A funny thing happened to Barry Manilow recently: The critics started taking him seriously.
Not all of them, of course (there will always be a few hard cases in that crowd), but enough to constitute a major shift in the media's perception. Suddenly, it's OK to like Barry Manilow, to laugh at the accordion jokes in his act or voice admiration for the likes of "Weekend In New England." A few reviewers, in fact, have sounded almost like fans.
How did all this come to pass? Some point to his triumphant appearance on Broadway, which earned him the grudging approval of the New York press; others argue that it was his retrospective set, "The Complete Collection and Then Some . . ." that began to turn the tide.
But the clincher, undoubtedly, was "Murphy Brown." After being the butt of a season-long running joke in which Murphy, a dyed-in-the-wool Manilow basher, has to deal with the fact that ,, her infant son Avery loves the sound of "I Write The Songs," Manilow not only made a guest appearance for the season's finale, but gave a performance that melted even Murphy's heart.
Stupendous! crowed the critics. Marvelous! Magnificent!
To which Manilow replies, "Well, this is what I've been doing for 20 years. Where have you been?"
He's not being snippy; indeed, there's only the barest hint of an edge in his otherwise quiet voice. But clearly, he's peeved at the way he's been treated over the years.
"I don't know how that happened, except to tell you that when you have the kind of commercial success that I've had, it turns on you," he says over the phone from a tour stop in Boston. "Michael Bolton is facing it now; Lionel Richie faced it a couple years ago, and Rod [Stewart] with his 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy.' And on and on and on.
"When you have that kind of incredible commercial success, it just turns on you -- and it turned on me with a vengeance. I never quite understood why, because if people had looked beyond and beneath the 'I Write The Songs' and 'Copacabana,' they would have found lots of depth, and different kinds of styles, and a musician who was taking risks. I think that the audiences knew it. They still do.
"But the newspapers and the critics looked at that one thing and got tired of it. They said, 'Hey, he ain't so good,' and started that kind of reputation."
Did it bother him? You bet it did. "I always felt it was unfair," he says, a bit of hurt creeping into his tone. But no matter how bad the reviews got, he knew he could always count on his fans.
"For every lousy slam I got from some weasel, I would get 100 letters saying, 'Don't listen to them. We love it. We know what you're trying to do. Keep going.' And I would."
(Having filed more than a few weaselly slams myself, I can attest to the epistolary fervor of Manilow's fans. One nasty review, in fact, netted so much hate mail from far-flung Manilow fans that I began to suspect it had become part of a chain letter.)
As for how he wound up on "Murphy Brown," Manilow says simply, "I just felt that I had to lance this boil, and I thought that this was the best way to do it.
"They were very generous, and they were very gentle," he adds. "The people who were writing it, they seemed to be very respectful. They were making fun, but they were making [just as much] fun of Murphy."
It turns out that the whole gag derived from Murphy's pro-Motown snobbery. "I am totally the opposite of Motown music, so that was the running joke," says Manilow. "It didn't seem like they were putting me down as mean-spiritedly as so many others have; it seemed like they were trying to teach her a lesson. I was able to handle that, and that's why I was able to do it.
"I don't really get to watch a lot of television and I haven't seen a lot of those episodes," he continues. "But when I finally did get to see the [season finale], it felt very emotional. I said to somebody who was watching it, 'Is that the way this show usually is?' And they said, 'No, usually it's just a lot of one-liners, very caustic.' But this was very emotional, and I kind of liked it."
It was, in some respects, the perfect revenge. Not only did the singer defuse the "Murphy Brown" jibes, but he seemed a real mensch for going on the show in the first place. He even wound up turning a small profit on the show, thanks to the renewed radio interest in "I Am Your Child," the song he sang to Murphy and Avery.
That sort of revenge, though, doesn't much interest Manilow. "One interviewer once asked me, 'Is the best revenge all the money that you've made?' I said, 'No, it's never been about money. The best revenge for me is still loving what I do.'
"I still am hungry to discover more about the music business and about what I'm capable of doing, just digging deeper into this craft that I love so much."
That's not just talk, either. Over the past decade, Manilow has tried his hand at everything from jazz standards to show tunes; more recently, he composed the score for animator Don Bluth's soon-to-be-released version of "Thumbelina." He also speaks enthusiastically about writing for the stage, and recording a big band album.
But songcraft remains his first and greatest love. "I've always been about good songs," he says. "That's what my whole career is based on. I've always thought my performing ability was limited, although I'm getting better at it. But my roots are in songwriting and arranging, and I respect that. That's what I've tried to do over the years."
Maintaining such standards in the face of today's popular tastes isn't easy, though. "I have trouble finding it on the radio," he says of his kind of song. "Songs are kind of gone from the radio. A lot of people are very impressed with vocal acrobatics, and they have hits based on that. But I keep asking, where does the song go?
"I think the song went into country, by the way," he adds. "They seem to still respect a well-written song. But I don't hear them on the pop radio anymore. Frankly, it's always been a little more difficult for the pop radio, because pop radio is based on rhythm, sound, production. Now and again a Paul Simon or Billy Joel or Sting who comes through with a real song, but it's rare."
Does that worry him? Not really, because in his heart of hearts, Manilow knows that there will always be an audience for his kind of song.
"When you give them an intelligent lyric and an accessible
melody, they stop and they listen," he says. "You don't have to do vocal acrobatics. And these audiences are just nuts about it."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Tickets: $20 lawn
PD Call: (410) 730-2424 for information; (410) 481-7328 for tickets