Vinyl Confessions: The Steinman Touch

cb9fedf4b5a02b92837a8744523147b0ba9bec48ffb68fe7755f2aa1099bb409Everyone has their guilty pleasure musician or band they’re ashamed to admit out loud, but actually not. I have several – Neil Diamond, Christopher Cross, John Denver…

…Barry Manilow…

Manilow’s the only artist both my parents found common ground with when I was growing up. So really, blame them if you’re unable to stifle your snickers.

As a child, I vividly remember my father’s bevy of doo-wop and early ‘60s cassette tapes he’d play ad nauseum in the car. I’d sing along to “Hurts so Bad” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, “Cara Mia” by Jay and the Americans, “Maybe I Know” by Lesley Gore. And then there was the trio of Manilow greatest hits tapes. At the time, I had no understanding that this was the piano man who got his start backing the Divine Miss M Bette Midler during her “Bathhouse Betty” days.

No, I was maybe eight years old, singing along with every song. To this day, if you name one of Manilow’s hits, chances are high I could sing the track from start to finish– as if hypnotized. My wife Jen and I ultimately decided our first dance wedding song would be “As” by Stevie Wonder, but you can bet “Weekend in New England” was in high consideration for months.

Schlocky? Certainly. Predictable? You bet. Yet you can appreciate the fact Manilow is a full embodiment of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Every hit follows the same format– simple introduction, three minutes of build-up and then the big orchestral flourishes at the end. And from 1975 to 1982, the hits kept on coming, assembly line style. Even if they didn’t hit the Top 10 (“Daybreak”) or were first recorded by more critically-acclaimed artists (Ian Hunter’s “Ships”), they would pad Manilow’s live repertoire for decades to come.

This column won’t talk about the hits everybody knows. Instead, I want to focus on Manilow’s final Top 40 hit – 1983’s “Read ‘em and Weep.” I listened to this song recently after not hearing it for years or remembering how it went. Then I listened to it again. And then a third time. Something sounded different this time around– why was it this song had a different edge to it than Manilow’s other hits.

The answer lies in the song’s composer– Jim Steinman.

We all know Steinman best as Meat Loaf’s musical partner in platinum crime (Bat Out of Hell and all its sequels). But do we all remember when Steinman the songwriter became the heir apparent to Jimmy Webb in the 1980s, penning epics for other mainstream artists that would rapidly climb the charts? Let’s journey back to 1983 – Steinman’s banner year. Who could forget that moment in Billboard time when his composition, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (sung by Bonnie Tyler), reigned supreme atop the Hot 100, followed at number two with another of his songs, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (sung by Air Supply).

Manilow wouldn’t reach these numbers with “Read ‘em and Weep”– the track peaked in the lower reaches of the Top 20. Why should we care? Because this track (finally) gave Manilow some respectable bite in an era dominated both by new wave and the kind of schmaltz he produced nonstop in the 1970s.

Think about it in this context: Meat Loaf recorded the song for his Bat follow-up, Dead Ringer, and couldn’t make a hit out of it. Manilow included the track almost as an afterthought on a greatest hits compilation and saw his star stay firm in the sky. Impressive, considering the tune’s total length leaps from Manilow’s standard 3:30 to a whopping 5:40.

One quick disclaimer – the music video for Manilow’s version of the song isn’t edgy; visually, it lies somewhere in between Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and an outtake from the movie Fame.

Moving along. Steinman is always the wordsmith, and this track is no exception. Nearly 40 words encompass the song’s first two sentences:

I’ve been tryin for hours just to think of what exactly to say.
I thought I’d leave you with a letter or a fiery speech, like when an actor makes an exit at the end of a play.

But, like virtually every track on Bat, the Steinman touch involves a climactic verse rise leading to bombastic climax. It’s out in full force on “Read ‘em and Weep”:

We started out with a bang and at the top of the world.
Now the guns are exhausted and the bullets are blanks.
And everything’s blank…

Then the “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you,” yin-yang style chorus enters the picture, with a drop of misogyny added in there for emotional flavor:

If I could only find the words, then I would write it all down;
If I could only find the voice I would speak.
Oh, it’s there in my eyes, oh can’t you see me tonight.
Come on and look at me and read ‘em and weep.

Try to erase “I write the songs that make the whole world sing,” and “You know I can’t smile without you,” from your brains and replace them with the entirety of this song. It makes a world of difference.

We know Manilow’s staying power remains strong, even though his reign of chart hits ended more than 30 years prior. While this song indicates his “bullets are blanks,” he goes out with a singles bang here.

And that’s why, since rediscovering it, I’ve been unashamedly tryin’ to get the Manilow feeling again.

-Ira Kantor


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