On The Road: Divine To Denver

Sass and ‘Brass’
Midler serves up tour extravaganza for the entertainment-starved
By Mark Brown, Rocky Mountain News
January 30, 2004

Bette Midler can’t be 100 percent certain what’s causing fans on her tour to go insane when she hits the stage.

But she has some suspects – including but not limited to Joe Millionaire, fast food, Britney Spears, Fear Factor, Jessica Simpson and more.

It’s all down to “the fact that I’m a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being. I think people really miss that,” Midler says. “In the last few years, they’ve really missed that. People rush the stage. I can’t get over it. It’s so bizarre. The people have always been wonderful and they’ve always been grand, but this is really odd – like they forgot this could happen.”

Indeed, it’s like the sensation music fans experience when Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young or Bob Dylan hits the stage – that sort of “Oh, yeah” when you come across something real.

Midler, who brings her “Kiss My Brass” tour to the Pepsi Center on Saturday night, made the show reflect herself – big and bawdy and unafraid, laced with wit, humor and sass.

There’s enough garbage out there already, she figures.

“You have to fight against it. It really is insidious. You think, ‘Oh, this is what TV is.’ You think Jerry Springer and all those people slashing at each other is real. It’s not real. That’s not real life. It’s a rising tide of mediocrity,” Midler says.

“And you get so used to it you think that this is just the way it is. I’m not saying I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. But kids don’t really have a sense of what’s good. The stuff they think is good, from our point of view, is unskilled and trashy.”

Wait – the Divine Miss M is just getting warmed up.

Fighting against junk

“I don’t think there’s any way they can learn what great stuff is because they never get the chance to see it. Their lives are consumed with (junk). The whole thing is junk. There’s not one part of American life that has not turned to junk. Not one part. Every bit of it. The food is junk. The music is junk. Theater is junk. TV is junk. The movies are, for the most part, junk. It’s a junk culture.”

Yeow. Harsh words, but few are as qualified to make this pronouncement as Midler, who has made commercially and critically acclaimed forays into just about every arena – music, live shows, television, Broadway, movies and more. She has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Woody Allen, Nicole Kidman to Mick Jagger. She has Grammys, Emmys, People’s Choice Awards, Golden Globes, a Tony, you name it. She lacks only an Oscar – but has been nominated twice.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it sounds like sour grapes. I don’t mean for it to be sour grapes. But I turn the television on and, for the most part, so much of it is garbage. It’s incessant. Even the news is garbage,” Midler says.

“When you watch the news you used to get the news. So much of it is not news. Michael Jackson, yes, he did this or didn’t do it. But it’s not more important than what happened in Iraq. It simply isn’t. And this Laci, this guy who did or didn’t kill his wife – this is not news.”

And it drives her nuts.

“When I saw Dr. Phil on the news touting his book, I said this is the . . . last straw. Dr. Phil on CNN, whose book is published by Time/Warner – this is sick. And there’s nobody minding the store. Those people at the FCC . . . they really don’t care. They have completely sold out. This whole country is up for sale.”

She pauses.

“Now I’m losing my voice and getting panic-stricken. But it’s awful, it’s just plain awful,” Midler says. “I see people starving for entertainment.”

Thus the rapturous response on her latest tour – the biggest extravaganza she’s ever launched, and this is a woman who knows extravaganza.

She’s home in New York and conducting business at a time when most people are getting ready for bed.

“Such is my new schedule. I don’t go to bed till 4,” she says.

Some artists use a visual spectacle in a desperate attempt to give the show some substance. Others – U2, Peter Gabriel, Midler – can use it to complement the music.

“I think that’s what everybody has to learn. The kids doing the show where nothing makes any sense, it’s only because they don’t know any better. Eventually someone will tell them it’s all supposed to go together,” she says.

“I tried to make the whole thing a unit – a first act, a second act, with a little bit of a point of view, so things flow from one section to another. It’s the same performer, but the performer gets to show different aspects of this life or that life. I don’t wanna go to a show where nothing makes any sense. I love ideas and the way ideas are developed and come to their own natural conclusion and fall away.

“Lots of times you go to shows and they don’t have any pacing and they don’t make any sense. An artist is really supposed to move you – even the lowest form of art. I’m not saying my art is the lowest form, but it’s not far from the bottom!” Midler laughs.

“Even so, we do struggle to have people be moved. And moving people is not just making them cry. It’s making them laugh and having them come out of the auditorium wearing a different face – changing them, transforming them, even if it lasts for just a week. Hitting that is fantastic. And the fact that you try makes them really appreciate it.”

Midler, Manilow and Clooney

Her latest album, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, finds her visiting the tunes that made Clooney famous – This Ole House, Hey There, Come On-A My House and more.

The Clooney project brought her back together with Barry Manilow, her collaborator from her early bathhouse days in the early ’70s in New York City that launched both of their careers.

“We hadn’t seen each other for a long time. We had a falling out – when was it? – in the late ’90s, I think, over the Roseanne show. Don’t get me started,” Midler says.

“Anyway, we had a bit of a falling out. I adore him, but sometimes I irritate him and of course he irritates me. But I love him. We’re like brother and sister. We started our careers together. We had major hijinks when we were kids. We were on the road for years together.”

But there was silence of late until Manilow called and proposed the project.

“When he said he wanted to do this record, I was a little (apprehensive). I really wanted to be back in the studio with him and I really wanted to be his friend again. I wanted that more than anything. For him, I would have sung anybody’s songbook, but fortunately it turned out to be Rosemary,” Midler says.

“She is someone I’ve admired and really actually adored. I genuinely liked her. I met her, spent some time with her. I had a great deal of respect for her and her talent.”

She also had a great deal of fear of being able to handle the challenging material.

“Barry said, ‘I’m gonna tweak these arrangements so they’re a little more contemporary. I promise you it’ll be fine.’ When he says these things, I take him at his word. I’m very territorial about my music. This time I wasn’t that way at all. I’ll just be the singer, and it was great,” Midler says. “It was just wonderful. It was just a week out of my life, and it’s a good album.”

In the studio, Manilow knows exactly what he wants “and he won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s a waste of time to fight about it, which is my usual operandi,” she says.

And it worked. This Ole House was given a bluegrass arrangement that completely changes the song.

“That was Barry’s arrangement. I really think it’s one of the best versions of that song ever recorded. We don’t sing it live. Live, it just doesn’t happen. But on the record it has a mesmerizing quality to it. It’s sort of a nod to T Bone Burnett, the stuff that they did in O Brother Where Art Thou?” Midler says.

Onstage, fans are going to find her bigger and brassier than ever, with elaborate staging and old favorites mixed with new stuff. Some of the routines she considered dropping, figuring she’d done them enough.

“Old is not the word. Difficult, maybe. It’s hard to find those jokes and it’s hard to roll around in a fish tail. It’s not that it’s not fun, but it’s hard. Those costume changes are hard. Even in your own house, you get to the point where you wish you didn’t have so much stuff. Life would be so much easier if I was living like a Japanese monk.”

Still, she says, the show is “so pretty, and people who are visually oriented are thrilled by it. I think it’s great. I set out to do something beautiful and I did.

“We do a little interlude, a little Rosemary tribute. We have a few of them. The show is really not set in stone. It’s flexible; I have a lot of things programmed in the lighting where if I feel like singing them, I can sing them,” she says. “The Rosemary section varies every night.”

But most of it is just classic Midler. Expexxx/xxxct your Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Wind Beneath My Wings, The Rose and other signature songs, along with the sharp commentary Midler always delivers.

“My people really wanna laugh. They wanna laugh in a room full of other people. They don’t wanna laugh alone. They want that communal experience.”

But they want to laugh at witty things – not the guy falling into the Port-A-Potty.

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes,” Midler sighs.

“Maybe at this stage in people’s lives they get to the point where they think, ‘Oh, there’s no hope.’ But there’s always hope,” she says.

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