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The Big Lookback: Bette Midler
From 'The Village Voice,' September, 1993: 'Bette Milder Sings . . . Everything"
Although it was the winter solstice of 1974 before we were legally married, I’ve been very aware, especially since I turned that big round number 80 in April, that Carola and I have now been a couple for another big round number: 50 years, half a century. Exactly how we date the moment of commitment is trickier, however—I devote a fair swatch of Going Into the City to the details. But the decisive event that inspired this month’s Big Lookback is clear enough: June 23, 1972, Bette Midler at Carnegie Hall, Which without question was our first date qua date and also either the night we fell in love or the night she began to because I already had.
After half a century in the showbiz spotlight, the Bette Midler of June 1972 may seem like a fait accompli in the making. But I date her breakout a little later, to November 7 of that year. That’s when The Divine Miss M was released and a month before it charted in Billboard, where it peaked at nine. In New York City, of course, she was already a big deal by then or she wouldn’t have played Carnegie Hall, and hipped by a shrewd publicist friend I’d already seen her a bunch of times. In August, by which time Carola had pretty much moved in with me, I’d filed a longer-than-usual Bette Midler column in Newsday suggesting that maybe it was time for a woman to play the role of rock messiah. After all, women understood better than men that in a metastasizing “counterculture” tangled up in the authenticity rhetoric of idealized “self-expression,” we all needed to understand the uses of artifice—which the gay men who loved Bette had to master just to survive. In 1974 that Midler piece preceded tributes to Stevie Wonder and the New York Dolls to put a bow on my first collection, Any Old Way You Choose It.
In a general way my feminist argument was pretty astute—in addition to Joni Mitchell, who was featured on the book’s cover, it anticipated the rise of Linda Ronstadt and on a smaller scale Bonnie Raitt and in a more avant mode Patti Smith, not to mention disco, a music that was fine with me even if it didn’t generate the albums that by then were the backbone of my music coverage. So I kept rooting for Bette, even lending her the Ann Peebles album that included “I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” which she covered on the eponymous 1973 follow-up to The Divine Miss M. But though I was down with 1977’s Live at Last, I found her subsequent albums all too schlocky and most of her movies, with an exception for Down and Out in Beverly Hills in 1986, not much better. There was also live video of guest bits and whole concerts so hilarious and uninhibited that when Bette sold out 30 consecutive shows at Radio City in 1993 I scored press tickets for me and my gal three decades after it all began.
We had a great time, too—with each other and also with Bette, who while endearing and tremendously entertaining, hadn’t turned out quite like we’d hoped. For in addition to remaining an artist who shared the “Careers in Iconicity” section of my 1998 collection Grown Up All Wrong with Madonna, Prince, Garth Brooks, Lou Reed, and Janet Jackson, she was also an artist who recorded a rather good song called “From a Distance” that was transmuted by happenstance into the regretfully ambiguous theme song of this nation’s first but not last Iraq war. Yet as we did not yet know, that same artist was destined to emerge as an ever more outspoken Hollywood liberal who founded the New York Restoration Project in 1995 and also puts money into something called the Adopt-a-Highway Maintenance Corp. I don’t drive much anymore. But when I hie up to New Paltz or Clinton, Connecticut, I often spy signs announcing that Bette Midler was paying to keep this stretch of road clean. You can see them in L.A. as well, I’m told. Is she divine? Of course not. She’s mortal and proud of it. Good for her.
Bette Midler is a gay icon and a Hollywood fixture, and not even in that order. The star of more halfway decent movies than you could remember with cue cards, she barely records anymore—her major musical achievement of the past decade was moistly emoting the theme song of our attack on Iraq, “From a Distance.” Yet that dubious achievement was enough to make manifest if not clear what a complex musical presence she can be. Ordinarily, I scoff at talk of guilty pleasure in rock and roll, which teaches us to take our pleasures where we find them, be it “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Me So Horny.” But Bette’s Grammy-winning million-seller left me feeling I-just-don’t-know—furtive, compromised, even bathetic. There were times when it brought tears to my eyes.
In the quieter Nanci Griffith original, the distance that concealed all wounds remained somewhere between necessary evil and existential condition—she knew she was deceiving herself, and she wasn’t boasting about it. In Bette’s version, that hint of self-criticism was transmuted into a halo of self-pity—as if the distance had been inflicted on her, as if she could experience even bigger feelings if only she could get closer, and be an even better person in the bargain. Offensive enough in the abstract, this was infinitely worse in context, as Bette’s nation convinced itself that innocent human beings had to die because . . . because . . . because life was unfair, because the alternative was worse, because Saddam would kill ‘em all anyway, because—although no one would say it in so many words—they weren’t the same as us. But it captured something. Rarely has the codependency of well-meaning self-involvement and high-grade schlock been so fully exploited or so richly explored. Julie Gold’s songwriting—a lyric that captures a difficult idea everyone subconsciously understands in precise images that are simultaneously simple and grand, a chorus that subsumes the images’ contradictions in a reassuring melodic surge—was essential. But it was Bette’s no-stops vocal that turned the song into a catharsis that could first sop up the tortuous tension of the troop movements and then absorb the shock of the war. As a longtime fan of Griffith’s version, I find that it has receded into Bette’s, which now stands somewhere between great bad record and fact of history.
Of course, the context has changed yet again. No longer a proximate accessory to imperialist slaughter, the song can also be heard at a distance. Having gotten its start on 1990’s Some People’s Lives, her only true new album since 1983, it’s now a star exhibit on both Experience the Divine: Bette Midler’s Greatest Hits and the long-awaited tour the compilation is named after—a tour now settled in for a record-breaking 30 sellout shows at Radio City Music Hall. The tour is primary because Bette is a performer first, long-awaited because performing is a grind. Grammy or no Grammy, it makes perfect sense that her deal with Atlantic Records, the only label she’s ever recorded for, should have long since proven little more than a bridge from the Continental Baths to Sunset Boulevard, and it also makes sense that in 1983, with her film career floundering after diva-quality feuds with working-class hunk Ken Wahl on the set of the well-named Jinxed, she should have sworn off the road anyway. Hollywood has always been Bette Midler’s destiny—the stardom she set her sights on was the kind she’d read about in magazines. She didn’t want to be Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan, both of whom she’s since duetted with, because she didn’t want to be Janis Joplin, whose doom she would eventually win an Oscar nomination for enacting. She knew without thinking twice that rock and roll was a shitty place for a woman. In Hollywood, a prima donna could get some respect. Ms. Davis, meet your namesake.
Young people may be surprised to encounter Bette Midler in the same sentence as rock and roll. If you want to find her records at Tower, you climb up to the third floor, where she shares space with Streisand and Sinatra in a section designated Vocals. Yet when she started putting together her take on cabaret for the gay orgiasts of the Baths, “rock” defined and dominated her act. The surprising part was that she made no apparent distinction between classy post-Beatles stuff—which came down mostly to what we would now classify folk-rock: Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” John Prine’s “Hello in There,” Tracy Nelson’s “Delta Dawn,” Buzzy Linhart’s “Friends”—and such supposedly ignoble trash as “Do You Want To Dance?,” “Chapel of Love,” and “Leader of the Pack.” In retrospect it’s obvious that she knew more about how rock history would be written than your average hippie-come-lately; for a long time now, girl groups and ‘50s one-shots have enjoyed at least as much artistic cachet as, oh, Jackson Browne, not to mention Quicksilver Messenger Service. In 1972, however, this exercise of taste was prophetic and liberating. Ultimately, she was claiming the entirety of American popular music, which is why she also covered Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, Bessie Smith. But across the room from the New York Dolls—who were also gay-identified, of course—Bette Midler was helping to rearticulate the rock canon.
Unfortunately, the inspiration didn’t last. Without ever abandoning the teenaged folkie in her—the one who formed the Pieridine Three with two girlfriends in Honolulu and couldn’t resist “From a Distance” three decades late—Bette didn’t just go Hollywood, she went El Lay. It’s true that Allee Willis and Billy Steinberg and the odious Diane Warren have manufactured songs far more banal than those on Some People’s Lives. But as the Marxists used to say, it is no accident that the only selections from that album on Experience the Divine are “From a Distance” and a “Miss Otis Regrets” so perilously overswung it’s hard to believe she wasn’t settling for name recognition. Opening night at Radio City, she gave her newer stuff more slack—the Janis Ian-Rhonda Fleming title number started off like a trite “Hello in There” rip and then redeemed itself on the chorus, and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was uncommonly subtle, as it is on record. But she also included a felicitous “Friends” and a friendly “Do You Want To Dance?,” an unflagging “Delta Dawn” and an overembellished “Hello in There” and an automatic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”—five 1972 songs in all, exactly as many as the compilation. If Springsteen were to pay similar tribute to Greetings From Asbury Park or Born To Run, we’d say he was throwing in the towel. With Bette, though, it’s different. Debut album or no debut album, The Divine Miss M still sounds not just fresh but of the essence. Live at Last ain’t bad either.
Live at Last—as well as the concert video Art or Bust—also might convey to truth-seekers who can’t afford scalpers how Bette managed to sell 200,000 tickets to Radio City off a best-of that never got over 50 in Billboard. It isn’t just the yucks—1986’s Mud Will Be Flung Tonight is pretty funny for a comedy album and still doesn’t capture half her pizzazz. So put it this way. You know how certain very acerbic comedians try to make it up with revolting shows of sincerity, whether it’s a jerk like Don Rickles insisting that he loves all peoples or a genius like Richard Pryor grinning fondly at the poetic paramour he snuck onto Saturday Night Live? Bette’s art lives off the emotional sources of that ploy. Her comedy isn’t as mean and stupid as Rickles’s or as wild and fucked up as Pryor’s, but it evokes both; at Radio City, the “politically correct” cracks died fast, but the Joey Buttafuoco routine (“Can you believe that two women wanted to have sex with Joey?”) hurt just enough, the pedally deprived Delores de Lago and her politically dubious wheelchair was as crazy a trip as ever, and the inevitable Soph and tit jokes testified to her enduring self-respect. And like a talisman on the other side of the yucks was the line that defined her return to the footlights: “Have I done the ballad yet?”
She said it about as often as she invoked succor from her other running gag, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, making clear that she knew her oldest and truest fans—I’ve never seen such a turnout of middle-aged gay couples, and I doubt many gays have either—were really there for dish and hubba-hubba. But she must also suspect that they’d feel cheated without “Delta Dawn,” and she has not the slightest doubt that the straight couples whose Saturday nights at the movies have made her a Disney heroine since the surprise boffo of Down and Out in Beverly Hills require healing dollops of sentiment after laughing at poor Mrs. Buttafuoco. Though back when she was redefining rock and roll I heard it differently, I can agree now that the hallmark of her ballad style is its imprecision. She doesn’t massage a song, she loves it to death; when she’s on, her emotions aren’t overstated, they’re all over the place, like her tits sans brassiere. It’s because her movie audience craves this effect uncut that she’s taken to putting in purchase orders with the El Lay mafia, whose specialty is sentiment that can’t be mistaken for camp.
At Radio City, though, the change seemed justified. The endless closing sequence of Art or Bust features Bette in a vaguely Greek-looking gown ruining good songs and giving her all to terrible ones. Imagine “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” with cubist props and balletic backup—I’ve never seen or heard her worse. The only selection to survive the years was the climactic “Stay With Me”—lightened in both versions with a spoken interlude, followed at Radio City by “Wind Beneath My Wings,” top-drawer El Lay generally interpreted as a love letter to her investment banker/performance artist husband, and a gratifyingly matter-of-fact version of “The Glory of Love,” originally a hit for Helen Ward and Benny Goodman in 1936. This finale wasn’t gangbusters, but it held its own, striking an unexpected balance between Hollywood and the Baths—and reminding those who were there for such revelations what a complex musical presence she can be.
Some People’s Lives is double-platinum, her biggest-selling album ever. So you can figure she’ll get back to the studio eventually—and that she won’t mess with the formula, either. Too bad, I agree. But don’t bet Bette’s music is behind her quite yet. And when she tours again—which despite the never-again murmurs she will—try and beat the scalpers uptown.