The A.V. Club
With The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler went from bathhouses to The Tonight Show
Midlerâ€™s almost-forgotten debut album is a classic of the â€™70s nostalgia/camp boom.
By Noel Murray Apr 28, 2015 12:00 AM
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On May 21, 1992, NBC aired the penultimate episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which included one of the most memorable images in the showâ€™s history: Bette Midler, softly speak-singing the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer favorite â€œOne For My Baby (And One More For The Road),â€ while the camera catches an enraptured Carson watching from his desk. Carson and Midler had history. She was a frequent guest over the previous 20 years, since first appearing on the New York City incarnation of the Carson Tonight Show in the early â€™70s. She was even briefly the opener for Carsonâ€™s Las Vegas stand-up act. That night in 1992, they looked like old friends and even older showbiz prosâ€”representatives of a fading era.
Back in 1970 though, it was a quietly subversive move for Carson to book Midler, who was becoming a rising star in New York by performing regularly in a gay bathhouse.
In Stephen Sondheimâ€™s song â€œIâ€™m Still Here,â€ an aging star sings, â€œFirst youâ€™re another sloe-eyed vamp / Then someoneâ€™s mother, then youâ€™re camp.â€ Bette Midler took that trip in reverse. She moved to New York City from her home state of Hawaii in 1965, and spent her early 20s trying to make a go of it as a Broadway baby before she landed at Continental Baths in 1970. Performing alongside whiz-kid pianist, arranger, and songwriter Barry Manilow, Midler quickly became a sensation in New Yorkâ€™s gay community, which responded to her bawdy humor and her big voice. While audiences around the country were getting a proxy version of â€™30s Berlin decadence in the musical Cabaret, gay New Yorkers were living the real thing at Continental, complete with libertine sex and their own personal Sally Bowles.
Not long after Carson legitimized Midler by putting her on TV, she began to round off some of her edges. She kept the smutty jokes, the colorful costumes, and the mix of contemporary pop and old standards, but the context started to change. As the larger culture got nostalgia-happyâ€”in the era of Grease, Sha Na Na, Happy Days, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Manhattan Transferâ€”Midler emerged as savvier and classier than her competition. She played the showbiz historian, who could talk about her act in relation to vaudeville legends like Sophie Tucker and The Andrews Sisters. Continental Baths possessed an element of avant-garde theater when Midler and her backup singers The Harlettes (choreographed by Toni Basil) sang â€œBoogie Woogie Bugle Boy.â€ But flattened out for television, Midlerâ€™s shtick came off as more straight-faced: good-time music for a generation that felt alienated by rock â€™nâ€™ roll.
All of which makes Midlerâ€™s 1972 debut album The Divine Miss M a fascinating artifact. The record gives a little taste of what the Continental show was like, via the jokey asides and the clamor of voices in the side-two opener â€œFriendsâ€ (a Midler staple), and in the tongue-in-cheek covers of â€œBoogie Woogie Bugle Boyâ€ and â€œLeader Of The Pack.â€ But beyond her wit and brassiness, Midler was beloved because she could sing the hell out of just about anything. By the end of the â€™70s, she had recorded covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan (â€œI Shall Be Released,â€ â€œBuckets Of Rainâ€), Tom Waits (â€œI Never Talk To Strangers,â€ â€œShiver Me Timbersâ€), and Neil Young (â€œBirdsâ€). She had also played a fictional version of Janis Joplin in the movie The Rose, in which she sang Bob Segerâ€™s â€œFire Down Belowâ€ and Sammy Hagarâ€™s â€œKeep On Rockinâ€™.â€ On The Divine Miss M, she mades John Prineâ€™s tearjerking ballad â€œHello In Thereâ€ sound like a â€™70s update of a Depression-era standard, and she gave Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlettâ€™s AM Gold classic â€œSuperstarâ€ a cinematic treatment to rival Bruce Springsteenâ€™s â€œJungleland.â€
Atlantic Records didnâ€™t sign Midler to make a cult record. They gave her the resources to churn out an eclectic, well-rounded â€™70s pop album, with broad, cross-cultural appeal. It could be argued that The Divine Miss M arrived too late, and missed the edgy performance artist that Midler once was. In Ed McCormackâ€™s 1972 Rolling Stone cover story â€œThe Gold LamÃ© Dream Of Bette Midler,â€ Atlantic president Ahmet ErtegÃ¼n is quoted as saying that the label considered recording Midlerâ€™s Continental act, but that the star balked. (â€œShe didnâ€™t want to be known only as â€˜That girl who sings at the Turkish baths.â€™â€) So instead they produced an LP that stays connected to Midlerâ€™s roots while creating the template for the safer albums to come.
The Divine Miss M was a critical success, to a degree that some of its early champions later seemed to regret, after Midler became more popular and less weird. Under the first Rolling Stone Record Guideâ€™s four-star Divine Miss M review, editor Dave Marsh writes, â€œAs a Seventies answer to Barbra Streisand, she was perfect,â€ and adds, â€œThis is the album that created nostalgia as we currently know it.â€ Of her later records, Marsh says, â€œBette wilted in the spotlight, and little that she has come up with since is sufficient to explain her rabid cult.â€
In Robert Christgauâ€™s A- review of The Divine Miss M, he talks up her live act, saying, â€œPeople whoâ€™ve seen her like this record more than people who havenâ€™t, which isnâ€™t good. But as someone whoâ€™s been entranced by her show many times Iâ€™m grateful for a production that suggests its nutty quality without distracting from her voice, a rich instrument of surprising precision, simultaneously delicate and vulgar.â€ Yet in his reviews of the subsequent work, Christgau takes shots at her following (â€œThis record is perilously close to the ostrich nostalgia of her dumbest fans.â€), her choice of covers (â€œIs the redemption of Billy Joel fit work for a culture heroine?â€), and her aesthetic (â€œWhat makes it not good enough is the curse of Broadway rock and rollâ€”the beat is conceived as decoration or signal rather than the meaning of life, or even music.â€).
How Midler went from transcending schmaltz to embodying itâ€”at least in some criticsâ€™ eyesâ€”may have a lot to do with the perception of her original intentions, and with the intelligentsiaâ€™s level of comfort with razzmatazz. When it looked like Midler and Manilow were conspiring on a send-up of a Liza Minnelli/Barbra Streisand-style revue, hip critics were delighted. But when Midler was starring in her own Liza With A â€˜Zâ€™/My Name Is Barbra-like TV specials, some wondered if theyâ€™d been suckered. (It didnâ€™t help that Manilowâ€™s subsequent career represented for many â€™70s critics the nadir of what Stephen Holden in The Rolling Stone Record Guide would call â€œflavorless housewife hits.â€)
Frankly, the major rock writers of the â€™70s didnâ€™t always acquit themselves well when they dealt with music that was gay-friendlyâ€”not when they were routinely tossing around adjectives like â€œfeyâ€ and â€œfruityâ€ to describe music they found insufficiently rollicking. The political and social progressiveness of rock criticismâ€™s first wave sometimes clashed with a disdain for the repetitiveness of disco, or the theatrical flamboyance of glam-rock.
Even in McCormackâ€™s largely glowing Rolling Stone write-up of Midlerâ€™s early career, the author (a close friend of Lou Reedâ€™s, and no stranger to the demimonde) couldnâ€™t resist playing up the lurid quality of Continental Baths:
The hunkering, buggering manmeat herds were packed into the subterranean lounge like cattle in a boxcar, waiting for Bette Midler to make her triumphant return to The Tubs. There were a surprising number of fully clothed heterosexual couples as well, who had come to witness a Fellini fantasy in the flesh. They were not disappointed. Out on the dance floor, barely toweled young men enacted a rock & roll ritual, dancing like maidens in some primitive puberty rite, while tribal elders overflowed chaises around the pool. It reminded you of a scene out of William Burroughsâ€™ novel The Wild Boys, in which wild boypacks raised in a womanless society run amok and lay waste to the remnants of Western Civilization.
To be fair, even those who looked askance at Midlerâ€™s later career remained steadfast in their praise of The Divine Miss M. (The fourth edition of Rolling Stoneâ€™s record guide, from 2004, still has it as a four-star album, with writer Mark Coleman saying that its â€œshameless delightsâ€¦ will melt even the sternest objections to cabaret music.â€) And theyâ€™re not wrong about the Midler albums that followed being inferiorâ€”though thatâ€™s largely because The Divine Miss M is so special.
The great trick of Midlerâ€™s debut LP is that it spins so merrily and freely through American popular music, seeing no real difference between the faux-blaxploitation of â€œDaytime Hustlerâ€ and the bubbly adult contemporary pop of â€œFriends.â€ Midler and her co-producers Manilow, Joel Dorn, and Geoffrey Haslam (with a last-minute finishing assist from Ertegun) made a strong statement with the opening two songs: first reworking the rock/R&B chestnut â€œDo You Want To Dance?â€ into sultry, Carole King-inspired mellow-out music, and then following that with the resounding, full-on Phil Spector homage â€œChapel Of Love.â€ On side two, the producers and arrangers get even more ambitious, with the overtly retro â€œBoogie Woogie Bugle Boyâ€ (filtered to sound like an actual product of the â€™40s), the wiggy version of â€œLeader Of The Packâ€ (complete with a dramatic middle portion that Tina Turner and Meat Loaf alike would envy), and a drawn-out, show-stopping â€œDelta Dawn.â€ This is not the Bette Midler of â€œWind Beneath My Wingsâ€â€”although this Midler probably couldâ€™ve come up with a version of that song that would drain its sap.
The question then is why Midler, always a firecracker on stage, later began to settle for blandness as a recording artist. Had she been playing a character in the early â€™70s: â€œBathhouse Betty,â€ the saucy diva? Or did she just mature in a way that made her less interesting, distancing herself more and more each year from the tradition of raunchy dames like Mae West?
Or does any of that even matter, given what Midler has represented? On The Tonight Show, bantering with Johnny, sheâ€™d sometimes treat her life story as an off-color jokeâ€”a Jew from Hawaii (ha-ha) who struck it rich by performing in a place where gay men gathered to fiddle around (ha-ha-ha). But Midlerâ€™s early success was really a triumph of American eclecticism, proving the value of a society where subcultures can intertwine, and ultimately weave so cleanly into the mainstream that before long, what was once called â€œbentâ€ begins to seem square.