The A.V. Club
With The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler went from bathhouses to The Tonight Show
Midler’s almost-forgotten debut album is a classic of the ’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 show’s history: Bette Midler, softly speak-singing the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer favorite “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” 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 ’70s. She was even briefly the opener for Carson’s Las Vegas stand-up act. That night in 1992, they looked like old friends and even older showbiz pros–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 Sondheim’s song “I’m Still Here,” an aging star sings, “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.” 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 York’s gay community, which responded to her bawdy humor and her big voice. While audiences around the country were getting a proxy version of ’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-happy–in the era of Grease, Sha Na Na, Happy Days, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Manhattan Transfer–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 “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” But flattened out for television, Midler’s shtick came off as more straight-faced: good-time music for a generation that felt alienated by rock ’n’ roll.
All of which makes Midler’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 “Friends” (a Midler staple), and in the tongue-in-cheek covers of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Leader Of The Pack.” 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 ’70s, she had recorded covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan (“I Shall Be Released,” “Buckets Of Rain”), Tom Waits (“I Never Talk To Strangers,” “Shiver Me Timbers”), and Neil Young (“Birds”). She had also played a fictional version of Janis Joplin in the movie The Rose, in which she sang Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” and Sammy Hagar’s “Keep On Rockin’.” On The Divine Miss M, she mades John Prine’s tearjerking ballad “Hello In There” sound like a ’70s update of a Depression-era standard, and she gave Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett’s AM Gold classic “Superstar” a cinematic treatment to rival Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland.”
Atlantic Records didn’t sign Midler to make a cult record. They gave her the resources to churn out an eclectic, well-rounded ’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 McCormack’s 1972 Rolling Stone cover story “The Gold LamÃ© Dream Of Bette Midler,” Atlantic president Ahmet ErtegÃ¼n is quoted as saying that the label considered recording Midler’s Continental act, but that the star balked. (“She didn’t want to be known only as ”˜That girl who sings at the Turkish baths.’”) So instead they produced an LP that stays connected to Midler’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 Guide’s four-star Divine Miss M review, editor Dave Marsh writes, “As a Seventies answer to Barbra Streisand, she was perfect,” and adds, “This is the album that created nostalgia as we currently know it.” Of her later records, Marsh says, “Bette wilted in the spotlight, and little that she has come up with since is sufficient to explain her rabid cult.”
In Robert Christgau’s A- review of The Divine Miss M, he talks up her live act, saying, “People who’ve seen her like this record more than people who haven’t, which isn’t good. But as someone who’s been entranced by her show many times I’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.” Yet in his reviews of the subsequent work, Christgau takes shots at her following (“This record is perilously close to the ostrich nostalgia of her dumbest fans.”), her choice of covers (“Is the redemption of Billy Joel fit work for a culture heroine?”), and her aesthetic (“What makes it not good enough is the curse of Broadway rock and roll–the beat is conceived as decoration or signal rather than the meaning of life, or even music.”).
How Midler went from transcending schmaltz to embodying it–at least in some critics’ eyes–may have a lot to do with the perception of her original intentions, and with the intelligentsia’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 ”˜Z’/My Name Is Barbra-like TV specials, some wondered if they’d been suckered. (It didn’t help that Manilow’s subsequent career represented for many ’70s critics the nadir of what Stephen Holden in The Rolling Stone Record Guide would call “flavorless housewife hits.”)
Frankly, the major rock writers of the ’70s didn’t always acquit themselves well when they dealt with music that was gay-friendly–not when they were routinely tossing around adjectives like “fey” and “fruity” to describe music they found insufficiently rollicking. The political and social progressiveness of rock criticism’s first wave sometimes clashed with a disdain for the repetitiveness of disco, or the theatrical flamboyance of glam-rock.
Even in McCormack’s largely glowing Rolling Stone write-up of Midler’s early career, the author (a close friend of Lou Reed’s, and no stranger to the demimonde) couldn’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 Burroughs’ 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 Midler’s later career remained steadfast in their praise of The Divine Miss M. (The fourth edition of Rolling Stone’s record guide, from 2004, still has it as a four-star album, with writer Mark Coleman saying that its “shameless delights”¦ will melt even the sternest objections to cabaret music.”) And they’re not wrong about the Midler albums that followed being inferior–though that’s largely because The Divine Miss M is so special.
The great trick of Midler’s debut LP is that it spins so merrily and freely through American popular music, seeing no real difference between the faux-blaxploitation of “Daytime Hustler” and the bubbly adult contemporary pop of “Friends.” 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 “Do You Want To Dance?” into sultry, Carole King-inspired mellow-out music, and then following that with the resounding, full-on Phil Spector homage “Chapel Of Love.” On side two, the producers and arrangers get even more ambitious, with the overtly retro “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (filtered to sound like an actual product of the ’40s), the wiggy version of “Leader Of The Pack” (complete with a dramatic middle portion that Tina Turner and Meat Loaf alike would envy), and a drawn-out, show-stopping “Delta Dawn.” This is not the Bette Midler of “Wind Beneath My Wings”–although this Midler probably could’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 ’70s: “Bathhouse Betty,” 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, she’d sometimes treat her life story as an off-color joke–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 Midler’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 “bent” begins to seem square.