BetteBack August 27, 1973: The Divine – Worship and Blasphemy

The Washington Post
August 27, 1973


Bette Midler defeated another audience Saturday night, when she played to 10,000 cheering people at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. It was nip-and-tuck there for awhile but, when the cheering stopped, Miss Midler had won. She slew ’em again.

“Miss M in kickback country” she proclaimed soon after parading on stage in a splashy satin dress with a heart cut out at midrange. As usual her costumes were preposterous – “trash with flash,” she like to say of her entire aura – but as usual, too, many of the audience tried to outdo her, both in outrageous apparel and in capturing attention.

In addition to the decent, law-abiding suburbanites who turned out to see this little (five foot one) rust-haired wonder, the traditional contingent of transvestites, dandies and other flaming creatures had made its way to the show and was determined to be part of it. There were pounds of sequins and spangles, including one person in sparkling roller skates, and there were shouts and shrieks and beaucoup whooping.

Amazingly, Miss Midler is never overcome by this sort of hysteria, even when it becomes cruel or obscene, as it occasionally did Saturday night. Her attitude toward her worshipers – and those who have apparently come to share the spotlight – is one of detached suspicion and motherly command.

When people shout out to often, she simply tells them, “Shut up.” To the inevitable cry “I love you” from one fan, she replies with false conceit, “Naturally.” And to end her spoken preface to one song, she told the crowd, “I hope you like it; and if you don’t, the hell with you.”

This may mystify those who are new to Miss Midler’s concerts, but the loyalists obviously thrive. Besides, this tacky goddess can clearly do no wrong. That the second act begins with the poppy song from “The Wizard of Oz” is purely appropriate; a Midler concert remains one of Glinda the Good arriving in a Hollywood bubble to thrill the milling Munchkins.

As for Midler’s show – and it still is – this tootsie puts on the toughest, the funniest, the most rollicking, the most honest, the flashiest and somehow the most honest performance of perhaps any living popular entertainer. And she sings, despite bouts of hoarseness during ballads, like mad.

She separates the numbers with nasty patter that often includes catty ridicule of other female singers. Her target used to be Karen Carpenter. Saturday, it was Helen Reddy, whose new hot single, “Delta Dawn“, is a number Miss Midler included, in a far superior interpretation, on her first album, “The Divine Miss M.”

Accompanied by her three insouciant Harlettes and with Barry Manilow leading a small combo from his piano, Miss Midler added a few new numbers to her usual repertoire of 40’s camp and early 60’s rock. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” with tender eloquence and did “Surabaya-Johnny” (from Brecht and Weill’s “Happy End”) that might have had Lotte Lenya jealous.

This was Midler’s second Washington appearance (her first in March, was at the Kennedy Center). Her local concerts, welcome as they are, don’t quit measure up to her stellar New York events, usually played with a bigger orchestra and a less self-obsessed audience.

The crowd was not all that gave out bad vibrations Saturday. The Post Pavilion has been under pressure from the Howard County state attorney’s office to keep rock audiences under control and as a result, about 40 security police, according to a pavilion spokesman, augmented a squad of about 35 ushers to harass anyone who had dared to venture from his seat.

A reporter entering the pavilion and standing with a companion against the back railing 15 minutes before show time was told angrily by a guard that he must take his seat at once. Asked for identification or the name of his employer (he wore no badge or insignia), the guard refused.

He followed the reporter to his seat and continued to intimidate him when he paused to talk with friends.

A pavilion spokesman said, “well, they’re a little uptight.” He said the local fire marshal had complained of concert goers blocking aisles, but the house lights were still up and the show had not yet begun.

Miss Midler may return to Washington next month for three performances at indoor halls more conducive to audience exuberance, but plans at this point are sketchy. A deal calling for five midnight shows at the Kennedy Center has fallen through. She finished cutting her new album, “Bette Midler,” this week in New York. It will be out soon.

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