Let’s turn back the clock a few weeks, to Christmas Eve. CC and I were exchanging presents. One of her gifts to me came in a gift-wrapped box. It was obviously a shirt box, yet when I lifted it, it was too light to contain a shirt. I opened the box, parted the tissue paper, and looked inside. There I saw the sheet music for I Write the Songs, as seen to the right. It was genuine, 1970s vintage sheet music, which I later learned had been acquired for a scant few dollars on E-Bay. At this point, my mind was racing. The inner monologue went something like this: “Does she think I would really treasure something like this? I mean, yes, I’ve owned a few Barry Manilow records over the years, but I can’t even friggin’ read sheet music! OK, play nice – smile and say ‘thank you’…” Ah, but then I opened the sheet music, and found two tickets to see Barry at the United Center on January 12! It turned out to be quite an evening. Where to begin…
Considering the topic of my previous post, this means that I was at the United Center on two consecutive nights. For the hockey game, we were down on the 100 level, fairly close to the action. For Barry, we were up top on the 300 level, somewhere between the mesosphere and the ionosphere. We were also in the last seating section even with the stage; that is, beginning with the next section to our right, no one was in those seats because they were effectively behind the stage. The acoustic issues in that area were significant and it took a few songs for our ears to tune themselves in to the sound we were receiving. A more significant issue was the seats themselves. Take it from me – the seats up on the 300 level are a LOT narrower than the ones on the 100 level. I was barely fitting into my seat. CC, to my left, was even more aware of this. Oh, she fit into the seat all right, but she kept thinking about her former >400 pound incarnation of some years back, when she would have been, to quote her, “in agony.” On top of that, the show was a sellout, so we were pressed in on all sides by people who were similarly crammed into their seats. I can’t complain too much though – at least the stranger to my right was a man who mostly kept to himself. CC, on the other hand, was next to a woman who sang along very flatly with most of Barry’s selections. If CC had been armed, you would be reading a very different posting right now, all about my efforts to find a lawyer for CC and scrape up bail money. But since she wasn’t armed, that scenario will continue to exist only in an alternate reality very close to our own world.
Anyway, once we got settled in and made our peace with the acoustic situation, we were able to concentrate on the show itself. The most important thing one must understand going into a Barry Manilow concert is that he is not Mick Jagger. He is also not Billy Corgan or Robert Plant or Jay-Z or Metallica or Pink Floyd. While that may seem rather self-evident, it seems that there are people who aren’t aware of it, which is to say that they heap scorn upon Barry because they find he is not like any of those people. I found myself thinking last night that, for all of Barry’s success and his many infectious compositions and recordings, he was really born a little late; his style fits much more comfortably into pre-rock n’ roll pop of the 40s and 50s. When he launched into the old standard, Moonlight Serenade, he wore the song as comfortably as a second skin.
There was one nervy bit he undertook during the show that earned him my undying respect. When it came time (as you knew it must) for him to sing Mandy, he began by playing a video clip from the early 70s, showing him in what must have been one of his first TV appearances, singing that song. After the first verse, the live Barry joined in and sang the rest of the song in a duet with his 70s self. Among other things, he proved that his voice hasn’t really changed all that much since then. To be fair, it’s not quite as powerful as it was back in the day, but he’s kept it in marvelous shape and can still sustain high notes for a long time with great purity of tone. Slick, premeditated, and almost utterly lacking in spontaneity – absolutely. But I do not brandish those adjectives in a disapproving tone, for this is what Barry is, and what he has always been. He’s there to put on a show – a big show with memorable tunes, and colored lights, and an orchestra, and pretty girls in flashy costumes – a full-on Vegas-style show. If that’s what you want to see, Barry’s a mighty good choice.
Barry also offered a great lesson in showmanship and the assertion of power. There he was, standing before perhaps 25,000 people in an enormous arena, yet he looked as if he were utterly at home and completely relaxed. It occurred to me that this is how true stage power ought to flow – towards the star, rather than being generated by the star. Look at it this way: it is the difference between taking control of a room by force versus being given control of a room. In Barry’s case, his stage persona is so totally at home and confident that we give him whatever attention or control he wants. Alternatively, if yelling and thrashing about is your only means of taking control of a room, you may keep the audience for a while, but you have established an implicitly adversarial relationship between yourself and your audience, and you’re not liable to have much fun up there.
All in all, a hugely entertaining evening in the company of a great showman!
Ironic Manilow trivia — While Barry has written a great many songs, he did not write I Write the Songs. That distinction goes to one-time Beach Boy Bruce Johnston.