December 9, 2010
Last night I was trying to write part of an “Introduction” to a book I have been working on. It just wasn’t coming, and things sort of went into a different direction.
This is the carnage:
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Introduction [to that book I mentioned above]:
One of the things that my recent projects have taught me is that people are living their own lives, as they should. As such, they really don’t have time to dig in to my obscure writings. That’s fine, and in many ways it’s also liberating. Writing for myself, I am allowed to go after the short items such as my occasional “One Question With . . .”. Speaking of which, I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while – here it is:
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Tom Wilmeth Presents Another: One Question With . . .
If I had one question with a specific individual, what would it be?
[This one is pretty obscure.]
One Question With . . . #4 – Barry Manilow Wednesday, 8 December 2010
Tom Wilmeth: So, Mr. Manilow, What is up with your recording the song “Sandra”?
Barry Manilow: What do you mean?
TW: Well, it’s about a woman who gets married young, has several kids, and then attempts suicide by slitting her wrists with a broken glass. Not exactly “Weekend in New England” stuff.
BM: [sings] “She wanted to be like her mother.”
TW: Yeah. We get that. The story’s a bit dark, isn’t it?
BM: Hey, the lyrics say that “she cut her wrist – quite by mistake.” By mistake! An accident!
TW: That slit wrist episode seems to be the centerpiece of the song. That, and how afterwards it was “touch and go for a while.” And that she also suffered from post partum depression and frequently drinks at home during the day. A pretty bleak portrait.
BM: It doesn’t exactly say all that.
TW: Sure it does. That tune is worthy of Lou Reed’s Berlin album.
BM: I’m not sure if that comparison is praise or a burn. But that’s good album.
TW: You like Berlin?
BM: Very sincere. Heartfelt stuff.
TW: Pretty stark vignettes of extremely sad situations.
BM: That too.
TW: Let’s get back to your recording of “Sandra.”
BM: That song is sung from the point of view of the husband.
TW: Right – and the fact that he isn’t all that troubled by his wife’s actions – that is frightening in itself. This is clearly the portrait of a woman drowning, and a husband blindly in denial.
BM: Succinct assessment. But you miss a lot by summarizing it in that way.
TW: You mean like the daytime drinking and the depression.
BM: Well . . . maybe. But the husband IS troubled by his wife’s situation. He absolutely is aware – he just doesn’t know what to do about it. So he writes it off to her being normal with a couple of temporary quirks. Easier to get through life that way. Ignore the bad stuff – it’ll work out. And he was able to explain that away as well – at least to himself.
TW: You did not write that song, did you.
BM: I’m not finished -- It’s clear that the husband too is calling out for help here – or his list of unhealthy things about his wife’s mental condition wouldn’t be the subject matter of the song.
TW: OK. But it still sounds like he is rationalizing a lot of stuff to himself on this. You did not write that song, did you.
BM: I co-wrote it – I added some things to Anderson’s original song, and I only performed that tune in concert for a short time, very early in my career.
TW: It wasn’t all that early – it was in your set when you played Carnegie Hall in about 1972. Or was Carnegie Hall an early, forgettable gig?
BM: You have long since passed the one question mark, so just back off a bit. But concerning playing that song live -- you need to remember the time and the audience.
BM: The time was the early 1970s, so there was a bit of “women empowerment” in that song. Or maybe instead of the woman empowerment thing, you can see it as a wife who is also a real person, with real problems -- in a very different type of love song.
TW: She doesn’t seem very “empowered” to me. She knows she missed something, but isn’t sure what.
BM: Well, you are right about criticizing the husband. He should be throwing his wife a life-line, but he is pretending that there is no problem. Or he doesn’t really see one.
TW: So it’s an anti-man song?
BM: Once again -- It’s not that simple. “Sandra” not an anti-man song; it’s an anti- not caring song. An anti- not being in touch with your human surroundings song. It’s not an us-versus-them song for gender studies. I’ll say it again – it’s a love song, but not one that fits with flat character situations.
TW: OK, but you had to search-out that tune. You clearly really wanted it in your set. Even the original songwriter Anderson had never heard “Sandra” performed until your recording came out.
BM: I like that song and I liked performing it.
TW: You mentioned the time; what about the audience.
BM: Very New York – and most of my fans were very New York in the beginning even if they did not physically live in New York.
TW: Large gay audience?
BM: Some, but not as prominent as you might think. I never really courted that. I had seen that from the inside working the baths. And I knew that it would be a limiting thing for me to specifically target such a nitch audience.
TW: OK. So why did “Sandra” stay in your set list for such a short time?
BM: It sort of creeped people out – especially once I started to get non-New York City fans.
TW: It “creeped people out.” Go figure.
BM: Perhaps even more important – it is a depressing tune. It would take me a couple of really “up” songs to get the audience back from the doldrums that the song induced.
TW: Powerful stuff. So, “Sandra” was a song that would shatter the mood of your live show.
Yet you intentionally performed it, knowing the work it would take you to get the audience back. That’s quite a risk for a performer. Even now, for good or for bad – the song really distinguishes itself amidst any collection of your material. Any regret over performing or recording that song? Any second thoughts about including it in your show, even briefly?
BM: Not at all. Listen – that would have been a very easy tune to bury. It only appears on my second studio album, Manilow II, which has long ago been supplanted by various hits collections. I think it’s even out of print now. “Sandra” appears on none of my hits collections, as you might guess, so the only place to now get the song is on the expensive box set in the form of the live Carnegie Hall recording you mentioned.
TW: Oh. You mean your 4 CD, 1 DVD box set that contains very few of your hit singles?
TW: But you did beat me to the punch on that box set topic – the place where you buried this intriguing oddity.
BM: I knew you were about to ask. The reason I put it on there is because I do like the song and I wanted to have some tangible evidence that it had been in my set. Sort of my take on Another Side of Barry Manilow.
TW: In a one song form.
TW: Your specific parallel to Another Side of . . is a reference to Bob Dylan’s fourth album.
BM: Correct. The one where he does unexpected topics.
TW: Yeah – I’ve heard it. Is it true that Bob Dylan once hugged you in a hotel hallway, told you that everybody admired what you were doing, and then walked-on down the hall?
BM: Yes. I used to wonder if he were mocking me, but I don’t think he was. I think he is a fan of strong melodies. And love songs.
TW: Like “Sandra.”
BM: Just like “Sandra.”
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PROVISO: The above “interview” is fiction – written by Tom Wilmeth.
exciting new web site (of musty old reviews): web site: http://wilmethway.blogspot.com/