If they can make it there . . . they can keep it there

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The Independent Online
I WAS listening to the Radio 4 programme called Postcard from Gotham on Saturday, in which various New Yorkers were talking to Mark Steyn about abortion and Barbra Streisand. Separately, that is. They talked about abortion first, and whether it was really murder, and then they talked about Barbra Streisand's approach to a song and whether it was really murder, and during the course of this discussion someone let drop the fact that Ms Streisand was very popular with the gay community - and immediate1y I understood why I didn't like her singing.

I should stress at this point that this is not an anti-gay article. I have nothing against the gay community. I would quite honestly much rather listen to the gay community singing than Barbra Streisand singing. Or Judy Garland. Or Liza Minnelli. Or Ethel Merman, or any of those brassy, dominant singers who make every song into a fight for life or a miniature weepie movie with a happy ending. Or maybe a tragic ending. It's hard to tell which.

This kind of singer is, for reasons which it's too early in the morning to try and explore in depth, very popular with the gay community. During the Seventies I had a good friend who was male and homosexual, and he once teasingly suggested that I should have a homosexual experience before it was too late, but I turned him down on the grounds that it was already too late in life for me to do a 180-degree turn and start liking Judy Garland. He gracefully saw the point and never brought up the idea again.

I once, and once only, experienced the full force of this sort of thing in the flesh. This was in the days when I was reviewing jazz for the Times and was occasionally recycled by the arts editor as a pop and rock reviewer - a mistake, as I was bored silly by pop and rock, and found it hard to conceal this antipathy, even when reviewing such luminaries as The Who and Peter Gabriel.

Eventually the arts editor noticed and I was taken off the main highway of music and put back on the B-road that led to jazz, but not before I had been sent to review a Shirley Bassey concert.

It was a gala affair and almost everyone had dressed up in sharp showbiz evening gala dress - that is to say, they were badly overdressed. Miss Bassey was not the only artist on the bill. There were other acts, such as a new comic duo whom I found very funny. (They had some name like Snatch and Grab. Could it have been Hale and Pace? They certainly were a pair of monosyllables.) But the showbiz crowd had come only to cheer dear Shirley, and they talked or drank throughout the support acts.

Finally Shirley Bassey came on to the stage, triumphantly acknowledging her supporters just as a heavyweight boxing champion might, and a dozen inoffensive songs were led on one by one for her to overpower and humanely dispatch.

The technique does not seem to vary a lot from brassy singer to brassy singer. The song starts very softly, with the singer whispering the opening words confidentially into the microphone (which is always the best bit for me), then gradually escalates in volume and intensity until she is belting it out over the orchestra, standing in a triumphant arms-

spread, head-back position, trying to drown both the orchestra and the ovation.

(The only non-singer I have ever seen using this technique was Sir Oswald Mosley. When I was at university in the early Sixties someone lured him into addressing a political meeting and a lot of us went along to see this slice of history. He too started out sweetly and reasonably. Then he said something which riled somebody. He heckled. Somebody answered the heckler. Oswald Mosley spoke louder to cover both. Gradually the volume of the gathering grew and grew, until Mosley was roaring and the crowd was roaring back, and then suddenly there came one of those strange moments - I've never forgotten this - when everyone in the audience drew breath at the same time and there was silence for three or five seconds. During that brief silence all you could hear was Sir Oswald Mosley screaming his head off. It was scary. But in my memory I now see him singing about how if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.)

I can't remember what I wrote about Shirley Bassey, but I can remember what I wanted to write. I wanted to write: 'Last night saw the emergence of a great new comic act called Snatch and Grab. Their timing, their freshness, etc, etc, etc. Also on the bill was a singer called Shirley Bassey, who would do well to change her technique and repertoire, if not her profession . . .'

I wish I had had the courage so to write, but I didn't want to lose my job, and so I chickened out, and more shame me.