There's a reason she's calling her farewell tour "Living Proof." Cher has a voice like a jazz tenor saxophone, and if it weren't for those amazing pipes coming right at you like a freight train -- no loss of resonance in this 55-year-old diaphragm -- you would think she was a droid from Planet Liposuction. The body looks perfect -- and we do see ALL of it -- so on the same night when Britney Spears was opening her new restaurant several blocks away, I couldn't help comparing divas and pronouncing this one the original: She INVENTED midriff.
Is it possible that anyone in the world could look so outrageous and so comfortable at the same time? The whole Cher experience is trance-like, so that no matter how close you are to the stage -- I was in the 11th row -- there's an otherworldly presence about her. She starts a thumping techno bass beat 20 minutes before the show, while the roadies are still adjusting pulleys, levers and skylights, and it grows in intensity until the moment when she literally drops out of the sky in some kind of goddess balcony shaped like a giant Faberge egg as re-imagined by a gay metallurgist with a fetish for gilded enamel.
I counted five different hair colors alone in her wall-to-wall Madison Square Garden exercise in excess. There must be an entire semi-trailer that does nothing but cart the Bob Mackie gowns from one city to another.
And this woman has had more fur on her head than an Inuit chieftain. From the very first moment it's all about fuzzy pelts, with Cher descending in a cantilevered diamond-encrusted fur-covered headdress that defies all known laws of gravity and suggests a Mongolian princess teleported from the 17th century.
Then, before she can get through the first stanza of "All I Wanna Do," she's surrounded by furry dancers that look like Sri Lankan natives enslaved by a Turkish sultan. It's all vaguely Asian, with primary colors splashed around like highlights on a Persian carpet, to create that Islamabad House Party feel.
The set itself looks like the palace in "Conan the Barbarian" outfitted with a giant 1950s deco kitchen, complete with antique sunbursts and multicolored patio bricks. All the better for her to make her second entrance on the neck of an enormous pink and purple elephant with an animatronic trunk. The crowd was standing through the first three songs -- grinning and exulting in a kind of "I can't believe what I'm seeing" way -- and the show hadn't even started yet.
She cracks a whip in a circus mistress outfit, complete with P.T. Barnum Mad Hatter headgear, as the stage swarms with pastel bare-breasted eunuchs in jeweled hats -- (did we just land in the world's biggest gay bar?) -- which gives her just enough time to switch into harem pants and a baby-blue concubine outfit while singing "Baby, It's All About Me Now" while giant psychedelic video screens twirl behind her. It is SO all about her now.
She finally speaks to the crowd -- just to let us know that it's not a DisneyWorld theme ride. That's all the reality we need, though, because we're soon in Vocoder City, with that gravelly European-disco distortion machine settling into her voice while two Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats twirl up and down 60-foot white drapes, dueling guitarists prance around her, and fireworks go off in the middle distance as she lies to us on "I'll Sleep Alone" (I don't know the real names of these songs) and the amazing thing is that nobody much cares about the electronic enhancement. You never wonder if that is her real voice because she is so in-your-face that you have no doubt that nobody else could make that sound.
She keeps topping herself. Beefcake loincloth dancers in giant black Mohawk haircuts fly around on some red curtains when she enters on "Bang Bang," a song she never sang while Sonny was alive, and of course HER giant Mohawk headdress is twice the size of all the others and has purple highlights. Her bodice is a miasma of leopard skin covered with a burgundy leather jacket with the world's longest fringe on it, so much fringe that it seems to be all fringe and no jacket, and under the Mohawk she wears an Amelia Earhart aviator's hat that somehow WORKS for her.
All I can say is that this show shook Madison Square Garden more than any Knicks game in its history, and the sound was so deafening, the bass beat so relentless, that it was all-dancing, all-the-time, like a retro-glam super-rave for people who normally have to take naps in the afternoon. At one point she made some catty remarks about J. Lo and Britney, as if to say, "Let those bitches top THIS!"
As the writhing Mohawks slink away, she has a whole Sonny Bono video section, with the two of them harmonizing on "The Beat Goes On," "Pretty Baby Please Don't Go," "I Got You Babe" and many other funky grainy hits of nostalgia, all setting us up -- we know we're being manipulated, but we love it -- so she can emerge in bell bottoms of multishaded purple, a rabbit fur vest and giant gold belt, singing "Baby, This Prayer's For You."
Just so things don't get maudlin -- unacceptable for Cher, right? -- she does a thousand-decibel version of "Half Breed" -- did I mention she has jet black hair now? -- and then "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," and she does them word and note perfect, not a moment out of place, because she's never been afraid to do the most crowd-pleasing version of anything, and she closes out the tearful nostalgia section with a video of her with the Jackson Five dressed as cave boys, then duets with Elton John, David Bowie and various TV stars that would mainly be remembered by fans of "The Carol Burnett Show."
Have I told you about the spaghetti dress? Not spaghetti STRAPS. That would be too high-school prom. No, it's a red dress that's two long spaghetti straps. The whole dress is spaghetti straps, flanked by male dancers in wide-lapel candy-apple-red suits twirling silver light reflectors, then ripping off their jackets male-stripper-style while jitterbugging girls in micro-skirts distract us long enough for Cher to don a stunning see-through evening gown with spangles -- I don't even know WHEN she makes these changes -- as she belts out "The Way of Love." In anybody else's show, "The Way of Love" would have to be the closer or the encore. It's one of those rousing ballads that CAN'T BE TOPPED.
Fearlessly, she tops it. She lets the crowd calm down a little, first with more video -- this is the only show I've ever seen where people don't resent the video -- and this time it's that bit where she does all the parts in "West Side Story," followed by tough-girl excerpts from her movies. You can't watch these film roles without thinking, "You know, a lot of these movies suck, but all I remember about them anyway is CHER!" I mean, is anyone going to watch "Silkwood," "Mask" or "Tea with Mussolini" more than once? I think not. Notice I'm not even mentioning "Suspect."
OK, now picture this: world's tightest jeans, world's flounciest peasant blouse hanging off both shoulders, sparkly eyeliner, and the world's longest dangliest turquoise earrings with Cher sitting on a stool and singing "Just Like Jesse James" with some kind of Milky Way background behind her. Her introduction: "I never liked this song."
The crowd LOVES that. They love that she's spunky. And as if to prove it, there's yet one more video montage, this time with various smart-ass segments of Cher being interviewed by famous swells so that she can say variations of "That's none of your business" and the crowd can go wild.
Whoops! Almost forgot the doowop shoop-shoop-shoop medley anchored by "It's In His Kiss," complete with psychedelic hippie dancers, followed by the whole cast donning leather-bar black vinyl so she can skip across the stage in a black catsuit, boots and leather jacket singing "Strong Enough." There's a lot of Janet Jackson muscle-dancing with her purple motif reinforced by bright lavender wigs on all hands, and then she closes with "If I Could Turn Back Time" with the whole coliseum in an awkward stand-on-the-seats boogie.
Of course there's an encore, with Cher once again descending in the Faberge egg, outfitted in bright red hair, silver harem pants, and diamonds and amethysts in every strategic place on her body, and the topper of all toppers -- performed while bungee jumpers cavort in the wings and spinning spacesuited acrobats dance in dominatrix helmets -- is, of course, "Believe (Do You Believe in Love?)."
Fifteen minutes later, people are milling around on Seventh Avenue, still stunned. Have we been assaulted or made love to? It's Cher. It's both.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)