Hurt Feelin's: If it hadn't been for his mother, Barry Manilow would never have bothered. He'd never have got into that high-stacked frilly-shirted showbiz kitsch that millions of his fans adore. And he'd never have been cast as pop's fall-guy

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BARRY MANILOW comes to us down a ramp, through a mist of dry ice, much the way Michael Jackson does - or E T. There is a frighteningly randy roar from the stalls and the band launches straight into 'Ready to Take a Chance Again' - an upbeat, frolicsome number, to which Manilow performs a lanky, rather engaging, stick-insect salsa. This is the way his 'Greatest Hits And Then Some' concert at the Albert Hall begins.

How strange to be Barry, you think, watching him sashay about on the stage. How strange to have sold more than 50 million records. To be rich and famous beyond the dreams of avarice or ego. To live in a vast mansion in Bel Air and have the Reagans for your neighbours. To own a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy. To be lusted after by women from Chattanooga to Cheam. And to know, in spite of everything, that your name is an international byword for naff.

It is the sort of success that a perverse genie might grant a sloppy wisher. Manilow is the Hallmark greetings card of the music business: a perennial seller reviled as the quintessence of lowbrow. Commercially hot, terminally uncool. He is 47 now. He has lived with his horribly muddled blessing for going on 20 years.

Two hours later in the Albert Hall, a couple of thousand women rummage in their handbags for torches. They turn them on and hold them aloft. Manilow sings about the need to keep each other warm and everyone, even the torchless, sways in blissed-out sympathy with the sentiment. This is the way the 'Greatest Hits And Then Some' concert ends.

In between times, there has been a lot of bitter-sweetness, a lot of gooseflesh, a lot of feelin's. Manilow has sat on his grand piano and wrapped his legs around a woman from the audience, while singing 'Can't Smile Without You'. He has received a 'surprise' visit from Cilla Black and cajoled her into singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' with him - a moment that has taken the concert hall, already in a state of dangerous excitement, to a well-nigh orgasmic pitch of pleasure. He has strolled about the stage saying things like: 'Isn't music just great?' and 'Did you ever have one of those relationships that were really special, that you didn't want to ever end?' (Amazingly enough, the audience insists on answering these questions, making Manilow pause while they give great sighing affirmatives.) He has been charming and cheeky, frivolous and philosophical, sad and sanguine. He - it - everything - has been heaven.

And now a little group of women - the photographer, her assistant, the record company publicist, Manilow's personal press agent and me - is hanging around in one of the Albert Hall corridors, waiting for him to come and have his picture taken. The press agent tells me about the concerts Manilow did in the Philippines last year. 'It was just this . . . this happening,'

she says. 'I mean, we didn't know what to expect when we went there because Barry has never sold albums in the Philippines but it turns out they've been bootlegging his stuff for years and to the Filipinos, he's like, like a God. They loved him. Everybody. Every time we turned on the radio it was a Manilow song. We'd walk along the hotel corridor and hear the maids singing 'Even Now . . . ' as they cleaned the rooms.

'He played to 48,000 people every night for five nights. And all of us who were with Barry, would stand at the back of the stadium with tears just rolling down our cheeks. Because you know, these people, they're so repressed, so poor and they just worshipped Barry. Knew all the songs. Knew all the words to all the songs. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.'

Not many of Manilow's easy listening contemporaries from the Seventies could achieve such feats today. When Manilow started out, he was only one of several contenders in the adult, laughter-thru'-tears market. There was Dana. There was Clodagh Rogers. There was Nana Mouskouri. There was David Soul. In Mike Leigh's play, Abigail's Party, it was a record by Demis Roussos, not Barry Manilow, that acted as the crucial class-signifier - the ultimate token of 1970s, petit bourgeois yuck. But Roussos and all the others have long since disappeared into the ether. Only Manilow has kept on keepin' on - filling giant stadiums with ululating women, singing about fun times and blue times, making it, as he says in his current show, 'feel good to feel bad'.

There is no big mystery to the longevity of his career. He has endured because he is good. Musical snobbery, like all snobbery, erodes judgement. Manilow has written some bad songs - 'Bermuda Triangle' is a strong contender for the nerdiest - and he has written a lot of great songs: 'It's a Miracle' for instance, or 'Even Now'. But to acknowledge even this much is to cast oneself beyond the pale of respectable taste. Why is it okay to appreciate a pop song like 'Be My Baby' by the Ronettes, but a secret shame to go shivery listening to Manilow's 'Could It Be Magic'?

Manilow's real enemies, it seems to me, were never the writers who made fun of his nose, or his grody hair-dos. His real enemies were the little squirts who lay around during the Seventies thinking there was something not just aesthetically, but morally superior about 'progressive rock' - the ones who got their smug kicks listening to radio programmes called Your Mother Wouldn't Like It.

He arrives finally - strolling languidly down the corridor, a glass of white wine in one hand. He looks about seven foot tall. He has changed into a new outfit now - all black. Black jeans, black turtle neck, black, silver-studded cowboy boots. The studs give him away. He has sobered up his appearance quite a bit over the last decade, but his basic passion for busy patterns and showbiz flash is probably irremediable. (When I go to visit him at an autograph signing in a record shop a couple of days after this meeting, he is wearing a violet silk shirt and a sculpted leather jacket dramatically cinched in at the waist.)

Up close, his skin is thick with stage make-up. The glowy-orange of the panstick clashes interestingly with his eyes which are an unlikely, swimming-pool blue. How can people have gone on all this time about his nose and ignored the eyes? The nose is just a big, handsome, Semitic nose. It is a prominent feature but far from spectacular. The eyes, on the other hand, are absolutely strange: vast and protuberant, with long, romantic lashes and a bottom as well as an upper lid. They're like the eyes that illustrators give to soppy extra-terrestials or to creatures from the land of faerie.

I'm looking at him, taking all this in, when it hits me with a dizzying jolt: Barry Manilow is attractive. This is scary. My whole life, this man has been held up to me as a benchmark for male repulsiveness. But it cannot be denied. He is a looker. Hunky, even. Really.

The photographer starts taking pictures.

'What's the time?' Manilow asks one of his the assistants.

'Quarter to twelve? Oh Gaaaad.' He is weary. The photographer says she'd like a profile shot. 'Oh yeah, right,' Manilow says, with a good-humoured roll of his eyes. There is silence while he is being posed.

'You know, this is my better side,' he says, after a bit. 'I mean, either side is terrible - but this one's better.'

Manilow is big on self-deprecation. Up on display at his home in Los Angeles, he has a collection of piss-taking cartoons about himself. A few days after the concert, at the autograph session, he keeps bending over from his dais to show me the more gruesome mug shots that he is being asked to sign.

'Oi, oi, oi,' he'll say, 'Pur-lease] Can you believe this was the look that started it all off?' The owners of the maligned photographs, most of whom have been waiting eight hours in the rain for this briefest of encounters, look slightly hurt.

Manilow is fond of repeating jokes he has heard about himself. Jokes about his nose and his clothes and his music. His favourite is the one about Band Aid: a record mogul goes to the Ethiopian Embassy to inform them that a group of pop stars from the West are getting together to make a benefit record for the starving. He reads out to them a list of the possible participants: Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Barry Manilow . . . The Ethiopian officials interrupt. 'Manilow?' they say. 'Hey, we're not that hungry.'

Manilow presents all this strange, inverse egotism as proof that he is a good sport - that he can roll with the punches. When I ask him if he ever doesn't feel like laughing at a nose joke, if he ever just wants to say 'Screw you' to his detractors, he is all shrugs and serenity.

'I've done that now and again,' he says. 'But it all depends on how it's coming at me. If it's coming at me in good humour - I mean, I think I've got a good sense of humour.

'I really don't take myself too seriously and never have. So I can handle it, you know. Sometimes, I make a joke about my nose and these fans, they go 'Oh, don't]' and I'm like 'Oh please] Don't be so sensitive]' '

This is fine as far as it goes but it is far from the whole story. In trying to deal with the horrors of his public image, Manilow switches constantly between a series of attitudes. Laid-back amusement is just one of them. There is frank hurt and indignation. (About his coverage in the British tabloids, he says: 'Ever since 1977 when I came here, they've just been so incredibly hurtful. Year after year, making fun of what I do, making fun of the fans, making fun of what I look like, making fun of the music. Just insult after insult. Year after year, these unblievably hurtful things . . .')

There is also triumphalism and angry self-assertion. When I ask him about the lack of respect he has received from the music business, it is as if a plug somewhere in him has been pulled. His reply veers rapidly into rant:

'I don't care what the critics say. I do what I do and I like it. I've always done good work] I've always done good work] I thought maybe they were right for a while. I thought maybe I was campy and kitschy and all those other derogatory phrases . . . but I've been listening to all the old music for this box-set I've done and it's exactly what I thought it was. They sound great. These records sound great. I mean, they hold up] They're emotional, they're well-written, they're well-produced. I listen to 'Trying to Get the Feeling' and I'm like, 'Geez, this is a solid piece of work.' It was solid music. It is solid music. They're wrong] They're wrong. What can I say?'

WHEN CELEBRITIES become joke figures, there is a tendency to assume that they are immune, or at least innured to humiliation: they're either so without savvy that they don't realise how they are perceived - or they're too rich to care. But Manilow does care. Whatever the particular posture he chooses to adopt, there's no disguising the proper anguish that his drongo status in the music world has caused him. Asked by US magazine in 1989 what he thought was 'the greatest public misconception of Barry Manilow', he replied, without hesitation (or irony), 'That I'm not cool.'

He didn't grow up wanting to flounce across stages in flowy flares and tight, rhinestoned blouses. He grew up listening to the jazz greats - Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, Nina Simone. His real ambition was to be a famous composer and arranger - someone like Nelson Riddle or Billy May.

He always had a knack for cute melody and in his twenties, when he was scraping by as a jobbing pianist, he earned money writing jingles for McDonald's hamburgers and Shasta Cola and Stri-Dex acne pads. But this was just a more pleasant and lucrative version of waiting tables: his heart was in serious musicianship. He was a New York guy who smoked dope and hung out with funky off-Broadway theatre people and considered himself to be committed to his craft.

It was in 1974, at an impromptu dinner with Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, that he received his first inkling of how things were to change. The incident is described in his 1987 autobiography, Sweet Life. Bell Records (which later became Arista) had just released Manilow's first single, 'Mandy', and

it was already on its way to being Number One in the charts. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen were also loitering on the brink of fame.

As the meal progressed, Manilow became intimidated by the two men. 'I felt on a par with them musically,' he writes, 'but it began to dawn on me that I might be the one making the most blatantly commercial music at the table. I was the one who had wanted to be Edgar Winter or Bill Evans, but sitting next to these brooding young men, I felt more like Bobby Sherman. It was a strange feeling.'

The version of his life that Manilow usually dispenses - both in interview and in his stage-show - emphasises the rags to riches part of the story: how a little fella from the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sometimes gave in, sometimes gave out, but never gave up. But it is this other transformation - the one from hip musician-about-town to campy showman - that is the more intriguing narrative.

He says it was all an accident, something he never wanted or tried for: 'I started off as a musician and a composer and one of the guys. That's all I ever wanted to be. The other part - this performer, the guy that women want to go to bed with, or the guy that has his picture taken - I mean, I guess I'd equate it with a sports guy, someone who's into their work and then they gotta get up and look nice and pose for the cameras. And maybe the girls imagine going to bed with them, but you know - it's bothersome.'

BUT IF this is really the case, why did he ever let himself get caught up with the 'bothersome' bit? When he signed up to Bell records, he had just spent two years as Bette Midler's pianist and musical director. He had co-produced her two first albums and conducted for her at Carnegie Hall. He was well on his way to a brilliant career as an arranger. Why did he allow himself to drift? Surely there was a bit of him that was attracted by the limelight, the razzle-dazzle?

No, he says, it was a question of 'negative ambition' or, more specifically, ambition pressed upon him by his domineering mother. Manilow was an only child and his mother was divorced from his father (an Irish truckdriver) when he was still a baby. Edna Manilow was a troubled parent - alcoholic, suicidal, doting - and her sway over her son was evidently a powerful one. When Manilow got married to his high-school sweetheart at the age of 21, Edna strongly disapproved. The marriage ended after less than a year when Manilow decided to scuttle back home to Mom. He has never been married since and though he used to speak wistfully of having children, he now says he'd rather not.

'I don't think I'm ready to do it yet. I don't think I am. I mean, well, maybe now I am. But I don't feel the calling. I've just had, you know, such major trauma with my own relationship with my family, I don't think I'm ready for that responsibility.' The trauma arose mainly from his failed efforts to break away from his mother.

'The relationship I have with her,' he says, 'is a typical, Jewish, mother-son, Brooklyn thing, which is, well, all the guys I grew up with had cock-eyed relationships with their families. Maybe the whole world has cock-eyed relationships with their families. Until they get to adulthood and they begin to say: 'Well, what do I really want?' But I didn't ever say that and so, you know, for years into my life, I was doing a lot of things for the approval of everybody else and of course, my mother - she was like the big Kahuna. The whole performing thing I did for her. Left to myself, I would have turned down all the opportunities about performing and recording. I did it for her. I didn't do it for me. People encouraged me to do what they wanted to do. So I did it. And even when I got into the record business I found myself with Clive Davis (president of Arista Records) - he wanted me to have major hit singles. And I was like, 'Well, okay, I'll do that too.' '

Because he didn't do it for himself, success, when it came, sent him slightly crazy he says. For a while he turned into something of a creep - a bell-sleeved, platform-heeled monster. He threw tantrumlets at chauffeurs. He was rude to waiters. He demanded that whole resturants be evacuated before he could enter.

'It was about being uncomfortable with my role. I found myself surrounded by people that I paid, who convinced me that this was the way to behave. And you know, I was never like that, but I found myself buying into it. It was all fear. I didn't know where the hell I was. I didn't know why I was there and I didn't believe in myself. I thought it was all a fluke. I was getting these bad reviews and at the same time the audiences were loving it. My God, I don't ever want to go through that again. I say a little prayer for the people who are going up the ladder now. Honestly. I know what they're going through.'

Over the last 10 years, he says, he has become a better, kinder man. This is due largely, he thinks, to psychotherapy. 'I don't know how people get by without it. I mean if you don't do it, you turn into your mother, right?' These days, if he behaves out of turn he is able to correct himself quickly. He has cast off some of the fuss of his starry life - 'I make my own bed. I buy my own clothes. I write my own cheques when I can.' Most importantly, he says, he 'knows who he is'. Three years ago, Bob Dylan came up and hugged him at a Hollywood party. He said: 'Don't stop what you're doing, man. We're all inspired by you.' Manilow was freaked. Was Bob Dylan, King of Coolness, paying him a serious compliment? Or was this just a mean joke? He had to leave the party for a minute and stand in the balmy darkness of the Hollywood night, trying to figure it out.

More recently, however, he met Bob Dylan again. And it seemed a testimony to his enhanced self-esteem, that this time, he was able to trust Dylan's warmth. 'It was over at Carole's. You know Carole Bayer-Sager, the songwriter? She invited a bunch of us over for a Passover dinner and Bob was there. We started to chat again and he was telling me he was doing another album. And he said: 'Oh, I don't know what I'm doing. It's just another bunch of songs.' '

Manilow rolls his eyes at the thought of Bob having such self-doubt. 'I said: 'Hey, you know, Bob - don't worry about it, you just keep writing those songs.' And then he said: 'No, no, Barry. It's different for you - because you keep doing those concept albums - you know like that Paradise Cafe thing and then you did that Christmas album, Because It's Christmas - that was great . . .' And I'm saying: 'Really? Bob's like in touch with the albums I'm doing?' I mean, it's so far away from what you would imagine Bob Dylan would be aware of. But I guess he really was interested.'

Manilow approaches his fifties, feeling sassy and pretty happy with himself. The difficulties of being an okay person trapped inside a saddy image may never completely go away, but he will get by. 'I know who I am, now,' he says. 'I know who I am. And I'm better than ever. I'm the hippest guy in the country. I've always been the hippest guy in the country.' He laughs a big, fat laugh. He's only half-joking.-

(Photographs omitted)

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