Barry Manilow: My Musical Comfort Food
He writes the songs you love to hate, hate to know, and make you run for a barf bag. He’s the king of schmaltz and over-orchestrated key changes. His Velveeta factor is off the charts. He’s a rather — ummm — shall we say, “ironic” choice for a sex god. But uncool as it may be, he makes me smile big. He brings me back to the happy place of life as a 12-year-old girl. He was my first — and as of this moment my most recent — concert.
Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Barry Manilow!
C’mon, be honest. You have a guilty musical pleasure too. A weak spot for some dork whose songs and voice give people hives, but who reliably soothes you like musical comfort food. You probably don’t listen often, yet you know their music is there for you in some cryptically-named playlist when you need a giant musical hug. They can dependably deliver on demand any feeling or emotion you desire. Need a good cry? Gotcha covered. Need to sing at the top of your lungs? Done. Need to release your inner sap? Check. Need to cheer up? Score. (In fact, years ago, my sister and I spontaneously choreographed a dopey lip-synched dance to “Daybreak” to brighten up a blue friend who was going through a breakup. I can still picture her laugh-crying at our “…let it SHINE-SHINE-SHINE” moves. Classic.)
For me, Barry’s that guy. I’ll never forget my first show, sitting in nosebleed seats at the Providence Civic Center on June 23, 1978. Barry wore a white bell-bottomed jumpsuit. I don’t remember what I wore.
Full disclosure: I’ve never had throw-your-panties-on-the-stage feelings for him (and anyway, that would’ve been revolting at age 12). But my Glen Hills Elementary School girlfriends and I knew all the words to every single one of his songs back in the day. This was when the awesome, triple-platinum “Even Now” album came out, and its four smash singles were wall-to-wall on the radio. You know you know those songs. In addition to the beautiful title cut, there was another lifelong favorite —“Somewhere in the Night,” plus “Can’t Smile Without You” (“I feeeeeel saaaad when you’rrrrre saaad…”) and of course, the legendary Lola. She was a showgirl. And admit it: you could tell me what was in her hair if I promised you a cookie.
As Barry said last Friday on the opening night of his six-week run at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, “I was the Justin Bieber of the 70s. Just ask your mom!”
I still have the program from that first show. It’s a treasure. My boys flipped through it recently, dying at the beefcake shots of a young dude with a huge schnozz in half-buttoned shirts with enormous collars, and they reminded me that it’s been 35 years since I hand-wrote the concert date on the inside cover. Yes, he’s turning 70 this year. Yes, hip issues plague him so he hobbles around the stage rather than running around thrusting his crotchal-area at shrieking ladies. Yes, he’s been nipped and tucked into a virtually unrecognizable plastic version of his young self. No, he can’t hit the high register like he used to. And the production value of his shows is hilarious. I’m talkin’ a big clip-art sun and smiley face on the video screen during “Can’t Smile Without You.” Really. But his voice still sounds pretty good singing the hits like “Looks Like We Made It,” “This One’s For You” and “Mandy.” He can still hold the “youuuuuuuuuuuuu” in “Weekend In New England” longer than it takes Austin Powers to pee in the morning. He still plays a mean piano. And he still drives the swooning, aging women wild. Oh, and the cute, young gay guys.
I took a Barry break for most of the 80s, but succumbed again big-time a decade later. I saw him at Great Woods. In Vegas. At Radio City. Foxwoods. Harborlights. The Fleet Center. Mohegan Sun. During this time, I was lucky enough to marry a guy who at first joined me begrudgingly at shows (now that’s love!), but who then, like almost all husbands in all of Barry’s audiences, accidentally developed some odd fondness for the guy. We’d bring friends with us to shows, and much as they may’ve tried, they all left feeling goofy-happy. One of my friends still tells the sweet story of how joyful it was for him to watch me watch Barry.
I was even part of an online Barry discussion group for a few years. I began to appreciate the albums that I had missed. Did you know he created an original jazz album that was recorded entirely live in one take? Or that he collaborated on a stage musical titled “Harmony” about a real-life singing group in Nazi Germany that was destined for Broadway but fell short of funding? (Somewhere I have the script and a bootleg of the music.) I learned the B-sides of his records so well that I can’t distinguish between hits and non-hits anymore. They’re all just so familiar to me.
Yet even after lo these many years, as soon as I hear those three exhilarating horn blasts at the start of a concert — the first thrilling notes of “I Write the Songs” — and there’s backlit Barry, silhouetted in his signature pose emerging from the darkness, I’m a 12-year-old girl again. Giddy. Carefree. Tickled pink. Doesn’t matter how much I roll my eyes before the show, how tired I am, what kind of mood I’m in. It’s always an instant call to happy. My jubilant grin lasts til the very last note, Barry belting with his head tipped back, arm outstretched triumphantly…aaaaaand fade to black. Then poof! I rejoin the world as the silly 46-year-old wife and mom that I am. But I always have the serenity of knowing that with the press of a button, I can board the way-back machine and for a few minutes I can get that feelin’…get that feelin’… get that feelin’…again. And that’s priceless.
As a little treat for those who haven’t run for the hills, here’s a short clip of “I Am Your Child” from opening night at the St. James Theatre, January 18, 2013. (My dear next-door neighbor on Dellwood Road, this one’s for you!)
Okay, so own up: Who’s your guilty musical pleasure?