I’ve always been fascinated by acts who have exactly one great rock and roll record in them. It happened a lot in rock’s first two decades, when amateurs or quasi-pros or wannabes often caught lightning in a bottle. Of such things were doo wop, girl groups and surf and garage band legends made.
Then there were the pros. Barbra Streisand singing “Stoney End” comes to mind. It really was just the one studio moment, as she’s camped up every performance of the song since the day she cut it.
In some ways even stranger is Bette Midler’s take on “Beast of Burden.” She recorded it as a replacement for Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” when he blocked her from releasing her version because it “wasn’t a girl’s song” and it doesn’t so much smoke the Rolling Stones as stomp a hole through their rotting carcass.
Stranger still because, unlike Streisand, rock and roll seemed like it should have been Midler’s forte. But, except for this, it wasn’t. I can see how the Stones never quite recovered from the shock. It’s one thing if Linda Ronstadt goes toe-to-toe with you. It’s another thing when someone whose entire career has careened from camp to sentiment and back again (sometimes, as on “The Rose” or her cover of John Prine’s “Hello In There,” earned sentiment, more often not quite), just flat out kicks you to the curb like it’s all in a day’s work.
Based on “Beast of Burden” you’d have thought she could be a better Pat Benetar without breaking a sweat.
I thought I had covered all this a few years back when I posted the MTV video of Midler and Jagger having a ball with it. There’s a cleaner version of the video available now–still the only proof I’ve seen that Mick has a sense of humor (as opposed to recognizing the uses of appearing to have one–that came with the Lucifer Lessons).
Even here, though, the Spirit of Camp is hovering nearby. Elsewhere, when Midler performed the song, live or synched, that Spirit always moved in and took over.
Except for once.
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether its angry dispersal here–and Midler’s total immersion in a synched performance, as if she and the song had fused into something no recording studio could contain–had anything at all to do with a nice Jewish girl refusing to camp it up in the home of Weimar decadence, a stone’s throw from the death camps.
Given that dynamic, it’s not impossible to imagine “I’ll never be your beast of burden” took on a whole new meaning. She didn’t do anything like this in Sweden.
**A few years later Natalie Cole’s version of “Pink Cadillac” scorched up the charts and no one was heard to complain. Midler’s live version on YouTube suggests she was better off with “Beast of Burden” but, given what she did with other live versions of “Beast” who knows? Maybe she had two great rock and roll records in her after all. Hope I get to hear her studio version some day, just in case.