November 14, 1987
"THE DAY I THOUGHT I HAD CANCER"
BY BARRY MANILOW
In the month he publishes his autobiography and sets out on a world tour after a lay-off of 20 months, Barry Manilow is counting his lucky stars. For, as he reveals here, less than a year ago he came close to death from an illness for which he is still receiving treatment.
By Mary Fletcher
When he stopped feeling nervous about stepping onto the stage to face an excited audience, no longer found his heart fluttering at the thrill of recording an album, Barry Manilow knew that it was time to quit.
Time to hang up the stage silk shirts with the glittery gold braid, the red velvet waistcoats and sequin-studded belts, pack away the hits like I Write The Songs, Can't Smile Without You and Could It Be Magic, cancel the tours and the television specials.
One way or another, he had to find out whether he could recapture the thrill his music had brought him ever since his mother gave him his first piano as a child, a passion which had somehow grown stale over the years despite the record breaking tours, the hit singles, and platinum albums. Because if he couldn't, he knew he might as well disappear from the entertainment scene forever.
So 20 months ago, Barry Manilow embarked on what has proved to be both the most productive and frightening period he has ever experienced. Productive, because he has come back from temporary retirement convinced he is entering the most innovative time of his career. Frightening, because halfway through, he almost died.
In his dressing room caravan at the back of a Hollywood studio, where he is recording a spectacular new television special for which the sets along have cost £1-million, he's relaxed, suntanned and talks enthusiastically about his coming world tour and the autobiography to be published this week.
But his mood changes and he starts picking nervously at an empty paper coffee cup when he recalls the Sunday in January earlier this year when he faced death.
He starts lightly, not wanting to make too big a thing of the terrifying experience he's only ever talked about to close friends until now. But as the memory comes flooding back, his words betray the fear and bewilderment he felt the day surgeons battled to save his live.
"My old girlfriend Linda had come to stay for a month and we were having a lovely, lazy day at my house reading and doing crossword puzzles, when I suddenly felt this awful pain in my mouth," he says.
"Somehow it didn't feel like toothache. I realised something terrible was happening when the pain became excruciating."
In agony, Barry called every dentist he could think of. But being Sunday afternoon every surgery was closed.
"Finally, I called my friend Elizabeth Taylor, and thank God she gave me the home number of her dental surgeon. I don't know what I would have done without her help.
"As soon as he examined me he said he wanted me in hospital straight away. There was a tumor in the roof of my mouth that had exploded overnight and I was in a real mess.
"At the hospital, they didn't know exactly what it was. I had to have Cat scans and tests, which to me were terrifying because I'd never even been in hospital before. They gave me morphine to deaden the pain, stuck tubes in me everywhere and my face blew up to three times its normal size.
"The worst thing was that they thought it was cancerous. I had to sign a statement saying that if they needed to remove half my mouth I would let them do it."
Barry was operated on next morning. The tumor was removed, but so was much of the bone surrounding it.
"They told me I nearly died. Thank God the surgeons were able to do a good job. Now because of the loss of bone I'm having dental treatment three times a week to save my teeth. But better that than the alternative.
"The shattering thing was that it all happened so fast. I had absolutely no warning. Four days later, I was still in pain but I was back home in the same chair, doing the same crossword puzzle, staring out at the same view.
"Except when you know you almost lost your life you are in such a state of shock that everything looks a little different.
"I'm still recovering from it. But the doctors have told me I'm okay now and they're just repairing the damage.
"Somehow the whole experience was like a climax to this period of self-doubt I was going through, telling me to make sure that everything I did from now on was for love and no other reason. It was like an exclamation mark."
Barry's casual mention of Elizabeth Taylor reveals what must be one of showbiz's more unlikely friendships, which has grown steadily ever since he stood in for a missing artiste at the AIDS fund raising concert she organized earlier this year.
"I'm so happy she has come into my life," he says. "Elizabeth is one of my dearest friends. She's smart, experienced, worldly and classy. She's got a truck driver's mouth when she wants it, but at the same time she's the most feminine person I've ever met -- she really makes you feel like a man. But romance? No, we're just friends. Besides, she's got George (Hamilton)."
Barry's confrontation with serious illness was the last hurdle in his temporary retirement from music-making.
"It had nothing to do with the fact that my career was in trouble," he says. "Business was booming but I was exhausted.
"It wasn't a break-down so much as a mid-life crisis. I always thought that was only for people who were negative and not successful. But there I was asking myself, 'Is this it? Is this what you planned?'
"I could easily have gone on making albums and doing concerts -- there was no lack of lucrative offers -- but the spark had gone."
The respite also gave him time to finish his book Sweet Life, subtitled Adventures On The Way To Paradise, in which he recalls his early struggles in Brooklyn, his mother Edna's suicide attempts, his divorce and the way his career suddenly switched from back room boy to hit pop star.
"I decided to write a book for people who knew a lot about my musical career but didn't know all of it. In the end it took me about three years to finish," he says.
"The first version was my 'kvetching' (complaining) draft in which I whined on about anyone who's ever done me wrong. The publishers wanted me to leave it in, but that's not the sort of book I wanted to write.
"I'm a very fortunate, hardworking fellow and what I really wanted to talk about was the kind of hurricane that hits you when you don't expect success. So I re-wrote it to show what happened to me.
"I didn't seek out stardom -- I would have been happy being a behind-the-scenes musical director. But it was like somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'You're on!'"
The grandson of Russian emigrant Jews, Barry Manilow's story is a classic in the poor-boy-makes-good tradition. At 19, he got a job in the CBS mail room and registered at the New York College of Music for evening classes, playing piano for an off-Broadway theatre production in his spare time. Later, teaming up with a singer called Jeanne Lucas, he did a tour of sleazy hotel cabarets and sang for an audience for the first time when Jeanne contracted laryngitis.
Late in 1970 when his reputation as a singing coach and musical director had grown, one of his clients, Sheila Rae, asked him to play an audition for her at the place called the Continental Baths.
"I arrived in my suit and tie carrying my attache case filled with music and discovered it was an openly gay Turkish baths," he says. "It was an enormous shock to me, conservative, uptight, not very cool Barry from Brooklyn. It was decadent, sexual and illegal -- all the things I wasn't. I did not feel comfortable."
Nevertheless, Barry's perseverance led to a meeting that was to change his life. He was asked to play piano for the new singer -- a girl named Bette Midler -- and the experience hit him like a thunderbolt.
"The Continental Baths period was the beginning of me being thrown into this world that I didn't understand," he recalls. "When I met Bette I admired her but couldn't deal with her because she was so uninhibited and I was so uptight. I wanted to be as spontaneous as she was, but I just didn't know how."
Yet within a year, Barry was in charge of Bette's music and her band, doing her arrangements and orchestrations. They went on the road together, ending up at a Carnegie Hall concert that was released as an album. Barry continued to write songs and started to be offered conducting jobs and commercials.
It was 1972 when he recorded a demonstration tape of some of his songs that Bell Records offered a recording contract for himself. They thought he could make a career as a singer.
"The prospect of becoming a recording artist and performer really frightened me. I was fine backing someone or leading the band, but when I was up front I felt I was making millions of mistakes. I didn't even like the sound of my own voice," he says. "I only saw myself as a songwriter or musical director for other performers."
But he signed, went on the road again with Bette, made his first album and followed up with his own first solo tour.
With his second album in 1974, he released a single called Mandy -- his first number one hit record that set him on the road to stardom.
Since then, he's had another 25 Top-40 singles, sold more than 50 million records, had five "platinum" albums (each one selling over a million copies in the UK alone), won an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar nomination, had such spectacular Broadway sell-out concerts they have made the Guinness Book of Records, and inspired unique devotion from his fans.
"No matter how professional you are, you're just not prepared for that sort of success," he says. "Your whole world just goes whammo.
"I can understand how people who suddenly become stars turn to drugs, booze and sex, and all that madness because I was there. It's all based on insecurity, not knowing the rules and having yes-men kissing your butt all day long.
"I didn't turn to drugs, but I did turn into a brat. I went crazy. I don't know how people put up with me. When I hear some of the things I said when I was in my asshole period, I can't believe it was me.
"Now I know the only way to keep your feet on the ground is to surround yourself with people who always tell you the truth.
"I still have trouble dealing with being called BARRY MANILOW in capital letters, because I would never have chosen this kind of career in my wildest dreams. But I don't regret a minute of it.
"To be honest, I've never understood what it is they all yell for. And the few times I thought I had, and decided, 'Okay, I'll do a little bit more of that,' I've gotten myself into trouble. Maybe it's better I never find out."
Barry grew up in a Brooklyn tenement, one of the poorest areas of New York, and dreamed only of making a living as a composer and arranger of popular music.
"Gramma Esther gave me total, undivided, unconditional love," he says. "I could have been a serial killer and she would have gone on loving me, no questions asked. She's the only person who has ever loved me in that way and I'm more secure because of it."
Mother Edna wasn't quite so easy to live with. She and Barry's father, truck driver Harold Kelliher, divorced two years after he was born and she married again. But it was a boozing, brawling relationship with Edna attempting suicide.
Barry was 22 when he found Edna unconscious on her bed, an empty bottle of pills beside her. She recovered, but was committed to a sanitarium for a period.
In a chapter that reveals much abut this difficult relationship with his mother at that time, Barry writes: "When her life fell apart, she reacted by trying to take it. I had so many questions: Was she counting on my finding her? Did she do it to make me feel guilty? To make us feel sorry for her? Did she do it out of intolerable hopelessness or to get attention?"
Today, Barry and Edna live on opposite sides of the continent, he in LA, she in New York. They have settled into a loving friendship.
"I see her whenever I'm in New York," he says. "I really do like her. She's turned into a friend. I guess when you're a kid you idolise your parents and then as you grow up you get fed up with them. Now, I'm proud of her.
"She's been singing in New York nightclubs and I'm real happy for her. I saw her act once and she's always sending me video tapes. She's good. She could have had a Broadway career if she'd wanted."
Barry Manilow has an unostentatious ranch house on a hill close to Hollywood, with a superbly equipped studio largely made of glass. He lives alone, except for a daily houseman, and two dogs.
"I can stare out over the mountains and glimpse the Pacific from my little perch. I don't get lonely -- I have plenty of friends.
"But I'm happier now than I've ever been. I've found what I was looking for.
"I've made a contemporary swing album called Swing Street that involves a lot of the new musical technology and I've got the book, the tour and the TV special to come. They're all things I've never done before so I'm nervous about how they'll be received.
"But that's exactly the feeling I was trying to recapture. So I'm on cloud nine."
Originally posted 9/25/2006 10:34:00 AM