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For the uninitiated, here are three Soph’ jokes (and did I mention that this column is R-rated?): “I was in bed one night with m’ boyfriend Ernie. He said to me, ‘Soph’, how come you never tell me when you havin’ an orgasm?’ I said to him, ‘Ernie, you’re never around!’” A second: “I was on a honeymoon with m’ boyfriend Ernie. Suddenly, I cut the cheese. Ernie said, ‘Soph, did you just fart?’ I said, ‘Of course I did d’ya think I always smell like this?’” And finally: “I’ll never forget it, y’ know. Doorbell rang the other day. Answered the door, there was a delivery boy there, delivery boy there with two dozen roses. I grabbed the card. Opened it. Said: ‘Love from your boyfriend Ernie.’ I was havin’ tea with my girlfriend Clementine at the time. I said, ‘Clementine, y’ know what this means? For the next two weeks I’m gonna be flat on m’ back with m’ legs wide open.’ Clementine says to me, ‘What’s the matter with you ain’t you got a vase?’”
As chanteuse or burlesque comic, in concerts or movies, Midler has put her body to nonstop work. Harnessing the energy of some Rube Goldberg perpetual-motion machine, prancing on those fine filly legs like the winner of the strumpet’s marathon, Bette uses her body as an inexhaustible source of sight gags. She shimmies it, twists it, upends it to reveal polka-dot bloomers. In 1978 at the London Palladium she flashed the front of it; at Harvard in 1976, picking up her Hasty Pudding Award as Woman of the Year, she exposed her sugary buns. She has made a cottage industry of her buxom bosom. In the 1985 album “Mud Will Be Flung Tonight,” she confesses that she once consulted a postage scale to determine just how heavy her breasts were, and “I won’t tell you how much they weigh, but it cost $87.50 to send ‘em to Brazil. Third class.”
“Mud” has many such gleaming zircons, written by Midler, Vilanch, Jerry Blatt, Marc Shaiman and lots of other men who find in her the perfect blend of femininity and moth-flapping disrespect. (She pays tribute to them by saying, “More Hebrews worked on this act than built the pyramids.”) In that show she spat out gags about the newly-hot Madonna (“Like a virgin? The only thing that girl will ever do like a virgin is have a baby in a stable. By an unknown father”), the androgynous rock star Prince (“When there’s a sex symbol, I like to know the sex of the symbol”), the California fad for internal spritzing (“Do you ever read the L.A. Weekly? Do you ever notice how many ads for high colonics they have? Is this town that full of shit?”). She played with herself too, so to speak. Of her own newlywed status, she observed: “I married a Kraut. Every night I dress up like Poland and he invades me.”
Bette’s jokes fulfill the tradition of the defiant female wit, alive with innuendo, that stretches from the Wife of Bath to Belle Barth. They also tend to obscure Midler’s unique talent: a 5-ft. 1-in. Statue of Libido carrying a torch with a blue flame. Her phrasings have always been as witty as Streisand’s, her dredgings of a tormented soul as profound as Aretha’s, her range wider than all comers’. Yes, she coos bedroom ballads like “Long John Blues”; sure, her charts tease five decades of popular music with the wink of parody. But her laser-precise technique is no counterfeit of feeling. It is the art of the Method singer, who approaches a song as an actor does his text: finding the heft of a melodic line, trolling for the truth in a lyric, daring to shift emotional gears without stripping them. She is a demon explorer, possessed by music.
She hit New York fresh from Hawaii, where she was born and grew up, and where her showbiz-loving mother named her for Bette Davis (her two sisters were named for Judy Garland and Susan Hayward). Right away she met Tom Eyen, author of such plays as “Sarah B. Divine!” and “Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?”, and started working for him, soon graduating to dizzy-bimbo leads. From Eyen she learned about camp. From the East Village soubrette Black-Eyed Susan, a frequent player in Charles Ludlam’s triple-off-Broadway travesties, she picked up the retro-chic 30s look. She bought an old velvet dress and coat and started singing songs from the period.
Every spare moment back then, she would study records of Bessie Smith, Ruth Etting, Libby Holman and Aretha Franklin, the adored elder sisters of Bette’s vocal style. She also learned a lot from the Andrews Sisters (whose “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was an early and then a signature hit for Bette) and the jazz vocalists Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; she covered their “Twisted” a beautifully nutsy reading of the couplet “He said I was the type that was most inclined / When out of his sight to be out of my mind” and evoked the trio’s scat-hipster style in her version of “In the Mood.”
Approaching a song in those early days, Bette would often flatten the lyric line, whether doing a Hoagy Carmichael standard (“Skylark”), a Harry Warren movie song (“Lullaby of Broadway”) or a Bob Dylan anthem (“I Shall Be Released”). She was emphasizing the actress in singer-actress, and her need to set a song’s dramatic mood led her into interesting excesses. In the Brecht-Weill “Surabaya Johnny,” she’s young playing old a brilliant schoolgirl auditioning for a tough part she is not yet suited for. Today, on her concert tour, Midler is old playing young, and somehow she does it much more persuasively.
What worked, musically and vox-poply, were the uptempo covers of songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” all hits that helped make her 1972 debut LP, “The Divine Miss M,” produced by Barry Manilow, sell three million copies in its first year. For the rest of the 70s she was a chart-topper, or chart-dweller. My favorite album is the 1975 semi-flop “Songs for the New Depression,” with “Shiver Me Timbers,” the samba “Marahuana,” the lovely harmonies on “No Jestering” and “Samedi et vendredi” and a kicky duet with Bob Dylan on his “Buckets of Rain,” a twist of Tom Paxton’s “Bottle of Wine” into a good-timey rocker that ends with Dylan’s ad-lib grouse, “Paul Simon should’ve done this.”