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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, ELO -- they’re not guilty pleasures. They’re just pleasures. I never believed in the snobbish, puritanical concept of guilty pleasures. Until once I noticed Schadenfreude creeping into my being. & it was a guilty pleasure, and, yes, I should feel guilty. But guilt about liking something just because all the cool kids disdain it? Unless you’re on a Kierkegaardian anti-aesthetic trip, feeling guilt about aesthetic matters at all makes no sense to me.

* * *

Been listening to Barry’s most recent album, the 2-disc live album “2 Nights,” from his 2002 tour, which my spouse and I saw. It’s too late at night for me to judge how much my feeling that the album’s achievement is complex is due to the complicating context that critical consensus gives Barry zero respect, but regardless of context, I dig most of the songs.

I’m feeling bitter about that critical consensus right now; it has so drowned out any appreciation for Barry that probably half of you think I’m joking. And it’s funny -- Barry would not approve of my bitterness. One of the most interesting things on the album is his cover of the very bitter Sinatra song, “That’s Life,” which Barry drains of bitterness. At first I thought, bleeaah, hold onto that bitterness, it’s a great bitter song, but Barry won me over. Though he had to alter the lyrics to do it, by bringing back the “get back up and try” after the as-written conclusion, “gonna lay right down and die.” Still, he made it work.

He’s a really sophisticated musician with a lovely voice & a friendly tone. And his thing is rock, he just uses horns and strings instead of fuzz-tone electric guitar for his dramatic accents. Interesting, though -- on the live album he doesn’t sing one of my two or three faves of his, “Could It Be Magic,” but uses an instrumental arrangement of it as his exit music at 3 different spots over the 2 discs. And it’s a fuzz-tone electric guitar that plays the melody, over ‘80s-ish Aronoff-ish thunder-cannon drums, very arena. And it totally works.

Another funny bit of irony -- the opening number is a medley of 4 of his hits (thankfully the album’s only medley), starting with the allegorical-in-context “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” (I hear a lot of popular love songs as allegories for the singer’s wishes & fears towards the audience; example, Orbison’s “You’re Not Alone Anymore,” from the Wilburys album, allegorizing the Orb’s fear that his audience has moved on and left him behind.) (Did I get this idea from reading somebody’s observation that John Ashbery typically begins his books with an allegorical poem about his relationship to his readers?)

The CD case’s title for the 4-song medley as a whole? “Gonzo Opening.” Barry and Hunter Thompson, peas in a pod.

Barry synthesized a pre-rock singing style into a mostly rock-based song-style. His persona conforms to the singing style; hence, he’s a great showman, very generous, playing the hits and constantly conveying how happy he is to be there, singing for us. I loved the concert, and it’s great to have the album out from the library now.

It’s funny -- not all critics hate Bette Midler (I like her fine), and Barry got his start as her musical director and pianist. I’ve heard on the pre-rock AM station a few times their recent duet of the old Tin Pan Alley standard, “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China / all to myself alone.” They sing it beautifully -- they’re both stars, with strong, attractive, totally distinctive voices -- and they sound like the old friends they probably are. At one point Barry says, “Bette, I never knew you felt this way about me,” and Bette says in a ’40s movie cynical dame voice, “Forget it, Barry, I just need a piano player.” And as I type this it occurs to me -- Bette’s counterexample shows that it’s Barry’s utter lack of irony in his presentation that sinks him. Well I say, while irony has its points, it ain’t the Alpha & Omega.

Of course, Barry is a star, and as such he’s utterly beyond worrying about what critics say. Barry has a direct line to lots and lots of people. I’m one of them.
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