Chatty pop'diva speaks her mind on hits and image MIDLER SOUNDS OFF

June 04, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

The art of conversation is not dead. Granted, it may not as widely practiced as it one was, but there are still those capable of turning a few moments; chatter into a witty and engaging bit of wordplay.

Take Bette Midler, for example. It's one thing to be funy when you've carefully choreographed every bit of stage busines, quite another to seem equally witty in an ad-lib. But as anyone who's caught Midler's current art onstage knows, some of the funniest moments in the show are her off-the-cuff cracks between songs.

Midler can be just as entertaining in casual conversation, too. She rang up recently from Charleston, S.C., as her current tour was just getting under way, and talked about everything from music to movies to why it is that other singers aren't as hilarious onstage.

Q: When you were out on tour last summer, it was pretty impressive to see how fast your jokes came, and how much of it clearly was stuff that wasn't in the show the night before, and probably wouldn't be there the night after. People don't do that onstage anymore.

Midler: Hmmm. I guess that's true.

Well, the style of performing has changed a lot. I think I'm a throwback. I might be the last of a certain type of performer. When people go to concerts, they expect to have someone who sings, plays the guitar or plays the piano, has a band, and musicians aren't, they don't . . . [Laughs] They don't tell jokes! They don't chatter. They just play.

I've never seen Garth Brooks, but they tell me he's quite entertaining. I hear Jimmy Buffett is very entertaining. But there's a certain tradition of entertainer that is not the same as it once was. And for those of us who are in a certain age range, we remember what that was, and that's the kind of thing we do, because we always loved it ourselves.

Kids nowadays don't have that tradition to fall back on. They do the best they can, I guess, but I don't see Pearl Jam getting ready to tell [jokes]. And the public sits still for it. They don't expect them to be entertaining. So all that has changed.

Q: Probably the only star of this generation who does make an effort to be entertaining is Madonna.

Midler: She does try. She really does. She doesn't talk, though. She has spectacle, which I think is fabulous. She's sort of like the Lido de Paris, a one-woman Lido. I went to see her the last time she was out, and it was quite marvelous, but she doesn't talk. And I thought that was really too bad, because her crowd really wants her to speak.

She doesn't go that extra step, which is to be enchanting. She doesn't care if they laugh or not. She doesn't care if they cry. She's not interested in moving them, and that, I think, is too bad, because she could. She can. She has that ability. She just hasn't tapped into it, yet.

Q: Speaking of making people cry, after starting out making really irreverent recordings, does it feel odd to have had such enormous success with sentimental ballads like "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "From a Distance"?

Midler: Well, it was a big shock. But it was also a great relief, in a way, because you look for a musical identity, and it was hard for me to find one that sustained.

I mean, they always thought of me as a retro-, Andrews Sister-type of personality, someone who could swing almost like a swing singer. Not a valid swing singer, like Ella Fitzgerald, but someone who was just an impersonator. It was thrilling, actually, to find that there was something I could do that people related to, and that was also considered musical.

I like the idea of being able to move people. Sometimes I'm surprised at how big the ballads are. I like them, but they're hard to come by.

Q: It does seem to be a matter of matching the singer and the NTC song. After all, a lot of people did "Wind Beneath My Wings," before you, and it wasn't a smash hit. It must be exciting to hit that right arrangement on the right song.

Midler: Oh, it's tremendously exciting. I was very surprised with "Wind Beneath My Wings," because I didn't understand the power that it was going to have over people's emotions. I mean, people really related so much to it. I think it said something that people needed to hear that said in a song context. They wanted to be able to say that to someone else, someone that they loved.

VJ I think the picture probably helped a little bit, too, but it was just

a part of the soundtrack. In the movie, it wasn't a production number, you didn't see anybody singing it.

Q: Speaking of movies, is it refreshing to be off the sound stage and back performing for live audiences again?

Midler: Well, after 10 years, you do yearn to refresh your skills. And also to refresh your memory on what it was that got you there in the first place. You know, you tend to forget, because so much of it gets covered over by all these other lessons that you learn.

So I actually think the 10 years in front of the camera were good for me, because it made everything smaller. And for me, for someone who used to be so out-sized, it was good, it was good discipline.

I never really cracked it, though, I must say. I liked some of the pictures I did. I liked "Gypsy," and was sorry that it wasn't on the big screen. It's a whole other discipline. I'm not sure that I ever really got the hang of it. It was interesting, but this is more fun.

LISTENING TO BETTE

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: Limited pavilion seating at $100, $75 and $50; $20 for lawn seating

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410)730-2424 for information

To hear Bette Midler sing "Wind Beneath My Wings," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in 6225 after the greeting.

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