It's 11:30 PM which, since I'm in Las Vegas, is the middle of the day. I'm in town to get some writing done — something
besides this, I hope — and to visit a friend who's performing in a show here. The show doesn't get done until close to Midnight, which
means I have my evenings all to myself.
"I have a comp for the show over at the Mirage tonight," she said to me earlier today. "I'm not going to be able to go but I'd
like to see it used. You want it?"
The Mirage? Siegfried and Roy play at the Mirage and I've already seen them. "I'm not sure I could take a rerun," I
"No, no," she insisted. "They're off every fourth week and a headliner takes over the room. Would you like the
ticket? If you take it, you have to promise to use it."
"Who's performing there?" I inquired.
"First, tell me if you want the ticket."
"Why are you not telling me who's playing there?" I asked.
"If you promise to take the ticket and use it, I'll tell you. But if you're going to insist on my telling you, then you can't
have the ticket."
Her approach did not exactly suggest that this was Must-See-TV or the Vegas equivalent. I had visions of the whole show being
some guy playing the ocarina. Or maybe two hours of Jack Palance tap-dancing. "Just tell me who's playing there," I demanded.
"Barry Manilow," she said, almost apologetically.
Barry Manilow? I thought for a second. Barry Manilow.
Truth be known, I used to kinda like Barry Manilow. I know that isn't hip to confess.
It's like owning up to having pink
flamingos in your yard or buying your clothes at Wal-Mart or eating at Denny's or hanging a framed painting of a clown on black velvet over your
Barry Manilow's name has almost become synonymous with bland, homogenized music enjoyed by people of lower breeding. I remember
an interview in Playboy with Paul Simon, in which he said something derogatory about Manilow; something about how his music didn't touch real
I would guess that's a prevailing opinion, at least among those who consider themselves a little more demanding in their
entertainment. I've been in some crowds where I think I would have felt embarrassed to admit that I ever bought a couple of Barry Manilow
records, albeit from the used bins.
But I did and what's more, I used to occasionally put one on, not as a goof or a camp but because I wanted some pleasant background
ambiance. Maybe it's not music that wrenches the soul and encapsulates sweeping insights into the nature of human relationships. But
music can serve many functions. Not every CD has to grab you by the heart and command your undivided attention. There's room for elevator music
in this world...or, at least, in elevators.
That was the way I felt many moons ago. But since then, I've heard a lot of folks belittle the guy, expounding variations on what
Paul Simon said. That kind of thing shouldn't influence your tastes in music, but it does. I got to the point where I guess I thought I
was too sophisticated to enjoy Barry Manilow.
I once had a brief (very brief) encounter with the man. It was in a recording studio on Sunset Boulevard in the middle of July on
a day when the mercury was pushing 105. I was with some people in Studio A and we were recording the theme song to the Garfield and
Friends TV show. Barry was over in Studio B recording, of all things on a day like this, a Christmas album.
A little before noon, a kid came around with a wicker basket full of hot entrees and cold drinks for sale. He was going door to
door and on this day, he'd come to the right door because no one wanted to go out in the noonday sun (with the Mad Dogs and Englishmen) to get
lunch. Our singers and musicians and engineers all started fussing over who'd buy what, distracting them from the musical task at hand.
Our producer — a successful gent named Lee Mendelson — decided to make it simple.
Someone once said that the most important thing a producer produces is money. Lee produced a fistful of it and bought the kid
out. This allowed us to pass out the food at leisure, even though it meant we had a few lunches left over. (This shows you why Lee has
all those Emmys in his office.)
We went on with the recording and some time later, after we'd all eaten, a stranger wandered into our studio. Ever so politely,
Barry Manilow said, "I heard you had some extra lunches in here and I was wondering if I could possibly buy the ones you're not using. My gang
and I started to go out but it's so hot out there —"
Lee started to give Barry whatever we hadn't consumed but I, being your basic smartmouth, called out, "Tell him we'll give him lunch if
he sings back-up on our theme song." (Once upon a time, Barry Manilow was one of the most in-demand studio musicians and back-up singers for
other folks' records.)
Barry looked puzzled. "What are you recording?" he asked. Someone told him. "Garfield?" he grinned. "You mean,
the cat? Sure, I love Garfield. What do you want me to sing?"
There was a moment of acute embarrassment: Did he understand I was kidding? Or was he just kidding us back? Lee wasn't sure
but we also weren't about to expect Barry Manilow to sing for us in exchange for a couple of Chicken Tostadas. Lee quickly handed him the
lunches and told him he didn't have to sing — or even pay for them. They argued a bit — Barry trying to force cash on Lee, Lee
refusing to take it — and then Mr. Manilow thanked us and went back to his Christmas album.
I thought that was nice. He came over himself in search of lunch for his crew, instead of sending one of them over, and he'd been
very polite. Somehow, I couldn't see Elvis doing that.
But like I said, I'd heard all the negative comments about Manilow's music, and even made a few myself. When my friend in Vegas
asked me if I wanted a free ticket to see Barry Manilow tonight at the Mirage, I said yes but not because I expected to love the performance. I
figured I'd go, I'd take it in as a kind of kitsch evening, then I'd race back here and write a column on the plasticity and superficiality of it
Was I in for a surprise.
The first surprise was how crowded it was. The Siegfried and Roy Theater at the Mirage seats 1,500 (I looked it up) and every one
of those 1,500 seats had somebody's butt in it. Going price for a ticket was $54.15 so no one was there for the bargain. And the crowd
didn't look like the high-rolling gambler type, so I doubt that very many were in on comps.
Second surprise was the age range. I'm 44 and I expected to be the youngest person in the room. Wrong. At least a
third of the audience was in their twenties.
I was seated at a table with a couple from Alberta who came to Vegas to celebrate twenty years of marriage. He is a systems manager for
a computer firm. She is a teaching assistant at a university and they seem like a nice, bright — dare I suggest? — even hip
They fell in love to one of Barry's songs. It was in a restaurant that they realized they were meant for each other.
"Weekend in New England" was playing and it created just the right ambiance. (You know, I sometimes write songs and if I ever wrote one that
changed two lives like that, I'm not sure that wouldn't be better than a Grammy or a double-platinum record or a rave review in
Ever since then, that song has had a special meaning to them. They were so excited to be seeing Barry in person that they felt
they had to tell me and everyone else at our table, many of whom offered back stories of how a Barry Manilow song marked an important moment in their
lives. I wondered: If Paul Simon had been there, would he have the nerve to tell these people that the emotions they associate with these songs
A few minutes after eight, the music started and the crowd went wild. There was screaming. There was cheering. The
whole front section of the hall was up on its feet, dancing. All across the home of Siegfried and Roy, people were in the aisles or standing on
their chairs, moving to the music. Some were waving homemade signs that said BARRY or some twist on a phrase from one of his tunes like, "YOU
WRITE THE SONGS" or "YOU ARE THE MAGIC." All but a few of the 1,500 people were cheering and clapping and dancing and swaying and we hadn't
even seen Barry Manilow yet.
You've seen this at rock concerts. Bruce Springsteen gets up there, Mick Jagger gets up there, any great rocker gets up there and
you expect the crowd to start screaming and dancing. But for Barry Manilow —?
Finally, after a long fanfare, several curtains ascended to reveal Mr. Manilow, resplendent in a white tux with tails. The
place erupted. The Beatles never got a bigger, more hysterical ovation. I thought to myself, Boy, we should've gotten this guy to sing
the Garfield theme.
For the next ninety minutes, Barry Manilow owned every person in that room including, ultimately, me. Oh, I fought it for a
time. As he sang, "Can't Smile Without You," dueting with a lady plucked from the audience, I told myself that he was fine for these folks but
I was way too "with it" to let him overpower me. I live in Los Angeles. I work in the industry. I know how to program my VCR.
But as he segued to "Mandy" and zipped through some new songs and then back to "Looks Like We Made It," it suddenly dawned on me that
one of the things I like about Las Vegas is that it's part of the country...the fun part. Like they used to say in those commercials, "It's the
American place to play."
I remembered a party I once attended, filled with musicians. A couple of names came up in the conversation — one of them,
Mr. Manilow's — and everyone there agreed that what he did was "easy." That was the word they used — "easy." I suddenly
wished I'd said aloud what I had thought when they said that: "Gee, I guess I'm the only one in the room who couldn't make several million dollars a
year doing what Barry Manilow does. I have to congratulate you all on your self-restraint."
But then, this evening in Vegas, Barry sure made it look easy.
One of the great manipulative tricks of live performers is the Fake Bow-Off. The performer does a bogus "final" number and then
is played off-stage to thunderous (they hope) applause. Then they return for another bow or two, finally deciding to do a couple of encore
numbers, closing with the real, planned-all-along final number.
Barry and his back-up singers "closed" with a rousing, surprisingly-gutsy arrangement of "Could It Be the Magic?" The orchestra
struck up his bow-off music and Barry took his bows, waved to all, and walked off-stage to tumultuous cheers and clapping. But of course, we
all knew it wasn't the end of the show. He hadn't sung "I Write the Songs" yet.
Responding to the unending ovation, Barry came back onstage for another bow and suddenly gasped, "Oh, wait! I forgot one!"
He made a dive for the piano and the band broke into the opening bars of "I Write the Songs." I thought the audience was going to blow the roof
off the dump.
(He not only almost "forgot" that song, he almost "forgot" that he had a fifty-member Gospel Choir backstage, which came on to join him
in the release.)
"I Write the Songs" is a dumb tune, and more than a little pretentious. A few other songs in the Manilow repertoire could at
least be said to reflect the feelings of his generation. This one is something about muses or the spirit of music or something...I don't
know. The record — it was a monster hit — always struck me as a triumph of shmaltzy arrangement over content. Barry Manilow,
by the way, did not write the song, "I Write the Songs."
But tonight, it sounded pretty good. And then he and the back-up singers and the Gospel Choir segued to "It's a Miracle" and
then, at the end, a cannon sent parti-colored paper streamers shooting out across the house, and we knew it really was over. I'd be very
surprised if there was one person in that room who didn't feel they'd gotten their $54.15 worth.
I walked back here to my hotel room, humming "It's a Miracle" to myself and trying to think how to phrase how impressed I was tonight
with Barry Manilow. His music's not for everyone — no music is for everyone — but he sure knows how to please Barry Manilow
fans. I've decided that I am one, and that there's nothing wrong with that.
So, Barry, if you're reading this — and I know you aren't — I apologize. I guess I thought that I could make myself
appear classier by belittling what you do. But anyone who can make that many people that happy has my undying respect. You're a helluva
And now I have to run down and meet the lady who gave me the ticket and tell her that, no, I didn't find it all terrible and campy and
utterly beneath me. I had a real good time and I hereby resolve to try and be more open-minded about my entertainment, and to give things an
honest try before I make up my mind about them.
Unless, of course, she has a free ticket to see Michael Bolton tomorrow night. That open-minded, I'm not.