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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Earworm Weekly: Bette Midler and Wynonna Judd's "The Rose"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2015 at 12:00 AM

click to enlarge bette-midler-the-rose.jpg

Local writer Justin Chin died this past week on Christmas Eve after suffering a stroke on December 19. Chin was gay and HIV-positive, born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore before relocating to San Francisco and joining the performance poetry scene in the 1990s and early 2000s. This is where I met him, sharing a bill in the early days of Writers with Drinks. He's the kind of writer that gets called “edgy” and “transgressive” because it's hard to convey precisely the kind of work he was doing. His pointed humor and supposedly outrageous antics weren't a cover for the raw vulnerability his words could bring; they were pointing right towards it. Chin loved to throw in all sorts of pop-culture references into his poetry. In a poem in his award-winning collection Gutted, published in 2006, he wrote:

“The death I would most like
is Bette Midler's in The Rose.
Where, up on stage in front of a packed house,
I'll tell the story of where I first heard
the blues, and as the story winds down,
my speech all slurry and raised to an odd minor chord,
I'll wonder, why is it so dark? Who turned off all the lights? Where has
everybody gone?
Then I will collapse and die.”

He added a footnote (who doesn't love poetry with humorous footnotes added?) specifying that he wanted to hear, as he was dying, the version of “The Rose” featuring Bette Midler and Wynonna Judd singing together. “That is the gayest rendition ever. Before you even get to the second verse, before you find out that the one who won't be taken cannot seem to give or that love is only for the lucky and the strong, you just want to be fucked up the arse.”

“The Rose” is the theme song written by Amanda McBroom from the 1979 hit movie of the same name, a vehicle for Bette Midler to try out her acting chops, as well as showcase her singing talent. It plays over the closing credits, after the main character, a rock-and-roll singer styled after Janis Joplin, dies onstage from a drug overdose at the beginning of her triumphant hometown concert return. I learned to sing the lyrics by heart thanks to secondary-school music classes grasping at any straw within reach in an attempt to make the curriculum more hip, contemporary, and relevant. A ballad with a ponderous tempo, flowery language, and super-simple structure – no chorus, just three verses and no key changes? Win! Teach the kids to sing it for the annual assembly. The parents will get all misty and applaud on cue. Yes, I still know all the words by heart. I can only hope that when I die, I won't hear them playing over my closing credits, too.

In these late days, many people have forgotten that Bette Midler launched her career by singing at the Continental Baths in New York City. She performed poolside daily to an audience of thousands of gay men, gaining the nickname “Bathhouse Betty” and cementing her place in the pantheon of beloved gay divas. Entire books can, and have, been written about gay men's love for female singers, though not all gay divas have to sing (think of Bette Davis, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Joan Rivers and Elizabeth Taylor). Sometimes they are substitute mother-figures; sometimes they get the guys that gay men desire. Many of them perform an exaggerated femininity that opens up a space for other gender performances, as well. Many of them are as beloved for their flaws and failures as for their talents.

Wynonna Judd rose to fame as part of the mother-daughter country music duo the Judds, later going solo under her first name. She earned her place in the pantheon of gay icons due to both her personal style – leather pants, sequined tuxedo jackets and big red hair – and her AIDS activism and support of LGBT rights. Double the divas, double the fun: Their 1997 duet for the VHI Honors show is indeed the gayest of all possible versions of “The Rose.”

Justin Chin didn't get to collapse onstage as per his poetic wish: He collapsed in his apartment, hit his head, and never woke up. But close enough. 

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Lori Selke


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