BetteBack December 16, 1973: Danger Sign to the Divine Miss M?

Pacific Stars And Stripes
December 16, 1973


The first time I heard Bette Midler on record I didn’t really care for her. She sounded a bit pretentious, a trifle overbaked and more than a little false. But then I saw her one night on Johnny Carson‘s show and it changed my whole opinion of her.

On that show, she wore a wonderfully tacky outfit, went through some horrendous choreography and sang “Chattanooga Choo Choo” with such enthusiasm that no one would be heartless enough to tell her the whole act was 30 years out of date.

But it was precisely that tragic sense of inappropriateness – and therefore daring – about her that made you know she was going to become a star. I made a note to myself that night to see her in person as soon as possible.

Luckily, she appeared at the Boarding House in San Francisco a few weeks later. In that engagement, she was every bit as engaging as she had been on television.

Before wild, cheering audiences at the Boarding House, the tiny (5 foot, 1 inch) fireball of energy combined all the gaudy show business exuberance of the 1940s with a steady stream of funny, exaggerated remarks (referring to herself as the “last of the tacky women . . . the divine Miss M . . . trash with flash”) and some highly stylized versions of such varied songs as “Am I Blue,” “Leader of the Pack” and “Delta Dawn.” Sensational.

Through it all, she exhibited a continuous display of energy: arms twirling, body twisting, eyebrows arching and, best of all, a wide, happy, rainbow of a smile. Both her music and manner ranged from the harshly cynical to the unabashed sentimental.

Her every move on stage was an effort to challenge her audience; an attempt to tell the audience to enjoy itself, to make it feel some emotion and step from the protective shell that engulfs so many during these troubled, isolated times.

“I’d like to think of my music as something positive,” she said in an interview back at her hotel.

“I would really like to wake up people in this country a bit and say to them that they really are alive. They’ve had a bad time of it the past 10 years. There isn’t a lot of humor around today. I’m trying to say, ‘Let’s have fun.’ Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.”

I came back to Los Angeles genuinely excited. I even began to like the album. I saw and enjoyed her at the Troubadour and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

She remained an eager, refreshing talent.

I was a bit disappointed, however, when I saw her last summer at the Universal Amphitheater.

The music had less conviction and her stage manner was less engaging. Where there once was an overwhelming desire to reach her audience emotionally, she now seemed content to simply “entertain.”

There seemed to be less of that wonderful ‘divine Miss M’ character and more of the artistic and serious Bette Midler. Her second album, I figured, would be a crucial one for her – either a confirmation of my fears or a reason to erase them.

The second album is now available and it brings me back full circle. There are some nice moments in it, but, generally, I don’t care for it. In fact, I’m afraid, much of “Bette Midler.” (Atlantic SD 7270) strikes me as pretentious, overbaked and false.

Two problems are apparent.

First, it was the style of music more than the individual songs (i.e. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Leader of the pack”) that was her initial strength. She found styles that were far from the “hipness” of today’s musical scene and showed us we can still respond to them.

There was an almost philosophical, therapeutic message to her work: There is no reason to set limits on one’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Miss Midler has not, with the exception of the soul-favored “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” found new styles to release new, repressed emotions. Secondly, she has become much more self-conscious in her handling of the material.

“Skylark” and “Drinking Again,” two Johnny Mercer songs that open the album at a decidedly slow pace, are given the same kind of on-so-serious, d r a i n-them for-every-ounce-of emotion precision that one might have expected from an early Barbra Streisand album.

Things pick up sharply with Miss Midler’s spirited-to-the point-of-exaggeration version of Denise LaSalle‘s “Breaking Up Somebody Else’s Home” – a flashy combination of melodrama and humor that works.

Side two is much more in the early “divine Miss M” spirit and, therefore, a vast improvement.

After a taste of the celebrative “Optimistic Voices,” we find Miss Midler on her home turf on the lively, almost irresistible “Lullaby of Broadway” and “In the Mood.” She sings all the vocal parts on both songs.

Two strong tracks.

But we go downhill again with a pairing of “Uptown” and “Da Doo Run Run” that fails because the first song is too close to the style and spirit of “Leader of the Pack” to have much impact and Miss Midler’s version of “Da Doo Run Run” is so inferior to Phil Spector‘s original that it is almost unbearable.

‘Twisted is the boldest sample of the “divine Miss M” that we’ve received on record. It is complete with a “how ya doing girls, long time no see” introduction.

“Bette Midler” is a curiously conservative, unimpressive album – one that reflects little of the drive, imagination and joy of the woman I saw on the Carson show or at the Boarding House in San Francisco. I hope it’s just one bad album and not a danger sign in her career.

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