When school began that September, something had changed: the kids got mean and there were a lot more of them. I was in 7th grade, the first year of middle school for me, and the bullying had become exponentially worse. Because of my looks—red hair and buck teeth—and the fact I was very effeminate, I found myself either physically attacked, sometimes by groups of kids, or simply shunned. I never told my parents because I was ashamed and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to explain something that I was years away from understanding myself: I was bullied because I was gay. Though I may have longed for some real friends, I made up for it in a way that came quite easily to me: I lived in my head. At that time, my favorite imaginary friend was Barbra Streisand. Though some described her as difficult to work with, because our relationship was imaginary, she was always a pussycat. Most importantly, she was the right friend at the right time, because I had so many questions for which she knew the answers.
“…as I long suspected, they believed that strange was a word for wrong, well not in my song…”
As autumn turned to winter, the thing that kept me going was the anticipation of the Christmas Day release of Barbra’s remake of A Star Is Born. Though I may have been a misfit and class punching bag at school, in my fantasy life I was a winner—just like Barbra. In 1976 Streisand was indisputably the biggest female star in the world and for me each of her successes was empathically felt, a personal win and useful weapon with which to fight back against my own sense of powerlessness and despair. In my identification with Barbra Streisand, I felt two things I desperately longed for: validation and hope.
Beyond the sound of her magnificent God-given voice, what was it about Barbra spoke to me so clearly as a child? Part of it was cultural identification: we are also Jews from Brooklyn and I recognized Barbra’s vocal cadence and general attitude in my own family’s, plus my mother and Barbra are extremely close in age—just months apart. Thus, I created the “Streisand Solution,” which simultaneously provided a dynamic alternative to my actual mother — the notion of mother as international superstar—as well as providing a comprehensive blueprint for coping with being tormented at school.
The Streisand persona, a powerful tonic for all the world’s exceptional outcasts, was delineated by an biding belief that outsiders could achieve not only mainstream acceptance, but massive cultural impact. This coping mechanism appealed to me in commensurate proportion to my sadness, which is to say, extensively. Also useful to me in the gestalt of Barbra was the notion that talent was more important than beauty, an idea that I held close to my heart every time I saw my own reflection. These Streisand tropes are everywhere in her work and were guiding principals which helped me navigate my childhood. For me, it felt like any amount of psychic pain could be ameliorated by the medicinal quality of Barbra Streisand’s abundant successes. The fact that I myself did not possess the same gifts as Barbra was a detail of which I was most completely unaware until many years later.
As Christmas drew closer I was thrilled that I was actually going to be able to see A Star Is Born with my friend Bridget Sullivan, though those months were not without their challenges. Like Barbra, I was stunned when the films’ director Frank Pierson wrote a hatchet piece about his supposed nightmare working with Barbra and Jon Peters months in advance of the film’s release in a withering, contemptuous New Times cover story. I remember it like it was yesterday and, perhaps even more surprising, I remember it like it happened to me! The piece was called “A Star Is Shorn: My Battles With Barbra and Jon” and the cover depicted Barbra…bald! When Streisand publicly expressed her pain that her director would, in essence, try to kill their child before it was born, I identified with Barbra’s humiliation at being publicly vilified, for as the class piñata at Hammerskjold Junior High who was, for example, beaten up and knocked to the ground at the 7th-grade dance, I knew what it felt like to be scalped in public.
Unlike Barbra, I let the matter role off my shoulders, because I knew that New Times was not exactly Newsweek and very few people other than me actually read the piece in the first place. A few days before Christmas, I felt encouraged when columnist extraordinaire Rona Barrett (who I always referred to as my favorite author at that time and, incidentally, was another imaginary friend. All my imaginary friends seemed to have tremendous challenges; in Miss Rona’s case, she overcame a degenerative hip condition as a child to become the Perez Hilton of the 70s), jumped the dailies and gave the film a rave on her Good Morning America spot. If memory serves— and when it comes to Barbra it generally does serve—she gave the film a 7 out of 10 on her Ronometer, singling out Barbra’s performance and praising the amazing concert sequences.
A Star Is Born opened on Christmas Day and though, like Barbra, I was hurt by many of the unkind reviews (some even quite personal, like Rex Reed’s, who focused on Barbra’s new afro as much as the film), I was buoyed by the fact of the film’s excellent box office receipts and imperviousness to negative press. “Evergreen,” the film’s first single, was getting massive airplay on the radio and by February, both the soundtrack and single would be Number 1 on the Billboard charts. The film was huge—bigger than huge. Though the film took a critical drubbing, it achieved something more important, critical mass. Barbra was on the cover of People magazine twice (once with Kris Kristofferson and once by herself). In fact, the iconic, sepia, Scavullo image that branded the film was so ubiquitous that Carol Burnett and Lyle Waggoner did a parody of it on her show where they pretended they were permanently stuck in the embrace.
I felt the same way about the film: we were stuck together. All through the icy winter months I walked to school and sat through my desultory classes, somehow able to endure the food or whatever else was hurled my way, because I knew by three o’clock I’d be safe in my room and listening to the soundtrack. The imagination is a powerful tool; by reading and re-reading the label copy and listening to the music so hard and with such an open heart, I was able to actually get out of New Jersey and hang out in the L.A. pop music scene depicted in the film.
By late March I had listened to the album so much that “The Woman In The Moon,” Barbra’s first song in the film’s first concert sequence (and my favorite), developed a serious skip right after the first line: “I was warned as a child of thirteen, not to act too strong, strong, strong, strong.” Holy shit! The skip was incredibly disturbing to me as the song was an essential cornerstone of my well-being and, at a $5.99 S.L.P. (“suggested list price”), I could ill-afford to re-buy the album. What’s a an agitated young boy to do? Here’s what: one night, in a trance-like fugue state worthy of Macbeth, I walked the album to the bathroom and bathed “The Woman In The Moon” with soap and water like a sick child! OUT, OUT, DAMN SKIP! Of course this only made it worse and I resorted to the old penny on the stylus, which by springtime, gave way to a nickel. By summer, when the nickel was no longer heavy enough and the odious skip returned, I was saved from having to move on to the big coins because ever-supportive Bridget lent me her copy of the record.
The skip in The Woman In The Moon wasn’t my only problem. By early April I was obsessing on the fact that Columbia Records apparently wasn’t releasing a second single from the album. What? A number one song on a number one album and no second single? I was only twelve, but I was enraged. This was the 1970s and several years before Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the advent of five or more singles from one album, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around Columbia’s incredible bad judgment to stop at one! Though my indignation precipitated my actual work in the record business itself by over ten years, their recalcitrance made no sense to me (my overwhelming frustration actually presaged feelings I would have as an adult when dealing with record labels’ abject lack of common sense.)
Oh, I tried to get the label to see it my way. From my command post in Central Jersey, I wrote letters to Columbia Records at the address on the back of the album demanding an explanation and condemning their judgement. I called WABC, New York’s top-40 station, several times a week and made inquiries, but I couldn’t get any satisfaction. By late April, dejected and utterly exhausted, I let the matter go. Luckily, my defeat coincided with an item I read in Liz Smith’s column in the New York Daily News that Barbra was releasing another album, Streisand Superman, in the summer. (With the benefit of hindsight and twenty-plus years in the record business, I’m sure the label was already setting up the next album and didn’t want a second single from the soundtrack to disrupt the marketing plan for the next album’s first single, “My Heart Belongs To Me,” but I still think it was a mistake and they should have pushed Streisand Superman back to Christmas.)
In retrospect I see that the arc of the A Star Is Born juggernaut was so much more rewarding than thinking about my own life. It was comforting to identify with a winner like Barbra Streisand and Esther Hoffman’s meteoric rise to the top (which mirrored her own). The more invisible I felt, the more I retreated to a private fantasy world where I lived in Laurel Canyon and hung out at the Troubadour with John Norman Howard and Esther Hoffman. Even today, I can’t hear the songs from this soundtrack without traveling back in time. The funny part is I don’t really go back to where I was—my lonely winter in East Brunswick, New Jersey—I go back to where I felt I was: Los Angeles.
So it’s Barbra’s 70th birthday and what better way is there to acknowledge this milestone and end this story than with her performance of Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams’ “The Woman In The Moon?” In 1976 there was no denying that her voice was in its astonishing prime; I still feel a thrill with each of her effortless octave jumps that are peppered throughout the song like the spray of babies’ breath that nested in Barbra’s afro in the film’s wedding sequence. So here’s the take-away: it doesn’t matter what the critics wrote about the film or that I was bullied. What does matter is that we find the words we need to hear. Sometimes we even need to borrow someone else’s voice until we grow old enough or strong enough to find our own. As a young gay boy who had no voice of his own, I’m lucky I had good enough ears to borrow the most beautiful voice of all.
Happy birthday, Barbra Streisand, from the twelve-year-old boy that still lives inside me, and from all the outcasts everywhere who heard what they needed to hear when you sang for us all.
Mark Montana: Focusing primarily on portraiture, my paintings and drawings employ the exactitude of Hyperrealism / Photorealism, with more traditional elements of Classical Realism and Romanticism, to create an idealized reality which offers a heroic view of the subject. I strive to achieve an aesthetically pleasing portrait which is painstakingly observed, unflinchingly honest, and deeply sympathetic. markmontana.net