Author: Jan Stuart
I'M MAD FOR MIDLER
A dweeby college sophomore plants himself by a shoulder of the Massachusetts
Turnpike, faces his Earth Shoes in the general directionof Rhode
Island and sticks out a thumb. A car stops quickly (dweebs with
JanSport knapsacks are low-risk and good listeners), and the pilgrimagecommences.
The passengers in the other eastbound cars frighten the hitchhiker
- everyone looks so patrician grim and resolute - until a friendly
cardboard sign whizzes past in a window: "Bette or bust!"
a few hours he is packed into a decaying Providence movie palace
with several thousand other nomads and natives, all of whom are
shouting out the punch line to a deliriously obscene joke. From
the stage, our teacher / mother / provocateur Bette Midler flaps
her arms in time with the words ("ERNIE, GET OFF MY BACK!")
as if she is conducting an unruly Chaucerian mob. The performer
flashes a nurturing smile, a generous half-moon smear of cream cheese
outlined in bright red lipstick, and the crowd roars at its conspiratorial
display of naughtiness.
This was neither the first nor even the most memorable of many,
many Bette Midler concerts I would attend over a 10-year period,
but in certain ways it was the most revealing. Here we were, 3,000
social misfits huddled together in the prim right ankle of New England,
baying to the heavens with a smutty joke. The Divine Miss M, as
she referred to herself in those salad days of campy decadence,
understood the purifying power of collective prurience. Decades
before David Lynch took us on a Greyhound to Twin Peaks, Midler
knew how to scrape out the dirt beneath the cuticles of America's
most manicured hometowns.
Bette Midler were merely some white Moms Mabley wannabe with The
crowd instincts of Aimee Semple
McPherson, however, I doubt whether I would have repeatedly entrusted
my life to strangers on superhighways To see her at work. I was
in pursuit of the ultimate concert rapture. Of all the pop-culture
comets I have had the privilege of seeing live in my pushing-40
years - a galaxy that embraces Duke Ellington, Elton John, Aretha
Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Roberta Flack, Count Basie, StevieWonder,
Phoebe Snow, Betty Carter and Paul Simon, among others - I have
never seen anyone lift an audience to the same heights of euphoria
and exhaustion by evening's end.
are, 180,000 ticket holders to Midler's unprecedented six-week run
at Radio City Music Hall, which begins Sept. 14, are probably not
coming to hear the greatest voice of the century nor ogle "the
Grace Kelly of rock and roll," as she once mockingly described
herself. The physical reality - from frizzy red top to platform-heeled
toes - was always a cacophony of louder-than-life effects. Not one
to be coy about her assets, Midler reveled in shifting our gaze
south of her epiglottis to her prodigious mammaries ("You've
seen them on the cover of Life, Oct. 1, 1954: `3-Year-Old Baby With
manic, top-banana looks only reinforced Midler's raw belter's instrument.
Even during her brief late-'60s Broadway period (already copping
attitude as a daughter of Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof"
- in the "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" number she was the one
without the mop)Midler's fierce, breathy alto was a voice in search
of a nervous breakdown. Songs of obsession - Leon Russell and Bonnie
Bramlett's "Superstar" and Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be
Released" - held an irresistible allure for Midler, who inhabited
a ballad with the sort of abandon that made you feel as if her nerve
endings could shatter at any moment.
accident that these two songs were invariably her most devastating
concert numbers. Who could tell from Karen Carpenter's anesthetizing
hit single of "Superstar" that you were listening to some
groupie's masochistic dependence on a rock musician? Midler's connection
to the woman's pathology was chilling; in "Superstar,"
as in the Dylan number, she would inevitably strain her lungs into
some outer region of strung-out dementia. The "Rose"-style
shrieking would take its toll(abetted by years of road-tour overabuse
and reefer madness), and the singer would become increasingly reliant
on little-girl purring a la "Wind Beneath My Wings."
as the voice wilted, the roller-coaster thrill of a Bette Midler
concert remained in her rapid-fire genius for changing the temperature
of a theater. Between two beats of a hummingbird's wings, Midler
could bring us down from the trashy high of a Belle Barth joke to
the psychic dumps of a "ballad-o" about an ex-factory
worker who lost her son in the Korean War and whose other kids have
moved far away. Midler's chatty intro to that song (John Prine's
"Hello in There")was a masterpiece of Divine M manipulation.
Lowering her voice to a scratchy, fatigued whisper, Midler would
go into a leisurely monologue about spotting ladies with fried eggs
on their heads while she was walking down 42nd Street. ("I
wasn't working 42nd Street, I was walking 42nd Street!") Her
fried-egg ladies were an all-purpose stand-in for anyone who had
been through the mill and back, but the heartrending nature of the
metaphor was immediately undercut by the sheer ridiculousness of
the image. "Dear God," she would implore through genuine
tears, "don't let me wake up in the morning and want to put
a fried egg on my head." We didn't know whether to laugh or
cry, and Midler would play with this tension of pathos and humor
for so long - jerking us back and forth between the two states with
a wisecrack and a sigh - that she would finally have to ask the
bandleader whether she had sung the song yet. When she finally did,
we were reduced to putty in her hands, sad and silly putty.
first time I saw Midler was back in high school, on a Johnny Carson
show. I was half-watching the TV set, wallowing in depression about
a math exam the next morning (oh, for the days of midterm melancholia!)
when this wild chick with red hair and more eye makeup than Verushka
in "Blow Up" stormed on and sang the old Dixie Cups hit
"Chapel of Love." She didn't just sing it, you understand,
she plugged it into some internal socket, charged it up till the
subcutaneous joy of a truly insipid lyric sizzled to the surface,
exploded through the TV screen and landed, hot and happy, in my
following summer, still reeling from the "Tonight Show,"
I bused down from the Catskills to see this strange creature perform
In Central Park's Wollman Skating Rink. I was still too green and
unformedin my own sexual identity to appreciate that, of the 6,000
or so people surrounding me, about 5,792 were men who had sat around
in white towels only a year before and watched her perform in a
basement club at the Continental Baths. Before the show began, I
stared nervously as one guy dressed only in zebra-striped pajama
bottoms and clothespins attached to his nipples paraded back and
forth in front of the stage. We were not in the Catskills anymore,
Toto, and we were not going back.
the Divine Miss M stalked on, preceded by her band, her pianist
(a towering toothpick in white named Barry Manilow) and three demonic
back-up singers she introduced as the Harlettes ("They sing!
They dance! They violate their paroles!"). Launching into her
buoyantsignature number, "Friends," Midler embraced her
loyal flock with a vocabulary of flamboyant gestures that somehow
managed to be both maternally protective and sexually provocative:
the ultimate Oedipal lounge act.
followed was a phenomenal hybrid of pop archeology and post-Stonewall
camp, as Midler exhumed trivia from the '40s, '50s and '60s others
might have thought better left to rest in peace: "Da Doo Ron
Ron," "Easier Said Than Done," "Delta Dawn,"
"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," Oscar Levant's "Marijuana,"
climaxing with an ecstatically choreographed rendition of "Higher
and Higher." What amazed me was a virtuosity for locating the
latent driving impulse of a song absent from its previous versions,
grabbing it by the guts and juicing it up like never before.
two and a half hours Midler never stopped moving or thinking on
her feet. She pranced, she skittered, she reinvented the hubba-hubba
moves of the Andrews Sisters. If a lewd comment burst from the crowd,she
shot back brilliantly with another that upped the ante and decimated
the heckler. If someone asked her to do Carmen Miranda, she did
Carmen Miranda. At the end, she collapsed in a horizontal heap on
the floor, but was up again just as quickly for a closing encore
of "Friends": "And from the dusk till the dawn /
Here is where I'll stay." At the word "here," she
squatted low and slapped the stage, prompting the audience to jump
on top of our fold-up metal chairs, where we howled and hooted long
into the night.
would be other great Midler appearances: the Dec. 31, 1972, show
at Philharmonic Hall, where an elevator lifted her to the stage
dressed as a New Year's baby in diaper and sash, or the Palace Theater
engagement where she let go of Barry Manilow to pursue his own superstar
track. But with each subsequent show ("Clams on the Half Shell
Revue")or foray into national television ("Ol' Red Hair
Is Back"), the outrageous gestures that once goosed us silly
curdled into self-caricature. As the voice began to go, so did the
spontaneity, the danger, the sense that anything could and would
happen. Now that she belonged to the masses, the Divine Miss M pose
had to go.
one occasion I had to meet Bette Midler, at a pre-shoot kickoff
party for "The Rose," I would ask her about that Central
Park show. "Oh, that was my favorite concert of all time"
she cooed. "I felt like Marilyn Monroe!" At the time,
the remark didn't compute (What did Marilyn Monroe feel like? When
did Monroe sing in Wollman Rink?). Itoccurred to me later that what
Midler was saying was that she felt deified. She was worshiped.
For the brief span of a summer evening, she had become a myth.
Monroe, however, Hollywood would never completely understand how
to build on the myth. "The Rose" came the closest to capturing
- in a subtly altered persona - that fabulous, high-tension-wire
concert energy. I am surely not the first to point out the crashing
irony that Disney, of all companies, would be the one to jump-start
the inert film career of this one-time bathhouse diva. But even
Disney is throwing her away. Where, to this day, is Midler's "Some
Like It Hot?" Where is even a freeze-frame moment, a skirt
flying up over an exhaust grating, to offer her a pedestal in the
pantheon of pop mythology?
a sneaking suspicion that movies will never fulfill the myth of
Bette Midler's outre beginnings. If anything
can, it will be her inspiring appearance on Johnny Carson's final
"Tonight Show," or, better yet, the coming six weeks at
Radio City. It's live. It's deco. It's steeped in the ghosts of
show business legends from days gone by, Midler's favorite days
of all. At 30 performances, its just the sort of marathon stunt
to raise the stakes of her perfectionism. And it's home. Not Hawaii
home, but the one that matters to those of us still around from
the Divine years: midway between her old Barrow Street digs and
her West 73rd Street hothouse cabaret.
Bette. A song request from an old fan. Please do "Friends."
more for all our honeys, come and gone, once more for the road.
Who would have thought when you sang it at the tubs - long before
the AIDS stuff hit the fan - that the words would resound with the
meaning they now must bear? Sing them bright and loud, so they bounce
off the back row of the third mezzanine: "I had some friends
but they're gone / Something came and took them away / And from
the dusk to the dawn. . ." And when you get to the part that
says "Here is where I'll stay," hunker down and slap that
stage real hard, like you mean it.
JAN STUART, WHY I'M MAD FOR MIDLER. , Newsday, 09-05-1993, pp 08.