My friend Laurie called with an offer of a free concert ticket yesterday. It wasn’t for the Australian psychedelic recording project Tame Impala, which my son and his friends were going to see in Stanley Park last night. It wasn’t for Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, stars of their own universes, strangely aligned to croon jazz standards at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. No, it was to see Barry Manilow, on his optimistically named One Last Time tour.
I quickly made sure she knew she didn’t have me pegged.
“Laurie, I’m afraid I’m not a fanilow,” I would have said, if I’d only remembered that that’s what Manilow’s fans are called. But my hesitancy implied the same thing. “Uh….”
“Keep an open mind,” said she, so off we went. This, despite the fact that CBC Vancouver’s drive-home radio host had sarcastically warned his listeners, “We’ve all heard about those Manilow fans. You be careful out there.”
As we approached Rogers Arena, the crowd seemed unusually understated. The sole scalper looked downright embarrassed. “Want any tickets?” the grizzled fellow muttered, eyes trained on the ground and hat pulled low in case any of his cool scalper friends saw him. We followed the wobbling middle-aged asses, our own keeping perfect time with them, filing along the sidewalk and into the arena.
“Wait, Laurie -- my underpants have holes in them. If we’re going to be throwing stuff onto that stage, I’d better see if there are any ‘Fanilow’ g-strings at the kiosk,” I said. Then I remembered I’d spent all my money on a plastic cup of wine and we scuttled off to our seats in the nosebleed section.
Hugely enthused sax-player Dave Koz and his band were warming up the crowd with over-caffeinated glee – tight as hell and apparently wild about Barry. After playing their own brassy tributes to the ’70s – tunes like “That’s the Way (Uh-huh, Uh-huh) I Like it” -- they urged us to give the star a proper welcome.
Finally, with huge fanfare, and an enormous backup band including one male and two female dancers, Manilow strode onto the stage. The maestro of the middle-of-the-road was surprisingly tall, in a wine-coloured dinner jacket and the same kind of giant, hay-coloured wig Jane Fonda tosses around irritably in the Netflix series Grace & Frankie.
All my life, I’ve dismissed Manilow as a crass, Vegas-y, utterly commercial musician, his gremlin face now ludicrously pinched as tight as the skin on a banjo. According to Wikipedia, however, in 1978, the Brooklyn-born Barry Alan Pincus had five albums on the best-seller list at the same time, putting his success in the ranks of The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. Manilow has sold more than 80 million records; he’s one of the bestselling recording artists of all time, and Radio & Records once named him the No. 1 adult contemporary artist. Even my kids and their friends, born in the 1990s, know who Barry Manilow is, though when we offered to trade our tickets with theirs for Tame Impala, we had no takers.
The crowd waving its glow-sticks at Manilow was not so blasé. He is also the inventor and singer of the jingle “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand, cuz Band-Aid’s stuck on me,” but saw fit not to sing that tune beside such hits as Mandy, Can’t Smile Without You, Even Now, Tryin’ to Get the Feeling and Looks Like We Made It. He did, however, do a duet with himself shown as a skinny young man playing piano and singing on Clive Davis’ TV show, and another duet – Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart -- with a video of Judy Garland. His latest album features him doing such virtual duets with an assortment of long-gone stars, including Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe and Mama Cass.
Now 71, Manilow performed for a solid 90 minutes, successfully joking with the audience, calling one woman up on stage for a stilted dance, and leaving with the kind of massive, polished finale where streamers shooting from the ceiling didn’t seem a bit like overkill.
I admit it: I went to see Barry Manilow. And guess what? Je ne regrette rien.