"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 13 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Standing Oration

By all accounts, Barbra Streisand supplied a farewell concert for the ages September 29. The big, broad strokes necessary to catch the drama of the moment were on elegant display. Streisand picked a nationally-known venue; priced tickets high enough so that even before scalping they cost as much as a small used truck; and packed the audience with a tastefully broad range of heavily-lacquered celebrities — including a former presidential candidate, the director of Texasville, and an obligatory member of the HBO television series of the moment. More importantly for posterity's sake was the attention paid to the details, tastefully marched before the judgment of history with the warming glow of the close-up lighting in one of Streisand's later films.

You want excess? The Thursday night gig at Madison Square Garden was the fourth of four final concerts, including two in England. Shameless displays of performer virtuosity? The well-received dress and paintsuit were designed by the never-nominated director herself. Never-forgot-my-roots humility? Sprinkled among the Liz Smith-approved attendees were various superfans and living embodiments of Babs-trivia, such as a woman who dated Streisand's father back when Al Hirschfeld needed directions to the theater district. All in all, it was a fabulous night of sung favorites, clucking at press members who simply don't understand being in love, and hammily-acted interludes, in which Streisand probably went down in history as the first songstress to sing duets with both a fictional version of herself (an actress playing the young Babs ) and a real version of herself from a scene in Yentl — a performer's Pandora's box if our Natalie Cole-trained eyes have ever seen one. Reviews indicated doubts about Barbra's performance as musician; but as a manufacturer of pop culture moments, she hit all the right notes.

Thanks to years of conditioning, one can make this sort of judgment with a certain amount of conviction. The farewell concert has been around nearly as long as the celebrity musician. One doesn't have to go back very far to find a retiring chanteuse with even more cultural oomph than Streisand — Marian Anderson's 1965 farewell tour included a final recital at Carnegie Hall. As a way to celebrate a lengthy or arguably significant career, career finales are a staple of orchestral movement and opera, a tradition that stretches from prominent city symphonies to local teaching institutions and their very own Mr. Hollands. The anticipation with which U.S. fans awaited, say, the farewell tour of tenor Beniamino Gigli reveals that the musical roots of such events rest in the fleeting nature of artistic performance. Although music has never approximated the horrendously high body count and fleeting professional lifespan found in dance, certain facts of mortality, facility, and physical ability are of vital importance to audiences focused on the art.

But farewell concerts have long been more than that. John Philip Sousa's 1892 farewell concert conducting the Marine Band on the White House Lawn — now there's a venue — ended with the presentation of an engraved baton from band members to their leader, and the romantic, totemic power of a baton passing gives the concert currency as a life-changing event. Pam Gem's play Marlene takes the preparation and performance that make up a farewell concert tour as the prime cut through which one may understand a life. And at least one historian argues that the popularity of European musical stars' farewell tours may have aided the cause of labor by providing an impetus for organizing local, potential orchestra members.

The modern exemplar of the farewell concert is David Bowie. Although many have used the notoriety of a final goodbye to springboard into a different career phase — Sousa's 39-year run with his own orchestra, for example — Bowie has toyed with the dramatics of finalty more effectively than anyone. Audiences have helped Bowie say goodbye to career phases, on-stage characters, and sections of his song catalog with an almost Billy Martin-like frequency. One reason Bowie is the Richest Performer in the History of the World is that he recognizes the value of moments like these, taking his square of carpet to the top of a slippery slope that includes mini-farewells to such dubious old friends as Elton John's muppet-accessory costumes and Jerry Seinfeld's joke book. David Bowie has made the world safe for raising image-consultant session results to event status.

The result of all this waving goodbye to people who never go away is that audiences cling even more happily and shamelessly to the hot-chocolate dramatics of the modern farewell concert. Brazilian singer Silvio Caldas structured the last 30 years of his career like the cape-throwing encore of a classic James Brown concert. Caldas became so well-known for the weepy heroics of his long farewell that after his death in 1998 at least one peer suggested he might soon spring back from the grave for a few more show dates. Frank Sinatra gave a farewell concert in 1971 and then toured for decades afterwards, until finally forced from stage for good — by a combination of poor health, the diminishing number of Rat Pack members available to share a marquee, and, in the end, the need to keep the Grammy Awards moving. At this point, pop singers and bands have the credibility of prizefighters when it comes to hanging up the gloves. No one really believed Celine Dion, the living embodiment of kiddie-pageant ideals, when she wailed last year to a close in the form of a farewell concert. No one really believes Babs, either.

And that's okay — from a career standpoint, better the crossed-finger event than a show staged with such aplomb there's never any going back. The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's kick-ass film about The Band (and model for the even more immortalizing (This Is Spinal Tap), was such an effective goodbye it may have dampened '70s audiences' appetites for the solo careers of its members. The Police's symbolic, solemn charity show handed off the dubious right to be called King Mainstream Media Rockers of the World to members of U2, and there's no way anyone's getting Bono offstage while there's still feeling in his feet. For those of us who prefer that musical memories stay in the 1976 black Monte Carlo where they belong, the farewell concert has been a helpful stake to the heart — otherwise, there's no telling what horrors boredom, bills, or presidential edict may bring.

So hats off to the Vic Damones and Creams of the world, whose standing-room-only statements to their legions of fans seem to include a period at the end of the sentence. At least so far. And that same hat tipped to the Tina Turners, Kisses — would you retire a performance shtick that kept you ageless? — and Barbara Streisands, about whom we're not quite sure. We only wish we had figured out a way to get a gold watch, free lunch and confessions of workplace crushes before we took an extended vacation.


courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black