“…I am the gift.”

Bette Midler mellows – just in time for Christmas
Fresh from her $150m Las Vegas gig, Bette Midler talks to Helen Brown about her album of festive standards .
By Helen Brown 9:00AM GMT 25 Nov 2010

Most of the big Broadway and Hollywood musical numbers written between 1920 and 1960 have nothing to do with Christmas. So it was probably Bing Crosby’s Christmas Specials that forever yoked the vintage sounds of the American songbook to the festive season. Now every year, another maturing artist releases their own interpretation, in which the classic songs of Kern, Porter, Gershwin and Berlin are wrapped up in arrangements designed to make them glow like chestnuts on an open fire.

Unfortunately, not every aging pop singer has the skills required to do the smooth ole material justice – Rod Stewart may have sold a sleighload of his songbook CDs, but he seems insincere dressed up as Santa.

Bette Midler, on the other hand, has the perfect voice for the seasonal standards: that bittersweet blend of good cheer and melancholy, tackiness and timelessness. Her new collection, Memories of You, invites you to snuggle up to it. If it wasn’t for the rich, brandy marinade of the orchestral arrangements, you could imagine she was singing to herself in the kitchen as she baked mince pies, wiping away the odd tear.

Part of the reason Bette makes it work is that she has her roots in the songbook era. Her mother named her after Bette Davis (not knowing that the film star pronounced her name “Bett-ee”) and within minutes of our meeting for a cosy cream tea in London, Midler is telling me about her links with the golden age – about a friend who used to work for Ira Gershwin and a collaborator who arranged material for Sinatra. Bundled up in a big, brown corduroy coat and sheepskin boots, she pops half a scone into her mouth and makes an eye-rolling, lip-biting, eyebrow-arching “Mmmm”.

This is a rare moment of high camp for today, though. The 64”‘year-old singer I meet is not the brash’n’brassy star of all those Eighties movies. And she’s come a long way from the bawdy “Bathhouse Bette” persona she developed while performing with Barry Manilow for the gay crowd in low-slung towels at the Continental Baths in New York in the Seventies. At times, as she talks, the self-styled “Divine Miss M” seems to regret having been quite so consistently “energetic and over the top”. These days, she seems mellower, less in your face. She recently quipped that there’s less of a wind beneath her wings these days than a zephyr.

In the liner notes to Memories, she described the songs as “lovely, graceful, and in retrospect, compact little poems of a time when music had simpler, but very sincere expressions, of emotion and love. There wasn’t a lot of irony going on; no one had the time or the money.” Midler has witnessed the money drying up again first hand. In January, she finished a two-year run in Las Vegas, for which she was paid a reported $150”‰million. “The first 18 months were fantastic. Then there was the economic catastrophe and the last six months were a struggle,” she says.

“There was so much foreclosure, people were really scared. We saw the infrastructure begin to wobble. Las Vegas was ground zero for the recession. I was living in the hotel and I remember one day I ordered room service, and the girl came and she looked so exhausted. I asked what was wrong and she said she was having to look after all the guests – they’d let everyone else go. And that’s when you start to question yourself – what am I doing here? Am I contributing to this?” She did have 20 high kicking showgirls and a massive set dripping with boas and sequins. It must like performing on the Titanic. “Yes. It kind of was,” she nods.

With the bottom dropping out of the showbiz spectacular market, Midler is finding herself drawn back to the bare bones of a good song. She has just finished reading Keith Richards’s autobiography, she tells me, and has been invigorated by his undimmed passion for rock’n’roll. “It’s inspiring,” she nods, “it’s the way you used to feel about music. How obsessed you were with it, and how you got caught up in it… before things happen to you and you lose your focus and it goes away. I love the way he writes about looking for a sound, not a chord or a melody”¦ a sound.” As she talks, I’m surprised to realise that the songwriters she’s most enthusiastic about are not the golden agers, but the baby boomers. She loves Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. And sighs over Tom Waits, with whom she recorded the delectable, bar room ballad I Never Talk to Strangers in 1977. Back then, she recalls, Waits “lived in two feet of squalor at the Tropicana motel in LA. He had a piano with several keys missing. But he always knew where to find an old pizza box and a song.”

Midler admires artists who “found their sound early and stuck to it. Part of my problem was that I never settled. I mean, I started out as a folk singer in Hawaii, as part of a trio of girls, and I loved it all so much – it was all a matter of trying on different costumes. Always searching. I think I wasted a little more time than I should have.” She sips her tea. “But I guess it balances out – I mean, who has more fun? I enjoyed experimenting. I had a lot of fun.”

Talking of experiments, I had read that in the early Seventies she popped a marijuana joint under each seat at one of her concerts. Is this true? “Be careful of what you read on the internet,” she snaps, “no, it’s not true. We wanted to do it, but we never did. So if you want to do it, go ahead, you can be the first.”

There’s an awkward pause as I adjust to the diva who has suddenly popped out of the cuddly lady, like a genie from a corduroy lamp. I try to feed the diva a question she can have a bit of fun with. So if you wanted to give your audience members a spliff each in the Seventies, what little gift would you like to leave on every seat for the punters of 2010? I’m expecting her to say a cupcake, a tiara or a whoopee cushion. Instead she sniffs, “Nothing. No joints, no pills, no syringes, no nothing. I am the gift.”

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