Manilow was born Barry Pincus; were the dreams perhaps a by-product of his Jewish heritage? “I don’t think so,” he replies. “I think it was books that I was reading around that time. I think it had to do with – I don’t know,” he sighs. “what does a concentration camp represent to me in my life? a place that you can’t get out of. a place where people are treating you awful. maybe that’s what I was going through.” he had a particularly jaundiced view of fame at that point?
“Yeah, well, this fame doesn’t seem to want to go away. Gotta deal with it.”
Is that why he still has therapy? what does it do for him?
“Well, I couldn’t have this conversation with you if I hadn’t done that. I would never have known myself, or my impact on others. That’s a real good one,” he chuckles. “Your impact on others. Everything you say and do is having an impact on others. And with me,” adds this Brooklyn boy with the lingering accent who tonight is playing a sold-out show at new York’s Radio City Music Hall, “I gotta lotta people that surround me.
“Everybody has to find out: who are you? what do you believe in? And what the f— did your mother do to you? ’cause everybody’s mother does something to them.”
To be fair, Edna Manilow (he took her maiden name as his stage name) visited more trauma on her only son than most mothers. After his father left them when he was two, she remarried but was emotionally unstable, became an alcoholic and made several suicide attempts.
“We all have stories,” he says charitably. “I had my own, but I had to do the work in order to get to the point where I can forgive these people. ’cause really they’re only people. but parents are not people to you. they are gods and goddesses. And it’s very difficult for you and I and the world to treat our parents as if they are people.”
Twenty years ago Manilow interviewed Edna for his autobiography, “ ’cause I always had trouble with her. And I took along a legal pad and I spent about five, six hours with her. And I said, ‘Tell me the story. Tell me your story. Tell me our story.’
“it was the first time I saw her as a woman who had a life. I knew a tiny little bit of this and that, but the dawn broke that afternoon. Oh, she’s not the goddess I thought she was. she was just a woman doing the best she could. I recommend it to anybody – interview your mother, ha ha,” laughs Manilow in his quiet, dry, papery laugh.
We’re on the second floor of the St Regis Hotel in midtown Manhattan – a faux-gold and royal-red Versailles for out-of-town tourists and conventioneers – in the Rambouillet suite. it seems an apt setting. At 68, the light-entertainment heavyweight manages to glide in while also taking baby steps, the legacy of recent hip operations. Manilow, long-limbed and rosy-cheeked, today wears smart black jeans, shiny black slip-ons, a black T-shirt and two shirts (one black, one black-and-red checked).
“Sneakers are not my thing,” he tries to smile. It’s always about presentation – “even off-duty. I’m pretty sloppy in the afternoons. but not in a hotel like this, it’s not appropriate.” No, we will not catch mr Manilow relaxing, as many artists do, in sweatpants, although he is aware, “a lotta people do that. I’m sure you’ve seen ’em.
“I respect my career, I respect the people I’m with, even the strangers. I want them to say nice things about who I am and what I do. And I take it seriously.”
Manilow has sold more than 80 million records. Mandy, his 1975 single and his first smash, was a hit almost by accident, a by-product of his producing relationship with his old friend Bette Middler. but, more than a singer or a performer, he always wanted to be a composer.
He was raised on musicals and wrote his first show, The Drunkard, aged 19; an “old temperance melodrama with original songs that still runs around. I get cheques from that, $25, $36. It’s kept me going.”
He put his passion and knowledge to good use on last year’s Radio 2 series They Write the Songs, ten in-depth profiles of Broadway legends such as Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin. Manilow researched, wrote and presented each hour-long episode. a critical and ratings hit – although he admits being annoyed at not receiving a Sony Awards nomination – it has been recommissioned for a second run later this year.
Today, he’s in the midst of a short run of concerts – he doesn’t tour any more; he misses home, and his dogs, too much – with a stripped back, downsized production. Forget the 19 musicians and four backing singers of his recent Vegas spectaculars. After last year’s London show with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, recorded and recently released as the 56th-ish album of his career, he’s gone back to basics – in a fashion. “There’s only six of us onstage. It’s more intimate. this is as close to a one-man show as I’ve ever gotten. It’s beautiful.”
I ask about the electronic cigarettes. Do they work? “they do for me, my band and my crew, all of us who hated smoking but couldn’t stop.” for the compulsive musician who learnt piano, via accordion, at the age of 13 and hasn’t stopped since, the passion for smoking is as much a motor, reflexive thing.
“As a musician I place it on the piano like I always do,” he says, miming the action, “and I’ve read articles on it, and they can’t find anything wrong with it.”
When did he have his last actual cigarette? “Well, I smoked for 30 years. I started when I was nine years old. I grew up in Brooklyn,” he says with a what can-you-do shrug. “And then I stopped about 15, 20 years ago. then I just started in Vegas and the band and I went down to a little club, and somebody offered me a cigarette. And I was back. Within a week I was back. not on a pack a day; ’cause when I was really smoking I was on three packs a day – non-filters! Oh yeah,” he says, lips almost twitching with pride, “I was a great smoker.”
Unfortunately for Manilow, his renewed love of smoking coincided with the onset of some health problems, which themselves were caused by work-related stress. in 2005 he had finally triumphed in a long-running legal battle to regain control of a Broadway musical that he had co-authored. Harmony was his pride and joy and the loss of the show to producers who didn’t know how to mount the production cut deep. he finally won the arbitration and secured the rights to his work, but at some cost. His partner went bankrupt, and Manilow has said he had to visit “a heart place”.
“that had nothing to do with Harmony,” he insists now. “although Harmony crashing was probably one of the most devastating things that has happened to me in my whole life. No, the heart thing, it’s called an atrial fibrillation. You think you’re gonna die. You’re not gonna die, but you think you are. Heart pounding like crazy. It’s like you have a flounder in your jacket. You think, ‘Well, any second now it’s just gonna explode.’
“I got used to it, but they’d rush me to the hospital every time. Give you the paddles – ‘clear!’ ’cause they have to stop it. If it goes on for a couple of days they have to stop it.” he now manages the condition with beta-blockers.
This seems like as good a time as any to ask a question on many people’s lips: has he had plastic surgery? he pauses only momentarily. “Look at this face,” he says, leaning back in his seat. “this is the face of a 68-year-old guy.”
Perhaps. but it is curiously contoured and unlined. has he really had no surgery?
“I did one, 15 years ago,” he allows. “And the press caught me coming out. And that was a very minor thing – I had a big cyst over here,” he says, pointing to his eye, “and another one over here,” he says, pointing to his cheek, “and they had to remove it. they didn’t know what it was. so I had to go to a plastic surgeon to do it. And he said, ‘You know, I can get rid of these things as long as I’m there,’ ” he says, pointing to the lines around his mouth. “but that was it. that was it.”
No more? “Yeah, and you know, when I was living in Bel Air all those years ago, a big thing was Botox and stuff like that. Everybody was doing it. And I did it a few times and I didn’t like it. but in the press, you know, terrible,” he says, almost exasperated, almost frowning. “I just seem to be the guy – I’m the Joan Rivers of the plastic surgery thing [because] of one picture and the Botox. but I do see those pictures that they think [show] that I’ve done loads of surgery. And I know why they think that, because those pictures are weird.”
Manilow has an explanation for that, though. He’s been suffering from chronic hip problems (“much worse than hip replacement”). for a decade he was in “terrible pain”. To give him relief, and to prevent him having to appear on stage or television shows hobbling – he would hate that – “they had to keep giving me steroid shots. And steroid shots blow you up. they blow your body up and, most of all, they blow your face up.
“so when I see those pictures with my face blown up, they attributed that to me and bad plastic surgery.
“I don’t know,” Manilow sighs. “And I’ve asked my publicist, ‘Can’t I just say something about this?’ ’cause this had nothing to do with plastic surgery. ’cause I’m not interested in it. but I see these pictures and it does look strange,” he concedes.
Last year, Manilow couldn’t take the pain any longer. His doctors investigated. between all our joints are gel sacs called bursae. they ease the movement of bone over bone. And the ones in Manilow’s hips were in bad shape. And when the surgeons “went in”, they discovered more problems. The muscles on his hips had snapped away from his hip bone – on both sides: “I blame it on 30 years of Copacabana, jigging around the stage.” a low chuckle rolls from his throat.
A planned two-hour surgery turned into seven hours on the operating table.
It was December 11 2011 – “I’ll never forget the date”. Doctors told him he’d be working within six weeks. “but at six weeks I couldn’t even get out of bed!” still, eight weeks on, old trouper that he is, he was rehearsing for his new show in a wheelchair. ten weeks on, he was back on stage in Omaha, Nebraska.
Of course he was. it – performing, music – is the only life Barry Manilow knows. And some of his tastes are to be found far from the world of cheese.
His favourite vocalist: Tom Waits. His favourite ever concert: Neil Young, in his acoustic guitar and harmonica years. Oddly, he’s very good friends with Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, and he can’t get enough of Katy Perry. “Oh she’s just ear and eye candy,” he enthuses, clearly tickled. And he positively glows when he talks of his new-found enthusiasm for Marilyn Manson. The internet was aflutter earlier this year when a photograph appeared of Manilow, Manson and Lana Del Rey cosying up backstage at a German awards shows.
“We had a great conversation and really connected,” he nods.
Really? With the shock-rocker who collects Nazi memorabilia and has a foetus in a jar? “Yeah, well, I didn’t know about that part. but he’s pure theatre, and he’s musical too. I turned into a fan – I wrote him a gushy fan letter!”
He is also a fan of his two labradors, and his “really big” Palm Springs home.
“Sixty-four acres,” he says proudly. His property encompasses “a lot of mountain. It’s my shrine, it’s my church. People think I moved down there for the tennis, for the golf – I wouldn’t know the difference. I moved there for the peace – there’s so much noise in my life.” Plus, his Vegas residency is only a 25-minute commute (by private plane).
“I just need to get out of [the shows] and go where it’s quiet.” but beyond man’s best friend, who are Manilow’s nearest and dearest? on last year’s album 15 Minutes – about the perils of fame – there’s a song called Written in Stone. It’s about a singer’s doomed attempt to stay with the girlfriend he had before he was famous. Did he write that with reference to Susan Deixler, the high-school girlfriend he married at 21, or Linda Allen, the long-term partner whom he seemingly split from in the early Eighties?
“that was Linda. that happened.” His peer and fellow Brooklynite Jewish kid-done-good Neil Diamond also has experience of this – the family that couldn’t keep up, or that he couldn’t keep. he wrote a song about it: Solitary Man. has it ended up that way for Manilow?
“Hey,” comes that almost-smile, “I’m in a hotel room by myself. Sold out at Radio City, private plane – and this is 30-some odd years of hotel rooms by yourself. Drives you crazy. You better have somebody on the other end of the phone that treats you like you, not like all the other people that work for you [treat you].” And does Manilow? Or would he call himself happily single?
“Happily single?” he muses. “Yeah. Happily single,” he says, managing a full smile. “That’s good.” The warm and engaging and surprisingly un diva-like Manilow, it seems, has a robust sense of self. who he is. what he’s good at (singing in tune). what he’s not so good at (being a great vocalist).
There’s a melancholy about him – he repeatedly rues the all-conquering “Barry Manilow” image that goes before him, denying him true friendships. but there’s a joy too – he clearly adores his legions of adoring (mostly female) fans as much as they adore him.
But still, he’s had abuse upon critical abuse heaped on him, musically and personally, for decades. how does he deal with the stuff written about his sexuality? does he brush off those things?
“I am a private guy,” he replies evenly. “You can only come into my world if I invite you in. From the very beginning that was the rule. I learnt how to deal with the publicity/press thing. You just say, ‘I’m not interested in talking about [that].’ even the names of my dogs! they are my kids, my friends are my friends and my family, they are mine. That’s the only way I can survive. I have to keep that to me. I don’t want strangers knowing everything. If that happened, that would drive me crazy.”
Does he regret not having actual children? “Ah, no, I don’t. it was impossible. this insane world that I have and trying to be a father – I think I would have had to choose one or the other. but, ah, the choice never really happened anyway. Hey, look, the closest I get is raising dogs. whenever I get one of those little puppies, I stop everything. I do. And I give them a good eight or nine weeks just with me. I train them. My belief is that you do that and you get a great eight or nine years with a great dog.
“Now, you [apply] that to children – you have to give children all of you, for a long time. then you’ll get a great person but I’ve never had a great three or four years. but like I said,” he repeats, a little sadly, for the third time, “I never had the choice.” And with that the stick-thin songwriter ghosts out of the suite, electronic cigarettes to hand, ready to face another sold-out crowd all on his own.
Barry Manilow’s UK tour begins tomorrow at the O2, London. see manilowuk.com for details
This article also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph. Follow SEVEN on Twitter, @TelegraphSeven
Barry Manilow: ‘If it wasn’t for therapy, I wouldn’t be sitting here now’