March 3, 1973
The ice underfoot, thinly covered with sheets of wood, fends a damp chill to the lofty barn-like interior. Far across the floor there is a-small stage, flanked by still smaller speaker columns. A piano, a set of drums, and some boxy amplifiers topped by guitars sit at the left of the stage, and to the right is a leaning potted palm and three bar stools. Everything looks miniature, like plastic children’s toys, or like the stage setting for a schmaltiy combo in a hokey Hawaiian restaurant.
It is the Bette Midler concert in Troy.
The lights dim as a pencil-thin man in a rented tux bounds across the platform to his piano. (Does he look like the man who sings “You deserve a break today” Tor MacDonald’s? Well,he is.) The rest of the band members follow, and at the direction of the piano-maestro, they play a few bars of intro music. Three sequin-clad babes, sleazy with tight-curled hair and chewing gum, slink Into formation in front of the stools They are a come-on, hands on hips, teasing, and the audience eats it up. Amid the whistles and catcalls, a vibrant figureÂ wiggles through the blue lights to the mike.
“Wa-a-a-a-l,” her Brooklyn telephone operator’s voice whines at us, “I bet you’re wondering ‘Who is that slut on stage and who’ are those three cocktail waitresses with her?’ Honey, what you see here is Trash with Flash.” She wriggles hips in clinging black satin pajamas and gives a toss of her head. “Real GAR-BAGE. And I’m glad to see that all the GAR-BAGE in Troy turned out for it.”
Bette Midler has arrived.
THE DIVINE MISS M was born in Hawaii, in time for the era of greased pompadours and sock hops. She is the daughter of transplanted New Jersey Jews in search of Paradise. Out of place and lonely, Bette developed her .brazen flashing wit to contrast with the gentle silence of the Orientals who were her neighbors ‘and schoolmates. Later she turned that wit to cynicism, and fled to New York City to indulge her dreams of stardom.
The road was long and winding. Bette has been, at various times, a department store salesgirl, a singing waitress, ‘Tieitl,’ one of the daughters in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the phenomenal star of the homosexual mid-town resort, The Continental Baths. WoolwIt was at the latter that she perfected the -tough ‘n’tacky’ style that is now her own. Her voice and movements are a combination of a Woolworth’s checkout girl, Janis Joplln, and the inimitable stars of the song-and-dance extravaganzas of the forties. All of this suited Bette to “TheÂ Tubs,” as she dubbed The Continental Baths.
Combined with her deliberate tawdry come-on makes her the spitting image of a tough little drag queen. She dresses in lame* and toreador pants, clear plastic spike heels and flaming red lipstick. And she sings her heart out.
From “The Tubs” she hit the small clubs, a recording contract with Atlantic Records and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Viewers laugh at the Nestle’s Orange Color Capsules frizz of hair and the five-and-dime makeup, at the forties dresses slit thigh-high and the huge plasticÂ rose stuck In her considerable cleavage.
But no one laughs when Bette Midler belts out a tune. She has talent, the talent of a Judy Garland or.a Barbra Streisand; she -has a strident brassy voice in the lower bluesy ranges and a sweet, tender sound for the upper notes. And she’s all showgirl.
STRUTTING TO SHOW OFF her outfit. The Divine Miss M launches a veritable flood of insults and abuses. She imitates Laura Nyro, stretching the time to an abrupt put-down; later she cuts at Karen Carpenter with an unprintable truth. She is hip, and comically sexy, and veryÂ pathetic. The audience laughs bravely on cue, squirming a little in their seats, wondering what is real in this woman.
Then the songs begin – an incredibly fast-paced golden gasser, with Bette contorting before us like some female Joe Cocker, running the length of the platform, jumping and grinding and swinging the mike; next the sensual “Am I Blue?” that exposes the beautiful raw quality of her vocal styling and points up her knack for re-phrasing lyrics into tasty personal comments; back again with the Andrews Sisters‘ heel-clicking syncopated version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” complete with choreography and facial expressions by our star plus the Harlettes, her backup group. In between is the endless patter of quips and stories. Bette’s intimate show off shimmy, her flaunting, jeering nasalÂ voice battering us before she slips back into the music.
The tone coming across during this first half Is mixed; she is hostile yet anxious to please. We ‘wonder if she’ needs the theatricality of her act or if it is indeed part of the personality lurking under red paint and glitter.
BETTE MIDLER’S ACT requires a break. This one was lengthy and unwieldy, with the lights turned on to forestall hanky panky.
The peak that the music had brought us to was rapidly disappearing in the face of hundreds of milling people, talking, laughing, all apparently untouched by the intense depth of vocal performance we had. just witnessed.
Nobody was dancing In the aisles; nobody sang along, even to those glorious hits we all remember from our- “American Bandstand” youth.
Bette’s reappearance was almost worth he wait. She wore a slinky silver vamp dress, so tight that her steps minced as she ran from mike to piano, and an oversized rose that kept falling to the floor as she shook her shoulders. From far back where we sat, she was beautiful; maybe that’s the way she wants it – a “Delta Dawn” in he flesh. ‘
The second half was more attuned to the audience. The pace was faster, with upempo old rock songs that threatened to run away from the whole band. It is hard to re-create an oldie for a crowd that loves oldies; the original is so rooted in our pyches that any imitation seems cheap.
Bette has her moments with them, although her voice disintegrates to screams and atonal noise when she gets carried away. And the peculiar habit of her song endIngs points out her differences from usual rock concert fare: a song would end, a pause ensue for several moments, andÂ then at the urge of the applause, she would pick up the last measures again, singing them exactly as she had before, performing the same gyrations and traveling the stage in exactly the same way she had.
It was reminiscent of a rehearsed musical, perhaps the remnants of her “Fiddler on Ihe Roof” training. A rock virtuoso would have built the endings each time, changing the phrasing and speed to reach some sort of climax. Bette’s climaxes all seem the same.
Perhaps the high point “of the concert was her quick semi-strip. That binding silver skirt was ripped away to reveal black pedal pushers, and the top cut to minimal sparkling coverage. Then Bette really let loose, balanced precariously on her spike heels, tottering back and forth on the stage, leaping and flailing in limbo-like raptures, tossing her head and shaking her behind at us provocatively. It was unexpected and It released some of the tension that was building through the high-paced second half; the crowd went away pleased after her suicidally-fast “Leader of the Pack.”
Miss M is no disappointment on stage, even after reading in the gospel pages of “Rolling Stone” that a comedy-writer produces her ‘ad-libs’ and that each concert is a mimeograph copy of the next.
There is the vibrant feeling of Joplin, perhaps for the first time since Joplin’s death, but with a command of the performance that reflects the maturity of that old Fillmore East concert-going crowd.
We are ready to appreciate well-tempered blues (didn’t Diana Ross prove that to us in “Lady Sings the Blues”?) We will accept Duke Ellington and Count Basie as geniuses alongside Bob Dylan and George Harrison. We watch Fred Astaire movies on the late show and we no longer enloy sitting in mud and rain to hear our music.
So perhaps Bette Midler is teaching us a thing or two about music; perhaps she realized that no one would listen unless she caught eyes and ears a” la Alice Cooper.
Perhaps in time she will drop the Andy Warhol poses and become another TV variety show star, as she did this past week on the Burt Bacharach special.
Or pe’rhaps Bette Midler is really what she pretends to be. Camp is an overused word lhat brings to mind paintings of Campbell’s soup cans, but camp Is IUST what catches us and makes us watch those 2:30 a.m. movies with a bit of nostalgia and a bit of yearning. How fine to swingÂ across the floor on the arm of Fred Astaire, tiers of be leathered, long-legged beauties looking on, to the strains of “Shall We Dance?”
How great to live the simple, glamorous life of those forties movies, or the emotional but satisfying life of the duck-tailed fifties lyrics. Perhaps Bette Midler has found a way to do both, with style,, and reach out to us at the same time.