When your name is a punch line, you live in hell. Barry Manilow lives in hell.
There are worse hells than his. He gets to park wherever he wants, for instance. Also, he can shop recklessly and overtip in restaurants without concern. Perdition, however, must have more dire consequences. And, as such, being Barry Manilow is no frolicsome lot. Rather, it can be an existential nightmare. Example: Sincerity is his commerce. Only he never knows when to trust it. He suspects compliments. He sifts them for snide subtext. Conditioning has taught him this. Bob Dylan stopped him at a party, embraced him warmly, told him: “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.” This actually occurred. He knew not what to make of the encounter. Nearly two years hence, it haunts him still.
“Who knows?” he says, shrugging the shrug of one who has shrugged much. “It seems so odd that Bob Dylan would tell me this. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. He may have been laughing out of the other side of his mouth while he said it, but it didn’t seem like it. I mean, he looked me dead in the eye. But maybe he says that to everybody who walks by. He may have had one drink too many. You know, people give me jabs all the time — but not to my face….I sort of left the party for a minute because I wasn’t sure. I thought, ‘Well, maybe, maybe…’ ”
When Barry Manilow tells a Barry Manilow Joke, he usually tells this one: Record mogul announces to Ethiopian embassy that a collective of music stars is making a single to benefit the blighted country’s starving masses. “Think of it!” says mogul. “Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow — ” Ethiopians cut him off. “Barry Manilow?” they say. “Hey, we’re not that hungry!”
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“It’s my favorite joke,” he says, a tad giddily. “But every time I tell it, people go, ‘Aw, I’m sorry.’ It makes me look kind of pathetic, I guess.”
Japes, like barnacles, cling to his career, impervious vessel that it is. He epitomizes grace under mockery. “I feel bad for Dan Quayle, let me tell you,” he says, all largess. “You want to talk about being the butt of jokes…” Nevertheless, he has stopped his share: nose jokes, clothes jokes, geek jokes, masculinity jokes (Barely ManEnough, alas). Not only does he know all the barbs, he actually archives them. In his home, he has festooned a prominent corridor with cartoon-strip razzings — from Bloom County to Andy Capp to Popeye. Simply, he curates a personal hall of shame, displays it in game defiance. He even has the artists sign the originals. “I know they hate doing this,” he says, giggling mischievously, as is his wont.
He wore yellow. His coat, in this way, was like plumage. So there he sat, a canary icon, in a room full of peers — a little aloof, a little ignored. Around him a large celebration swirled. His record company had taken over a ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel to showcase its most promising new acts. Onstage much jamming took place. He watched this from a distance, applauding generously whenever appropriate. His presence was meant to confer support; he understood this. He sipped wine and softly rapped on the table to the staccato beat of the music — music that did not at all resemble his own. A fat diamond shimmered on his finger.
Because he was asked, he took one bow. This was requisite: No one in the room was more famous than he. Nor was there anyone on hand who had sold, or would likely ever sell, more records: so far, 50 million plus, worldwide. Still, he rose from his seat warily — or, at least, with some embarrassment — as though he almost expected to be pelted. He got a nice hand. He looked relieved and slipped back onto his chair, his curious yellow aura handsomely aglow.
He has grown into his nose. So say his friends, and by this they mean two things: First, and few would quibble here, he looks better than he used to. He used to look, well, dorkier. Maturity has obliged him. Second, and some will quibble here although they oughtn’t, Barry Manilow has become formidable, extremely large, a legend even, in the show-business sense. At age forty-four, after fifteen years of Top Forty toil and adult-contemporary lionization, he is a giant among entertainers. He endures. He adapts. He persists. There is always a new album (twenty-two with the recent release of Because It’s Christmas; the ninety-minute videocassette of his twenty-first, Barry Manilow Live on Broadway, reached Number One on the Billboard chart this summer). There is always a world tour.
Most probably, he is the showman of Our Generation. He lives for production values, for rich staging, for catchy hooks and big finishes. He wants your goose flesh. Musically, he is a populist nonpareil. Sinatra, it is said, once jabbed a finger at Manilow and portentously announced, “He’s next.” Even so, he is beset with insecurity. He is an outcast and has resigned himself to it. As his favorite joke suggests, he did not participate in the pop congress of “We Are the World”; he was not asked. And this was fine with him. “I’m not in that clique,” he reasons. “I’ve never really been a group person. I’ve always been a loner.” He realizes he has no other choice. He cannot fathom his place in the culture. He feels uncategorizable, adrift, a freak.
“I am a musical misfit,” he readily admits. “I’ve never been able to put myself into a musical slot. I don’t consider myself a cohort of Billy Joel — he’s more rock & roll. Kenny Rogers is more country. Barbra is a little older, more theatrical, actresslike. Neil Diamond is guitar oriented, gruff. I don’t know where I fit in. I think a lot of critics have always been uncomfortable with my life as a pop star; there was just nothing that they could grab on to. Nobody, including me, could figure out why my records were making it. I’ve got my one little slice of this pie. It’s very small, but it’s mine.”
Some random Barry Manilow findings, gleaned from months of scrutiny:
He has recurring nightmares about concentration camps. He does not know why but surmises that “it probably all has to do with my feeling undeserving of any success, even though I work my ass off for it.”
If he could be anyone else, he would be Sting. “He’s on his own path,” he says, admiringly. “I wish that I could be as brave as he has been with his career and his life.” Next choice: Tom Waits. “He sings from his kishkes.”
“Lite” radio stations, the kind that broadcast his own work, bore him. “I’m grateful that they play me, don’t get me wrong,” he says, “but I just can’t get behind them. Pop radio has never challenged me.” Mostly, he tunes in rock or jazz.
If told tomorrow to forsake singing “Copacabana” (his biggest hit) and “Can’t Smile Without You” in concert, he would not sulk. Also, the lyrics of his signature anthem, “I Write the Songs,” have always embarrassed him, at least in theory. Especially since somebody else wrote the song. He laments: “It will follow me for the rest of my life, I guess.”
He feels his best work is unreleasable: an album of would-be standards he composed for lyrics bequeathed him by the widow of the legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer (“Moon River,” “Skylark”). “These are old-fashioned pop melodies completely out of place in 1990,” he says, grieving. “Maybe when I’m dead, they’ll all come out.”
He barely eats. And he would rather die than eat Parmesan cheese. He tends to brush his teeth every couple of hours. Touch his newspapers before he does and risk death. Same goes for magazines. He hates surprises and spiders. He loves Roger Rabbit and white gardenias. The mention of outdoor activities makes him apoplectic. “Jews don’t camp,” he will insist. Or, “Jews don’t ski.” And so on. He drives a red Range Rover; large dice hang from the rearview mirror. He yearns to grow a beard, but would only do so in seclusion. He is almost never in seclusion.
This man has a driveway. It is a long driveway. It is a driveway that could be seventy or eighty driveways, arranged end to end, that snake and slope toward a pristine Bel Air aerie. There, at the tip of his quarter-mile driveway, he meets me one afternoon. He wears stubble and enormous European eyeglasses and a baseball cap and a gray T-shirt and jeans and sandals. On him, scruffiness of this sort looks like an effort. Certainly, it seems incongruous — as do reports that he likes to motor-scooter down to the front gate for newspapers at dawn, clad only in his underwear.
Barry Manilow at home is not much like Barry Manilow in concert. Wardrobe considerations aside, the lighting is all wrong. And if the soaring driveway is paved with expectation, Manilow Manor itself is kind of anticlimactic: a cozy ranch-style affair, busy with crystal, art and fabulous views of Los Angeles below. Here he dwells quietly, if not solitary. “This is where Linda and I live,” he announces, referring to Linda Allen, the woman with whom he has been most often linked throughout his celebrity. Linda is not home; she decorates movie sets, usually in remote locations, and is therefore not home much at all. For that matter, neither is he, what with touring. Basically, then, his is a home where no one is home very much.
“Is it gonna be a campy thing?” he asks me, meaning this article, leery as always. He is simultaneously grateful for attention and incredulous that he would get any. Although his demeanor is unfailingly earnest, he does not know how to be taken seriously. He yearns for respect. Yet he frets that his demographic appeal may be askew. For this reason, whenever in my presence, he wryly implores friends and associates: “Be hip. Please, just be hip.”
He wanted to see Jody Watley in concert. So we went to the Universal Amphitheater and saw her. For three songs we stood at our seats, and like most of the audience, he danced and bopped to the music. After the third song, he nudged me and said, “Wanna go get some coffee?” We left the building. Outside in the parking lot, he said, with a tinge of exasperation: “I get it, I get it. Lots of bass drums. Big voice. Big earrings. Lots of energy. I mean, it’s loud. I’m too old for this.” Later, over coffee at a nearby restaurant, he added: “It looked like a bad Vegas act, but she meant it. So you’ve got to give her credit. But she looked like Ann-Margret or something.”
Billy Idol, it turned out, was sitting in the same restaurant with a group of people. Once he realized Barry Manilow was in his midst, he began to stare. Then he began making goofy mocking faces, in the manner of Harpo Marx. In this way, he amused himself thoroughly. Eventually, someone informed Manilow, who had seen none of this, that Billy Idol was on the premises.
“Oh, God,” Manilow said, his sigh full of dread.
Here is how he once alienated Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel:
Because life makes no sense, they sat together, the three of them, at a small table in a Philadelphia diner, circa 1974. Somehow, all three happened to be in town. So they convened, in casual assembly, at the behest of a local DJ named Ed Sciaky, who, with his wife, was also present. Bruce drank water, acted detached. Billy drank black Russians, acted surly. Barry drank coffee and, to be friendly, made conversation. Much too much conversation, it seems.
“Sciaky reminds me that I made an asshole of myself then,” Manilow says. “Apparently, at one point I said, ‘Out of all three of us, just watch, I’m going to be the biggest star at this table.’ Ed says he winced, and his wife began to gag. I don’t remember this, but if I said it at all, it was because, of the three of us, I was making the most blatantly commercial music. I respected their music more than my own and said [cynically], ‘Hah! Just watch!’ But it just came out wrong, and they never forgot it. To this day, Billy Joel gets pissed off when people mention my name — and I have always been such an incredible fan of his.”
Feats: Twenty-five Barry Manilow singles have, in consecutive order, reached the Top Forty. To date, no one else has ever managed this. In 1978 five of his albums logged in at once on the charts — a record equaled only by Sinatra and Mathis. In Great Britain, where he is uniformly adored, only he has received three platinum albums inside one twelve-month period — the Beatles never did this. He owns an Emmy, a Tony, a Grammy (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, for “Copacabana”), accolades aplenty. He is revered — worshiped even — in Japan, in Germany, in Latin America, in many places where irony is incomprehensible.
Ultimately, he knows why he succeeds. In part, it is the same reason he is also ridiculed:
“I’ll tell you what you see,” he says of his performance persona, eschewing all coyness. “You see passion. I read an article someplace that said the true artist is an artist that can convey his passion across the footlights. The quality doesn’t even matter — just so that you displayed the passion. For instance, Springsteen is not my cup of tea, but I get it. I understand what he’s doing. He gets me because he is so passionate. At the very least, what you could say about me is that I am trying to convey my passion and that’s what’s working. Not the fact that I sing so well, because I don’t sing so well. Not the fact that I write so well, because Billy Joel writes better pop stuff than I do. Not the fact that I can perform well, either. It’s that I believe in what I do, and you get it. Now, some people don’t get it! But my guts go out there onstage, take it or leave it. And that’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people to witness, especially to be coming from a man.”
His heart has been broken three times. If this is significant, it is only because heartbreak is his racket. A master of mushcraft (because someone has to be), he gilds heartbreak, inlays it with bathos and life-shattering key changes. Onstage he will ruefully announce, “For a guy who makes his living singing romantic songs, my romantic life has been for shit.” He will then lament his one-and-a-half-year marriage, which ended while in his early twenties, telling audiences, “I thought it was going to last forever.” (This constitutes one heartbreak; the other two he never tells me.) But, in truth, marriage gives him the willies. “I don’t believe in marriage,” he says, citing the rubble of his own divorce and that of his parents, who parted during his infancy (he’s seen his father, a truck driver, only a few times since). “I haven’t seen really happy [marriages]. Either people are together because they have to be or they’re miserable together and cheating or whatever.”
And, anyway, relationship-wise, he thinks he’s defective merchandise. “I’m tough to live with because I’m tough on myself,” he says, plaintively. “I was uncomfortable being married. As soon as I signed the papers, I thought, now I have to be here. It’s a good thing Linda is such a free spirit. We do live together — for five years now — but we’re not tied together every night. We are lovers together, we’re friends, and we’re separate. And that’s the way I like it. The few times I was ever really tied to someone, I was impossible to live with. I’m just not made to be committed to one person. I need independence. I need to have room, not clinging. If I know that I have a tender distance, then I’m all right. Maybe I’ll get better at that, the more I get to like myself…”
Like so — and not surprisingly — he speaks the lingo of shrinkage fluently. He is one well-therapized customer, one who gives excellent couch, a behemoth among codependents. That is, he aims to please all interplanetary life — which, as you might imagine, can at times be a tad futile if you happen to be Barry Manilow. So, like a mule driver, he Works on Himself. “I don’t know who I am, but what I want to do is love him,” he says. “I want to be able to say that I’m proud of this guy that I’ve become.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be nice to trust yourself? To say, ‘This is it, this is me.’ “
Indeed, the first time he trusted himself, he unspooled his greatest musical achievement — a jazz album called 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, released in 1984. Lean, bluesy and heartfelt, the record boasts a peerless supporting cast, including Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan and Gerry Mulligan. “Come on, can you imagine?” Manilow says, still aflutter with the memory. “I was a wreck. I can’t even talk about it without getting emotional. I gave myself permission to not worry about where the thing was gonna land. I took away all the police that I have in my head that say, ‘Oh, no, that’s not going to sell,’ or ‘No, all the people in Cleveland who love your pop stuff will not connect with that jazzy stuff.’ As soon as I allowed myself to stop being attached to the results, I wrote Paradise Cafe in one week. It was the most thrilling thing I’ve done.”
I saw him turn black one day. Since he is perhaps the whitest of white musicians who breathe, this seemed noteworthy. It happened, albeit briefly, in a Hollywood rehearsal studio, where he and his tour band — an extremely facile group of players and singers — were attempting a new, heavily gospel-flavored arrangement of his bouncy early hit “It’s a Miracle.” At the piano, he was released; he swayed, he soared, he became Andrae Crouch. It was as though a revival meeting had erupted, so exhilarating and soulful was this rendering. He had broken form entirely.
Afterward, he shook his head unhappily. “The only thing bothering me,” he told everyone, “is that it feels like church. I don’t want it to feel like church. It’s dishonest. It’s not me. I do like the excitement. But how could we do this in, like, Kansas City? Don’t you think people in the audience will say, What the hell is he doing?’ It’s too broad. Maybe I can square it up a little bit.”
“Barry, it just shows another side of you,” protested the keyboard player. “You shouldn’t feel you can’t surprise people.”
Debra Byrd, his longtime backup singer, who also happens to be black, seconded this: “You know, if you believe it, they’ll believe it,” she said. “It’s all in the approach. If you wanted to, you could put on a black bustier and writhe around in front of a black idol, too.”
Unconvinced, he tamed the arrangement. “It didn’t come from here,” he later told me, pounding his chest for emphasis. “It just felt weird.”
On meeting Madonna: “I saw her in the lobby at a Laura Nyro concert. She was with Warren Beatty and Sandra Bernhard. I told her I liked her latest song, ‘Cherish,’ a lot. And she said [nonplussed], ‘Not my favorite.’ I said, ‘Well, I like it.’ She said, ‘Thank you.’ She’s an intriguing girl. I can see why she’s a star. There’d be no place for her if she weren’t a star. You can’t picture Madonna working as a secretary. She has convinced me that she is talented.”
“Have you ever seen a thousand naked men with party hats on? It was insane.”
We now engage in some Manilore, shocking in substance: The preceding quote, excerpted from his 1987 (unghosted) memoir, Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise, conjures his first impression of the Seventies, his decade of emergence. Indeed, this would be his moment of epiphany. The night was New Year’s Eve 1970, and the place was the Continental Baths, New York’s then notorious gay-sauna-replete-with-entertainment-policy. Up to this point, Barry Manilow could have been characterized as quite the singular nerd: a scrawny, numbingly self-conscious, Brooklyn-bred nascent lounge lizard who favored tight black suits and lugged a briefcase to gigs. He had just started doing weekend piano accompaniment at the Baths — a job from hunger — wherein he nervously played show tunes for guys in towels. On this particular evening, however, all that would change. On this night, he would finally embrace the rightful liberty that is afforded in show business.
Which is to say, he took off his clothes in public.
“All during the show, people kept passing drinks and joints up to me,” he writes. (Drinks! Joints!) After midnight, nude men and women alike flounced in the house pool and, showing no regard for “my Jewish middle-class uprightness,” beckoned him in. “I looked at myself with my nice black suit still on,” he continues. “I was thinking I’d love to lose my inhibitions and jump in with the rest of them, but it goes against everything in me.”
But metaphor waits for no man: After a protracted inner dialogue, he shed the suit and, cheered on by a chorus chlorinated in sexual ambiguity, got wet. And so he writes: ” ‘Welcome to the seventies!’ I yelled as I hit the water.”
He looks at tapes of himself conducting the business of his life during said decade. Invariably, he blanches and mumbles, “Gee, somebody smack this guy.” When flipping through old photographs of himself, he will ask aloud, “Who dressed this man?” He sees elevator shoes and fat bell-bottoms and constricting blouses ablaze in rhinestones. He sees fakery and goosery. He never knew who to be onstage; always he chose to be someone else.
“You get up there with the lights and the sound and the makeup, and your first instinct is to be a phony,” he says. “Have you ever seen those old TV specials? Come on — this is an idiot on television! This is just a jerk. But I thought this was the way I was supposed to be: campy, giggly, charming, cute, silly, entertaining, goofy. By the fourth special, I was convinced I was a sex symbol. Oh, boy, this was Manilow Run Amuck! It’s very, very difficult when you’ve got millions of people applauding you and girls screaming nonstop. You say, ‘Well, maybe I should wear tight pants.’ But I’m telling you now — I shouldn’t! I ain’t got it. I look at this and I cringe.”
He has the career he never wanted. He never wanted to be Liberace; he wanted to be Hoagy Carmichael. His is the soul of an old jazzbo. He fantasizes about wearing berets and noodling on battered uprights in smoky Parisian dives. His curse was his ear; he hears sweet. Sweet sells. It sells hamburgers and acne pads; so he became a jingle virtuoso, and he was assigned posterity by playing or singing or writing hummable odes for McDonald’s and Stri-Dex and other sundries. As an arranger, he packed resonance into a microcosm, he stoked swoons into simple charts. At the Baths, it fell to him to refine the raw tumult of Bette Midler, then an unwieldy chanteuse of epic potential. She ensnared him, took him on the road; he gave her context, created her in a sense. Their union begat vinyl; he coproduced her first and best recordings. Then he won his own contract from Bell Records, which later became Arista, which released his first single, a song about a dog called Brandy that was retitled “Mandy” that quickly hit Number One, which firmly established Manilow as a frontman, thereby shackling him with the career he never wanted.
“Being the overambitious Jew that I am — this overachieving Brooklyn guy — I went for it,” he says now. “I said, ‘Come on! Let’s go!’ I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it, I wasn’t comfortable with it. But I figured, ‘Who can turn down this opportunity?’ I knew that it was too much. That there was no build. That I had no hope. It exploded with such ferocity that I have spent the last ten years trying to pick up the pieces.”
Terrified of where he found himself, he lost himself. He’d gotten too big for his sequins. Bad behavior surfaced. “I didn’t know what to do to alleviate the agony of this pressure,” he recalls. “At that point, most people turn to drugs, and I can understand it, believe me. Not that I ever considered it. Instead, I hollered. I was abusive: bratty, throwing tantrums, being selfish, temperamental, inconsiderate. I was pretty much of a total asshole. I really believed that I was better than others, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t. And the danger was that the people around you want to keep their jobs, so they indulge you. I could have gotten anything I wanted. I’ve watched the Anita Bakers and the — I don’t want to mention names — but I see what they are going through. I’ve been there. All I can do is say a prayer for them and hope they get through this. My assholiness ran out after only a couple of years, thank God.”
“Shouldn’t Prince meet the Jewish Prince?” He meant it as a joke, but the prospect of this apocalyptic confrontation brought me to Minnesota one chilly week. The Manilow contingent had set aground on purple soil. Paisley Park, seat of the lovesexy empire, had been commandeered by Manilow, who decided to shore up his huge stage show on Prince’s huge sound stage — for a fee. Logistics dictated as much. His tour, then on hiatus, was to resume days later in nearby St. Paul. And so he infiltrated the mammoth white fortress, where doves fly in cages or are etched into stained-glass windows. But, alas, the tiny host remained sealed in his upstairs lair.
“I think he should come and greet me,” said Manilow, with mock indignation. “It would be the hospitable thing to do: Prince meets the Jewish Prince.”
During breaks, we wandered the corridors together, hoping for a glimpse. He is, it turns out, in awe of Prince. “I heard this place was in trouble,” he said, meaning the vast complex. “Not a money-making enterprise, I heard.” He reminisced about a Prince concert he’d seen in Los Angeles. “He was amazing,” he said. “I remember asking a promoter who worked with him, ‘What’s Prince like?’ She said, ‘Never met him.’ I said, ‘Never met him?’ She said, ‘No, he came in a box.’ He came to his shows in a box! They wheeled him off the truck and all the way to the stage in a box! Did the show, got back in the box, wheeled him back to the truck, and he was gone! Now that’s a star! It never got that bad for me. I never had a box!”
Now and again, he will register at hotels under Elvis’s old pseudonym, John Burrows. He hides only a little these days. Unlike Elvis, his fandemonium, while widespread and fervent, is not unmanageable. (Many of his most ardent fans, shamed by peers, keep their fealty secret — a prominent exception being Arsenio Hall, who defiantly gushes whenever Manilow visits his show.) Like Elvis, however, he is pursued by a sisterhood possessed. Women who live for Barry Manilow don’t want hanks of his hair or bedlinen tatters; they want inspiration. For them, he is an example. Says his friend and manager Garry Kief: “When you’ve had the shit kicked out of you for fifteen years and you can still breathe, maybe you finally start to believe that there is a God. People see that and respond to it.”
He is, in effect, a patron saint of misfits and lonely hearts everywhere. “We’re all lonely in our lives,” Manilow says, not making too much of this. But his music evinces hope, urging the downtrodden that, like him, they too can Make It Through the Rain. Indeed, self-improvement is the nutmeat of his largely autobiographical stage show — which is more theater experience, less pop recital. One elaborate, leg-kicking production number called “God Bless the Other 99” celebrates the bravado of those in life who try and invariably fail: “I learned more from failure than I learned from success,” he belts, a Busby Berkeley sage. Another tune — “Please Don’t Be Scared” — is a stirring paean to survival instincts. He sprinkles concerts with cozy aphorisms like “You can give in, you can give out, but you can’t give up.” It is like a motivational workshop for the chronically intimidated — only with better choreography.
“We all need somebody to say these things,” he says, accepting the mantle. “So if I’ve been chosen to do this, if that’s what they want to hear — I’ll do it. I’ll tell ’em what I know so far. I’ve done everything else. I can’t be doing it for the Number One records anymore, ever again. It’s not satisfying. Nice, but unsatisfying. I don’t know — I feel better when I feel I’m giving to somebody. It’s corny. But it’s me.”
Late one freezing night in St. Paul, a gaggle of women lingered outside the stage door of the Ordway Music Theater, where they had just watched their shaman give a benefit performance. Most of them had seen the show several times before in various corners of the continent; this time they paid up to £250 apiece, mingling among Minnesotans in formal wear, to see it again. They’d come from parts unknown and, their teeth chattering in the nippiness, bore such gifts as Mylar balloons and ruggelach cake. Upon exit, Manilow hurried over to them, took their cold hands and warmed them in his own. “Thank you for waiting out here,” he told them and fussed about their health. “You gotta get out of this wind!”
The next morning at a record signing in downtown Minneapolis, hundreds of women — and some self-conscious men — filed in serpentine fashion past a table where he bestowed his signature upon anything placed before him. The ladies, aged midtwenties to late forties, in varying physical contours, proffered mash notes and confessional platitudes. “I’m laid off right now, so ‘Please Don’t Be Scared’ means a lot to me,” said one. Another echoed this, mentioning her sister’s several suicide attempts. “I work in a prison,” yet another told him, “and you’re my sanity.”
Through all of this, he listened, served up perfunctory messages of goodwill, politely declined kiss requests (how to accommodate one and not incite a mob scene?) and kept on writing his name. “I love you, too,” he would say to those who needed to hear it. He said it more than once that day.
“I think he’s a sad guy,” he was saying one night in his St. Paul hotel suite.
Conversation had turned to Elton John, the only performer with whom Barry Manilow shared majority ownership of the Seventies. “We didn’t know each other back then,” he continued. “He’s not a friend or anything. I’ve since bumped into him at a party now and then, or backstage when he came to see me or I went to see him. He’s a survivor, but all the interviews I’ve ever read about him are sad interviews. He seems sad. I wish the best for him. I wish he could pull himself together. He’s a talented guy, a wonderful singer, a good songwriter, a fancy dresser. Snappy, dapper dresser! I just wish he was not sad. But I think he brings it on himself. It seems to me that some of these people, they can do it, they can help themselves, but they just…”
He stopped, tossed up his hands and grinned stupidly. He sees the pain the way others see carpet lint. It is what he does. He can’t help himself.
“Here I am, being the self-help guru again,” he said, chuckling. “But what I’m learning is that you don’t have to be a victim, you know? You can take your life into your hands and you can just change things if you open your eyes. I think Elton needs a little nudge, that’s all.”
He shrugged and smiled and shrugged some more.
It is what he does.