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Interview: Barry Manilow rising from punch line to cool

In this touchy-feely 21st century, Barry Manilow doesn't just make the girls cry, he also has LeBron James reaching for the Kleenex.

Last November, the Miami Heat star and pop-cultural trendsetter made headlines — not for a tomahawk dunk or a deft pass, but for what was on his iPod.

King James, following a Manilow admission from New York Knicks and Syracuse star Carmelo Anthony, showed incredulous NBA beat reporters a playlist that included Copacabana and Mandy.

"I got all music," LeBron said.

Grunty sportswriters presented the athlete's musical taste as a less-than-macho revelation: How could the coolest cat on the planet enjoy the soft-hit mastermind behind Even Now?

But in 2014, LeBron and Carmelo as budding Fanilows isn't really that strange. Look at the bromantic cinematic boys clubs of Seth Rogen and James Franco, Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd. Or the brains-over-brawn comedy of The Big Bang Theory, the No. 1 show on TV. Or schmoopy radio hits such as A Great Big World's Say Something and Pink's Give Me a Reason, the latter essentially a Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again redo.

Heart-sleeved earnestness is back in a big way. It's okay to say you care. Hugs for everyone!

Manilow, for so long the uber-example of uncool, is en vogue.

"[LeBron] needs to listen to music that makes him feel good, too," the 70-year-old Manilow tells me in a rather poignant early morning phone call. "That's my job. To make you feel better."

•••

If only Barry felt better.

Manilow, who plays the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Friday, doesn't bother with pop radio much these days: There's no melody, no warmth, no love — all his specialties. "I won't go into that other world," he laments. "I just can't."

Oh, he likes "Adele, Katy Perry, Gaga." But the rest? "So angry."

While interviewing Manilow — who had five albums on the charts simultaneously in 1978 — it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that the balladeer has no use for modern pop because he believes that modern pop has no use for him.

He's wrong, but no one can blame him for being guarded. Manilow's up-and-down status as an icon mirrors the past 50 years of American pop culture. If the '70s were about warm cuddles, the '80s were about glammy sex. The '90s weren't about the bedroom at all; they were just grungy and glum. Sex, AquaNet and depression: definitely not ingredients of Could It Be Magic or Daybreak.

As a result, Manilow went from being a melodic genius (Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan were both fans) to public punchline (berated in '80s teen flick The Breakfast Club as the epitome of risk-averse adulthood).

For a long time, belting Weekend in New England — "When will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?" — was something many of us did only in the guilty-pleasure privacy of our iPods.

"I went through the self-pity," Manilow says about the digs at his expense, including Australian cops blasting his songs to deter youth gangs from congregating in a residential area. "I pulled the covers over my head."

Lose the covers, Barry.

You were made for these times.

•••

I tell Barry a quick story:

In 1994, I was a bellboy schlepping Samsonite at a Maryland hotel near Merriweather Post Pavilion, a concert venue between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. One summer night, I had the nerve-fraying thrill of driving Manilow and his entourage around in the courtesy van.

It was chaos, mainly because hundreds of spirited middle-aged women in Manilow concerts tees tracked that van like Secret Service agents. It was terrifying; it was also awesome. I'm a music critic now, and I've rarely seen that sort of fan adoration, especially in adults. Getting Manilow safely back inside the hotel remains one of the greatest achievements of my life.

Plus he tipped me $95.

•••

Manilow doesn't remember the night I chauffeured him, probably because he has lived through thousands of nights just like it. But the story nevertheless reveals a curious quirk: When I ask him to explain the Fanilows — all those diehards who never abandoned him for hair metal or grunge — he says he can't. He doesn't understand them, either.

"I don't know. I write the stuff that moves me. You have to ask them why it moves them. I get all these letters; they send the most beautiful things. My impact has been so positive to strangers."

"Strangers." That's an odd way of putting it. But Manilow, a Brooklyn guy born Barry Alan Pincus, is a little odd, to be honest. Isolated, too. He doesn't get the people who left or those who stayed.

His relationship to his songbook is also complicated. He has written dozens of hits and made hits out of other writer's songs. He even penned, among other commercial gigs, the State Farm jingle: "Like a good neighbor ..."

And yet when I gush about, say, the life-affirming Can't Smile Without You, he becomes defensive, as if there's been some negative rebuttal to that perfectly innocent tune: "How can you resist a song like that? Songs like that transcend your taste!"

I joke that I recently made the discovery that the couple in Looks Like We Made It didn't, in fact, make it. He sighs: "Most people don't listen to the lyrics. What do you do when you get to the second lyric of that song?"

Oh, and don't get him started on I Write the Songs (which he didn't actually write; Beach Boy Bruce Johnston penned it): "It isn't about me, okay? 'I've been alive forever' ? How can that be?!"

•••

The one thing that makes Manilow happy, at least relatively, is touring. He has been a live performer from the get-go, when he was backing up Bette Midler and playing bathhouses in New York City. He was good at it; still is. "Wouldn't it be terrible if I stunk after all these years?" he jokes.

The stage provides Manilow with a sense of security, maybe even a time-warping revision of history, one in which he never went through that painful hiding-under-the-covers phase.

"I can't see faces," he says when asked what his crowds look like these days. "I can only see shadows. But they seem to be the exact same crowds I started with. Young people, middle-aged people, older people." They are the ones who "always stood for me."

Manilow will play for those same people in Tampa on Friday, of course. But what he won't see, or maybe won't allow himself to see, are the new shadows, the new faces, happy and tear-streaked and belting Copacabana just like LeBron. It may not be 1978, but hey, it's never too late to get that feeling again.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

If You Go

Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $9.99-$159.99. (813) 301-2500.

Barry By the Numbers

$500 Amount a young Barry Manilow was paid for writing the State Farm commercial jingle ("Like a good neighbor ..."). He also penned memorable ditties for, among others, McDonald's ("You deserve a break today") and Band-Aid ("I am stuck on Band-Aid brand 'cause Band-Aid's stuck on me").

80 million Albums Manilow has sold worldwide.

25 Top 40 singles Manilow charted between 1974 and 1983.

5 Manilow albums — in 1978 alone, mind you — on the Billboard charts simultaneously, a rare feat only accomplished by six others in history: Herb Alpert, the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Mathis.

1 Grammy Award — his lone win in his entire five-decade career — for Copacabana (At the Copa), which took best pop male vocalist in 1979.

Interview: Barry Manilow rising from punch line to cool 01/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 11:45am]

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