By Stephen E. Rubin April 1979
Even more surprising is that he started behind the scenes and only became a performer by a fluke. Barry is a musical jack-of-all-trades - arranger, conductor, writer, singer, pianist, producer. Everybody thinks he wrote the famous McDonald's jingle ("You deserve a break today") - he didn't, he only sings it. But he did write the Bowlene Toilet Cleaner, State Farm Insurance, Chevrolet and Band-Aid commercials, and arranged materials, masterminded the stage act and co-produced the albums of a certain "Divine Miss M." No one will ever know for sure how much of it was Bette Midler, but together their chemistry produced flamboyant, extraordinary music, and it was surely from Bette that Barry learned what torrential energy and shameless gall really mean.
In 1973, for lack of anything better to do, he claims, Barry invested $5,000 of his own money into making a demo record. It earned him a recording contract and, two years later, Mandy was released, his first hit single. There followed a succession of runaway singles - I Write the Songs, Looks Like We Made It and Copacabana, to say nothing of seven solid platinum albums and a television contract with ABC.
The eye of this hurricane rejoices that he is commercially one of the most superior of superstars in pop and - more important to Barry - that what he considers his unique personal message is coming across loud and clear. Barry knows of his reception because of the unusual mail he receives.
"You cannot believe the letters," he avows, his voice going squeaky. "I cry over most of them, honestly. One girl wrote me about her mother dying of leukemia and that the only time she reacted was when my voice came on the radio.
"I don't know how this is happening, because why would anybody think I'm a nice guy just by listening to my albums?" Barry asks, further pondering the depths of his acceptance by an audience that knows no age, sex or socio-economic limitations. "When I listen to Frank Sinatra, I don't know what kind of person he is. I think Sinatra's a good interpreter and singer, but I wouldn't write to him and say you changed my life, you helped me get through the day, you saved me from suicide."
Barry's remarkable success and his own breathless astonishment and endearing manner of deriding himself rescue this particular Brooklyn fairy tale from becoming maudlin. And Barry knows it. Ask him whether he emits sexuality on stage, and he grins, "Not on purpose I don't." He also scoffs at his considerable flair for playing pop-singing superstar. "I'm in this ridiculous stratosphere," he mock boasts with the ingenious bravado of a smart street kid. "I'm playing with Monopoly money." And winning - scnookdom be damned.
In line with the well-heeled potentates of pop who make mini-fortunes every time they show their faces in public, Barry has established himself as a two-coast person. He owns a co-op in New York with a terrace that takes in a panorama of the city worth the expensive price tag of a famed, old guard apartment building, and he recently purchased the de rigueur Bel Air house ("for tax reasons") with "this ridiculous view of mountains and canyons."
Barry talks like he comes from Brooklyn, and never lets you forget it as he's seated near the Mickey Mouse phone at the corner of a bright, multicolored couch of spectacular proportions in the otherwise coolly decorated music room of his New York digs. Neatly hanging behind him is a dazzling display of gold and platinum records - Barry's hits (including a quadruple platinum for Barry Manilow Live, which sold over four million copies). The music room appears to double as a den and, aside from a handsomely equipped kitchen with informal high stools, is the only room that gives a feeling of being lived in.
The formal living room is stark and modern, antiseptic and uninviting - a wonderful wall fish tank is devoid of inhabitants. There are no books on the bookshelves in an office of sorts - they're on the West Coast. The game room has a pinball machine, but not much else. The bedroom is off limits to the press.
Before we begin talking, Barry, his cuddly, redheaded girlfriend Linda Allen, his assistant, his press agent and I sit around the kitchen waiting for the coffee to perk. Barry and Linda are in coordinated getups: dark jeans and maroon sweaters. Barry's is a particularly dashing ensemble and, as he facetiously points out to Linda, "very Ivy League" because of a tie neatly peaking out from under the crew neck top. Linda and Barry are chatty and friendly, as are the personal if not physical surroundings. There's a lot to be happy about in the Manilow abode these days, including his third ABC-TV special next month (the first two were both smash hits).
But for all his cheering levity, Barry is troubled enough once we're alone to keep a mini-cassette tape recorder running throughout our long conversation. And he is not joking when he voices concern that certain people are reading him wrong, that his image is awry.
"It's important to me," he says soberly, if somewhat melodramatically, "that you reinforce the thinking that I am, in fact, a living, breathing, feeling, sensitive, gentle man. Because of this incredible amount of success, a lot of people have begun thinking and writing that Barry Manilow's ego is out of hand. I read these stories and think, 'Oh, my God! People really believe I am going crazy, taking this success to heart.' Yeah, I'm successful; yeah, I enjoy the success. I enjoy all of it. But the thing I work on most is keeping my feet on the ground in his hurricane. It's very difficult. The wind can knock you over."
Barry often talks the way song lyrics sound. His innate show biz jargon and panache rise naturally to the fore, even when he is attempting to reach out and, on a personal level, touch and encompass his followers in exactly the same fashion his hit songs do - directly. He wants them desperately to believe that if ever there was an honest man, he is it. That what they see on stage is nothing more than a magnified, souped-up version of "The Real Barry."
But "The Real Barry" is far more complex than his charming, offhand, unpretentious manner suggests. So, while he's out to prove himself as being on the level, he's also anxious because he thinks his fans might be sorely disenchanted with the genuine article.
"Most fans of mine," Barry almost whines, "would be very disappointed if they realized I don't walk around in my rhinestone top all the time and do not sing all day long. That I sit around in blue jeans and watch television and don't shave sometimes and don't have witty things to say. From the letters I receive, you'd think I was really hot stuff. Well, I'm not hot stuff. I'm just a regular person.
"Sometimes I don't even want to meet fans because I'm afraid I'll disappoint them. Certainly a lot of people I used to idolize weren't all I thought they were when I met them. Heaven knows I never met Laura Nyro (the white-soul diva of the Sixties, author of Wedding Bell Blues and Stoned Soul Picnic, which were recorded by The Fifth Dimension). Her music changed my life. I fantasized about her for so long. Then I kept hearing reports about what it was like to work with her, to be with her, what she was really like. And it wasn't anything like I wanted her to be. After I heard all that, I didn't want to meet her."
Barry confesses, with a tinge of resignation, that bubbles started bursting early for him. "Most people I've admired have turned out to have faults," he says quietly. "Starting with my mom. I worship Mom, I do. I still love her, she's the greatest, but when I was growing up I always thought she was a sophisticated, martini-drinking woman of the world.
"But as I grew older, and I think we all go through this, we begin to see our parents and our idols as just human beings. I got angry when I first realized Mom was just another human being. I had thought she was superhuman."
Perhaps Barry's excessive adoration of his mother stemmed from his father's desertion when he was a tot of two. His mother supported herself and her son as well as her parents in the slum Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "Ask a cab driver to take you there now, and he'll run away." Barry boasts. The picture Barry paints of himself as a youngster helps considerably to illuminate the household name today.
"I was really ugly, the ugliest kid in school. I have pictures that would make your hair curl. I was a street kid, but not a street punk, not a Billy Joel. I lived in the streets, my hangouts were alleys and deserted parking lots that were filled with inner tubes. Any games I played were in the gutters. I didn't have a lot of friends; I had two really good ones (one of whom he married - they split up a year later when Barry was 22) and many acquaintances that got me through my life. That's why friendships now are as important to me as they are. I wasn't very good at sports. I wasn't Mr. Popularity at school, but I had these fabulous friends. I developed a sense of humor about myself and about life through them.
"You become smart on the streets of New York - common sense smart. You learn how to survive. My being smart also comes from my family, which had an incredible amount of common sense, especially my grandparents. They drilled logic into my head. So I'm not a street kid looking over his shoulder waiting for the next mugger to attack. I'm a different kind of street kid - with a down-to-earthness, a focus on reality. It's the thing that will stop me from thinking I really am a 'Hot Stuff Superstar.'"
Barry also snubs the accepted extra-curricular aspects of life among the pop culture elite - show biz friends (his only entertainer chums are singers Bette Midler and Melissa Manchester), show biz parties and show biz drugs. He whoops with laughter as he recalls his first interview, five years ago, with a leading rock magazine. "The interviewer came back to my dressing room. She had masses of frizzy hair, was very skinny and wore black lipstick. Her first question was:
"'What's your favorite dope [drug]?'
"'You dear,' I said, 'get out!'
"I tried smoking joints [marijuana]. I liked it for a month, but then I started to get nauseous. And I could not stop getting sick. So for about a month, three or four years ago, I had a very nice time getting pleasantly you know . . . . Frankly, I didn't enjoy it. I would fall asleep or sit like a puppet listening to records and maybe I'd hear a horn line a little clearer, but it wasn't any revelation. The few encounters I had with the drug were no more or less pleasant than having a couple of drinks, which I don't like either. It does the same thing to me, affects me physically and I get nauseous. I cannot be out of control. So I have a social drink, but mostly it's mineral water with a lime twist."
Barry, unsurprisingly, finds more traditional means of relaxation most satisfying. "A good book, a good rhythm and blues record, conversations with friends having nothing whatsoever to do with the music industry, a movie. When I'm on the road (he finished one of his grueling cross-country tours at the close of last year), I go out with my two best friends from my group and we just do anything - like go shopping. I relax by doing the ordinary things that most people do all the time," he laughs, "but that I don't often get a chance to do."
If Barry's lifestyle appears a little too prim to be believed, it's best to understand that, given his high-voltage performances, both his body and his mind shriek for the kind of unstructured, rather staid existence he seeks. "There's a whole energy trip when I'm onstage," Barry explains, "and I'm spent at the end of it. It's certainly a great release. My only entree into analysis years ago had me punching a pillow and beating up the bed, and God, it got all my frustrations out in ten seconds. Now I take out the frustrations of the day in the songs. Sometimes I'm not even thinking of the lyric, but of a passionate emotion - joy, frustration, anger, loneliness - and it comes right out in the middle of these songs. The audience is affected by it, and I feel much better after I'm done. I find I can deal with people a lot better because of it."
Barry is fast to point out that during a tour ("tours drive you nuts") he is less successful in dealing with people. "I'm volatile," he admits. "I blow up all the time." Even with Linda? "No, never. But now and again I'll blow up with my assistant when he thinks he's representing me and he'll yell at a waiter - 'Mr. Manilow needs a rare hamburger. How dare you?' I say, 'Paul, please don't talk to people like that, what's the matter with you?'
"My manager puts up with a lot from me. I'm crazy when it comes to doing a job right. I like to be involved in every area of my life and that's hard, so when I feel I'm being left out of a decision, I start screaming."
Recently a TV crew came to tape three numbers during Barry's live show in Philadelphia. When the agreed-upon songs were performed, Barry still saw the cameras with their red lights focused on him from all directions. He became incoherently furious and relives the episode with comparable passion. "My energy and adrenaline levels are up so high during a performance, I could probably lift a car. There were 20,000 people out there screaming their heads off. I was having a great time, but I kept seeing those cameras and their lights.
"At one point, while I was introducing a band member who was doing a solo, I ran into the wings where one of these guys was and grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him further into the wings and yelled, 'STOP IT!' The guy sorta bounced around.
"Then, when I went back onstage, I saw him crawling around to the other side. So I introduced another band member, ran offstage, shoved him again and said to my stage manager, 'Get this man the [expletive deleted] off my stage! I don't know what he's doing here.' What was coming out of my mouth was energy, not fury, but then they had said they were only going to tape three songs. I blew up like crazy and when the show was finished, I was still the same way. Because when I come offstage, if something is funny it's incredibly funny, if something is sad I'm dissolved into tears, if something is upsetting it's double, triple the upset.
"The director came out and gave me a perfectly logical explanation why those cameramen were onstage, but I was not listening. I went CRAZY. Slammed the door in his face. I know he must have thought I was a total maniac and hated my guts. The next day the TV show called and apologized and I said, no don't apologize. I had no right to scream like that. That cameraman was a big person; he could have banged me on the head and killed me. But I was on this energy trip and actually threw him into the wings. I'm not a fighter, it's just this insane energy that takes over."
Barry is a creature of all those B-movies we love - the entertainer whose performances, whose songs, whose vigorous hawking fuel his very being. He is a sweet-natured fellow offstage, but compared to the theatrical dynamo, the real Barry pales. And, as opposed to lesser luminaries who are sometimes more interesting away from the glare of the limelight, Barry is at his most alluring when dispensing his wares in his shiny, bauble-laden fantasy costumes.
When the two worlds collide, there is an impact that is more pathetic than fateful. "I must say," Barry reports, "I get very uptight when I go to places with lots of people. Even if they don't stop and talk, a lot of people stare . . . it gets to you. I'll be going down an escalator in a department store and I'll be looking at faces watching me go down. There's just so much you can block out. I'll be with Linda just talking, pretending it's not happening, but when they're all looking up and down at you . . ."
This subtle form of star-gazing is almost welcome compared to the full-scale drama that forced Barry to move out of his former, far less resplendent New York apartment. "Who's Who printed my home address," Barry snarls uncharacteristically. "Without my permission, I might add. We've got a lawsuit out against them. First the letters started coming, I had no idea how. Then they started piling up in front of the door. Until then I had had a wonderfully private life there: My records were No. 1, yet I was able to lead a normal existence. Then suddenly this Who's Who thing came out and fans started to camp outside the door. It was hellish, just hellish, so I had to move. I live in this building under a pseudonym. Today the doormen were told you'd be asking for me, but if you come here tomorrow and ask for Barry Manilow, they will shoot you in the nose."
Barry doesn't want to be misunderstood. He wants to be the nice guy his followers think he is, he wants their letters, their devotion, their gratitude. But from a distance.
"The private Barry is a quiet type," he insists, "private and quiet and grateful. I think I'm sorta in awe of what's happened to me - still. I don't know what synagogue to donate money to first. I am a very fortunate man. If it all stopped tomorrow, I have had a wonderful ride, a great time. I'd be disappointed and I'd probably be very unhappy, but I wouldn't die."
Barry dismisses outright the innuendos in the press and among the tongue-wagging Cassandras of popdom that behind all the flamboyant success, there is, in the flesh, one small, lonesome man. He smiles his smart, Brooklyn, street-kid grin: "If this is 'lonesome at the top,' I'll take it."
Originally posted 7/13/2006 12:32:00 PM