Marrying a man isn’t the most curious thing Barry Manilow has ever done
April 10, 2015
The news that Barry Manilow has married his long-time manager Garry Kief, and can therefore be legitimately described as gay, belongs in that dusty drawer of the long-distance pop watchers’ memory labelled “didn’t we know this already?” The really surprising thing about Manilow’s marriage, which he hasn’t bothered to officially confirm, is that it took place months ago at his home in front of 30 friends, none of whom felt tempted to tweet about it or post a picture of the happy couple on Instagram.
In my time as a pop-watcher, I have seen the sexuality of performers move so far from being something it would be impolite to enquire about to being the subject that everybody expects to be front and centre that I have naturally assumed that all the artists who wished their public to know about their lifestyle had taken the necessary steps. It appears not.
Back in the late 60s, when homosexual acts were first de-criminalised, the line used to be “Legal? It should be compulsory!” – but it was still only uttered behind closed doors. In the current climate of over-share, it can only be a matter of time before some pop stars desperate for the exposure invites us to witness their first gay experience live via Periscope.
Let me tell you, it wasn’t always this way. When Barry Manilow first came to prominence in 1971 – as the pianist and arranger behind the up-and-coming Bette Midler – it simply wasn’t discussed.
The first gay rights demonstrations might have been taking place that year, but when Midler went on Johnny Carson’s show to talk about the audience of towel-clad, moist young men who packed into New York’s Continental Baths to hear her torch songs and camp classics, she described them as “happy” rather than gay. Of course, Carson was in on the gag, but it wouldn’t have been acceptable to share it with his viewers.
Newspapers, whatever their politics or claims to be catering for the family, would not have printed an interview in which any artist talked about being gay and therefore the question wasn’t asked. Back then, let’s not forget, Elton John was straight, as was Rock Hudson, along with every other actor and actress on TV, every sports star in the world and all politicians. Outside of the magic circle of intimates, where someone’s sexuality would be taken for granted, it simply wasn’t an issue.
Like Reg Dwight from Pinner, Barry Pincus from Brooklyn was classically trained and tethered to the piano, the instrument behind which it’s impossible to be successfully charismatic. Like him, he got his first job as a musical director, on the last episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show. Like Elton, Manilow did commercials, jingles, anything that would pay. Like Elton, he married a woman, Susan Deixler, when he was 21, but evidently thought better of it.
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Bette Midler provided his big break. He co-produced her 1972 debut album The Divine Ms M, but wasn’t content to remain in the supporting cast. He refused to go on tour with her in 1973 unless she gave him a featured spot. “I told her, if I don’t sing for me, I don’t play for you.” She had a tantrum but gave in. Nobody wants their musical director walking out on the eve of a big tour.
The other key figure in Manilow’s rise was Clive Davis, who by then was the boss of Arista Records. Davis has a genius for recognising what kind of artists middle America will take to its heart and he saw something in Manilow he could work with. He forced him to record somebody else’s song “Brandy”, because he thought it could be a hit. He even insisted on changing the name to “Mandy” to avoid confusion with an earlier hit. Manilow was, Davis recalled, “a little insulted”. Since it was a number one single for him in 1975 and for Westlife in 2003, we can assume he got over it.
That was just the beginning of a succession of songs – “Could It Be Magic”, “I Made It Through The Rain”, “Weekend In New England”, “Can’t Smile Without You”, “I Write The Songs” (which was actually written by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys) and “Copacabana”, songs which will be familiar to anyone who’s wandered around a supermarket or attended a wedding in the last 40 years.
When Manilow found that his audience no longer wanted his self-penned material, he made the move into duets, Christmas albums and the same classic American songbook that’s been profitably mined by that other evergreen crooner, Rod Stewart. He has triumphed at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, a city that handsomely rewards the ability to look as if you’re having the time of your life when you must be bored out of your mind. Like all the great troupers, he understands that while for you this may be the umpteenth time, for the audience it’s the one and only time and so you’d best make it feel that way. That’s why half the songs Manilow performs seem to have a slow wind-up before the finish, as if it would be short-changing an audience to send them into the night with anything less than 20 climaxes.
There is a theory that pop stars remain emotionally frozen at the age at which they first become stars. Nowadays, the technology is available to make sure that they can be physically frozen in the same way as well. When Barry goes on stage today, he certainly doesn’t look like a man in his seventies, not even one who reputedly brushes his teeth every two hours. He’s had a lot of trouble with his hip, and there have been times when going on stage causes him physical pain.
Why does he continue to do it? Why do any of these people who’ve had all the wealth and acclaim anyone could ever want? Ask Bob Dylan, who stopped Manilow at a party in the late 80s, looked him in the eye and said: “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing, man.”
Manilow is shrewd enough, and self-doubting enough, to have stepped out of the party after that because he needed to ponder whether Dylan was having a joke. Of course it could be that with people who’ve been stars this long, there is no longer any division between the performance and the person. Barry Manilow has a lot in common with Bob Dylan. It’s an act that goes so deep, it’s no longer an act.