finishing off the Pistons on TV.

A man who describes himself as a Moose (or was it an Elk or an Oddfellow?) sidles up to me and whispers in my ear, “I’m for Detroit because they’ve got a white guy.”

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The Moose is at the bar with two pals for a boys’ night out. He’s a retiree who cannot afford to live in the lavish compounds “down valley.” He says he voted for Bono because Bono is “anti-Establishment.” The Moose may not be typical or even accurate, but he is too bombed to be a booster.

“The Indians are all millionaires here,” he says. (It is true that some Indians cut a deal and own the land in a patchwork pattern downtown. But others are on welfare.) And voicing another complaint: “This is the last straight bar north of town. A hundred thousand gays moved in, mostly down valley from here.” He wants those big-city revenues to maintain services--but not those big-city people. In a crude way, his political position amounts to this: I’m for Sonny Bono because he’s a new straight white guy.

But his estimate of the number of gays invading his world would be half the valley’s population in season. Since he also claimed to have once found 30 coyotes outside his door I concluded that his calculator was as soaked in gin as he was.

Like Little Red Riding Hood taking a break from the wolves to visit grandma, I spent my last hours in Palm Springs with Elizabeth Kieley, a winner of the Riverside County Historian of the Year Award. She was born in Palm Springs in 1922. Her grandparents had come here to start a respiratory “sanatorium.” Her father built the Desert Inn, one of the landmark resorts that brought Hollywood to the desert. “We had 200 employees for 200 guests at the hotel,” she recalls. “I remember seeing Shirley Temple and Constance Bennett and Gilbert Roland with Dolores Del Rio. But I was never allowed to talk to the guests or bother them.”

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Kieley can remember life in the desert before TV, before radio, before air conditioning. She describes Sunday afternoons at the hotel so quiet that the sound of ice cream being hand-cranked would echo across the sleepy town and draw out the Indians from the reservation.

“My grandfather came here because it was simple, primitive living, but my family changed the town as much as any,” Kieley says. “My father always told me that to be successful in business you have to promote it.” That’s why she understands the ascendancy of Sonny Bono even though she didn’t vote for him.

Kieley would not like to see Palm Springs become another Rancho Mirage. She doesn’t take kindly to the celebrity street names there. She remembers when Tamarisk was renamed Frank Sinatra Drive and Rio Del Sol was renamed Bob Hope Drive. “People are just enthralled with celebrity,” she says. “It’s like the Roman days. We want to be constantly entertained.”

Of course, Kieley, like most Palm Springs voters, supported a celebrity named Ronald Reagan for President. The funny thing about celebrities and politics, as any Jane Fonda supporter will tell you, is how you hate the idea until a celebrity voices your politics.

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Besides seeing the celebrity population in Palm Springs change from John Wayne and Rita Hayworth to Trini Lopez and Tammy Faye Bakker, Kieley has witnessed the effect of the airplane. “In the old days, people stayed here two and three months. Now the young professionals don’t have the time. There’s a jet style of living.”

To get someone to jet in for the weekend you need a film festival, a vintage auto race and other events Mayor Bono is trying to organize. These are not Elizabeth Kieley’s idea of a good time. “Seeing the vast space that’s undeveloped--that’s the attraction of the desert.”

I ask her if she remembers the original baths and tell her how I tried to find them at the Spa Hotel.

“Oh, we used to call that the Indian Bath House,” Kieley tells me. ‘But that wasn’t where the actual spring was.”

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“You mean the spring that Palm Springs is named after?” I ask.

“Yes, the actual spring was several feet away. They built the road to the airport over the original hot spring. But the road kept collapsing in on it. They had to bring in all kinds of engineers. . . .”

Soon I was driving over that spring, hurrying down the road called Tahquitz-McCallum to catch the next jet out of town. McCallum was the first white man to stay and develop land in Palm Springs; Tahquitz is the Indian spirit who feeds on human flesh.

Someday, I’ll come back to Palm Springs, where hope springs eternal for Sonny Bono, for big developers, for little merchants, and, even, for the many who come to prepare their spirits to depart this earth. I want to sit still and look at the desert. I want to eat at Louise’s Pantry. I want to stare at the mountains turning colors at sunset.

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I’d sure love to be there when that spring gushes through the concrete to make its comeback.

Perhaps by the time I return, the road to the airport will be called Sonny Bono Lane. But Bono maintains that he’s achieved enough. “Tomorrow I could go to an island and take Mary and the baby and make sandals and pasta and be just as happy,” he says. “It’s not real important that I be President or mayor. But when Sonny and Cher ended, it was like I had to get back in the race and cross the tape once more.”

President Sonny Bono? It’s got a real good beat.


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