Photo: BaltoBoy Steve
Bette Knows Best
BY BYRON BECK
For the past 20 years, I’ve immersed myself in the cult of Bette Midler. I’ve bought her albums. I’ve gone to her shows. I’ve even sat through every movie she’s ever made.
And now, with her latest concert tour, “Kiss My Brass,” about to hit town, I had hoped to finally speak to my gal pal. Trouble is, like most icons these days, Bette is doing very little press.
To find out her opinion about life on the road and other queer things, I just crawled up into the attic and dusted off my copy of a book Bette wrote way back in 1980. At age 17, I bought my beloved copy of A View from a Broad (Simon & Schuster, 150 pages) in a Kennewick, Wash., bookstore, then poring over its pages like it was a pop-culture version of the Koran. I even had the cover laminated to protect it.
Re-reading her words years later, I recognize her thoughts have become my thoughts, her memories intertwined with mine.
The fact is, Bette Midler and her book had a bigger role in shaping the queer I’ve become than I’d ever realized. Through her own messy examples of over-the-topness–her outrageous mouth paired with even more outrageous style–I summoned up the raw courage to take more risks and be more risqué. Without her as my cultural icon, I’m sure I wouldn’t have flipped the f-word as much. Hell, at the age of 19, I might not have had the balls to kiss my first guy.
Back then Midler confessed to a codependent relationship with her audience–only fueled by the rabid nature of her queer fan base. In her book, she wrote that she was flattered and troubled by her most ardent fans, yet she couldn’t help but embrace them because they gave her meaning.
Fact was, she gave us meaning, too. By opening the door, as she put it in a recent Advocate interview, “to tasteless singers with big tits,” she let my entire gay generation be tasteless and tacky.
Midler wrote in 1980 about what a great job she’d had playing the gay bathhouses at the start of her career. Perhaps what’s most telling–considering that the book was published before a whole generation stepped out of the closet and into pop culture, before the advent of the backlash of the AIDS era–is this comment: “Ironically, I was freed from fear by people who, at the time, were ruled by fear,” Midler writes. “And for that I will always be grateful.”
But that reveling also led to revulsion–or, at the very least, reinvention. Midler’s gratitude was replaced by other priorities. As a working woman for the past two decades, the singer had focused on a movie career, marriage and motherhood, distancing herself from her Bathhouse Betty days.
It’s funny, though, how things come around if you stay with it long enough.
Now that her version of gay camp is everywhere, the 57-year-old singer is ready to reclaim her roots. Her most recent album–covers of Rosemary Clooney standards–reunites her with her bathhouse buddy, Barry Manilow. And for this tour, she’s even updated her favorite foul-mouthed characters, like Delore De Lago and Soph.
The younger generation has no idea what’s about to hit them when Bette brings her show to town. But as the Divine Miss M always likes to say, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.