REVIEW: The Divine Miss Bette | Slide, Sydney
Catherine Alcorn has it easy. I mean, first and foremost, she’s bloody talented. She can sing. She can act. She has comic timing. And the confidence, the unmitigated chutzpah, to be Bette Midler. I thought only Bette had that. And she doesn’t need a writer. She just uses Bette’s material. Her songs. Her jokes. Her risqué patter. Her class. Her arse. And why wouldn’t she? It’s great material.
Of course, if all you know or remember about Bette is her film career, not least Bitches (whoops, sorry, Beaches) and that song, you know nothin’. Because before Bette was a veritable Joplin in The Rose, Danny DeVito’s screen wife in Ruthless People, or C. C. Bloom, jerking tears with Wind Beneath My Wings, she had a whole other career. Voted ‘most talkative’ and ‘most dramatic’ at school, in Hawaii, it was her move to New York that sealed her success. She might have been doing children’s plays by day and adult shows by night at first, but she soon moved on to Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway. The next step was into the Continental Baths, a euphemistically-named gay bathhouse, where she and her pianist, Barry Manilow, built a cult following; so much so, she became known as Bathhouse Betty. A little later, she starred in Tommy, which more-or-less got her onto The Tonight Show.
But her biggest break came with the recording of her debut album, The Divine Miss M, produced by Manilow in 1972. It was top 10, went ballistic and platinum. It had Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, among other knockout tracks. So, even if you put Bette’s naughty humour to one side (let’s face it, tour names like “Kiss My Brass Down Under” say it all), you’d still have a brilliant bunch of exceptionally well-sung songs. Alcorn milks both, the yin and the yang, for all they’re worth.
Much of Bette’s humour and, by inference, Catherine’s is rooted, if you will, in the pioneering humour of Sophie Tucker, The Last Of The Red Hot Mamas. Well, second last, perhaps, as it turned out. Tucker was, doubtless, a big influence (comedically and vocally), too, on the likes of Mae West, Joan Rivers, Roseanne, Ethel Merman and Mama Cass. You know the shtick, by way of Midler’s character, Soph and boyfriend, Ernie. It goes a little like this: “Soph, you’ve got not tits and a tight box”; “Ernie, get off my back!”
You might know (You Got To Have) Friends best, or as well, as sung by Candice Bergen and The Muppets. Cute enough. But Midler’s version actually has some pathos, especially when one’s cognisant of the background. She used to sing it at the Continental Baths, it having been co-written by Buzzy Linhart (and Mark ‘Moogy’ Klingman), a close friend from the early days. Buzz had recorded a rock-oriented version himself (try finding that in your local record store), but the duo liked Midler’s as soon as they heard it and so did the great American unwashed when it was released as a single in 1973: it skyrocketed to number nine on the adult contemporary chart and made 40 in the Billboard Top 100. It’s the kind of song that could be so easily mocked, particularly now, when we’re all so bitter, twisted and cynical (OK, I’ll just speak for myself), but there’s something in the way Bette deals with the song and for Alcorn to be able to catch this is remarkable. Fragility; vulnerability; sincerity; resilience; hope. It’s all there, in both ladies’ voices. For the most part, Alcorn emulates Midler almost eerily well, even if her ranga musical director ‘looks more like Bette than I do’, with his shock of flaming red hair.
Alcorn folded Chapel of Love in with Friends. In the space of a medley, the singer goes from being all alone, with none beside her, to getting hitched. And when she does, we’re hitched too; to her wagon, as she makes it feel like a blue-skied spring, in which the birds all sing. You might even catch yourself singing along, despite your solemn promise to be cool.
She followed that (not easy) with In The Mood. Midler seems to have had a real flair and feeling for tunes of this vintage and, when I think about the flavour that remains, after all these years, of The Divine Miss M, I think about brass arrangements, a la Miller. Miller, Midler; what’s the difference?
I’ve always loved Delta Dawn, the story of a southern belle whose seen better days, since Helen Reddy recorded it. The lyric narrative is completely compelling and vivid, in a way that few are. Who can forget the image of her walking downtown, suitcase in hand, looking for that mysterious, dark-haired man? What I didn’t know was that Reddy came to record it somewhat accidentally and that, hot on the heels of co-writer, Alex Harvey (not the British rocker), laying it down in 1971, his backup singer, Tracy Nelson, incorporated it in her live show. Midler, on seeing it, was inspired to adopt it and took it on The Tonight Show. It was only due to contractual complications that Tanya Tucker got to record it before her. Barbra Streisand was offered it, but politely (one assumes) declined; Reddy was, well, ready, trumping Bette’s single release by just a couple of days. For my money, Bette’s is the bluesiest and most feeling rendition. Feeling. That’s what she does best. And Alcorn does it one more time with feeling.
That very depth of feeling makes both Bette and her ‘tributary’, Catherine Alcorn, especially well-suited to Am I Blue?, a song first sung by Ethel Waters in the 1929 movie, On With The Show, distinguished as being the first film with sound shot in colour. Again, Midler keeps it bluesy, while interpreting the lyric’s sadness and loneliness movingly, with just a hint of desperation infusing the desolation and desiccation reflected in the lyric. Alcorn picks up all these cues.
Having plucked out our hearts, Alcorn launches into Bette’s famous fried eggs monologue, from her first live album, captured on her so-called Depression Tour in the late ’70s. This quite bizarre, but very pointed allegory about wounds, hidden or exposed, always enhances the poignancy and humanity of what follows, which is Hello In There. With a rapidly ageing population of which I’m very much apart, it’s timely to remember old people aren’t and should never become invisible, for out of sight is out of mind.
Miss Otis Regrets she’s unable to lunch today, but none could regret Alcorn’s version, pushed out with pizzazz and panache.
As with Delta Dawn, I’ve nurtured a sneaking admiration for Carole Bayer Sager’s You’re Moving Out since I first heard it, in the early Countdown days, as I recall. What I didn’t know then is that the song is as much Midler’s as Sager’s, since she co-wrote it. The Chinese have always known the house guests are like fish and this song charts the experience of the soft-hearted friend who more than accommodates another’s heartache by putting them up for a night that turns into a year. I always thought the idea of the boyish man packing-up his rubber duck and sixty-one cassettes said it all. It still does. And Alcorn puts it across with the same directness as the originators.
Dr Long John, or Long John Blues as it’s sometimes called, harks back to the aforementioned live album and surely must be the only sexy song ever written about a dentist and Alcorn works every euphemistic phrase to the hilt. It makes you want to go home and fill the odd cavity yourself. Hey, don’t complain to me! I didn’t write it. And the Bettes (Midler and Alcorn) don’t aren’t backward in coming forward, unlike the more understated and demure Dinah Washington original, from 1948.
Staying with the risqué, Otto Titsling was up next. Personally, I would never, necessarily, have rushed into inventing the brassiere, even if I had the engineering knowhow, but Titsling did. It’s anything but an uplifting tale, but is so well-told the purveyors of Trivial Pursuit were taken in and gave Titsling as the right answer to the question, ‘who invented the bra?’ (In fact, it’s not just the right answer, but the left as well; boom-boom!) But we all know, of course, Titsling was pipped at the post by the conniving Frenchman Philippe De Brassiere. Ah-hah ; )
Then, the songs we wouldn’t be caught dead admitting we’d been waiting for. The big, tear-jerking ballads. The Rose. From A Distance. Wind Beneath My Wings. Whenever they’re sung, I’m sure, Kleenex shares go through the roof. And while stockholders gleefully guzzle champagne, we all get to have a good cry, even if it’s only on the inside.
Bette somehow manages to medley Sentimental Journey and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, so Alcorn is honour-bound to do same. Making it work, since the transition is so dramatic, is another thing. But again, she’s ready for it. And for us. Even amidst the rich catalogue that is Midler’s music, it’s hard to go past to the fun-loving nostalgia of The Andrews Sisters wartime jump-blues classic. Probably no accident it’s rated number six on Songs Of The Century, an American recording industry educational initiative which involved a cross-section comprising hundreds of votes from people who, on the whole, might know.
The Divine Miss A does The Divine Miss M divinely. Even Mr Rabbit and Cardinal Pill would approve of that much divinity. Even if they didn’t subscribe to the global warming that comes from all the bawdy gags. There is one caveat: the pre-recorded backing tracks were woeful; as cheap and nasty as they come. I realise a brass section, for example, bolsters (or would) Bette’s/Alcorn’s bold delivery, but I’d rather settle for just piano (perhaps Barry was all she had a the CB) if I can’t have the real thing.
The details: The Devine Miss Bette played the Slide Lounge on June 15, with further shows on July 20 and December 19. Tickets via Ticketek.