After releasing album #25, Bette Midler is touring again, forty-some years after her first Grammy nominated masterpiece. All those many decades ago there were these things people called records, or LPs, and stores that sold only those magic spinning discs. I arrived in New York City in 1972, and during my first few months, absolutely haunted the Theatre District day and night. It was the reason I’d moved there in the first place. On 49th Street, just off Broadway was this humongous place called Sam Goody’s, filled to the rafters with every kind of music genre imaginable. Late one dark night, I passed the closed store, gazing into its well-lit windows. Hanging from transparent strings at all different levels were dozens of the same album cover, repeating an image which looked curiously strange to me at the time.
I studied the multiple faces on the record jackets while meandering the pavement. All that orange hair, those myriad crimson cheeks and overly shadowed blue eyes wowed my senses. I questioned out loud to the uncaring sidewalk traffic still milling about at that hour: “Who the f@#k is The Divine Miss M?”. Soon enough I would learn the answer to my query. And I would never ever be quite the same again.
Cut to a little over three months later, the day of my first Manhattan house-warming party. Actually it wasn’t my party, but rather a very silly eighteen-year-old roommate’s, who was throwing it for himself. We barely had money to pay rent and utilities. Jacob and I owed a mutual older friend $550 for the security deposit and first month’s rent. This translates into today’s dollars as roughly The National Debt. We couldn’t fathom how we’d ever find a way to pay him back. Yet foolish Jacob insisted we needed this party. He had even more-foolish friends who were donating most of the food and drink for his soiree. A major contributor was his best friend Benny, who volunteered to provide fried chicken. This man was a singer/piano player, multi-talented and a very fun guy. He was the only acquaintance of my roommate I could genuinely enjoy. Jacob had traveled to New Jersey that morning to borrow folding chairs from yet another in his stable of chums. I was tasked with picking up the chicken at Benny’s. I took along Elizabeth, a woman from my Kent State past who’d recently moved to The City.
It was late in the afternoon on a damp, grey Saturday. Elizabeth saw his piano and was thrilled when he asked if she wanted to sing. There was a great nostalgia for the 1930s at the time, with theatre people singing songs from the musical Dames at Sea. Elizabeth sang brightly, while Benny played and passed a joint, (I told you he was multi-talented), with neither of them ever missing a note. Then he asked if we wanted to do some poppers–amyl nitrite–which was all the rage among gay men, though typically only during sex. I’d heard about poppers, but never tried them, because frankly I was a wuss. It revived half-dead heart attack victims, fer’ chrissakes! Yet I did not want to look uncool, so I said “Sure!”.
Benny opens the screw top of the ubiquitous tiny brown glass bottle, holds it right below one of his nostrils, while blocking the other with his finger, and inhales deeply. An enormous grin overtakes his handsome face as he dreamily passes it to me. I repeat the process. I was prepared for the weird stench of the stuff, (one brand was actually called LOCKER ROOM), but not its effect. I parroted his technique like a popper pro.
At first you think you’re gonna pass out, until the roar of your heart pounding assures you if you do fall, you won’t hit the ground because you’re gonna float away anyway, ’cause your head just inflated with helium and you can only giggle because you’re feeling so silly and instantly high, and you swear you can hear every one of your organs pulsating inside your body, but before anything really bad happens to you, your head starts to throb a little at the temples while your eyes come back into focus…ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
As I regain my composure I hear Benny telling Elizabeth “You’re gonna’ love this woman. She’s the Divine Miss M”, and with that the now too-familiar trumpet intro to Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy invades my very being. So tell me, how could anyone ever be the same after exposure to all that wonderfulness within maybe a window of three minutes? People in piano bars all around The City had added her song Friends to their show tunes repertoire.
About a year later I inherited somebody’s old stereo, so I could play that first album and buy the new one which was called simply BETTE MIDLER. The needle was worn and it scraped the daylights out of those records, but I played them both to death. A waiter from a bar I frequented at the time told me Miss M had an apartment in the West Village. I recall many a late night, standing on the sidewalk outside the presumed address he’d given me, waiting for a sighting. I had become obsessed with The Divine Miss M and would have killed to see her–even only her shadow, from the window I prayed was really hers.
Once I moved into my first solo Manhattan apartment, Bette came out with her first double-album: Live At Last. It was a concert recorded in Cleveland of all places, the town I’d fled four years prior. Before I had a chance to purchase my own copy, my turntable actually caught fire, melting some old, college era LP, (luckily neither of my Miss M favorites). This was the beginning of the pre-recorded cassette era, so I invested in a decent player and that first tape.
I memorized, word for word and note for note, that entire double album. Together we performed the show tirelessly, like a duet, for months on end. Saturday was my day to clean the apartment. I would get a buzz on, just as my morning caffeine fix began to fade. I’d roll a joint, pop in that cassette, then wail along with Bette, breathing when she did, mirroring even each little giggle, pausing only for laughs and applause.
I went to see The Rose the very first weekend it opened. I couldn’t wait to see her on the big screen. I had befriended an actor when I first came to The City who was in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway in the mid 1960s, the same time Bette played one of the daughters. I asked him what she was like as an actress onstage. He told me “just like you’d imagine–a consummate performer”. I don’t believe I ever sat back in my seat during the entire movie. She had me entranced. Consummate for sure.
Not long after her movie debut, I learned Her Divinity was doing a benefit (for OXFAM America maybe?) in NYC at the Beacon Theatre. It must have been last minute, because I remember the posters and programs looked thrown-together, and I was able to get a terrific seat close to the stage. I was into photography big time in those days, wearing my Nikon FM around my neck like a fashion accessory. When Bette began singing The Rose, instantly everyone was on their feet.
I had some high-speed film in the camera and started shooting pictures. I moved down the aisle as I clicked the shutter, creeping slowly towards the stage, expecting someone would eventually stop me. No one ever did. I ended up standing inches from her. Through the lens, now angled up, I watched the tiny diva perform the song. She was bathed in pink light, and although she sang out to the house, it was as if she were singing only to me. I stopped shooting pictures, lowered the camera, transfixed on her image through my own naked eyes. The Divine Miss M, singing in the flesh–Heaven.
I would see her onstage three more times. Once from a front-row seat on a Broadway stage –a birthday gift from Alejandro in the early 80s. A few years later she performed De Tour outdoors in the Louis Armstrong Stadium. We got rained out the previous night, drenched to the bone waiting for the show. She returned the following night, and was gang-busters, well worth the downpour. The last time was a concert at Radio City in 1993. I was already living in New England then and dating this guy for some years. He was staid and squeaky-clean, yet crazier about Miss Midler than I was. In fact, if he’d loved me half as much as he did Bette, well, who knows how things might have turned out for us. She was divine–each and every time I saw her perform live. It was then, while dating Bette’s number one fan, that my recurring dream began.
In the dream, I’m in this apartment that is supposedly mine. Of course it looks more like a movie set than any place I’ve ever seen or been. I’m in the kitchen, and I am either preparing some food or just futzing around, chatting with someone behind me. I turn around and Bette is either thumbing through a magazine, or just draped in a chair looking every bit as though she belongs there. The dialogue goes something like…
Me: Bette Midler! What are you doing here?
Bette: (giggling) Just hanging out with you. What-d-ya think I’m doin’?
Me: But you’re here… in my apartment. Why? You don’t even know me.
Bette: Of course I do, honey. (She gets up and moves towards me.) We’re friends.
Me: Really? Bette? You’re really my friend?
And before she has time to break into a chorus of Friends, I wake up, with that happy/sad sensation all over my body, realizing this was only another silly dream. I haven’t dreamed it for some years now.
I adored Bette’s comedy films. I gotta’ admit, she lost me for a while, somewhere around Hocus Pocus, which I have yet to see from start to finish. And it was with great trepidation that I watched the first few episodes of her TV sitcom, later wondering which of us was more relieved that it was canceled. I read both her books, and treasure her goodbye to Johnny Carson as one of the best TV performances ever given.
It has always been her music though, which keeps me wrapped around her little finger. When I first moved out of The City and into the boonies of New England, I drove this cute little red pick-up truck with the worst, cheapest sound system imaginable. Maybe not so much a sound system, as just a truly shitty AM/FM radio. After twelve monogamous years in my first relationship, I found myself driving to rendezvous with this guy in Montpelier, Vermont which was halfway between my home and his (Montreal).
I was prepared to begin an affair with him, feeling guilty as all hell inside. It was a Sunday morning, and I was somewhere in the New Hampshire mountains. The only radio reception I could get were these bible-thumping stations with preachers yelling at me about damnation. I needed some music to lift my spirits, to make me feel like I was not the sleaziest bastard in the western hemisphere. I landed on a station that seemed to be playing pop tunes, which slowly made things a bit brighter. All of a sudden I hear this woman, who sounds remarkably like The Divine Miss M, singing. Only it can’t be her, because she’s singing about god watching us. “Oh shit! Even Bette’s gone holy roller on me now!” It was enough to make me drive the little red pick-up off the mountain, or at least turn around and head back home.
But it was only From a Distance, and the first Bette CD I would ever own. If you’re at all curious, I did not turn around and go back. I drove to Montpelier and we met for lunch. That afternoon we decided it wouldn’t be prudent for either of us to begin a long-distance romance with the 45th parallel and many other obstacles between us. I heard the song several more times on my return trip, and was able to join her in the chorus by the time I got home.
For the Girls, her latest album, was an iTunes download I pre-ordered, that went directly to my iPhone. How things change–and stay the same. It’s an incredible mix of songs–everything from an Andrews Sisters favorite to TLC. In between are loads of early 1960s girls’ group tunes–the music danced to in basement ‘recreation rooms’ and at every junior high dance and sock-hop by this confused and pimply faced nerd. Bette has been blessed with a gift to deliver these songs, making each sound brand new in a uniquely old-fashioned way. At least that’s what makes her divine to me. What else can you call the woman who nearly single-handedly supplied the soundtrack of your life?