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Author: Jan Stuart
Date: 09-05-1993


1975 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!"

Within 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.

If 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.

Chances 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 38-Inch Chest'!").

The 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.

No 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."

Even 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.

The 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 lap.

The 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.

Finally, 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.

What 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.

For 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Unlike 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?

I have 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.

Dear Bette. A song request from an old fan. Please do "Friends."

Once 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.