Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
My father has always been a technology junkie. As such, our house was always filled with the newest electronic gadgets, then emptied of same when the time came to replace them with something newer. I remember being somewhere in the single-digits when he brought home the latest revelation: a giant boxy device that took in tiny plastic discs, and music came out. Because this innovation was so new, those little discs were pretty damn expensive (a crime that would only be rectified a quarter of a century later, once a better technology made them obsolete.) So while we had the very first “compact disc player” on the block, we only had two discs to choose from when the time came to use it. And oh, those discs.
You see, for me at least, the single-digits were a time in life when your parents were still incredibly cool, and the things they liked became the ultimate hipness. To wit: my parents are awesome. They like this certain thing. Thus, if I like this certain thing too, then I too will be awesome. So when my parents were not around, I practiced my three-step process to be as cool as my father:
- Learn how to use the compact disc player.
- Learn to listen to music the same way he did (he used to put on an album, then slowly walk around and around the room. To this day, I have never discovered why he did this.)
- Learn to love the two discs in our house. Passionately.
As for those discs, the first one was a Peter, Paul and Mary anthology. Pretty easy to like. I had already been to some concerts of theirs by this point in my life, and like most children of hippie baby boomers, I was as enamored of a certain magic dragon as anyone else in my grade. So there’s nothing embarrassing here.
The second CD though was Barry Manilow’s greatest hits. Volume II.
(Important note: There are, apparently, a lot of albums out there that claim to be the second installment of Barry Manilow’s greatest hits. For official reference, the one that my dad owned, and thus the one that condemned me to liking this guy, is THIS ONE)
Now let me make something very clear. For whatever reason, at this most impressionable of times in my life, I can not remember a single time when my father actually listened to this CD, and to this day he has never (to my knowledge at least) sought out a Barry Manilow concert or purchased another album. So this article is a confessional for me, and me alone.
Because, then and now, I love this album. I found the tunes irresistible, and I worked HARD to make sure I memorized all the words. ALL of them. To this day, if for some reason one of these tunes were to show up on the radio somewhere, it takes all of the willpower I can muster not to belt it out along with him.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this long-standing love affair with this cheese-meister and his act is that, nowhere on my father’s album were any of his songs that have actually endured. There is no Mandy, or I Write the Songs, or even the so-corny-it’s-kind-of-awesome Copacabana. In fact, look over the song list, and there’s a chance that there’s only one song you’ll recognize, and that’s only because it’s the cheesiest song from the cheesiest Broadway musical of all time.
All these years later, my memories of these songs have faded somewhat. But not all of them. Let’s go through them track by track (with some bonuses) and revel in the master tunesmithing of Mr. Manilow.
Okay I lied. While I claimed above that I learned every word to every song on this album, the fact is that, for whatever reason, I ALWAYS skipped this one. If pressed, I would have guessed that the reason for this was that, once I got to know the other songs, I was in too much of a rush to get to them, and so I wanted to blow past the one I didn’t. However, after listening to the first two minutes of it courtesy of that link it seems far more likely that even my most impressionable young mind couldn’t handle it. Gah.
2. Some Kind of Friend
And with this song, we all can collectively experience my first taste of man’s bitterness toward woman. As a kid, when I heard Barry sing this song, I could palpably feel his frustration, and perhaps due to the fact that he wrote an entire angry song about a woman who “looked at [him} and then [she] looked away,” I pictured the most beautiful lady I had ever seen in the role of the woman who mistreated him so badly. That woman, incidentally, was the female lead from Indiana Jones ripoff King Solomon’s Mines. Now I just looked this up, but the actress who played that role…was Sharon Stone! This somehow means that I have amazing taste in women, and horrible taste in women, all at the same time. Explains a lot, actually.
3. I Made it Through the Rain
With this song, everything that people typically hate about Barry Manilow are clearly on display. I see that. The subject matter is overly sentimental and treacly, the melody is overwrought, and the lyrics are pretty trite. But now listen to it with eight-year-old ears. How many times did you have a bad day, only to have your concerns dismissed by adults who had “real” problems? How friggin AWESOME is it to have a song that speaks directly to you, and lets you know that, not only are there other people out there who have gone through a rough time, but they, like you, will get through it? Let me put it this way: with post-modern irony, this song bites it hard. But with the relative and naïve innocence of youth, it is incredible.
4. Read ‘Em and Weep
(Confidential note to Barry Manilow:
As you can see, I am writing an article defending my childhood love of your music. Read ‘Em and Weep was one of my favorites, and I can remember eagerly awaiting getting to this point in my father’s CD. I can’t say I ever understood the lyrics, but I LOVED the melody, and this was one track that I played repeatedly until I could sing it perfectly without accompaniment.
The thing is, Bar, I never saw the music video for this song before. Jeez, man, do you think you could make my job any harder? Whose idea was it to close in on your eyes as you sang “Come on it’s there in my eyes?” And for the love of God, WHY did you agree to get your face painted as a sad clown during the chorus? Why oh WHY couldn’t you have thought a bit about your legacy, dude?
I’ll continue with my article, but it’s getting harder to make my case.
5. Put a Quarter in the Jukebox (with Ronnie Milsap)
All right, everybody, please understand that it has been over twenty years since I really sat down and listened to these songs. Sure, Put a Quarter in the Jukebox is cheesy and dated (quarter? Jukebox?), but at its heart it’s still two men complaining about broken hearts. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I would come to relate to this song in a big way throughout most of my teen years.
6. Somewhere Down the Road
I honestly dreaded listening to this one again, as my thirty-something mind looked back on it with enough life experience to recognize just how unbearably cheesy it is. However, while it is undeniably hokey, it also gave me my most pleasant sense memory yet in this experiment. The lyrics flooded back to me, I found I could still sing the melody, and most interesting of all, the images I used to get in my head as it played came back too. As it turns out, I was a literalist with this one, and I pictured the woman walking down a road, stopping to look back wistfully, and then continuing on her way. What a powerhouse imagination I had!
7. One Voice
This was my favorite song on the CD as a kid, and while I haven’t heard it in as long as I haven’t heard any of these others, I have thought about it on and off ever since. I just played it with my wife sitting next to me, and I have this to say. Once again, Manilow proves himself to be the master of cheese, and yes, you can even hear a glockenspiel and a harp chime in toward the end. But if you have any capacity to enjoy a well-crafted song, even if it’s not from a genre you know well, then you just HAVE to see that this song kicks ass. End of story.
8. The Old Songs
Okay, I was feeling pretty good after that last track. Maybe I did have some discerning taste as a young child after all! But then we get to this song. It starts out like all the others, delivers a trite story set to forgettable music, and ends badly (I assume; I didn’t get to the end). The only bright side here is that I have absolutely no memory of this one whatsoever, so the hope remains that this was another track I skipped over, which would salvage a shred of my delusions of taste.
9. Let’s Hang On
Back when I listened to this album regularly, I had no notion of what a “cover” was. Imagine then my surprise the first time I heard Frankie Valli sing this song. Obviously, he had stolen it from Manilow, because I had heard it sung by Barry first! Vicious thief!
I cannot, nor would I even attempt to try to, defend this track. How could a man who has spent his career critically reviled as an overly sentimental hack record the most saccharine Broadway showtune of all time? The only way a track could be worse is if some male crooner recorded a sad Broadway song about a woman who’s man had left her, but then changed the pronouns so he was the victim, and then my father bought HIS album too and made me listen to it on long car trips. That would be AWFUL. Thank God THAT never happened, RIGHT?
11. You’re Looking Hot Tonight
I don’t think I ever listened to this last track either. I TRIED to listen to it via this link just now, but I got as far as Barry standing backstage with a shirt that had no buttons, his hand on some unknown flunkie’s shoulder, and asking “Should I be nervous?” before I had to shut the thing off. If you get through it, let me know if it’s any good.
BONUS TRACK REVIEW
Let me reiterate: this song is NOT on the CD my father owned (and I co-opted) all those years ago. But no Guilty Pleasure Manilow Confession could be complete without it. And despite its outward awfulness, I contend that when it comes to Copacabana, there are two and only two kinds of people in this world:
1. People who openly love Copacabana
2. People who pretend to only love Copacabana ironically, so they can get away with singing it out with gusto, though they secretly sincerely love it.
I vividly remember driving through the streets of Evanston with CC2K writer Jordan Byrne as we played this song over and over again, unwilling to end our evening until we knew every single word. A few months later, I would be a camp counselor for gifted and talented ten-year-olds who for their talent show performance acted out the STORY of this song on stage. Don’t fight it on this one, friends.
In the end, I do confess that listening back on these songs as an adult did make them fade somewhat in their standing with me. However, this in no way diminishes their standing to the me who LOVED them as a kid. As individual tracks, they are mostly all flawed. However, as a collection, they are still the ultimate in guilty pleasures.