Do you remember your first concert? I will never forget mine – it was a life-altering experience. My first concert was in the summer of 1978, at the Las Vegas Hilton. I saw Barry Manilow. I am not ashamed! I still love Mr. Manilow with a pure devotion. If you would like to know more and/or begin judging, read on.
When I was 9 years old in the year 1978, a lot of important things happened to me. I got my first pair of glasses, I cut off all my long hair into a Dorothy Hamill pageboy cut, and I developed my first obsession.
Imagine the ridicule I endured due to the fact that I was batshit crazy over Barry Manilow at the tender age of nine. I had all of his records, which I played on my very horrible and tinny record player for hours on end. I had a poster of him on my wall, and I had joined the BMIFC (Barry Manilow International Fan Club). This was decades before the word “Fanilow” had been coined. And although I still adore Mr. Manilow, I hate the word Fanilow, so don’t ever call me that if you value your life.
My favorite shirt was a banana yellow tee shirt with an iron-on photo of Barry in all his big-nosed, gap-toothed, poufy-haired glory. I had worn it so often that the iron-on had cracks in it and was peeling off, but I kept wearing it. It’s hard to believe that I wore this to school. It’s not hard to believe that this was part of the reason that I had absolutely no friends at all there. I was the tortured, tormented, bullied kid. The reason I got picked on was probably because I was also a really high-strung, anxious kid who cried at the drop of a hat.
Still, even though Barry was the cause of my pain, he was also the balm that healed it. On my walk home from school, I would sing Can’t Smile without You to myself and it would cheer me up. The singing distracted me from the fact that I was walking alone and didn’t get invited to play with any of the other kids.
When I got home, I’d get out my music books and try to teach myself piano. My parents had bought a tiny electric piano and I would wear headphones and try to teach myself. I did learn how to play a few songs, although not very well. The one I played best was I Was a Fool (To Let You Go), a deep cut from Even Now, which is still one of the most emotionally satisfying records that I own.
I think that 1978 was the peak of Barry’s power as an easy listening superstar. That was the year Copacabana was released, and everyone had a little bit of Barry Fever. He had won Emmys for his TV Specials (which I of course watched dutifully, and now own on DVD), and Grammys and every other kind of award that he could win. I thought he was the greatest man that ever lived.
My deepest, fondest wish was that Barry would adopt me and be my Daddy forever. (Paging Dr. Freud!) This stems from the fact that my father was not the greatest, and also from the fact that I was raised Catholic by a Jewish mother (Oy, the guilt!). Deep down, I think I should have been a Jewess, and I was trying to connect to my cultural roots by dreaming of being Michele Manilow.
My Daddy Manilow daydreams consisted of so many girlish fantasies: lullabies, piano lessons, singalongs in the car on road trips, going shopping together. I imagined that I would help Barry pick out his stage outfits. At the time those consisted of bedazzled, sparkly jumpsuits and jaunty scarves. He also wore these fabulous 1970’s aviator sunglasses, and I liked to picture the two of us, each wearing our own Elvis shades, earning envious glances from passers-by. He would play his new songs for me and I would tell him if they were going to be hits or not. I would watch him perform from my special seat of honor up front, and he’d look to me for approval. Oh, Barry, he was the greatest imaginary father of all time.
I vividly remember going to the local K-Mart and using the money I had saved up – my own money! – to buy Barry Manilow Live. This was the first record that I had ever paid for myself, and I have it to this day. The cover showed Barry in his best spangly jumpsuit, and his best Broadway pose, arms and legs spread apart in triumph. It was a double record, but I mostly played the side that had the V.S.M., Very Strange Medley, which consisted of the ad jingles Barry had written early in his career. If you heard them you’d know them in an instant, especially the State Farm jingle, which is still used nowadays.
Barry’s backup singers were called Lady Flash. Reparata was the girl who got to dance with Barry during Bandstand Boogie, so I always pretended to be her. (FYI, Debbie Byrd is now the vocal coach for American Idol.) I would clear out some space in my room, and perform all the backup vocals, and make up my own dances. There was no such thing as You Tube or a video tape so I didn’t know what the girls were doing while they were singing. I was rehearsing for the day when I would become Barry’s backup singer and best daughter ever!
Every summer, our family took one of two vacations – we either went to California, or Las Vegas. If it were up to my dad, we would have gone to Las Vegas every year, because he had a slight gambling problem. As a kid, Las Vegas wasn’t my idea of a good vacation. The summer of 1978 was going to be a trip to the beaches of California.
You’d think that would make an Arizona desert rat happy, right? Wrong! The reason for my unhappiness was that I had seen a list of tour dates for Barry in the summer of 1978, and he was playing the Las Vegas Hilton the very same week that we were planning to go to California. “Why can’t we go to Vegas THIS year, Mom?” I whined. “It’s not fair!” I cried.
The local stations were running ads for the show, and every time the ad came up on the TV, I would point to the TV and say, “See? He’s coming to Vegas, but WE’LL be at the beach.” Have I mentioned that I hate going to the beach? I don’t like to swim, and Jaws scarred me for life so I can’t go in the ocean. I don’t like tanning. When we went to the beach as a family I would read a book while sitting on a towel and wishing I was somewhere else. Now, if we had been going to Disneyland, perhaps I wouldn’t have complained as much. Maybe not. Probably not.
My mom took pity on me, and it didn’t hurt that she was also a Barry fan. She talked to my dad and they decided that on the way back from the beach, they would take us to Las Vegas and we’d go see Barry at the Hilton. They didn’t tell me about it because they wanted it to be a surprise.
Imagine my excitement when I realized we were going to Vegas after all! I couldn’t believe my luck. I now realize that a good portion of my luck was caused by my dad’s gambling addiction, but hey, at least I got to see the show, right?
We arrived that afternoon to our hotel room at the dreadful Circus Circus. Due to my father’s love of the one-armed bandits, I saw more of this place than I ever need to for one lifetime. I don’t go to Vegas very often anymore, but when I do, I avoid the Circus Circus at all costs. A few years ago, I was forced to actually go inside of the hotel of my nightmares. One look at the garish gold and maroon carpet, and I felt like I was suffocating. I immediately walked outside and never looked back.
My brother and I would hang out in the mezzanine where all the carnival games and pinball machines were located. Horrible people dressed as clowns walked around to “entertain” you, and there were acrobats and trapeze artists performing in the middle of it all. I now have a great hatred of carnival games, acrobats, and especially clowns. Just thinking about it gives me the heebie jeebies. Oh, and my parents would leave us with some nasty old lady chain-smoking babysitters while they went to Boylesque or whatever the hell else they did at night.
This vacation was different. This time, I was allowed to go out at night and see the show with my parents and my brother.
It turned out we couldn’t get tickets for the show that night because they were already sold out. I have to give credit to my dad for getting up really early the next day to make sure we were able to get tickets. He stood in line for hours, giving up precious time at the slots.
I was so glad I had packed a dress. My mother was unpacking, and I saw her mink fur collar. I immediately started begging and pleading with her to let me wear it so that I could look “fancy” for my “date” with Barry, because I was convinced that I was going to meet him that night. Picture this: a 9-year-old mousy girl with glasses, a penis-head haircut, a long pink polyester dress with lace in the front, a mink fur collar, and freshly painted nails. I was going to a fancy show with dinner at the Hilton, and I was dressed just like I thought any classy, moneyed, lady of society would dress for that occasion.
When we first arrived, the usher tried to seat us in the back of the room. According to my mom, my dad slipped the guy a twenty and we got to sit at a table in the front of the balcony. Everyone at the table was nice to my brother and I, and let us sit up front so we could see the stage without any obstructions. Amazingly, I ate my steak dinner, even though I remember being nervous and excited beyond belief. I was going to be in the same room as Barry! Breathing the same air! Watching him perform just for me, his biggest fan!
The show was completely over the top. I remember that during Copacabana, Barry wore a silver flamenco shirt (which is on display at the Manilow Store in Las Vegas if you want to see it), and danced with actual Las Vegas showgirls who wore feathers in their hair and carried giant feather fans. Just like Lola did in the song! I remember there was a moment where the girls hid behind their fans with Barry and he breathed heavily. I didn’t really get it then, but I get it now. Barry, you minx!
For me, the best part of the show was Bandstand Boogie because he did do the whole dance sequence with Reparata. It was a thousand times more amazing than I had ever imagined. I knew then I could never be his backup dancer. I was a terrible dancer, and had no coordination, and these ladies could shake it. I still enjoyed singing the harmonies, though. Now when I listened to my live concert album, I knew exactly what was going on. It was like I had been invited to go inside a secret club, and I knew the secret handshake.
This was the first concert I had ever been to, and the first time I traveled out of state to see the object of my obsession. The happiness I felt while I watched that show was like nothing I had ever felt before, because I was able to escape my anxiety and just live in the moment. I would spend the rest of my life recapturing that feeling when traveling to see other bands or other stars that I was enamored with. The wheels had been set in motion.