Still aglow for Barry Manilow

As I got the baby down for her nap, I heard Barry Manilow being interviewed on the radio. Somewhere in my mind's recesses, a gangly adolescent girl squealed, "Eeee! Barry MAN-i-low!" I hadn't thought of him in years, after having heard his songs constantly during my teens. I turned up the radio and crooned rote lullabies to my daughter as I strained to catch the interview.

The talk-show host is known for doing her homework on her guests, giving each one lengthy airtime and asking tactfully worded, but bold questions. ("Let's talk for a moment about your weird, twisted, Gothic childhood, shall we?") She was doing her number on Mr. Manilow. I could hear the ingratiating, possibly nervous, smile in his voice as he fielded her questions. No one, he said, was more surprised than he when his music spawned so many hits. He'd felt awkward on stage until he took acting lessons. On and on. It was an intelligent, enjoyable interview, as far as it went, but of course the show's host had to delve deeper.

"Tell me, how has it felt being a perennial object of derision?" she asked, in only slightly less pointed words.

I winced, listening. Talk about pulling no punches. And yet, I gave her credit: She had hit upon a phenomenon surrounding this singer. While the girls I knew swooned, the boys made verbal swipes, some quite cruel. Barry Manilow had a polarizing effect which, in my circle, broke down along gender lines.

Manilow hit the rock and roll radio airwaves in the mid-1970s. Heavy metal and disco music were developing huge followings when he arrived, exuberantly singing sentimental songs. When one of his piano intros began, it was as if someone had switched the channel back four decades. Around every radio, competing female cries of "Oooo! Turn it up!" battled male pleas of "Ugh! Turn it off!"

I remember feeling torn. I enjoyed the songs, but wasn't absolutely gaga over Barry Manilow like my cousin. Reni was a card-carrying member of his fan club. I know because she showed me the card in her wallet, extracted from among white-edged school pictures of her junior high friends. A true devotee, Reni was beyond objectivity about her idol: She defended "Copacabana."

So I wasn't on the "American Bandstand"-wagon like her, but neither could I understand the rancor Barry Manilow's existence incited in my brothers. One made retching sounds whenever a Manilow tune came on, and the other, a college student whose opinion I actually valued, held forth in no uncertain terms on how pitiful Barry Manilow was.

Who was right, I wondered? Boys or girls?

Now, a third of a lifetime later, when the radio interview mentioned a new disk, "Ultimate Manilow," I was intrigued. I hadn't been able to play my one Barry Manilow LP since my husband and I quit setting up our turntable three moves ago.

I bought the CD.

The music transported me, steeping me in happy nostalgia. I could see my classmate Sue receiving "Daybreak" at her Sweet 16 party, an event held in her parents' half-lit basement. Sue was delighted, as was the giver, Debbie, who had been "dying" until the album came out. The male guests, newly tall and complexion-challenged, displayed the lower whites of their eyeballs to one another.

Further back, there was the New Year's Eve when my best friend and I stayed glued to the radio for six hours as they counted down the year's hits. When Barry Manilow was named "Best New Artist," we shrieked our approval. My brother gagged in the background.

But even during my nostalgia-fest, the lens of the intervening years altered my assessment of the songs. And some of those lyrics, ouch! They weren't as bad as "MacArthur Park" – "Someone left the cake out in the rain" – but they did strain the sensibilities.

Still, that voice...

I have to listen to my new CD when my husband is out. Some things never change. The day I got it, he and I were shopping at a discount store, the baby strapped into the massive plastic cart as we loaded up on diapers, detergent, and other baby-centric items. Our daughter was being good, so I said yes when my husband asked complicitously, "Should we go look at CDs?" Perusing music-store shelves had been a pastime for us before parenthood, but it had gone the way of attending first-run movies.

While my husband located the latest Sheryl Crow CD, I found "Ultimate Manilow" and flipped it over to read the song titles. Yup, yup, yup: There were all the tunes from my youth, plus a couple of others.

A smile grew on my face as I remembered my cousin's fandom and Debbie and Sue's gushing.

My husband saw what I was holding, and his eyes bugged.

"You're not going to get that, are you?"

"Yes, I am."

"Noooo." Disbelief. "Really?"

"Yes. Really."

I put it in with the diapers and sundries. He plucked it right back out and held it gingerly, as though a contagion might spread from contact.

"Take this, OK, honey?" he said. "Um, could you get another cart and go through a different check-out line?"

Manilow trivia

• He was born Barry Alan Pincus in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1946. He grew up playing accordion and piano, and attended the Juilliard School of Music after high school.

• His first job was at CBS, where he worked as a mailroom clerk, then as a musical arranger. He soon struck out on his own as a pianist and arranger. He toured with Bette Midler and arranged her first two albums.

• Manilow wrote many well-known commercial jingles in the 1970s, including "You Deserve a Break Today" (McDonald's), "I Am Stuck on Band-Aids," and "Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There."

• Rolling Stone Magazine once proclaimed him "The Showman of Our Generation."

• He is best known for such soft-rock hits as "Mandy" (his first No. 1 song), "Copacabana," "I Write the Songs," "Looks Like We Made It," and "I Made It Through the Rain." His latest album, "Here at the Mayflower" (Concord Jazz) was released in 2001.

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