4. My Dark Confession

I was hoping to never think about this, much less write about it. This is such a dark corner of my past that I’ve done my best to expurgate it from my personal narrative. But the purpose of this ongoing ramble is to try and explain, if even only to myself, why music matters. How has music provided a soundtrack to my life? How has it grafted itself onto my psyche? I’m going to have to tread through the darkest, evil valley to get there.

I’m going to have to talk about the Mellow Seventies.

Listen: Music fans are vain. We find our tribe or many tribes and we are loyal to them. We choose at some level to believe that they define us. or at the very least reflect us. When I was in high school, an Iron Maiden t-shirt was a manifesto, not an article of clothing. A Black Flag button was a statement. “Disco sucks” really translated to “I don’t consider myself the kind of guy who wears flouncy shirts and worries about his hair.” Whomever we were musically was who we were, damnit.

Here’s the problem: I knew these guys – or guys like them – when we were younger kids. And every kid I knew at the age of eight or so liked John Denver, Neil Diamond, and/or the Monkees. Some tossed the Beach Boys in for good measure, but that was the basic list. Every house I visited had some combination of these artists. So when we got to high school they weren’t fooling me with their Sabbath tees, but I wasn’t going to tell. I had my skeletons, too.

It wasn’t just kids’ record collections that were infected by Easy Listening. Sonny and Cher, The Captain and Tennille, and Donny and Marie Osmond all hosted popular television shows. The Carpenters and John Denver pulled huge ratings for their television specials. Bread, Chicago (post-funkiness), Streisand – all huge. It was the era of Helen Reddy, Neil Sedaka, and Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby.”

And then there was Manilow.

After first grade ended, we packed up and moved to a suburb of Chicago. Our new house was a split-level  with aluminum siding. Fancy. It was big enough that my sisters no longer had to share a room. My oldest sister got our aunt’s hi-fi in the room divorce, which made her room the place to be. I found my way there whenever I could to listen to Rubber Soul and whatever she happened to have. She received a few singles for her birthday that year: Grand Funk Railroad’s cover of “The Locomotion;” Ray Stevens’ novelty record “The Streak;” “Dancing Machine” from The Jackson 5; and Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” a Mellow Seventies classic. I pretty much found myself there every afternoon, spinning records.

One afternoon I opened the briefcase-like hi-fi and found a newspaper photo taped to the inside lid – Manilow in all his huge-nosed glory. Beneath the photo were the lyrics to “Mandy.” I couldn’t imagine this dorky looking guy singing a love song. The thought of it made me laugh. My sister didn’t appreciate being laughed at, and banished me from her room.

A few days later our elementary school had an assembly. We were going to see a magic show. I was game. A boy with a ventriloquist dummy is hardly in a position to pass judgement; besides, I’d recently seen The Great Manzini perform an upside down straitjacket escape at the local shopping mall. Magic was pretty cool. We sat quietly and waited, which translates roughly to “we ran around screaming like maniacs waiting for the show to start.” On the cafetorium stage sat two small tables – one draped with a cloth, and the other holding the school record player. A big kid – easily junior high age – came out on stage and fired up the record player. This was my first roadie sighting.

The music was dramatic, moody. Solo piano, big heavy chords. Then the music lightened a bit, and The Great Wank-O or whatever his name was came out. It was another big kid, but this one had a black cape. He wore thick, aviator-style glasses, a white buttoned shirt, and jeans. He conjured a white-tipped cane from nowhere then turned it into a bouquet. This guy was good.

He poured milk into a rolled up newspaper without making a mess. He pulled scarves out of his mouth and coins from his assistant’s ear. The music continued in the background –

Spirit move me, every time I’m near you….

Exactly! This dude was obviously in touch with the spirit world. Where else could all of that milk possibly have gone? He turned one ball into two, then three, then four, then back into one giant ball. He knotted a rope, snipped it in half, and then produced it again completely unmolested. Genius!

The tricks were great, but what caught my attention was how the music fit his show. He paced his tricks to fit the song, slowed them and sped them, echoed the lyrics where he could –

Now we hold on fast…

…and he’d demonstrate how the three rings held fast to each other….

Could this be the magic at last?

…and the rings came apart. Brilliant.

The song built to a crescendo. The tension of the show built right along with it, finally literally exploding in a flash of bright light and smoke, and The Great Wank-O was gone. The song wound down, back to the sad lonely piano, and the room was quiet. I don’t know what the other kids thought, but I was certain I’d seen my future. Ventriloquism was for dummies, magic was my new vocation. And I had to know what that song was.

We moved to Chicago because my father got a better job. He wasn’t a repairman driving a van anymore, he was a supervisor, an important man like Mr. Bryson who ran the Wards Bargain Basement. But my father worked in a factory, and factories didn’t have normal hours like stores. Often he wouldn’t get home until well after we were asleep. My mother would let us stay up late on Fridays so that we could see him for a few minutes. This and the rare weekend were the only times I saw my dad during those years. We’d pass the time while we waited for him to arrive by watching television. We’d watch Carson, and when that ended we’d switch over to “The Midnight Special.”

“The Midnight Special” was amazing. It wasn’t anything like “American Bandstand” or “Soul Train.” Unlike those shows, “The Midnight Special” was nothing but live performances. Honestly I don’t know how many “why music matters” stories have as their locus “Midnight Special” appearances. A lot. But on this particular evening, half asleep in my Underdog pajamas, the big-nosed guy suddenly appeared on the tube. He was seated at a big, white piano. Yep, you guessed it: He was playing The Great Wank-O’s show music.

This is where things get a bit tricky. I’d already decided that I didn’t like Manilow. I didn’t like his goofy looks, and I didn’t like the stupid lyrics to “Mandy.” But I’d also already decided that I liked “Could This Be Magic.” Essentially I had failed the Pepsi Challenge. When the blindfold was removed I had to cop to preferring the sugary sweet taste of Manilow.

That’s one explanation. Another possibility is this: People love to make associations. They gravitate toward what is familar. When I was very young I liked my aunt’s Elvis records because I recognized Elvis from repeated Saturday showings of his crappy movies. That evening I put the puzzle together. The big nose guy taped to the inside of the hi-fi was the guy who made The Great Wank-O’s theme music, and who is so famous that Wolfman Jack invited him to “The Midnight Special.”

Regardless, I was a fan now. For my eighth birthday I received Barry Manilow I and Barry Manilow II. I would own three more Manilow albums before I sold him out for thirty pieces of silver and a Molly Hatchet t-shirt.

Even during the Mellow Seventies it was pretty dorky for a boy to embrace The Manilow. John Denver and Neil Diamond? No problem. But Manilow? That was pushing things. Still, I waved my freak flag high. Maybe it was “Copacabana” that finally broke my back, I don’t know.

Thanks to the now ubiquitous Youtube, I’ve been able to listen to that performance of “Could It Be Magic” again. Laugh if you will, but it’s a well-crafted song. I’m a sucker for climbing songs: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Who’s Behind the Door,” “The End,” “Gonna Fly Now,” Tangerine Dream’s “Cloudburst Flight.” They are immersive. They demand that you come along for the ride. You can’t just sit there passively while they insist, “I’m going to drag your ass along until we hit a moment of tension so great that you just can’t take it anymore. And then I’ll wind you back down so that you can get on with your life.” They are little audio rollercoasters.

The sentiments espoused in the Mellow Seventies were admittedly cringeworthy, but the craftsmanship was top notch. And the Great Wank-O was pretty badass, too.

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