A Star-Spangled Night for Rights

On September 18, 1977, Aaron Russo, Bette Midler’s manager, produced “A Star-Spangled Night for Rights” at the Hollywood Bowl. The focus of the four and a half hour concert was gay rights. Performers included Midler, War, Richard Pryor, Helen Reddy, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits and Tanya Tucker. Among the approximately 17,000 people in the audience was Paul Newman, Olivia Newton-John, Valerie Harper and Robert Blake.

It had been a rough year for gay rights. In June, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign proved successful when Dade County, Florida voters repealed the gay rights ordinance they had just passed in January. In Arkansas, the state legislature reinstated the sodomy laws it repealed two years earlier.

As a result of these setbacks, gay rights marches appeared around the country, official Gay Pride parades drew their highest number of participants to date, and Russo organized the concert to benefit the Save Our Human Rights Foundation.

California Senator John Briggs threatened to blacklist every Hollywood performer or politician who supported or attended the show. The following year Briggs sponsored a proposition to remove all gay or lesbian employees and their supporters from California schools. The measure was defeated due in large part to the efforts of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. On September 18, 1977, Milk had yet to be elected to that position.

The concert went well for its first few performances, but took an ugly turn when comedian Pryor took the stage. Among the things he said: “Motherfuck women’s rights!” “Fags are prejudiced.” “I’m sick of y’all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were you doing during the Watts riots – sucking each other’s dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I’m getting the fuck out of here.” And the finale, “You Hollywood faggots can kiss my happy rich black ass!” It wasn’t his best material. And yes, if given the choice between arson, destruction, looting, beatdowns and fellatio, my selection is a no-brainer.

Next on the concert bill…Tom Waits! It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer was to perform a comedy set at Mr. Burns’ birthday party. Mr. Smithers gets on stage and announces “I have some sad news to report. A small puppy, not unlike Lassie, was just run over in the parking lot. And now it’s time for the comedy stylings of Homer Simpson!”

Waits was invited to perform at the event by his close friend Bette Midler, who he met three years earlier at The Bottom Line in New York. Subsequently, Midler recorded Waits’ “Shiver Me Timbers” in 1976 and they did a duet on Waits’ Foreign Affairs album released the year of the Hollywood Bowl show.

Before Waits took the stage Aaron Russo came out to apologize for Pryor’s outburst. “I’m terribly embarrassed and don’t know what to say about what just happened, but I do think this show tonight started out and will end up on a positive note.” However, the audience was agitated. Waits gave up after two songs.

The crowd wanted the headliner. Bette Midler bounded on stage and asked the crowd “Is there anyone here tonight who wants to kiss this rich white ass?” The crowd cheered and she closed the show.

Today Tom Waits turns 65. Aside from Milder, his compositions have been recorded by Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen and The Ramones, among others. Here are twenty career highlights.

Winston + Barry 2014-06-17

Bad Songs I Love – “I Write The Songs”

The earliest known song in recorded history was performed by Eve. Not the rapper-actress whose hits include “Let Me Blow Your Mind” and “Gotta Man,” but a different Eve with no last name, the one who called the Garden of Eden home. Her song was “The Only Girl in the World,” later a hit for Rihanna. The song was written by Barry Manilow, as were “Let Me Blow Your Mind” and “Gotta Man.”

In 1976 the scientific community was rocked when Barry Manilow, in his #1 hit “I Write the Songs,” sang “I’ve been alive forever and I wrote the very first song.” A glance at his album cover photos allays any doubt as to the first part of that claim. “But how did you write that first song?,” the skeptics asked. Manilow replied “I put the words and the melodies together,” which was enough evidence to silence any doubters. He then proclaims “I am music.” He presents his case that he, Barry Manilow, wrote every song that has ever been written. Songs that make the whole world sing. Songs of love and special things. Things like a duck that loves disco and a heart that’s both achy and breaky.

In the song’s bridge Manilow sings how his “music makes you dance,” and really, who doesn’t get down to “Mandy?” He also says he “wrote some rock-and-roll,” referring to his hit “Can’t Smile Without You,” which rocks harder than anything by The Carpenters or Air Supply.

Then we get the one-two punch of “Music fills the heart / Well, that’s a real fine place to start” followed by “It’s from me, it’s for you / It’s from you, it’s for me / It’s a worldwide symphony.” Granted, those aren’t the greatest lyrics, but the man wrote 623,524,325 songs, so cut him some slack!

Now is a good time to mention that Barry Manilow did not write “I Write the Songs.” As a matter of fact, Barry Manilow did not write any of his three number one singles, the other two being “Mandy” and “Looks Like We Made It.” Manilow did write a acne medication jingle, a toilet cleaner jingle, and “Copacabana.”

“I Write the Songs” was written by Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys. He recorded the tune into a cassette and submitted it to a Japanese music festival, who rejected it as being unsuitable.
Undeterred, Johnston played the tune for a couple of friends who worked with The Beach Boys, Daryl “The Captain” Dragon and Toni Tennille. The Captain & Tennille included the song on their 1975 debut album Love Will Keep Us Together.

That same year Johnston produced an album for David Cassidy entitled The Higher They Climb, on which Cassidy took a stab at the song. (I know – Barry Manilow, The Captain & Tennille and David Cassidy! This is a glorious Bad Music I Love trifecta!) Cassidy’s version hit #11 on the UK singles chart in August of ’75.

That summer, Clive Davis, the chief of Arista Records, Manilow’s label, was in London and heard the Cassidy record on the radio. He suggested the song to Manilow. Manilow liked the song but was reluctant to record it. As he wrote in his autobiography Sweet Life, “The problem with the song was that if you didn’t listen carefully to the lyric, you would think that the singer was singing about himself. It could be misinterpreted as a monumental ego trip.”

I listened to the lyrics very carefully and can tell you that based on my multiple listens (and an interview with Bruce Johnston I read), the “I” in “I Write the Songs” is God. See that? The song is someone claiming to speak for God. Nothing egotistical about that! God wrote all the songs that make the whole world sing. This leads to the profoundly earth-shattering realization that God wrote “My Humps.” Praise be Him!

“I Write the Songs” won Johnston the 1976 Grammy Award for Song of the Year over such worthwhile nominees as “Afternoon Delight,” “Breaking is Hard to Do” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Beach Boys never won a Grammy. The man who wrote most of the songs for The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, won his first Grammy in 2005 – Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” Was that his most award-worthy contribution to popular music? The “I” of “I Write the Songs” has the answer to that question, but He’s not telling. I guess God only knows.

Winston + Barry 2014-06-17

Today the man(ilow) who claims to have been alive forever turns 71. Here are some of my favorites from his oeuvre.