Philadelphia City Paper
October 21–28, 1999
Talking Philly and the millennium with Ms. Midler.
interview by a.d. amorosi
Since the early ’70s, everything Bette Midler’s touched — from the hokey balladry of “Wind Beneath My Wings” to big band vamps like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” — has turned to gold dust. But it is in live performance, much-heralded showcases like Clams On The Half Shell Revue and Diva Las Vegas with Broadway accoutrements that she’s made her bones. Long before she started a movie career, she was performing in the gay bathhouses of Manhattan to steamy rooms full of men and women. (A lot of her early success came in Philly, too, with mega-watt shows at theaters like the old Bijou and the Shubert, booked and promoted then, as now, by old pal Larry Magid.) Her upcoming Divine Miss Millennium Tour is in support of her recent Bathhouse Betty CD (Warner Bros.). I don’t normally quote reviews, but word from Boston promises that Midler “ups the ante of her own outrageousness” which, judging by previous experience, means it’s a bumpy ride ahead.
You had a lot of your early successes here in this town. Would you care to explain why Philly’s been so good to you and vice versa?
I was very young when I started out in Philly. I think Philly’s charming. It’s a human-size town.… It exuded warmth and hospitality to me. And it’s pretty. Really. It’s not overwhelming. The architecture is beautiful. Most places I go are just overdeveloped, one mall after another, same stores. All the character of the place is stripped away. But Philly kept that character. It’s like Berkeley, New Orleans, even Milwaukee.
Talk to me about Larry Magid. How did that relationship bloom?
I knew Larry from when he owned the Bijou. I always liked him because he was so mellow. He wasn’t a screamer. Plus he’d let me come in and see anyone I wanted to see for free. He dragged me backstage to see Aretha and a half a dozen other people. His wife and he have always been so very nice to me. When I did Clams On The Half Shell we opened it in Philly, which took a lot of support on his part. And I trust him and he’s got an even temperament, which, believe me, is a lot in this business.
I talked to Bruce Vilanch on the occasion of the opening of his Get Bruce film. [In it Midler states that Vilanch is “the only man who ever put anything in her mouth that made them both money.”] He had scores of nice things to say about writing for you.
Our relationship’s pretty much the same since we met in the late ’60s. He looks upon me as his muse so I can’t say goodbye. He loves the way I deliver his material. Both of us have been through a lot together, lost a lot of the same friends. Our backgrounds are similar. His parents are from Jersey. My parents are from Jersey, even though I was born in Hawaii. We both have that Jersey Jewish mentality.
You made some pretty interesting choices of song and songwriter on this record, like Leonard Cohen’s “Song Of Bernadette.” How did you come to pick that?
It’s just a beautiful, timely song, perfect for the end of the century, the whole fussing and fighting thing. He’s so wonderful. I’ve always known his stuff but not as well as I should. And I have another Cohen, his son Adam, on the record, [with] “Lullaby in Blue.” It’s strange because in terms of sentiment and idea, they’re not that far removed from each other. Regret. Hope. Steadfast ideals.
I see you also picked a Ben Folds song (“Boxing”) How important is it for you to stay contemporary?
I like to hear new sounds but I’m usually in so much of a hurry that I don’t get the chance to work with newer people. I’d like to change that with the next couple of records. I enjoy “music,” songs that you can sing along with for more than one line or verse. The last 20 years have been rough on melody. I think when I’m making a record, my ears are more in tune. And my daughter keeps me abreast of stuff as I do with her with old music.
I’ve seen you in big rooms. I’ve seen you in stadiums. Can you compare the Millennium tour to stuff like Diva Las Vegas? What is there to look for?
Well, I’ll tell you truthfully I think this show is my last really big one. This is too big. Too completely outta hand. It’s too big and beautiful and bright, too gorgeous actually. It’s got a message. But they can’t get any bigger or else there will be no room for an audience. It’ll just be me up there.