I’d been waiting 25 years to talk to Bette Midler, so when the chance came to interview the Divine Miss M on the release of her 1998 album “Bathhouse Betty,” I went for it. I told the publicist I loved the new record, then, having the phone time for her call reserved, went home, dug up the new disc from the “not enough hours in the day” pile and listened to it for the first time. It’s not bad, with material from Ben Folds (the starkly moving “Boxing”), Chuckii Booker (“Big Socks”), Leonard Cohen (“Song of Bernadette”), Cohen’s son Adam (“Lullabye in Blue”) and a big band workout with the Royal Crown Revue (“One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”) standing out.
She covers the shoreline from sap to swing, just like on her early ’70s albums, hence the title’s reference to her days as a cult NYC bathhouse singer. But my opinion of Bette Midler’s records is that you could own them all — as well as all her movies on video — and they still wouldn’t be worth a single ticket to one of her concerts. One stage, one mike, one audience: Midler wrings as much from the moment as possible. Her personality becomes part of the talent, maybe even most of it, making for a show where you get much more than your money’s worth.
You hear a lot about performers “giving and giving until there’s nothing left to give, but then they give some more,” and it’s usually tied with physical endurance. Acts such as James Brown, Bruce Springsteen and Tina Turner take their final bows as if it spends their final iota of energy. In the case of Bette Midler, however, the exhaustion seems more emotional than physical.
Perhaps my favorite single memory after almost 30 years of going to concerts occurred during Midler’s Hawaiian return in 1973. Drawn to the singer initially out of curiosity — she graduated from the Honolulu high school I attended — I left that show a lifelong fan, as much for what happened after the “trash with flash” overload had ended.
The encores had all been sung, but the audience of about 2,000 at the H.I.C. Concert Hall wouldn’t leave. The lights came on, as did the taped music, but still the exit doors didn’t budge — the show was that spectacular. Finally, Midler came out and stood at center stage while the crowd stomped and hooted. Tears streamed down her face and she addressed the audience. “Ya know,” she said in a crackling voice, “I was more nervous before tonight’s show than I’ve ever been before.” Gaining strength in the cornpopping-paced shouts of “We love you!” from the mostly-gay crowd, Midler went on to tell a story, her story. She told of a little girl singing for her mother and daydreaming about being a big star. Midler said she’d always felt like a fish out of water growing up Jewish in a Samoan neighborhood near Pearl Harbor, and when she moved away it was as if a whole new life had begun. Since leaving, she said she realized that Hawaii was a big part of who she was, and that even though she’d become the toast of the Big Apple, she’d have an empty spot in her heart until she could prove herself back home. “This has been a very special night for me,” she said, standing there beaming, holding a bouquet of roses that someone in the crowd had given her. “You’ve all made me very, very happy.” Tear glands didn’t know what hit them, as everybody in the joint started crying along with Bette.
That’s what makes Bette Midler one of the greatest entertainers of our time. She doesn’t hold back. That’s why gay audiences loved her at NYC’s Continental Baths in 1970: Night after night, she would prove to be the link between Mae West and Madonna, with even more genuineness in her defiance and naughtiness. Picture a hot, steamy room full of half-naked men (and piano player Barry Manilow) laughing at big bosom jokes and singing along to “Delta Dawn”: Now, that’s entertainment. “Sometimes I’ll be watching MTV and see some of the newer acts looking like they’d rather be doing anything besides playing music on TV,” Midler said by phone from New York, where she spends most of her time with husband Martin and 11-year-old daughter Sophie (named after the bawdy
comedian and Midler model, Sophie Tucker). “I just want to stick my hand inside the TV and give them a smack. ‘You’re on top of the world. Have fun.’ ” Midler also went on about some of the newer singers who feel that they have to turn every song into an octave jamboree or a biggest pipes contest. Although she’s not exceptionally gifted as a singer, dancer, songwriter or musician, Midler’s genius is in her ability to make what she has work for her. On the new LP’s “I’m Beautiful,” she vamps, “How did I get so far,” and the background singers add “on so-o-o little,” but the answer is that Midler has always turned her minuses into pluses. What she lacks in looks, she makes up for in desire. Short on vocal strength, she plays up her vulnerability, taking the gloss off such ballads as “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance.” She wants to stay loyal to her original audience, but also longs to attract new fans with radio hits, so Midler uses her secret weapon — humor — to appeal to both factions. After a spec-tacky-lar tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee in her ‘93 shows, Midler mimicked fairweather fans: “How much more of this do we have to endure before she does the inspirational ballads we love her for?”
Midler always used comedy to connect. But even as her brand of self-deprecating humor is generally the funniest, it’s also the saddest. During much of our conversation, we talked about the cultural weirdness of growing up on Oahu. “It’s really hard to explain to people just how alienated I felt as a kid,” she said. “Nobody looked liked me. Nobody’s parents talked like mine (Ruth and Fred from Paterson, N.J., who moved to Hawaii when Bette was 4 for Fred’s civilian job as a housepainter for the Navy). I was always desperately trying to fit in.” Maybe that’s why her albums touch on so many genres and her fashion sense on so many generations: Bette wants everyone to have a crack at liking her. “Pot luck at a Laundromat,” is the way Mr. Blackwell summed up Midler’s fashion sense in ‘74, but no one has ever worn desperation so well.
“What I do,” Midler summarized, “is take chicken shit and turn it into chicken salad.” She does it with a resplendent, four-star smile and the heart of a diehard hoofer. That her charm lights up the stage in a hurry became apparent when she was awarded an Emmy for an eight-minute slot as the very last guest on the final “Tonight Show” hosted by Johnny Carson. ” I didn’t have time to think of the historical implications,” she said. “Robin Williams was supposed to go on last, but they flip-flopped the order at the last minute.” As always, though, the beaming redhead came through. As Bette sang “One f or My Baby (And One More f or the Road),” the camera caught Carson at an angle he’d never been shown at before. In the foreground there was Midler, on a stool, singing as if it were only her and Johnny, and the rest of the world had already dozed off. In the background, sliding in and out of focus, was Carson looking on with admiration at the artist he put on the map as a trashier-flashier Barbra Streisand.
“There was always a great chemistry between Johnny and I,” said Midler, who sang “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on “The Tonight Show” even before her first record came out. “All I was concentrating on during that last show was doing right by him.” They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, even in phone interviews, because they can only disappoint. But my little chat with the woman who defines “entertainer” was even better than what I had hoped for. Scheduled for 15 minutes, we went on for 45, with Midler asking me almost as many questions as I asked her. We didn’t discuss the new album much, but we did talk about such subjects as our kids, Hawaiian music, her family (including her mentally retarded brother, who was my sister’s paperboy), her stage mom, Kurt Cobain, the “We Are the World” session (“They had me next to LaToya in the video — shows how my career was going”) and the current swing revival, which Midler loves. “In the ’70s, I WAS the swing revival,” Midler cracked.
I had waited 25 years to talk to Bette Midler, not to interview her. I wanted to get a few quotes for this story, but there would be other stories. This was my one chance to tell this fellow Radford High School graduate just how much joy she’s brought to me and many more people just trying to fit in. Above all, she’s a symbol for being thankful for what you’ve got and coming through time after time when someone says, “You’re on.”