Bette Davis Eyes

Eyes of the Beheld: Bette Davis and Marty Feldman

Sometimes, I think Google was invented so Generation X could piece together what happened in the 70s and early 80s before our consciousness was fully-formed. Take today as an example – a little bird on Twitter told me it was Golden Age film star Bette Davis’ birthday. Of course, what first comes to mind when someone my age hears the name “Bette Davis” is not her Academy Award-nominated turn in “All About Eve” but the 1981 hit song that concludes, “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes.”

Why wouldn’t it? I was 9-years-old when it came out. Davis, if she was known to me at all, was as the scary old broad in the Disney kiddie horror flick, “The Watcher in the Woods.” The pop song, however, was ubiquitous. In my fourth-grade class, the girls would link their arms together like a chorus line and perform impromptu a cappella tributes to the actress, who was older than their grandmothers.

But whose smoky rasp was it on the track? That’s what began to haunt me. This is where Google got handy. Was it Rod Stewart or Bonnie Tyler croaking away about blushing crows and whatnot?

Neither, says Wikipedia – it was Kim Carnes, another singer who sounded like she gargled lighter fluid. Of course, such sandpaper vocals were popular back then – with them came a froggy sense of debauchery, as if the ’80s were like awaking the morning after a decade of bong hits with whiskey chasers. Fuzzy vocal stylings or just poor FM reception? We wouldn’t know until the digital fidelity of the compact disc was invented.

Carnes’ track was followed by the inevitable parody, “She’s Got Marty Feldman Eyes,” which one might assume was penned by Weird Al or another Dr. Demento protégé. Nope, it was song-satirist, comedian, author and actor Bruce Baum, whose career represents something of a wormhole in the comedy scene. He’s your go-to wildcard to patch holes in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game, you know, if you’re hung-up between Bobcat Goldthwait and Stockard Channing (this has happened).

Anyway, Baum’s parody tune provided one of the my indications that the adult world was not as sacrosanct as it seemed. It could, in fact, be subverted with a few sassy, if sophomoric, lyrics. Add to that the shout-out to human cartoon Marty Feldman and the song’s appeal to the nascent subversive in every pre-adolescent boy was sealed. Not so much for the girls, especially those with bilateral exophthalmos to whom “She’s Got Marty Feldman Eyes” was a readymade schoolyard taunt.

After “Bette Davis Eyes” charted, its namesake wrote Carnes and its songwriters, Donna Weiss and Jackie DeShannon, allegedly to ask how they were able to channel such insight about her into their tune. Obviously, Davis, then 73, didn’t grasp – or, more likely, didn’t care to grasp – that the song wasn’t about her. Oddly, this Carly Simon-esque moment (“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”) was anticipated by Baum, who inexplicably, and presciently, included the lyric “You’re so lame, you probably think this song is about you” in his version for no apparent reason other than to sing “You’re so lame,” which, again, is catnip to 9-year-old boys.

I’m not aware if Feldman (or his lawyers) ever wrote Baum to ricochet some self-flattery, but it’s not likely since the bug-eyed actor was busy shooting “Yellowbeard” and dying.

By 1982, both were complete and Baum moved on to wearing a diaper as his character Babyman.

Can I rest easier now that I’ve plugged these 32-year-old holes in my pop culture knowledge? No. An issue one faces when Googling crap that intrigued you as a kid is one of interconnectivity – each answer leads to another question, then a click, then hours lost to YouTube, etc. The upshot? I realized that my knowledge of a great 20th-century actress and an ’80s prop comedian are in neighboring neurons, connected by hearty ropes of synapses that will likely outlast the dental floss binding the short-term memories I made today. The problem with sifting your childhood memories through Google is that you often find what you’re looking for.