There are times in life when an event, long thought inconceivable, appears out of nowhere, upending the fixed order of the universe. Think of the Berlin Wall falling—or, perhaps more surprising at the time, Warren Beatty marrying.
And now, a third. Last night, on the Web site Irish Central, Antoinette Kelly had a story about Barry Manilow’s disclosure that his father was Irish.
Who’d have thought it?
Comedian Denis Leary has pointed out the “age-old Irish-American desire to make all things Irish.” We might begin with something well within the realm of possibility (Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando).
There’s also the distinctly Irish type, the fabulist, who ventures well beyond the shores of logic, like St. Brendan bravely steering his ship across the Atlantic Ocean, to identify as someone Irish an individual heretofore unsuspected of Hibernian lineage. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s youthful alter ego, Edmund Tyrone, mockingly tells his father that Shakespeare was Irish; James Tyrone insists that it is so.
But Barry Manilow…well, this is the first time I’ve heard someone famous, not remotely suspected of being Irish, of claiming descent from the 32 counties.I'm still trying to get the feeling about this one.
The Guy Who Writes the Songs That Make the Whole World Sing claims to be the son of one Harold Kelliher, a truck driver who was shunned by the other side of the family for being non-Jewish and poor. The parents divorced when Barry was a baby, and the family changed the boy’s last name from Kelliher to Pincus, then to Manilow (his grandfather’s surname). For all intents and purposes thereafter, save for a fleeting backstage meeting after the child became famous, Harold Kelliher was out of Barry's life.
If you want to know the truth, the whole thing has thrown me for a loop. Usually with this kind of thing, there’s some sort of inkling of descent, the way one of Thomas Jefferson’s sons by slave Sally Hemings shared his father’s passion for the violin. But listen sometime (if you dare) to Manilow’s “VSM” (Very Strange Medley), a quick run-through of his days as an ace jingle composer. You’ll hear about Kentucky Fried Chicken, State Farm, McDonald’s, Stridex, Band Aid, Doctor Pepper, and Pepsi, but not a word about Irish Spring.
But an even greater element of cognitive dissonance enters into this revelation about Manilow’s heritage. You see, I’ve long felt that since the 1970s, there already has been an “Irish Barry Manilow”—a skinny piano-playing singer who liked upbeat tunes (“Get Down”) but achieved even greater renown for lachrymose ballads (“Alone Again, Naturally”).
Come to think of it, I did think it strange that, for all their obvious musical affinities, Barry Manilow never shared a musical stage with Gilbert O’Sullivan. Perhaps now we know why: they’re the same person.