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Barry, Barry, Quite Contrary
In a Life of Many Lows, I Always Had Manilow

Blast Boston Bureau Chief

Mom and I are finally over Barry Manilow.

That 1970s enthusiasm-verging-on-obsession is now but a dim memory.

Not that we no longer care about the heartbreaker.

Mom, the bigger fan, still cries a wistful "Barry" if we mention his name while she's sticking a Kenny G recording in her CD carousel. My dad rolls his eyes with a relieved sigh. After all, poor dad had to compete all of those years with this icon. In dad's eyes Barry was a big-nosed fruit in a cheesy white suit wearing pancake makeup thicker than birthday cake frosting.

During Barry's heyday, the excellent 1970s, I shared my mom's passion for Barry, along with my Barbie Townhouse, Holly Hobby dolls and a plastic a.m. pocket radio with a broken antenna. From the very start, Barry spoke to me.

In grade school, mom and I would play Barry ballads on her beat-up faux-wood cabinet player. Lying on our puke green carpet on my stomach wearing some matching polyester Garanimals-brand outfit, I'd clutch Barry's worn album covers. I'd stare into his deep-blue eyes and pouty red lips as I memorized the lyrics to "Mandy," "It's a Miracle,² "Could It Be Magic," and "I Write the Songs." On most days, it was either Barry or the Carpenters on that turntable. The Carpenters were my second favorite.

But I loved Barry first: his flashy outfits -- those cream-colored suits with the wide lapels and his boa feathery Copacobana ensembles. I sang in chorus in school and often practiced his songs, particularly the ones with spectacular high notes.

Standing in the living room I would hold my blue hairbrush tight and belt out a Manilow masterpiece. When mom got sick of my crooning I would shut myself in my room and sing into my ratty old tape recorder.

Sitting on my bed holding that hairbrush, I'd push the record and play buttons simultaneously while screeching ``Mandy'' at the top of my lungs.

I remember all my life (softly)
Raining down as cold as ice. (hold note on "ice")
Shadows of a man (lightly)
A face through a window (quicker)
Crying in the night (passionately)

Then I would always stop.

``That's not it,'' I'd wail into the tape recorder, snapping it off. My voice sounded so weak, so childish, so GIRLIE. I was the anti-Manilow.

So I'd rewind and start again. I'd still hate the results. Scowling in the mirror, I'd vow that someday I would make it as a Barry backup singer and people would hear me sing his tune. I can hear it now:

Even Now
That I have come so far
I wonder where you are

Several years later, when I was in junior high, mom joined the Barry fan club and received all sorts of goodies in the mail, including newsletters, photos and other miscellaneous information such as concert dates and special facts about Barry and his mom.

All along, the big Barry enigma was Linda - the mystery woman Barry had married and divorced shortly after. Mom and I wondered what had happened to their love and if heartbreak was the source of his inspiration. It wasn't until later that we started to suspect my dad was right about his sexuality, particularly when he sang ³Copacabana² and reports swirled that he still lived with his mother.

My mom kept her Barry loot in a drawer next to her bed. I would sometimes take it out and rifle through it looking for clues about the lovely, sad Linda.

Dad knew he had to put up with the Barry loot stuck on their bedroom mirror. This, too, would pass, as did disco, bellbottoms and my sister's infatuation with the heavily painted rock band KISS.

Besides, dad knew the deal. For mom, it would either be Barry or his hairier rival, Neil Diamond, the other shiny apple of the neighborhood ladies' eyes.

Mom dragged my dad to Barry concerts all over Massachusetts and he pretended to like it. To please my mom, he even drove over an hour to Providence one night for a show.

Over a decade, I think Mom has seen the Great Man at least 10 times, though she never succumbed to any touring impulse as my sister did years later with her rabid yet fleeting devotion to the Grateful Dead. No, mom stuck to her fan club, though she never made officer.

In the mail, mom received large round pins featuring Barry in one of his white polyester suits with the wide lapels. His arms were raised in the photo as if he was in the thralls of the crescendo of ``Looks Like We Made It.'' My sister and I thought we were real crack-ups when we changed the lyrics of this tender love ballad to ``Looks Like Tomatoes.'' For me it was a silly joke, but Kristen truly never liked Barry or the Carpenters for that matter so she sang it with scorn.

Later, I would learn to play ``Mandy,'' Barry's first hit, on the piano. I think it was the only song I ever learned by heart besides ³Chopsticks.² The music came from a Top 40 book my mom bought me because I promised to practice the French piece ``Bridge at Avignon'' diligently if I could, in turn, learn pop songs. I don't think I ever learned that stupid French tune, but I can still play Mandy with my right hand.

I remember all my life.
Raining down as cold as ice

I'm singing it now!

In sixth grade English class we all had to bring in a copy of a song we liked to accompany a book report. I picked ``Ships'' by Barry Manilow. I thought it was a touching song ``Like two ships that pass in the night and we smile when we say `It's all right.'" The song addressed feelings of isolation and loneliness. It had heart.

I had bought the 45 single, having developed a taste for Barry on my own after the purchase of my own record player. The other kids hated it. They glared at me as they waited for the song to end; it was a "Who" and "Blue Oyster Cult" crowd all around. It was like introducing RuPaul at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show. They just didn't understand true emotion. I was a dork.

Though I held a special torch for Barry through the years, I had never gone to see a show.

During the height of my passion for Barry, at grade school, I was too young to go to a Barry show. When I was old enough, I was far too cool to be seen at a Barry concert. I was too busy listening to Journey and hiding the fact that I liked Barry. I was on to a better pop scene that did not include the name Manilow -- meaning "way too mellow man."

But finally, at age 28, I got my big chance to go to a show. Several years ago, I was reviewing concerts for a local paper when I came across an ad for Barry and his Big Band at Great Woods. I jumped at the chance to review the show, grabbed the tickets and immediately called my mom to invite her.

She was thrilled. I told her our seats would be good and they were.

We were in the third row to the left of the stage. It was almost surreal being at a Barry concert, finally, with my mom.

When Barry came out onstage, I stared in awe. We could see EVERYTHING, even the beads of sweat accumulating on his pancake makeup. He looked very tall.

To start, Barry sang some Big Band stuff from a recent album before launching into some of his old standbys including "Can't Smile Without You," "Looks like We Made It", "Weekend in New England" and all the old favorites from his many greatest hits albums (I think there are five).

The squeal of housewives was deafening. The place was packed with frumpy aging suburbanites and exuberant teeny-boppers creating a singular wall of noise.

Barry changed clothes about four times, emerging at one point in a conga line for a rousing version of the colorful “Copacabana.” My mom and I sang the entire song at the top of our lungs. ``She lost her youth and she lost her Tony, NOW SHE'S LOST HER MIND!!!'' we yelled.

We stood up through the entire concert and, man, did mom scream.

She screamed so loud I nearly clocked her. But I was too busy dancing and laughing.

Several times, a Boston Globe music critic, a James Taylor-esque sort sitting in front of me, turned around and stared at my mom, as if he couldn't believe such a normal looking middle-aged woman could be freaking out like a rabid peacock.

I smiled and mouthed the words ``That's my mom!'' as I scratched notes into my reporter's pad.

He smiled and turned away.

I danced, swiveled my hips and waved my hands in the air. So did mom. We sang every song.

I looked back at the crowd, a pack of happy women who just adored this man like he was the Second Coming of Christ. Barry grabbed a woman and brought her onstage to sing with him. The crowd went nuts.

Sure, his voice cracked once in awhile. He had no radio hit at the time.

Nonetheless, Barry was truly entertaining, an classy performer who sang well and danced and courted his fans, something I hadn't witnessed all summer while reviewing droning Depeche Mode, the generic Gin Blossoms and the studio perfect Steely Dan.

I LOVED BARRY. There it is. I admit it.

At some point, my mom's fan club membership lapsed. She didn't renew it.

Barry recently did a cover album of sappy 1970s love ballads (³We'll go dancin' in the dark, walkin’ through the park and reminiscin¹²). There haven't been many original Barry tunes or a hit single in years.

But that's OK. Time has marched on. Mom has rounded out her repertoire. Barry is doing Sinatra.

Mom discovered the Peruvian flute players on the streets of San Francisco. She likes suicidal Sarah MacLachlan and has recycled live Fleetwood Mac (Hey, the Clintons like it) and sexy saxophonist Kenny G. Unlike other moms, my mom missed the Michael Bolton boat (unshorn and shorn years as well). It's the small things we are thankful for.

Now, mom can also sing most every pop song in the top 10 on the radio. She particularly likes Matchbox 20. (Last summer, we wailed ``I want to push you around -- I will, I will'' while driving through Napa on a warm summer day in the back of my uncle Bob's red Cadillac).

Yet there is always Barry, somewhere, in the back of her mind. "Barry," she will croon in the voice of a bygone lover.

"Barry," I sigh.

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