June 24, 1971 | Issue No. 85
The Jeaning of Barbra Streisand
BY GROVER LEWIS
LOS ANGELES—Holmby Hills, Humphrey Bogart's old neighborhood, is an enclave of the kind of profligate wealth amassed from such ventures as deep-bleed oil drilling, the pioneer sorties of the Hollywood dream makers, and somebody else's stoop labor stooping and laboring in perpetuity. The streets are quiet, sloping and well-patrolled by flint-eyed private security guards; the houses, more often than not, are immense anthems to the Early Chilidipper School of Southern California architecture, most of them hidden behind what looks suspiciously like electrified shrubbery.
Barbra Streisand's place is no exception. The rooms are massive, pin-neat, high-vaulted, gorged with Art Nouveau and Art Deco furnishings. In the music room connecting to a solarium which affords a view of an Olympic-size swimming pool, everything has its proper niche: the countless photos of her four- year-old son Jason (no pictures of her estranged husband Elliott Gould); an unopened pack of Sherman's Cigaretellos, neat stacks of books and magazines. Streisand's picture in ROLLING STONE Along with the rest of America, Barbra herself is jeaning these days, head to heel. Dressed in matching denim jacket and flares with that unmistakable de rigueur patina of garments washed precisely once—the overall ensemble topped off by a bio-degradable denim sombrero —she whips into the sun room, sizes up the assembled talent, frowns at the sight of a working tape recorder, grimaces dourly at the unexpected presence of a photographer, then strides to the glass door opening on the patio to oversee two gardeners who are topping out some trees beyond the pool. Though it's early afternoon, the sky has already sicklied over with yellowish schmaze endemic to Southern California. "There's never enough sun for the pool," she complains, sinking down at a white table and making a pretty face at the whirring tape machine.
Abruptly, she swings around to a paid functionary: "I wanted to play, that Carole King record today, David. It was on the turntable last night, and now it's gone. Do you suppose the cleaning girl took it?" Distractedly, she traces a finger along the soft line of deli-food chubbiness that rings her fetching jaw and sniffles into a handkerchief. "And to top everything off, I've got this shitty cold. I have to record tonight." Her clear hazel eyes blip with irritation.
"I'm not organized, you know. It's a life-long failing. Things like colds complicate everything, and I get furious. I don't like to be hampered by my body. There aren't enough hours in the day as it is. Also I don't do any exercises, and I'm terribly ... I started playing tennis, you know, because that was a way to exercise. Maybe it was growing up in Brooklyn with a mother whose attitude was: 'Don't get your feet wet, you'll catch cold. Don't skip rope, you'll break a bone.' I guess that made me fearful of most things.
"I am, you know. You name it, I'm scared of it—skiing, hikes, coldness, water, heat, everything. I'm afraid of the world, probably. That's why I admire Jane Fonda—nothing fazes her. Bella Abzug, too, the Congresswoman. But me, I'm scared of crowds, of people in general. That's why I stay here in my little house most of the time. Simple fear."
A black maid serves coffee. Barbra peers into her cup pensively. "Being so scary—that's stupid of me, isn't it? So goddamn stupid. Then, too, I love to eat. I love to eat so much I have no will power about it. I always think, so what, so I'll get a little fat. Then I get fat. Oy!" Abruptly, she puts on a smile like a tiara, then notices one of the gardeners motioning at her. "What does he want? I want him to cut off the top of that tree, is what I want him to do. God, I hate to have anything done, because there's always a discussion about it, and then if it's not felt out properly to begin with, it doesn't come off right. Tell the truth, I don't know how I get anything done. Hey, I must sound peculiar, huh?" Shaking her head, she laughs raucously.
"Is my music greening, is that the question? What does that mean? Oh. Well, I'm not so old, you know. Only 28. Have you heard What About Today? and Stoney End? I think those albums feature good music from good writers— John Lennon, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Carole King. I truly admire people like those; they have a gift that I totally lack.
"Look. I'm considered this kind of ... institution thing. I'm labeled, pigeon-holed. I play for middleclass audiences in Vegas. I made those definitely Establishment pictures—Dolly, On a Clear Day, Funny Girl. All of which tags me as a 'veteran performer.' But I ask you, 28—is that old? Is 28 all that old?
"Let me tell you about the last time I played Vegas. I didn't take any fancy gowns, no intro, no overture. Just walked on, didn't want any kind of star thing. I don't go for all that crap. It cheats people as an audience, and I'm truly not interested in it. On top of which, I don't like to perform. That's true. I don't even like to be watched.
"Anyway, since I get nervous in places like Vegas, it occurred to me to do this funny little routine—actually telling the audience about my hangup. The point was, you shouldn't rely on emotional crutches. It was almost a sermon—no crutches, people; crutches are a no-no. Then at the end, I'd take out a joint and light it. First, just faking it. Then I started lighting live joints, passing them around to the band—you know. It was great—it relieved all my tensions. And I ended up with the greatest supply of grass ever. Other acts up and down the Strip heard about what I was doing —Little Anthony and the Imperials, people like that—and started sending me the best dope in the world. I never ran out. Hmn ... I wonder if I should tell that story."
She drums a nervous tattoo on the tabletop, glancing at the tape machine as if she hopes it will self-destruct. In seven seconds, it doesn't and she flashes another radiant smile.
"Yeah, well, people have a lot of misconceptions about me, you see. Some of which I resent. Like the 'star' business. I don't think of myself as a star; my friends don't think of me as a star. The fact is, a large part of me is pure nebbish—plain, dull, uninteresting. There's a more flamboyant part, too, obviously. But, listen, I'm still surprised, even embarrassed, when people recognize me in public. People will crowd into your booth in a restaurant, stop you on the street, all that crap. Well, I'm not a person who needs people—not those goddamn pushy people, anyway. Or maybe somebody will only think he recognizes me"—here, her long, tapering fingers punch out the story like a late-breaking wire dispatch—"and say, 'Oh, wow, I know you. You're . . . why, you're Lainie Kazan!'"
She laughs explosively, squirms in her chair, takes a sip of luke-cold coffee. Outside, the two workmen are ghostly blurs in the haze-shrouded tops of the trees.
"The real truth about me is ... I'm lazy. Lazy to the bone. Is that contradictory? Well I'm contradictory, then. Also a mother, an actress, a singer, and I have responsibilities and commitments in all those capacities. Lazy, though . . . God, I never even used to make my bed when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Still, I had this great need to be accepted, and that gave me a great drive. Before I made it, though, my life was my own, and I always had this feeling of — dignity. If I hadn't made it pretty early, I'd probably have been a fashion designer, something like that. But I was accepted quite easily. I never had to struggle, except in myself. See, I have—had— great will power. I thought ever since I was about seven that I was going to die, and I lived my life on that premise.
"Read a book about cancer, developed all the imaginary symptoms for cancer, like that. But I never told anybody—it was a secret thing. Also, I have super-sonic hearing due to a deviated septum and . . . umn, all those things probably contributed to my success. Do I mean it was fated? Well, hmn. I'm a Taurus, but I only believe in that when it's convenient."
She leans forward intently, arms akimbo. "See, it's hard to explain, but it has to do with reality. I like to talk about what's real, live what's real, involve myself in projects that're real. I'm going to do a movie soon with Peter Bogdanovich, and that'll hopefully turn out to have some of the value I mean. The youth movement in this country . . ." she hurries past the phrase as if it's embarrassing, which it more or less is— ". . . that stuff's for real. I don't mean burning colleges, drastic tactics. That's as despicable as Nixon-Agnew. But so many kids are trying to change the system by getting involved in the processes of change, and it's fantastic; things're changing, we're making progress.
"I care about people who care. I care about my day-to-day friends, whom I don't care to discuss. Would I care to comment about Mr. Gould? What do you mean? Anything to say? Just in general? Mmn . . . No.
"But let me tell you about my son Jason. A tough cookie, extremely bright. He's always had a fantastic sense of words and analogy. I'll say, 'Isn't that girl cute, she looks French.' He'll say, 'Yeah, cute like French toast.'
"Once I was talking to him on a very simplistic level and he soared right above my bullshit and came straight to the point. He's so open, he knows so much, and he's uncorrupted by phony attitudes. I don't want to put my own crap in his head anymore than I can help, but I'm resigned to the fact that there's no way I can not screw him up."
Looking bemused, she rises and walks over to the glass door. Outside, the workmen sever an enormous branch, and it arcs slowly through the air, hitting the sheer slope beyond the pool in a dead slide all the way down Barbra Streisand's very own Holmby hill.
* * *
That evening, in the depot-sized master studio at Columbia Records in downtown L.A., Barbra's jeaning has done a fast fade in favor of regalia more suitable for a queen of symphonic pop: she's wearing a svelte blue pants suit, a crimson, knee-length leather smock and matching street-boy cap. The effect is not unlike the over-ripe brilliance of out-of-tune color TV. "Doesn't she look smashing?" an aging-hipster PR man enthuses, watching from the control booth as she threads a skittish path through the maze of music stands to her mike-side perch on a high stool.
"This'll be a take on "The Summer Knows,'" Richard Perry, the session's producer, intones over the talk-back hookup. "We're gonna play 35 through 38, then Bob-ra comes in, right?" On cue, Bob-ra comes in, indeed, sounding just like herself — sounding, in fact, just like the prominent-nosed teen-aged girl with that inimitable tendency toward lyrical over-kill who sang "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "My Coloring Book" and "People" all those years ago. Listening to the playback, Perry passes a joint around among the visitors, one of whom is Tom Donohue, the rotund ex-underground FM biggie. "Christ," Donohue wheezes, lowering his hulk by stages onto a low-slung couch, "that's 43 musicians out there, baby — more than anybody else uses in a year." Somebody asks Donohue what's his connection with the session. He shrugs: "Ah, Tuesday's a slow night in L.A."
After the music ends, Barbra sweeps into the booth, looking edgy, spring- tight: "The ending leaves more than something to be desired, Dick. I don't know how to explain in words what's wrong with the sound, but . . ." While she and Perry confer in intense sotto voce off to one side, the aging hipster leans forward confidentially and taps one of the visitors on the arm: "Doesn't she sound terrific? Barbra's only 28, you know. People have the impression she's much older. But that's not old, do you think ... 28? Why, that's two years younger than Dylan."