In my 20s I loved to tell the story of my most embarrassing moment as a kid, a spring evening when I thought I was alone in the house and sang my heart out to the sappy love song You Light Up My Life, accompanying myself on the piano. I wasn't good at singing or playing piano, but since I thought no one could hear me, it was a loud, heartfelt performance until my dad popped open the door to my room to tell me he was going to the hardware store. Concert over.
Some years have passed, and now I wonder if I should begin to tell the more intricate and unfinished story of the influence of Barry Manilow on my life.
It began in the mid-'70s, in sixth grade choir at my south Bismarck school. I was an alto in this choir, learning to sing Mandy, Mr. Manilow's first big hit. Oh Mandy you came and you gave without taking but I sent you away Oh Mandy. What that meant, we didn't know. But we wailed away in the choir room between bouts of misbehaving and taunting one another and the other awkward things you do at that age.
Manilow's singing career progressed rapidly after Mandy. Hits crackled out of my little orange AM radio or the hand-me-down record player in my room. I remember loving I Write the Songs, and feeling thrilled when I grasped the symbolism in the lyric: I've been alive forever. I am music and I write the songs. Did the understanding come to me during one of those long sessions playing the same song over? Did I piece it together analytically walking the miles home from school? I don't remember those details. Only the refuge from the realities of adolescence in those sweet songs.
All through junior high and into high school, adoring Barry Manilow music. Was that cool? Surely not. On the other hand, this wasn't the Donny Osmond sort of crush from my younger years. There were no posters from Tiger Beat to kiss goodnight. Never did I imagine what it would be like to meet Barry Manilow or that he might hold my hand. This was about the music. I have vivid memories of checking his albums out of the public library, especially an album with a song called One Voice, a cappella, all the 40 parts Manilow himself, mixed in the studio. I was amazed that he could sing all those parts and simulate an all-Barry Manilow choir. I played it over and over, mouthing the words, pretending I too could carry a tune.
Who knew the toxic effects this music could have on others. I grew up in a small rambler, six people, one bathroom, three bedrooms. This meant everyone heard everything -- including every playing of a Barry Manilow record from seventh grade through my first year of high school. That's when the bomb dropped. My brother, the second oldest of the three boys, and in my view the most tolerant, was assumed to be ready to enroll at the local community college. We were stunned to hear the announcement that those Barry Manilow records were driving him crazy and he was getting the heck out.
And so he went away to college, and the remaining two of us followed. Nowadays people study guidebooks and visit campuses. We just followed the guy who was escaping Mandy.
(By the time I arrived on campus, one of his roommates from Minneapolis played early Prince albums over and over, but I don't think it had the Manilow effect. Maybe my brother simply no longer heard music of any kind. I've been afraid to ever quiz him on this, though now that I think about it, I did not feel blame was pointed at me, kid sister. He has always been very nice to me.)
One might hope that could be the end of this saga, but no such luck. There's one more chapter. A Barry Manilow concert is scheduled in Fargo, and a friend's husband is unable to attend at the last minute, so there I am, about 15 rows back in a facility full of serious fans, most of them 40-something women in pleasant denim dresses with red canvas belts and matching shoes. Or, in our row, a contingent of younger gals whose large purses were well stocked with boxes of tissues and cameras. They came, they clapped along, they wept, Oh Mandy. These gals could tell from the first couple of chords whether they'd need a tissue or could hold it together to take pictures. To those of us who were not expecting to weep, they offered Kleenex, just in case.
After the performance, word started to get around town that Barry Manilow would not allow local facility workers to look at him as he made his way from dressing room to stage. I did my best to dismiss the rumor as so much gossip.
It comes back to me now, years after the concert, as I enjoy a wonderful '70s station on Web radio, the tunes conjuring up the better parts of my past. As I listen to nice songs by Olivia Newton John and Starland Vocal Band, Neil Sedaka and the rest, many times I have felt my spirit lift at the beginning of a song until I realize it's Barry Manilow, and then a whump of disappointment, even though it was just a dumb rumor and I should be upset with the gossipers, not the victim. But what of the chance, however slim, that he might not be flawless? My dad says truly great people don't need to make others feel small, but what if that's why someone wouldn't want people to look at him? It is simply too much to absorb. I feel like a little girl who's learned there's no Santa Claus. Of course, I remind myself, I still like Christmas. A child can easily forgive Santa for not existing as long as the magic goes on, but it would seem an adult needs a little more time to recover. I remain hopeful.
Thank you for reading.
Thank you for reading.