Here are three things I didn’t know about Barry Manilow prior to conducting this interview: First, his fans are called “Fanilows,” and each and every one has beautifully feathered hair. (Just a guess, but it’s probably true.) Second, he didn’t write the song “I Write the Songs,” which makes it the third-least-accurate song title of all time, after Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” And third, Manilow’s new album, 15 Minutes—available everywhere (literally everywhere) on June 14—is his first original material in a decade. I honestly can’t say whether it’s more surprising that he took 10 years to make an album, Chinese Democracy–style, or that he isn’t churning out more Lite FM standard covers, Rod Stewart–style. I called Manilow to talk about 15 Minutes, and he picked up the phone in mid-laugh. His raspy chortle sounds eerily like a Bill Clinton impression. He began our conversation by asking what he’d have to do to get on the cover of Vanity Fair, and exactly how shirtless he’d have to be. So right off the bat, I kind of loved him.
Eric Spitznagel: This is your first album since 2001. What took you so long? Were you locked in your bedroom obsessing over every song like Brian Wilson?
Barry Manilow: No, I was just on a good roll with the cover albums. We started with the greatest songs of the 50s and then we did the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. My last one was the greatest love songs of all time. I got a Grammy nomination for it. So I didn’t want to stop it. It was an honor to sing those classic songs, but I missed writing my own material. I missed that part of making a record.
15 Minutes is a concept album based on Andy Warhol’s over-referenced quote about fleeting fame. Are any of these songs autobiographical?
I started out writing about a fictional character who wanted fame, got it, blew it—like so many of these young people do—and is starting over. But as I wrote it, I realized that I had lived every experience in these songs, except I never went down as far as this guy does. I never had to pull myself up and start over. I actually got the idea for this record back when Britney Spears was being attacked by the paparazzi. Remember that year when they were driving her crazy?
The year she stopped wearing panties?
Yeah, all of that. I said to Nick, my co-writer, “Is that the price of fame? Is this what it’s become? They won’t leave you alone and you can’t have a life?” It was a lot different when I was coming up. There was no TMZ, and the paparazzi weren’t everywhere. You could have some privacy.
But in your defense, you never shaved your head or spent time in a psychiatric ward. That’s like chum in the water for tabloids.
Yeah, but fame got to me in other ways. I turned into a person that I didn’t like. These days, with American Idol and all the other reality shows, young people become famous overnight, and that can be very difficult to handle, the way photographers follow you around and study your every move. You say something stupid and the next morning you’re in the headlines. That never happened to me, but it happens all the time now.
You debuted the new album last week on QVC. That seems like a curious choice. Is it because the people who love “Weekend in New England” also love wholesale jewelry?
I never thought of it that way.
When I buy your album, will I also get a juicer?
[Laughs.] I don’t think so. QVC has been very good to me. They did the same thing for my last three albums. They let me come on the show and talk with the gal and sing a few songs off the new album. Then the public calls in and buys it if they like it, and if they don’t, the phone doesn’t ring. We’ve had very good fortune and we’ve broken a few sales records. I like doing it this way because really, how the hell do you sell a record these days anyway? There aren’t any more record stores! Where’s Virgin? Where’s Tower? Where are they?
I’m pretty sure they went out of business. You have heard about iTunes and Amazon, right?
I try to keep out of that. We’re releasing this album on my own label but we’re signed up with Universal, and they’ve got a lot of young people working for them. All those young people know the Internet. They live and breath the Internet. That’s how you sell a record these days, so I just trust them. I do what I can do. I’ll go on the morning shows and sing wherever I can. But that’s as much as I know how to do. I don’t know how to sell a record anymore.
Most artists work out the kinks on their new songs by playing them in concert. Will your audience let you get away with that, or do they start rioting if you don’t sing the hits?
I try to slip in one or two songs from the new album. It was easy with the last few, when we were doing the greatest hits of the 50s and 60s. The fans knew most of those songs anyway, so they weren’t as resistant. On this album, I’m been playing the single “Bring On Tomorrow,” and it’s going over very well. They’re really loving it. If I keep getting this reaction, I may drop in another one from this album. But I have to respect the fact that they are there to hear the old hits. I don’t want them running down the aisles in the middle of a tune, heading to the lobby to get some orange juice from the concession. “Just give me two minutes!”
Are you sick of singing “Mandy” yet?
Come on, Barry. It’s just you and me. Admit it, you hate that song.
Well, what’s your least favorite song, the one you wish could be burned from our collective memories? “Copacabana,” maybe? “I Made It Through the Rain”?
I must say, now and again, something like “Looks Like We Made It” feels a little stale to me. When that happens, I take the song out of the show and give it about six months. Sure enough, when I sing it again, it feels fresh.
Do you ever mix it up with different arrangements or completely different lyrics? Maybe “Mandy” becomes a song about a transgendered man named Randy?
I can’t do it. I changed arrangements around and audiences hated it. They want to hear the original arrangement on the record that they bought when it was a hit. Don’t fuck with it now! Leave it alone!
I was shocked to find out you didn’t write “I Write the Songs.” When you sing it, do you ever think, I’m living a lie?
No, because the song isn’t about me or anybody else. It’s about the spirit of music. The first line says, “I’ve been alive forever,” so it can’t be about me.
Or a vampire songwriter who’s lived for several centuries and drinks the blood of the innocent to fuel his muse.
That’s one interpretation. It’s not mine.
You may not have written “I Write the Songs,” but you have written dozens of commercial jingles, everything from “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There” to “I Am Stuck on Band-Aids.” Is that a creative muscle that disappears, or can you still knock off a jingle in your sleep?
It was never easy. Writing jingles was a very competitive field. You had to write the catchiest melody in 30 seconds or less and make it better than the other guy’s. I learned a lot about orchestration, about song structure and arrangement. I think State Farm still uses my jingle.
Have you heard the Weezer version of “Like a Good Neighbor”?
I haven’t. What’s their name? Weezer?
I had no clue the song had more verses than the “Like a good neighbor” part.
Oh yeah, I wrote a whole song. I really got into it. They only used a small part of it for the commercial, but it was a proper song.
Some of the lyrics are weirdly poignant. “We all hope the good times never leave us behind / We face our tomorrow with some peace of mind / No man has a promise of a life without care.”
That’s the one. I haven’t heard those lyrics in ages. That was nice.
You did the “You Deserve a Break Today” jingle for McDonald’s back in the 70s. If they asked, would you write a new commercial jingle for them?
I sure as hell would, man. I got two CLIO Awards a few years ago. You know what that is? The advertising awards? They found out that I’d written all those jingles so they gave me an award. I sat through their whole ceremony, and it doesn’t seem like people are making commercials with memorable melodies anymore. Some of them can be beautiful and very expensively produced, but they don’t have those jingles that you want to sing along with like they used to. I sat there and watched them pass out awards to all the new commercials, and there was nothing, at least nothing as catchy as “You Deserve a Break Today.”
If McDonald’s were to pay you a large sum of money to write for a new commercial campaign, would you find a way to include the lyric “Sorry about the diabetes”?
You’re funny! Sure, I’ll try.
I read somewhere that when you met Bob Dylan, he hugged you and called you an inspiration. Are you sure he was being serious?
I wish I knew, but that’s what I remember him doing. We were at a Seder at Burt Bacharach’s place, and he walked right up to me and hugged me and said, “Don’t stop what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.” It was very important for me at the time, because those were the days when the critics were just killing me. They would have annihilated me if they had the chance.
I’m sorry, I’m still trying to digest the idea of you and Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach at a Seder.
Isn’t that great? Frank Sinatra also said a kind thing about me around that same time. Somebody asked him about me and he said, “He’s next.” That meant a lot. Despite what the critics were saying, I did what I could do and I made the most beautiful music I knew how to make.
Speaking of legends, you’re about to tie an Elvis Presley record, aren’t you? Seven years of performing in Las Vegas?
How about that? I’ve been having a great time. I did five years at the Las Vegas Hilton and now I’m on my second year at the Paris.
Do you have your eye on any other Elvis Presley records? How many peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches can you eat in one sitting?
What are you talking about? I’ll stick with the Vegas record. I only did it because I wanted to get off the road. The road is a young person’s gig. Now when I’m out on tour, all I can think about is coming home. I wasn’t done performing. I wasn’t done with my band. And I didn’t want to leave my crew. I had just had it with the road. I wanted to get away from the room service and the planes and the noise. Even with the Vegas show, my life is so full of noise. There’s the band behind me and the audience is in front of me. When it’s all over, I need to go home, where it’s peaceful and quiet.
Do you never feel nostalgic for the bathhouses you played with Bette Midler in the 70s?
One bathhouse. We played one bathhouse.
Really? I thought you were touring bathhouses all over the country.
No, it was only ever that one bathhouse.
You’re starting to sound like a politician who got busted by his wife. “It was just one bathhouse, baby, I swear.”
[Laughs.] I played with Bette at the Continental Baths [in New York City]. They had a cabaret stage, and they hired me as the house piano player. They asked me, “Hey, do you want to play piano here full-time?” And I was like, “Sure, why not?” I played with all the acts that came through, all the singers. Bette was the best of them. She was the best one, so I stayed with her.
There’s an old show-business trick that if you ever get stage fright, just imagine that the audience is in their underwear. What do you do if your audience is dressed entirely in towels?
That’s a great question. Personally, I don’t really get stage fright. And in any case, I wasn’t really the focus of attention during those shows. It was all about Bette. She was fucking brilliant. I mean it. You never saw anything like it. It topped anything Lady Gaga is doing today. And she did it without any stage tricks or fancy effects. It was just Bette and me and a drummer.
Since you mentioned Lady Gaga, I feel like I should ask you about her, but I feel weird about it.
What’s to feel weird about?
Why would you care about Lady Gaga? She’s so different from you aesthetically, and from a different generation. Asking you about her feels like asking my mom to explain how e-mail works. It’s just mean.
I love Lady Gaga! I think I was the first guy on my block to discover her. You’d be surprised by what’s on my iPod.
Tell me what you like about Gaga. Are you a fan of the music, the alien-Egyptian-dominatrix costumes, the sacrilegious videos?
I think it’s the whole package that really impressed me. She has such an individualistic style. I was sold on that from the beginning. Later I realized that on top of everything, she’s a good musician and a great singer. That was it, that’s what sold me. This girl is the real deal.
During your show at the Paris in Las Vegas, do you, at any point, get hatched out of a gigantic egg?
It’s a little different. I come out of a Gefilte fish.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)