When you're at a Barry Manilow concert and you run into someone you know to be hip, you're totally at a loss for words. As Press contributor Greg Ellis, my fellow Fanilow-for-the-evening, put it, it's a little like being ostensibly straight and getting spotted in a gay bar by other ostensibly straight guys. That's how I felt when I bumped into Continental Club co-owner and El Orbit keyboardist Pete Gordon, Continental/Big Top barman Trey Armstrong and their wives on the Toyota Center floor just before the show began.
To his credit, Gordon, resplendent in lime-green trousers and a yellow plaid blazer, had no shame about the situation at all. Fanilow is an understatement for this piano man. He was positively exultant about the show to come. "Heck, yeah! Mani-low! He's gonna give it all tonight!" And he wasn't buying the gay-bar angle. "I think we all know why we're here tonight," he solemnly intoned. "We're here to see the man who writes the songs."
Armstrong was a little more circumspect. After the show began, he joined me for a quick cig out in the Toyota Center's smoking pen. "I'll tell you one thing, John," Armstrong said, dragging deeply on one of his wife's Virginia Slims. "If that was Neil Diamond out there on that stage, I wouldn't be here right now smoking this cigarette."
At Manilow shows, you have to fight little machismo-saving battles like that. You have to find a way to keep your hipster nuts. You have to say that while, yes, you dig Manilow enough to come to the show, you'd much, much rather be at one by that über-mensch Neil Diamond. (Seconds earlier, Armstrong had saved me from utterly succumbing to the dorky sissy boy-dom Manilow causes: He offered to buy me a drink at a concession stand and I found myself saying, "Make mine a Smirnoff Ice." Armstrong's eyes narrowed and the smile melted off his face. He turned to the lady behind the counter and said, "My buddy will have a Budweiser.")
So it went on the night I finally succumbed to the obvious; namely, that I am a white man. I've gotta admit it -- pretty much my whole life has been a flight from my own pale skin. As a kid I always preferred Soul Train over American Bandstand, Fat Albert over Scooby-Doo, Richard Pryor over Andy Kaufman, Shaft over Dirty Harry and Magic over Bird. Earl Campbell was my all-time hero from 1977 to 1984. J.R. Richard was my favorite Astro, Clyde Drexler my favorite college hoopster. The recipient of my first school crush back in first grade was a black girl. She told me I could kiss her, but only after I had kissed the classroom floor first. She lied.
This bias has always more or less applied to music as well. My childhood was immersed in the blues of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and the zydeco of Clifton Chenier, as well as the strains of Fat Albert's Junkyard Band, which was so much better than Josie and the Pussycats or Alvin and the Chipmunks. When I got old enough to start raiding my dad's record collection on my own, I mainly played Hound Dog Taylor, Albert Collins, Bobby Bland, Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters records. After a little foray into new wave and punk in the '80s, I rejected it in favor of first reggae, then hip-hop. I started listening to and even taping KTSU's Kidz Jamm in 1985, back when they were spinning LL's "Rock the Bells" and the Beastie Boys' "Hold It Now" and everybody still thought the Beastie Boys were black. (Otherwise, I might not have liked them as much as I did.) Years later, I got hooked on Afro-Cuban son and kora music from Mali, Senegal and the Gambia.
Suffice to say I'm a wannabe. Sure, I've had stretches where I listened to nothing but country or rock, but overall my life in music has been all about the sounds of blackness. Blackness is cool, whiteness is dorky -- that's been my guiding principle for lo these many years. The whiter the music, the less likely I have always been to be a fan.
But I believe that every now and then you've got to check yourself, go see what it is that you've been missing. That's why I headed over to the Toyota Center to catch the Manilow show.
About 8,000 of his fans braved a soggy night for this, the second of his tours to be vaguely billed as the last. I would estimate that 70 percent of the Fanilows in attendance were women, almost all 40 and older, and almost all white, though there were some blacks and Hispanics and rather a lot of Filipinos. They were all dressed to the nines -- high-heeled shoes, sparkly tops, and a few draped pink Copacabana-friendly feather boas over their shoulders. The PAs played disco and deep house to warm up the crowd, and as the lights went low, "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas came blaring out from overhead. The crowd danced as the anticipation built.
Meanwhile, Manilow lurked under the stage. The floor slid open, and up he rose on a platform, to the giddy squeals of several thousand middle-aged women. In dark blue pinstripe pants and a navy blue tailcoat, he looked more like Willy Wonka than ever. And once on stage, Manilow commenced to entertaining. He told corny jokes. He told us we were the best fans in the whole wide world. He made fun of his nose and said, "Look at my face now. Clay Aiken's gonna look just like this in 30 years." He reminisced about playing at the rodeo ("I'm from Brooklyn -- what do I know from rodeos! This was the only time my opening act ever pooped on the stage!"). He talked about and sang some of the jingles he wrote in his lean and hungry years. (Did you know Manilow is responsible for "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there"?) And as befits a song-and-dance man, he sang and danced.
I'm still not much of a fan of Manilow's music, but I must say that the man puts on a great show, and mostly all by himself. He has the rare gift of making even a huge concert hall seem like a living room and even the most studied, choreographed production seem like a conversation with you and you alone. The lyrics to his songs -- gooey though they are -- are so broadly universal that they seem likewise tailored for nobody but you.
Miles Davis might have birthed the cool back in the '50s, but nobody's given Manilow the memo. At least when he's on stage, Manilow exists in a world where "coolness" still describes only temperature, where "hip" connotes only a body part. (Away from the lights is another matter -- Manilow recently boasted to an Irish paper that he was "one of the first people in California to have a Scissor Sisters CD" and that he has owned the Franz Ferdinand debut for weeks. "Am I hip or what?" he said.) And ever since Elvis shimmied his way into the national consciousness, until the great irony boom of the last ten years or so, male popular musicians have been expected to trade in some combination of sexuality and menace.
Manilow possesses no sex appeal, is about as frightening as a cocker spaniel puppy, and he damn sure ain't ironic. What is it that he has? A few years ago, on a PBS special, I saw him hoist a fortysomething hausfrau out of the audience, and unless my eyes and ears were deceiving me, I would say that woman literally had a tremor-shock orgasm just from standing near Barry. To harness that power could prove handy.
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Pre-show, back out in the smoking pen, I put the question of Barry's mystique to Sarah Watson, a fortysomething woman and a somewhat rare black Fanilow. Watson had her answer before I could get the whole question out of my mouth. "Purity. Purity and talent. He plays the piano like nobody's business. He's a true musician. What he sings about is for real. His songs are about real life. This is what goes on."
It seems a little strange that so much purity should attach to Manilow; after all, he got his start as Bette Midler's bandleader when she was gigging in the infamous New York bathhouses of the '70s. Which brings up another point about Barry. Is he or isn't he? "You know, everybody says Barry must be gay," Watson says. "No, no, no. He sang 'A Linda Song' back in 1977, and that was about his first love."
I wanted to see if Clay Aiken was eating away at Manilow's fan base, so I asked for Watson's opinion of the youthful Manilow clone. "He's not a young Barry Manilow at all," she said. "I like him. He's good. But he doesn't have the talent Barry has." Just then, a couple walked past speaking Spanish and Watson turned to her companion and said, "See, you'll hear every language here."
Indeed. For part of one night, a nebbishy Brooklyn song-and-dance man and monster of whitebread pop made me feel okay about being a white boy. And then I went home and put on a Gil Scott-Heron record.