Friday, October 12, 2012

You Better You Bette

Between 1971 and 2011, Tommy returned to Seattle several times, staged variously as opera, musical play, concert hall performance, even tarted-up film (i.e., the version directed by Ken Russell). I believe Roger Daltrey sang here in two or three of them and Townshend played his windmilling guitar in at least one. Even now, over 40 years later, somewhere in the world, new versions are up on the boards, filling seats yet again.

I’ve never been to any of them. For some reason I’ve just never gone gaga (Lady or otherwise); I hear a dumb story partially redeemed by the music, but I’d rather revisit classic albums like Who’s Next and The Who Sell Out. (In fact, writing about Townshend and the lads sent me
looking for used copies of some Deluxe 2CD reissue packages, and the tracks new and old, older and older yet, sound uniformly great.)

I pretty much let the rock-critic thing slide in the late Seventies, moved on to other kinds of writing, and eventually made a late-career shift into bookselling. From 1992 until 2002, my wife and I owned a mixed new-and-used bookstore in Seattle’s busy Pike Place Market downtown; we sold postcards and LP records and some expensive collectable First Editions as well as a selection of new publications. We had some fine years before Amazon and other big stores started crushing us small sellers; and our location meant you never knew who might wander in, from mystery writers to Nashville pickers to local Rock stars.

And late one midweek morning in 1996, I looked up from the paperback dictionary I was idly sampling, saw a good-looking woman in raincoat and scarf (removing the latter), still in sunglasses, and realized it was Bette Midler. I knew she was in Seattle for a series of performances, but having her appear in our store was a pleasant
surprise. I tried to play it cool as I stepped out from behind the counter, still holding the dictionary.

“Good morning, Ms. Midler,” I said.

She glanced at me, smiled briefly, said, “Hello.”

“Anything I can help you find?”

“Well, I was just starting to look around…” The sentence didn’t quite close.

“Please,” I said, “… continue,” waving the book in some sort of awkward gesture, then quickly putting it aside. She did just that, and I tried to think of something else worth saying. I thought of Bette coming to Seattle for Tommy in 1971 and how 25 years had zipped by since then. I started fumbling through the story, trying to play
up my small role in that chain of circumstances--but, so I hoped, without bragging too much.

Bette had stopped browsing and was looking straight at me. When I stumbled and paused, she took off her sunglasses, deposited them on a table book display, and suddenly stepped towards me, pugnacious, glaring. I backed up as she launched into a fast, furious diatribe, sounding angry enough to chew on nails and spit out tacks, word by word. (I don’t really remember what all she said, but the content was similar to this partly-made-up flurry of words and jokes--that I sort of registered, but didn’t dare laugh at. I was too busy backpedaling.)

“So it’s you I should thank for nearly wrecking my career? I oughta whomp you upside the head with that dictionary… kick your Trojan arse sidesaddle! It was you launched the thousand slip-ups, and the worst stage experience I ever had to go-on
and work through--and that includes times when I couldn’t sing, and times when I wish I hadn’t. And don’t get me started on wardrobe misfunctions. Damn Tommy-tuckers had me running, jumping, and climbing, in a see-through costume made of band-aids and gauze. Madame LaZonga with her gazongas hangin’ out, jumping off a 20-foot cliff, onto a trampoline… every night!" She took a breath, then snarled: “With fiends like that, who needs enemas?!

“And then came your chicken critics, clucking and squawking, waving their tiny column inches and attacking my tits--they should kiss my Acid Queen--instead of discussing the music or analyzing that weird story. And backstage, what, comfort?
Warm rooms? Fageddit! Your Moore definitely was less--a lesson in... How to be stingy. With no fun anywhere. Cold chills and no hot guys. Rain like Noah’s flood. Blue laws and bluestockings still running your city--in 1971! 'Only ten weeks' you say? Well, those ten weeks in Seattle are still the worst year of my life!” A calming breath and then, slowly, winding down: “Now friends of mine… are moving up here… but why… is still a total… mystery to me… MisterE...”

That last slowed sentence also saw Bette trying hard not to laugh. But she couldn’t help grinning, and I realized her whole tough-broad rant
had been more performance art than permanent anger. I stammered something like “Whew! You really had me goin’ there. Listen, I am sorry...”

She stopped me. “Enough with the baloney. I survived. I’m doing fine. But let’s just say, maybe you owe me, a little. So work off your debt. Come out here and help me pick some books to read on this long tour.”

I did. We wandered around MisterE Books for a half hour maybe. I answered her questions, we compared notes and opinions on books read, and I offered some recommendations. I had to break away for a few postcard sales, but mostly we were alone. The browsing book-woman seemed happy, glad to be doing something other than playing BETTE MIDLER!!

Somewhere along the line I did tell her that payback had caught up with the critics who’d insulted her back in the Tommy days--one guy actually dead (I'd read somewhere) and another moored (Moore…d?) to a wheelchair. She just waved the
news away, saying, “Yeah, well, we're all on that damn list.”

The upshot? She chose a good-sized stack, eight or ten trade paperbacks, and I gave her “the Tommy discount”--20% off for being a trouper and a good sport. Hidden by scarf and sunglasses, Ms. Midler took her two bags of books, told me “Thanks” and “Ta-ta!” and left.

* * * * *
Until I sat down to write this tale, that was pretty much the last I heard-spoke-or-saw (or thought) about Bette, and Pete and Tommy, for another 15 years. It’s so ridiculously easy to be deaf-dumb-and-blind about anything that’s not in your daily
purview, your wheelhouse… mindset… horizon of interest… immediate vicinity… national borders… little corner of the world.

Worse yet--and I think Pete Townshend tapped into this, whether inspired or all unknowing, when he composed his lasting opera-of-Rock forty-odd years ago--here we are, billions of us, all us “little atomies,” each a Tommy at the center of his, her, your, my own universe… the walls and gaps and distances not
really bridged by I-Pads and cell phones and social media. Instead we are each more isolated and alone, reaching out digitally but more and more aware of loss, sensing our bits dispersing as the transporters fail and the solar winds rise…

But that’s a-whole-nother matter (aTommic perhaps?), to be argued some other time.

3 comments:

Steve Provizer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Provizer said...

Love the B.M. story. I was off on another vector entirely during the "Tommy" era although, as you say, it seems to have legs.

It sounds weirdly nerdy and retro, but I was constitutionally anti anyone who smashed instruments on stage. Your horn was and is a precious thing.

I Witness said...

Hello. Your finger must have twitched because your one email arrived twice, words egg-zack-ly the same in both... so I deleted one. Anyway, thanks for mentioning the Who wrecking games, which started by accident when Pete tossed his guitar upward (a bit of silly showmanship) in a venue with too low a ceiling. The cheap guitar broke apart, the audience roared its approval, and Pete realized he was on to something... From then on, Who fans arrived ready to shake some action and dodge any excessive destruction. Guitars cheap and wreckable, used drum kits, beat-up old amps, microphones tossed like spears... those costs added up, even as their popularity and sales rose higher and higher. At Monterey Pop, the Who ended by trashing their stage gear, and then Jimi Hemdrix decided to top all that by mock-humping his guitar and setting it on fire. The peace, love, and weed crowd was blown away.