Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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As if rock never happened

I was rather looking forward to a nice quiet evening at home when my wife popped up, excited about a new way to spend our Friday. Because a friend's relative was playing in a backing band, her friend was kindly making available to us tickets to a hot attraction at that open air concert hall which used to be called Starplex but now is called Smirnov, after a vodka company with a large check. The novelty of my wife's suggestion appealed to me.

Soon, we were having dinner with friends at Nuevo Leon down in Dallas, where I had a wonderful meal of cabrito and carnitas (for some reason, I was thinking earlier yesterday about bbq cabrito, so a northern Mexican restaurant was perfect to try some again). Then we were off to see that man for whom all of rock and roll after the Shirelles never happened. Yes, we were off to spend

Barry Manilow first became famous when I was a young teen. Those who only know him now may not remember his first few days in the sun, when he actually was considered cool. Those were the days when it was said that he was Bette Midler's keyboard player in the bathhouse circuit, who brought a musicianship and theatricality to her music that helped launch her career. These days of positive buzz, though, wore off very swiftly in the face of his first big hit, a sentimental piano piece called "Mandy", which was played 10,000 times a day on radio stations everywhere. Thus began a pattern. Whether the song was "Weekend in New England" or "Can't Smile without You", Barry Manilow proved an amazing facility to chart the tops with sentimental love songs. He spoke boldly about how he essentially hated rock, and how his sole goal was to revive the Tin Pan Alley tradition of songwriters. For "real" rock fans such as myself, this was heresy. It was okay to mock rock, as Bowie and Roxy Music did, but to ignore it? Unthinkable. Although some of his music was catchy, and all of his music has a pleasant show tune quality, my own personal feeling during much of my teens and twenties was that Barry Manilow's disdain for rock gave me a sharp disdain for Barry Manilow. Barry Manilow shares with Tom Waits the trait that he seems to have been born forty years too late. In Tom Waits, this is an endearing quality, but in Barry Manilow one felt that this was a matter that God should sort out, and the rest of us should just turn the radio dial whenever he came on.

When we arrived at the auditorium, I noticed a fair number of fiftysomething and sixtysomething folks were arriving by limousine. Also, though, a good number of folks from teen years through old age were present in abundance. I can make one generalization about the crowd--not a long-haired nor punkish look among them. Barry Manilow is just too outre for outre people. The makers of Clairol hair coloring product seemed to do well with this group, though, as I saw a few of those classic Dallas platinum blond big hair looks. On the way in, though, my wife pointed out to me the pungent odor of marijuana. I reflected on how mary jane, like Barry Manilow, essentially predated rock and roll.

The opening band was a Holiday Inn cocktail jazz lounge act, featuring a songwriter and sax player I know I am supposed to know, but whose name escapes me now. I enjoyed the string bass--I always enjoy a solid string bass. The crowd was reasonably appreciative and free of hecklers.

When the opening band ended, a fifteen minute intermission was declared, during which a sort of radio program played Patti Austin and that Elvis soccer remix. Then the hall went dark. Smirnov has a short of band shell over the sixty rows or so of audience, and a huge open lawn which constitutes the "cheap seats". We were in roughly Row 32, in very nice seats. Soon the huge curtain covering the stage was awash in a light show. It looked a little like the laser show we used to see at the Griffith Park Planetarium in Los Angeles. Shapes and patterns swirled and spun. I wondered if, like those laser shows, Mr. Manilow was going to play the Pink Floyd song with the lyric "run, Rabbit, run" while a bunny shape danced overhead, but then the band took the stage and we were off!

The curtains opened to Mr. Manilow standing on a podium entirely above the audience. Soon he was assuring me that he was back to "love me again" just like "he did so long ago". I have never wanted, needed or sought Barry Manilow's love, and frankly, he is not really my type, but I was delighted to receive the sentiment. He could have been playing the Catskill Mountains vaudeville resorts, with his winningly schmaltzy delivery style.

During the next song, "Singing to the World", the older woman with the black permed hair piled on top of her head, began to shriek repeatedly into her cell phone "Do You HEAR? Do you HEAR?", whereupon she would hold her cell phone out towards the stage. I found this enormously irritating, and was on the verge of expressing the outrage (and let's not pause to think about the absurdity of defending my God-given right to *really hear* Barry Manilow), when the woman explained to us all that Barry Manilow was her birthday present, and the other end of the phone was the giver. I don't now why this mollified me a bit, but it did, and her various rantings the rest of the evening seemed like charming ambience rather than death wish. I particularly liked during "Weekend in New England, when Mr. Manilow sang the lyric "When can I touch you?", and she yelled out "Now!", which brought a smile to Mr. Manilow and the entire crowd.

One thing that I found remarkable about the evening was that I knew almost every song that he sang. I mean, not just that I knew the name of the song. I mean, I knew every lyric. Could it be that while I always thought I was more the David Bowie or Roxy Music type fan, a secret Barry Manilow lived inside of me? I still shudder slightly at the thought, but not in an entirely bad way. It's a bit like discovering that you like a bad sitcom, but that doesn't change the fact that you like it.

But let me tell you, Barry Manilow was fun. His cover of "Theme from American Bandstand" was rocking, and the audience went into spasms of delight when he actually waddle-danced a step or two. He sang "Mandy" in a thin, breathy voice that was untreated and unabashed. He even did a line or two of the 'You deserve a break today' McDonald's theme song. One often-forgotten Barry Manilow trait is that virtually every really insidious television ad jingle, such as "like a good neighbor, State Farm is there", was written by Mr. Manilow.

His stage persona is very Vegas-y. He pronounced himself as the "coolest man in America" at one point. At another point he thanked the audience for being Barry Manilow fans, because he knew there had been times when "it's not easy being a Barry Manilow fan". The audience erupted into jubilant cheers--clearly, this flock of sheep had been awaiting its shepherd. He seemed most "into" his performance when he sang works from his upcoming Broadway musical "Harmony". The title song was an unfortunate exercise in, well, harmony, but the love song from the work was quite engaging. One could easily imagine Barry Manilow writing 30s Broadway musicals, but instead he was on stage facing a raft of non-rock-fan admirers. He did not seem much worse for the involuntary time travel from his true age to ours.

I was pleased that much of the show, he incorporated the various electronic and taped voice enhancements and sequencer bits into his stage patter, showing us how he did "sound on sound" dubbing to achieve the background chorus on his very best song, the uptempo near-rocker "It's a Miracle", and admitting he had entirely dubbed in the vocals on "Harmony". I suppose, though, he had to admit something on "Harmony", as it has six singing Manilow parts, and it would have seemed odd being lip synched by one man.

His voice was not what it was in an earlier time, but it held up remarkably well. Even as the muggy Dallas evening draped him in sweat, and fluffed his hair a bit making him look like nothing so much as a large, thin, rather regal exotic heron, he seemed to, if not exactly warm to his audience (certainly the most affable cold fish I have ever seen), at least show that he really enjoyed being a showman and giving a show.

Except for one guitar solo in mid-show, the entire show was entirely oblivious to the fact that rock music ever happened. Even Elvis' movie tunes would have seemed outrageously avant garde by the side of this stuff. But I consistently enjoyed watching this man play the crowd with a deep smile, painted on like a jolly marionette. I have always seen Barry Manilow as the ultimate man in the closet, but he made the closet door seem most appealing.

I admit it. I admit it all. I *did* sing along to "Can't Smile without You". I was on my feet for the first big finale, "Copacabana". I thrilled when he reprised "It's a Miracle", his road song, although I was intrigued in each performance he omitted the lyric: "The people they look the same/Only the names have been changed". Somehow I don't think Jackson Browne omits the audience-unfriendly parts of "Running on Empty" in concert. The backing band, including particularly our friend's father, who played a dynamite flute, piccolo and sax combo, was really tight. As near as I could tell, a core of guitars and keyboards toured with Mr. Manilow, while the horns were local talent. We all stood and sang "My Country Tis of Thee", that old patriotic song to the tune of "God Save the Queen", and
then listened to Mr. Manilow's own patriotic song, which is not quite in the "America, the Beautiful" league.

But all of this is a quibble. I have faced my inner soul, and found it to be full of marshmallow. I have seen Barry Manilow, and I am changed by the experience. No longer will my hand head for the radio dial, whenever his nasal tones come on. I have seen my destiny, among a surprisingly straight, non-campy, non-kitschy crowd, the least "hip" bunch of people with whom I've ever seen a concert (and believe me, I've seen Oblivion Neutron Bomb, so that's saying something). Indeed, the audience was so conventional, when an LA audience would have been so camp for this show. I am now un-cool enough to enjoy Barry Manilow. I like that idea. I like it a lot.

Could somebody pass me Dark Side of the Moon now? Or maybe the Runes album?

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