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looks like we made it.
I sat in the dimness of Cincinnati’s most disparaged concert arena. But on stage, Barry Manilow lit up as he spoke passionately about the some of the great music venues in his memory, including Cincinnati Music Hall. He had only need mention Cleveland’s Blossom Music Center. Immediately, his words transported me back to my basement years.
In the late 70s, on Lincoln Street in northern Ohio, I was held captive. Not by some evil force, but by the charms of our Sony turntable, by vinyl albums strewn across an old kitchen table near the stereo with all its requisite components stacked up: CD player, 8-track, and turntable, and by lyrics that wafted along the same rarefied air as my mother’s almond-scented cookies.
Even she was not immune to the charms of music in the basement. As she laid out the laundry or waited on the timer to ring for whatever she cooked in her second kitchen down below, she snuck to the other side of the partition, as if escaping the drudgery of her day. That otherness offered more illumination from the glass block windows and overhead fluorescent lights. Soon enough, Sinatra lyrics spun around the room. She did too.
Barry Manilow is 80. In my ears, and eyes, he was still in his thirties, when I lusted after him like other girls I knew. Who didn’t want to chase after those dreamy tight white pants, the blue silk shirts, his hands deftly fingering the piano, in a way I only wished I could have played?
On stage now, some of his suggestive lyrics, a few pelvic tilts, his low tenor voice, carried me back to the young girl in the basement who sat with record lyrics in hand, trying to read them all. What was I learning in that moment about rhythm and rhyme, about seeing the music?
In the film, Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr tells Robert, “The important thing isn't can you read music, it's can you hear it. Can you hear the music?” For me, it wasn’t about hearing the music. I heard it well enough. For artists like myself, the question is, can you see the music? Not the words, but the music in its totality? As it enveloped a person, a life? As it impacted the psyche of a burgeoning teen? The answer was “yes.”
I was a bit young to be a Barry fan. Most of my friends were too. But what we had in common were older siblings. We inherited their musical tastes (and preferences for hot musicians). From J. Geils to Southside Johnny to Barry Manilow. I don’t know if a single record in my collection of vinyl discs were mine, except the Springsteen ones. The aggregation was a combination of albums that belonged to my parents, my brother and sisters, my first husband, his best friend (leftover from a 70s party), a few Italian records gifted to me from my college bestie, Jill, whose father was a DJ, and whatever else I’d been talked into buying along the way, once vinyl came back.
In the opening episode of Just Like That, the sequel to Sex in the City, Carrie and Mr. Big select their records alphabetically each night at dinner, a practice leftover from their pandemic days. I couldn’t imagine they even cooked dinner (“That is not the Copper River sockeye salmon” is the only realistic part of the scene), but their act reminded how I often moved furniture during the pandemic. In a fit of energy, I cleared out the basement. I also had a spurt when huffing, I carried the record player, that had collected dust and my ire to clean around it on the third floor, down a few flights to the kitchen where I could play and hear the music. And see it too.
The time machine of albums was a saving grace between my husband and me during that closed in time. Notes and words generated by something other than a computer screen—and each other. The hours spent were a divine time of cooking together, of rehashing old quarrels and starting new ones, of finding the space for each other and the space for ourselves. Of having creativity stifled and of creativity found. And the magic of the turntable spinning clockwise, while the world spun the opposite direction.
Earlier in the concert, the talent who opened for Barry had shouted to the crowd, “Isn’t it great, to be back with live music?”
Was it live music, or was it lived? Though I was comfortable listening to Barry in person, for all ninety minutes of the concert, I inhaled and exhaled as a young girl in a basement yearning to be loved, in the way Barry had sung about it. The girl, who, when there were no social outings, parents around, siblings too, sat in the evenings and sang to her heart’s content. Despite my musical abilities on the piano, my singing voice was sh—. But I could pretend to play the piano, along with Barry. I could see all the music. I could see the young girl as a woman, who forty years later, had that love, tenfold in many ways.
Mark and I walked home from the concert, a perk of living in the city, versus driving. Unlike the time I drove my father’s Suburban to Blossom Music Center, and thanks to my crafty friends, finagled the car through the maze to the exits. Every song that Barry sang, played and danced through my dreams that night.
The next day, Mark reminded me Barry’s talents went beyond his good looks and charisma. Mark, growing into his muscianship, had researched the chord progressions of some of Barry’s songs. They were numerous and complicated. That man on stage was more than Lola and Rico at the Copacabana, more than Mandy too.
Barry ADORED his songs that made the whole world sing. That remained evident. He still envisioned how the music he put into the world helped assuage heartache. He saw the lives we didn’t get to lead, and the ones we should have tossed out anyhow. He saw all of those singing in the audience, and those who listened in the deep confines of a basement. He was a savant with his songs.
As a writer, I believe it’s important to love the words we put in the world. I mean really love them. Like my husband used to ask his kids when he took them shopping, Do you love it? If so, that love comes back to you, though not always as you expect.
The musician left his first marriage with Susan Dreixler in the early 90s to go on “his wondrous musical adventure.” In 2014, as a gay male, Barry married his longtime manager of thirty years, Gary Kief. Legions of females had been disappointed over the years to find out Barry was gay. Personally, I was happy. In a way, his union demonstrated how he saw the entirety of the music he sent out into the world. And how much he loved it. As an artist, nothing could have sent me swooning more.
Do you recall me mentioning the Little Italy festival in Cleveland? The day did not disappoint, only the weather did. Here’s a little video, dancing in the rain with my sister, Jeanne, and a few new Italian friends from Pittsburgh.
During the week of October 16th, I’ll be presenting I’ll Have Some of Yours (the long-delayed book tour has begun) at various Promedica/Arden Courts locations around Cleveland. Visit my website for specific locations.
REGISTER NOW. Limited seating. The Italian American Museum in Little Italy, Cleveland, will host Waking the Ancestors (through story), a two-hour writing workshop to explore our Italian American ancestry that has informed and inspired who we are. If you have a writer in the family in the area, encourage them to sign up.
Pauletta Hansel and I again are offering our quarterly FREE, virtual caregiver writing experiences, through Giving Voice Foundation. Next up, Nov 8 from 10-12 p.m. Learn more or register here.
I’ve got a few other exciting pieces of news with no dates:
Confluence of Craft Workshop
My writing partner, Tina Neyer, and I are leading a one-day craft of writing workshop, November 4, from 9 - 5 p.m. We’re still working through our partner logistics, so stay tuned for registration or email me for more information.
I’m working again with Lloyd Library and Museum in partnership with fotofocus 2024. Next year’s theme: backstories. As a writer, what’s not to love about that? I’ll be presenting on the topic of Memoir: It’s All Backstory.
Perhaps I’ll have a third memoir in hand by then.
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