He sings the songs, and buddy, watch what you say about them

By Tony Kornheiser, The Washington Post

After three days of negotiations, Manilow’s people said he would be available on Friday, at 2, for what was said to be his first print interview in four years. Manilow’s people wanted to make sure that whoever did the interview would not be looking to kill Barry in the story. The reporter would get one hour with Manilow — absolutely no more. There were to be no photographs. The word was, “If a photographer shows up, Barry will walk out, and you’ll get nothing.”

When Manilow’s people were convinced they had it all covered they made the delivery. There were two soft drinks, one dark and one light, waiting in the hotel suite, and there was even a uniformed guard in the hall outside the door. Nothing was left to chance.

Manilow enters on cat’s feet.

He is nearly six feet tall and thin, though not quite skinny. He wears blue jeans, a white polo shirt with one horizontal red stripe, white socks and white shoes with orange tinted plastic heels. The strawberry blond color of his hair is a near match for the deep tan on his arms.

He introduces himself with a handshake and a smile, moves to his special chair, comments about how hot it is outside and takes off his red sunglasses, laying them on a table next to the light soft drink, which is obviously his, since it is so close to his chair.

“Ask me anything you want,” he says.

This is no joke.

“Go ahead. Whaddya wanna know?”

For the next 75 minutes — he knew nothing of the “one hour” rule, never heard of the “no photographs” rule and laughed at the “don’t kill” rule — he answers questions thoughtfully and sensitively in a Noo Yawk accent as thick as a slab of cream cheese on an onion bagel; questions ranging from his feelings about severe press criticism to his sexual image; tough questions, and not once does he raise his voice in anger, not once is he anything other than pleasant and affable. He smiles often,even makes clever, self-deprecating jokes.

After 75 minutes it is impossible not to like him.

Engaging doesn’t go far enough; his gift for disarmament belongs at a negotiating table.

The audiences have always been kinder to Manilow than the critics who have called him “talentless” and “syrupy” and “monumentally mediocre.” Despite many wonderful up-beat tunes like “Avenue C” and “It’s a Miracle” and “Copacabana,” his trademark, the big sentimental ballad, has made him the closest thing to instant Muzak in pop, and even he — sticking a pin into his lighter-than-air image — labels one part of his stage show “The Oy Veh Segment.”

But the records sell in the millions, and taken one by one they are subconsciously compelling, and the four television specials have been highly rated: The first won an Emmy. You can call him an overachiever, tell him that he takes all that ritzy-titzy stuff one step too far, but the numbers are on his side. At 34 years old, Manilow is a star. First team.

Wayne Robins, the pop music critic of Newsday, has said about Manilow, “No matter how negative you feel going into a Manilow concert, he can win you over. He’s an amazingly uplifting performer. He throws out a rush of energy and makes you ride with him.”

“He appeals to the widest audience of anybody in the business,” said Dick Fox, Manilow’s former agent. “The appeal is, Mr. Nice Guy. You see him perform and you think you know him. Nobody cares more about the audience. Nobody works harder. The type of music he does, the hip people take shots at him, they say he has no substance — the only people who like him, are the people.”

Manilow on Manilow (Part I): “Sometimes I wish more people would know that I’m not that square, that I’m hipper than they think. My musical tastes are much more sophisticated than I get credit for.”

Manilow on Manilow (Part II): “Sometimes in my show, I talk too much. I blab. I try stoppin’ myself, but when I’m out there it’s like I’m sittin’ in my living room talkin’ to friends. I worked real hard at making my personality as big a part of my act as the records, so I wouldn’t have to always depend on my last three minutes and 45 seconds. I didn’t want to just be a sound on a record.”

Manilow on risks: “I love to take ’em. What’s life without risks? But I’m not gonna kill this thing just so the critics’ll like me. What’s the point of that?”

Manilow on sameness of singles: “When I’m making them they don’t sound the same, but when I hear them back-to-back they begin to. Maybe it’s because I’m the same singer with the same voice. I really like the records I make.They’re great records. I hear ’em on the radio and I say, ‘Awwright, that sounds good. That sounds like someone put a lot of work into it.’ The only thing I might change is the order in which they’re released. They tell me ‘Ships’ will go top 5, and I tell them, but we just did three ballads in a row. Sure enough, ‘Ships’ goes top 5. What am I supposed to say? The singles come out because they tell me the album will fail if I don’t release it. So the choice is failure or success — I don’t want to fail. I want my albums to succeed because there’s great stuff on them. If the single takes off, it catapults the album and the good stuff gets out there.”

Manilow on reviews: “I read them all.” (Laughs.) “I shouldn’t. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get so upset. But I do…” (Laughs.) “I must have some kind of masochistic streak.”

Manilow on Manilow (Part III): “I’m not a great singer.I’m not Caruso.” (Laughs.) “These reviewers think they’re insulting me by saying I don’t sing that well. I know I don’t. I don’t sing badly, but I’m not giving any major singer any real competition. What I do is, I arrange, I compose, I perform. I entertain. I pull it as hard as I can every time I go out there.”

Manilow on critics: “They just don’t like what I represent. I honestly think they can’t write good things about me because they’re afraid they’ll come off looking uncool. This is the beginning of my tour, and by the end of it I’ll show you 7 million bad reviews. That’s what’s supposed to happen this year. Now it’s, YAAAAHHH, GET HIM, KILL HIM. Next year, after I’m MEATBALLED on the ground — splatttt — they’ll say, ‘He wasn’t THAT bad.’…If they only knew how fabulous I was, how musical I was, how hard I work. I give my audience my privacy, my life, my honesty” (laughs) “my days, my years — all the stuff they see on stage is me. I give ’em everything I have.”

Manilow on the public: “That’s my life. And they ain’t nailin’ me for nothin’. They like what I do, and they’re on my side. They’re my reviewers. Every night. And when they don’t applaud, when I don’t feel that surge of emotional reaction after ‘Even Now’ or ‘Weekend in New England,’ when they stop doing that, then I’ll know I’m doing something wrong. I won’t stop doing it for the critics, because they’re not comin’ from the same place my audience is comin’ from.”

You can find jazz and Broadway on every album Manilow makes. It’s where his heart is. From the time he was 13 until he was 18 he “OD’d on jazz and Broadway.” He made the trip from his mother’s house in Brooklyn into Manhattan almost nightly. He was never a child of rock; he was so much more sophisticated than four chords and set your bass on fire. HOW CAN THEY CALL ME UNHIP? He has spent hours and days analyzing a Stephen Sondheim score, analyzing a Bill Evans piano line. HOW CAN THEY CALL ME UNHIP?

All through Eastern District High School he was playing piano, arranging and composing. He enrolled at City College in advertising, got a job delivering mail at CBS — to people like Dr. Frank Stanton and Fred Silverman. “I was gonna be a big executive at CBS. I was gonna end up like those guys. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I just didn’t fit.”

City was “boring.”

CBS was the wrong fit.

“I had the music in me.”

On the same night he was to enroll for his sophomore year at City he opted to take the entrance exam for New York College of Music. He got in, attended classes, then went on to Julliard. But at 21 he was still hedging between what he wanted to do and what he was expected to do. He was married then. Susan. Still at CBS. Film editing. He thought they might move to Long Island, get a house with a picket fence, make some babies.

“I wanted a career in music, but I never thought I’d make it happen. It was just too risky. Coming where I come from, you didn’t take risks. You got your Friday afternoon paycheck and you went home. You didn’t take risks.”

The hell with it.

He got divorced. He quit CBS.

He took the risk.

There were days and nights on the road playing “the Holiday Inn circuit” with Jeannie Lucas, some club dates as a single, astounding — though anonymous — success writing and arranging commercial jingles and then on the road with Bette Midler and her Harlettes, like Melissa Manchester, as The Divine Miss M’s musical arranger. HOW CAN THEY CALL ME UNHIP? There is a journal. Eight years worth, starting with Bette. Manilow writes every night. “It’s a killer.” He’s smiling.

From Miss M to “Mandy,” to “Could It Be Magic,” to “I Write the Songs,” to “Looks Like We Made It,” to “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling.” And so on, and so on, and so on. Barry Manilow is probably the most bankable act in pop music. An audience of 7 to 75. A license to print money.A gold mine. Solid gold. And the truth is, the songs are extraordinarily well made.

“What people don’t realize,” said Dick Fox, “is that Barry’s a brilliant arranger, composer and producer along with being a performer. Most people have to go out and get a whole package — Barry IS the whole package.”

How long is the run?

Barry Manilow doesn’t hesitate even a second.

“Five years.”

And how many have you had?

“Five years.”

And this means?

“This means I’m getting ready. I’m taking acting lessons. I love singing. God, this is a great job. I’ll probably keep doing it until nobody comes. All I’m saying is that I can’t imagine that I can keep up this blazing level, that it has to level off.”

So, in 1990?

I’ll be winning an Academy Award . . .What I need is the right property, and the right help — like I’m getting in my musical career.”

An Academy Award?

“Yeah.”

He still gets a thrill when he hears his songs piped in the elevators. What he’d really like, the real thrill, would be standing there in the elevator when someone got in whistling one of his songs. Him, standing there, unnoticed, and someone whistling a Barry Manilow song.

He thinks he makes “great records.”

He KNOWS he makes great records.

“But I’d much rather make a Marvin Gaye record.”

God, how he loves those Marvin Gaye records, how he loves R&b. how CAN THEY CALL HIM UNHIP? If he could just sound like Marvin Gaye.

“I can’t do it. I try. I really try. I sound like an idiot when I do it. I’d give my right arm to sing Jermaine Jackson’s ‘Let’s Get Serious.’ Oooooh, what he’s doing with that song. I can’t do it. It sounds cute. It loses soul. . . . Look, I’m very good at what I do, but I can just do so much. And yet,” and he shakes his head because this really gets to him, “some people who do that kind of stuff that I admire so much tell me that they love what I do.That is so flattering.”

He blushes.

“I can’t believe they like ME.”

There is a medallion that comes down in the overture to his show, a buffalo-head nickel bearing his profile that cost him $28,000 that lights up to signal his impending entrance on stage. It is too much. Somewhere in the night he must know.

“Yeah, it gets me a little nervous. It was supposed to be a caricature, a logo. I wanted it to come down at the start of the show and then disappear, but they couldn’t make it disappear, and I thought — Oh God, this big, humongous ego trip. As soon as I saw it I knew it wasn’t right. I never expected it to be my real face. I said, first person who puts it down, I’m gonna dump it. But the amazing thing is that the audiences love it. I come out on stage, point to it and say, ‘Is this hot s—, or what?’ I mean I really don’t want anyone to think I’m serious about it.”

It’s a hedge.

Everything is a hedge.

Where he comes from, you don’t take risks. He loves risks. So what’s he supposed to do?

Like the medallion. If anybody comes down on it, he’ll dump it.

Like the singles. Should he release something totally jazzed and risk failure?

“God, I’d hate to fail,” he says.

Like the image. So non-threatening, so effervescent, so cute, so thin, so easy to mother love with the Noo Yawk tawkin’ and the slight lisp and the Hollywood glitz. Almost fey.

“So what should I do — go out there in lots of chains? Whaddya want from me — should I jump on the women in the front row? Seriously, what should I do?”

So what he does is hedge.

Fear of failure.

And sometimes it becomes prophetic as it extends outward in the ripples of the subconscious. Say the critics regularly kill you, so you don’t do interviews because you don’t like being killed. Then, you finally do one, and you hear the questions and you think — Oh God, I’m gonna get killed again.You can’t trust anybody. So what do you do?

Almost an hour after the interview was over, after Manilow had invited the reporter to a barbeque and to the show, Manilow sent one of his assistants to find the reporter, who was killing time outside the hotel.

“Can you come this way?” the assistant asked, saying nothing more.

The reporter followed and was again led past the guard and into the suite and left alone.

In a moment, Manilow came in. This time there was no handshake, no smile, no soft drinks, no sitting, no taking off the sunglasses. This time there was anger. Soft, controlled anger, but anger. Behind the glasses anger.

“I’ve been thinking about your interview for the last 20 minutes,” Manilow said. “I’m very bothered by the tone of it.

“All you did was come in here and ask me negative questions,” Manilow said. “You had me defend myself. You had me apologizing for my career. Do I think all my songs are the same? Do I overdo it? Who don’t I like? Now what kind of questions are those? You don’t like my nickel. You don’t like my songs. You don’t like my television specials. It was all negative. It wasn’t at all a celebration of the kind of performer I am — how hard I work, how much I give. It gives me a bad taste in my mouth. You’re just looking for controversy. You asked me why I don’t give interviews. This is why. This stinks. This interview STINKS.”

Then, as he walked out the door, he put his hand on the reporter’s right shoulder and said, “Do me a favor and don’t see my show.”

And then he was gone.

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3 thoughts on “He sings the songs, and buddy, watch what you say about them

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