Make us your home page
Instagram

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Sept. 24

    Events

    Zac Brown Band: The country, folk and Southern rockers embark on the "Welcome Home" tour in support of the album. 7 p.m., MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $27.50-$77.50. (813) 740-2446.

    Handout photo of the Zac Brown Band, performing at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on 9/24/17. Credit: Shore Fire Media
  2. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for Sept. 23

    Events

    Smithsonian Museum Day Live: Museums across the nation partner with the Smithsonian to offer free admission for one day. Among them are Florida Holocaust Museum, Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs.Cracker Country in Tampa, Ringling Museum of Art. Note: Dalí Museum is free for Pinellas County …

    The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is among the museums participating in the Smithsonian's Museum Day Live, offering free admission. (LANCE ROTHSTEIN   |  Special to the Times)
  3. Tampa Repertory's 'Flying' soars in some places, sputters in others

    Stage

    TAMPA — Tampa Repertory Theatre has always insisted on putting on plays that mean something. Several shows over the last couple of years have zeroed in on the social and cultural baggage that comes with being female (The Children's Hour, Silent Sky and Grounded come to mind). None of those …

    The Southeastern premiere of Flying, Sheila Cowley's play at Tampa Repertory Theatre about veterans of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, includes (from left) Holly Marie Weber, Rosemary Orlando, and Becca McCoy. Photo by Megan Lamasney.
  4. After 22 years, it's last call for beloved Ybor venue New World Brewery

    Music & Concerts

    YBOR CITY — Steve Bird spreads his tools across a patio table. He has awnings to unbolt and paraphernalia to unpry, from the busted Bop City neon by the stage to the Simpsons "El Duffo o Muerte" mural in the courtyard. He'll uproot a fountain and dismantle a roof and attempt to keep his bar intact. The …

    Various decor and memorabilia fill the walls and shelves at New World Brewery in Ybor City.
Long time music venue and hangout New World Brewery in Ybor City will be closing it's doors and moving locations. Patrons enjoy one of the last events before New World Brewery changes its location to Busch Blvd in Tampa.  [Photo Luis Santana | Times]