Graded on a Curve:
Barry Manilow,
Greatest Hits

Back in the mid- to late seventies, when America was flying high thanks to the exalted stewardship of such Churchillian figures as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, one all-around entertainer bestrode the Pop World like a colossus. Men wanted him. Women wanted to be him. He floated like a god in a bubble of fame so high above the rest of us it would have taken Ted Nugent with a surface-to-air missile to bring him down to earth, and he was known to one and all as: Barry!

Seriously, friends and neighbors, who better personified the soft-rock seventies–that epoch of saccharine supremacy–than Barry Alan Pincus, aka Barry Manilow? He was stardust, he was golden. To listen to his songs was to drink from life’s enchanted cup. To see him live was the musical equivalent of pissing on an electric fence. His voice was glorious treacle. It was said that the mere sight of his perfect feathered hair could cure cancer. His sleepy bedroom eyes were known to enchant your larger farm animals, giving them the ability to speak in the voices of men–a skill he liked to show off in his live performances.

Barry WROTE the songs that defined an epoch. Okay, so he wrote hardly none of them, including “I Write the Songs,” which was penned by the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston. But so what? Jesus’s best material was penned by other people, including Brewer & Shipley, ZZ Top, The Byrds and Ministry, and He never catches any shit for it. Fact is Barry MADE those songs his own by sheer force of his iron will; he was the divine conduit through which flowed such immortal tunes as “Mandy,” “Can’t Smile Without You,” and “Copacabana (At the Copa).”

Manilow began his career as a folk singer, entertaining beatniks in such flea-ridden New York City coffeehouses as Gerde’s Folk City, the Cafe Wha? and the Greenwich Village Starbucks at the corner of Waverly Street and 5th Avenue. Said fellow folk musician Arnie Van Gleb, “They didn’t actually allow music in Starbucks, so he would sneak into the bathroom and play there. At least until they broke down the door and threw him out.”

Soon, however, Manilow developed an affinity for show tunes, and tossed his ratty serape and harmonica holder into a garbage bin behind folk mecca the Kettle of Fish and never looked back. Bette Midler caught his act in 1971 and put him to work as her pianist, producer, and musical director, and from there he tested his solo wings and, like some fantastical bird of legend, flew straight to the top of the pop charts. He first hit pay dirt with 1975’s “Mandy,” and the rest, as we Barryphiles like to say, is Barristory.

Manilow has his detractors. They’re a common breed, bitter and sneering, the sorts of nattering nabobs of negativity who shed nary a single salty tear when Rico shoots Tony and breaks Lola’s heart in “Copacabana.” I had a wife once who would turn the car radio dial with a snake-like flick of the wrist whenever Barry came on. To state matters as diplomatically as possible, I divorced her cynical, tone-deaf ass.

Nauseated rock’n’rollers complain that Barry is an unreconstructed wussy, and I get it; he lacks the gritty street cred of such “tough guy” American Top 40 contemporaries as Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, and Helen Reddy. But if Barry falls short in the machismo department, he made up for it in sheer fabulousness; in one famous photo he looks positively divine in a jewel-encrusted blouse with impossibly flouncy sleeves–like a Jewish flamingo, or Patient Zero in a Glam Elephantiasis epidemic.

If you love Barry, and if you don’t love Barry you’re a despicable person, 1978’s Greatest Hits is a kind of dream concert to be enjoyed at leisure from the comfort of your living room. Its 19 syrupy selections are guaranteed to give you diabetes, and take it from me–this two separate gorillas of an album is a seduction tool of terrifying and unparalleled power. You could coax a mature marsupial into the sack with side A alone. I should know–I’ve done it.

Greatest Hits is a glorious, one-stop collection of Barry’s most memorable songs. With it you can disco down to the likes of “It’s a Miracle,” do the jump and jive to “Bandstand Boogie,” and salsa your way to disco paradise to “Copacabana.” Or, if you happen to be one of those unfortunates who have lost both legs to rabid chipmunks, you can go through entire rain forests of tissue people to the strains of such tear-jerkers as “Mandy,” “Weekend in New England” (sob!), and “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again.”

Being an amateur physiognomist, I like to listen to the album while gazing at Barry’s face on the album cover. His genius is manifest in the asymmetry of his features; the way his nose lurches leftwards, giving prominence to one nostril, lends him the appearance of a Roman emperor, and is proof positive that, had he chosen to do so, Barry could have become the greatest leader of men this side of Julius Caesar. And the way his thin mouth refuses to align itself with his nose, giving him a pouting, almost coquettish look, helps to explain his ability to induce giddy fits in old biddies.

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of the inimitable Barry, here’s what you should do. You should buy this album, then buy 1996’s Summer of ‘78. On the latter Barry tackles the tunes that made the late seventies so great, including Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch,” England Dan & John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” and Little River Band’s “Reminiscing.” His versions stand, of course, head and shoulders above the originals, and when you consider the monster talents responsible for such songs you’ll agree that’s a monster achievement. Better than Dan Hill? Comment est-ce possible?

Would it be going too far to call Barry Manilow the greatest artist of my lifetime? Of anybody’s lifetime for that matter? I once ran into Barry in a Hertz outlet in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and to cut a long story short, immediately had a heart attack. And even with the pain and the inability to breathe, etc., it was the greatest moment of my life. I’ll never forget lying there on the floor of that Hertz Rent-a-Car as Barry looked down at me and said, “Get out of my way, kid, I’ve got a fucking plane to catch.”


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