Man in Love: Barbra Streisand, Barry Gibb, and the Autobiographical Criticism of Doug Belknap

Some of you I would hope have read Dianne Hart’s monograph Enough Is Enough: Prodigality Celebrated and Condemned in the Carter-Era Recordings of Barbra Streisand. Although Dr. Hart’s study is limited in scope, her thinking is expansive. My own forthcoming book on Streisand’s middle period is indebted to her penetrating analyses. I must also thank Hart for exposing me to the criticism of Doug Belknap. A footnote in Enough Is Enough led me to the man’s review of Guilty, Streisand’s 1980 collaboration with Barry Gibb, and I have since become an admirer of Belknap’s idiosyncratic and loudly autobiographical work. The review of Guilty appeared that year in the September issue of Spunk magazine, a formerly influential rock monthly by then considered debased by the relevant tastemakers. Spunk at the time was mostly devoted to rock of a decidedly masculine cast. One imagines that Spunk readers were united in enmity or at least apathy toward Streisand and Gibb, and would have considered an endorsement of Guilty distasteful and a pan gratuitous. It’s odd, then, that the magazine gave the album any coverage at all, odder still that they ran Belknap’s long, discursive review.

What I’ve since managed to learn about Belknap is that he lived in Minneapolis, briefly attended the University of Minnesota, and worked, moonlighting presumably, as a freelance writer, most provably during 1979 and ’80. I found one piece published in the University’s Minnesota Daily in May of 1972, a recommendation of Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric notable for employing two food metaphors. In the first paragraph Belknap calls the album a “spicy gumbo of New Thing jazz, acid rock, hot-buttered soul, classical gas, and Latin passion”; in the closing paragraph he likens it to a “steaming bouillabaisse.”

Belknap may have written as well for community newspapers throughout the 70s, but his byline doesn’t return to an officially archived publication until late ’79. Again it’s attached to a review of a Weather Report album—the concert recording 8:30—penned for the short-lived Rhythm-A-Ning magazine. A warm appraisal of the music quickly gives way to a digression about a record reviewer, apparently a gastronome and fusion buff, who constructs a model suspension bridge from clippings of the 147 reviews he has written for a jazz newsletter. Each review contains at last one food metaphor, a feat of stylistic persistence that apparently went unnoticed by the newsletter’s subscribers or its alcoholic editor. The reviewer then takes a fatal dose of sleeping pills and lies down next to the model bridge, in effect jumping off his own work.

Belknap wrote three relatively restrained reviews for Spunk in the summer of ’80, followed by the Streisand piece, which is quoted in its entirety below, and which seems to mark the end of his career in music criticism. My efforts to track down Belknap have been unsuccessful. If you know anything about his whereabouts, please contact me. I remain eager to speak with him.

Barbra Streisand

Guilty

CBS Records

Reviewed by Doug Belknap

I see that Guilty’s liner notes have Richard Tee playing electric guitar on the “The Love Inside.” If you know your session men, you’ll raise an eyebrow at the credit, and sure enough, the electric instrument Richard Tee is playing is a piano, not a guitar. One thing Barbra Streisand’s latest success is guilty of, then, is shoddy liner-note composition. Otherwise it’s pretty much blameless.

Maybe you’ve already seen the jacket, with Gibb, who wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs, wrapping his arms around a coquettish Streisand, both dressed in angelic white, à la Johnny Mathis on the cover of Heavenly. It would be too much to call this music heavenly, but it is ethereal, so light you have to adjust your tone arm to play the LP version. And yet the album’s consommé of pop and Broadway, disco and light R&B isn’t wholly insubstantial. I find it moving. Streisand and Gibb haven’t lent great stores of genuine emotion to their collaboration, but they’ve given the listener the tools to do so: the bravura phrasing, a drama in nearly every measure; the voluptuous, occasionally capricious melodies and chord changes; the trademark vocal harmonies, both transcendent and rodential, that Gibb honed with the Bee Gees.

I’ve liked Barry Gibb ever since I heard “Massachusetts” on the radio of a cream Mercedes 450 SEL belonging to Linda Morgan’s mom. We kissed that night, Linda and I, standing up in front of the car, and her breasts were large and her sweater was softer than any fabric I had ever felt. I hadn’t previously associated with people who could afford cashmere sweaters, or even cashmere socks. Our subsequent outings, however, were washouts.

Let me return to “The Love Inside,” which is indeed lovely, and not only on the inside. Expansive, resigned, middle-aged, it’s like a Sondheim ballad minus the erudition. The clever turns of phrase have been replaced with clichés—“I’m just an empty shell” and so forth—but the lachrymal high notes are present, yearning and wheedling. During this song one might pause for a pensive break from preparing something out of Elegant Dinners for Two, perhaps absentmindedly taking a sip of economical red wine. I did just that earlier this evening. Also, I cut the recipe in half. “The Love Inside” isn’t free of the breathless histrionics Streisand brings to nearly every performance, but it is sung with the proper subtlety, which is to say, neither too much nor too little. Streisand remains a stage singer, of course, a belter for whom amplification is a luxury rather than a necessity. Only a fool would refuse to use such a voice to its full capacity.

A fool or an ascetic, because it must be a pleasure to sing like that. It must be a pleasure to be outstanding at something. Yesterday I was given my United States Tennis Association rating. I’ve decided to play competitive tennis in a league, to meet new friends as they say, and because Sharon once said I looked good in white. Before signing up, you must have a coach rate your game on the official scale. There’s an official scale that goes from one to seven. One is a paraplegic three-year-old with imperfect vision and a carelessly strung racket. Two is a paraplegic three-year-old with perfect vision and a decent lob. A 6.9 is John McEnroe. I’ve been judged a 3.2, just below the mean. I’m competent, obviously no beginner, but also not impressive, not the sort of player whose strokes inspire admiration from passers-by in the park. I suspect I’m a 3.2 in general. Once I asked a girl from work how she would rate my looks on a scale of one to ten. She said I was a seven, maybe even an eight. I’m not sure how that translates to a one-to-seven scale, but it beats a 3.2. Of course she would never have called me a six or below to my face. And she wouldn’t have given me a suspiciously generous nine or ten. Really, then, she was working on a two-point scale, seven acting as one and eight as two. And she went with one, approaching two on a good day. So that probably is a 3.2.

Sometimes when Sharon would play her Barbra Streisand records, I would make noises of disapproval. One time she responded by hissing, “anti-Semite,” jokingly. I laughed enough for the joke to become a ritual. Sharon wasn’t routinely funny, but when she was, she was, I thought, quotable. My complaints were good-natured, you see, in contrast to how she and Donald would disparage my Weather Report and Chick Corea albums, once quite harshly when I was allegedly reading in the other room. “Oh, don’t take off the Chick Corea album, Sharon,” Donald said, coaxing a laugh out of Sharon. “I’d love to hear it again and again!” His sarcasm was strictly of the meat and potatoes variety, never clever.

I doubt it would interest Donald or Sharon to know that Steve Gadd, featured on the Chick Corea album derided that night, also plays on Guilty. He plays superbly, with manly assurance. Thanks to his hiccupping fills toward the end of “Promises,” even Barbra Streisand can claim to have almost made a funk single. What a sad, strange song that is, Gibb’s hooks like icicles, Streisand’s singing joyfully desperate. “I am the love, don’t let me die away,” she sings, with several Barry Gibbs answering “Die away” in harmony, appropriately stretching out “die” like a last breath. I wish I could hear this album with Sharon. I could listen to it every night with her, twice. I would gently rub it with a pink felt record-cleaning cloth after each airing, apologizing for the tiny needle pricks.

When we first started dating I perhaps mislead Sharon by saying that I liked Barbra Streisand, too. What I meant is that I found her charming in the mid-60s, especially on the “My Name Is Barbra” TV special, flirting with kettle drummers and singing songs about poverty and against materialism while vamping and hamming, by turns enviously and contemptuously, through Bergdorf Goodman. She was brilliant, funny, and gorgeous. I watched the show with my mom. I guess I was fourteen. My mom grew up in New Jersey, and although she was estranged from her family, she missed the East Coast, missed the Italians and Jews she used to hang out with. Not that there aren’t Italians and Jews in Minneapolis, but they’re much scarcer. My mom loved Streisand, loved her misfit glamour, her wit, her Jewishness, her abnormal voice. “She has the lungs of a beluga whale,” said my dad, passing through the room. “You flatter the beluga whale,” said my mom.

I also sheepishly enjoyed The Way We Were, which I saw on an inauspicious first date with Lorraine Ibsen. But for the most part though, prior to Sharon, I ignored Streisand. I mainly listened to jazz and rock and fusion and hardly ever tuned in AM radio. Streisand’s sometimes maligned attempts to sing contemporary material couldn’t bother me because, except for the hit she had with Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” I didn’t hear them. I was unaware of her version of John Lennon’s “Mother,” for instance, until Sharon and I moved in together and Sharon’s extensive collection of Streisand records and memorabilia arrived as an unwelcome dowry. “She’s singing it like it’s called ‘Second Cousin Twice Removed,’” I cracked, as Sharon arranged the furniture. It came out more cuttingly than I intended, but Sharon chuckled. Later we made love on a mattress on the floor, and the night proved to be the apex of our predominantly healthy sexual relationship. There are at least two images from that night that I still use, not always happily, as masturbatory aids.

Every morning, except Tuesdays and Sundays when she didn’t work at Carson Pirie Scott, Sharon would do her ablutions to Streisand’s “I Can Do It.” Most evenings she would play a Streisand album or two, and occasionally Donald would come over for a “Babsanalia.” Mostly this just meant talking and playing records, but sometimes they’d pantomime and dress up, Donald in half-drag, or they’d reenact scenes from Streisand’s movies. The Babsanalia were always spontaneous, usually involved pot or coke, and often lasted into the small hours, at which point the accuracy of the reenactments was suspect. My only contribution to these endeavors was the coinage “Babsanalia.” I participated once, on a night when I felt it was important for me to get high. It was hard to be the third wheel. I was insufficiently equipped with knowledge or enthusiasm.

Sharon and Donald were too sophisticated to be truly idolatrous, but not sophisticated enough to blend sincere passion and self-aware irony in the manner of high camp. That was how I saw it anyway. The frivolity of it all chafed me. Nothing important was important to Sharon or Donald. Their Streisand club was purely escapist, of course, a means of pretending not to be of our generation and not from Minnesota, or to be witty and urbane and to have a bona fide witty and urbane gay friend instead of a dim closet case. I was never explicitly excluded from the Babsanalia but it became clear that these evenings were for serious fans only and that I should find other amusement. Usually I’d read in the bedroom. Sometimes I’d go to a bar alone.

Donald also worked at Carson Pirie Scott, in the men’s casual wear department. He was not an ethical man. When a shirt came in that he liked he would hide it the backroom until it went on final clearance. Then he would sneak it back to the sales floor, as if it had been languishing on the rack the whole time, and he’d get it for even cheaper than his employee discount. Donald was reportedly straight, but I knew this to be untrue, at least not entirely true. Sharon accepted his bluff, though she was attracted to his apparent gayness in the way my mom was attracted to Streisand’s Jewishness. Sharon did acknowledge that Donald moved and talked in a way that would lead many if not most to unfairly question his sexuality. Then there was his Streisand fixation, his interest in clothes (though he dressed badly if you ask me), his passion for the theater, his insistence on being called Donald and never Don, the fact that he had once lured me into the bathroom at Deborah Curtis’ Christmas party, and that once inside Deborah Curtis’ bathroom he had whipped out his cock or at least not strenuously protested when I slowly unzipped his jeans and executed my first and only act of fellatio.

Sharon didn’t know this last piece of evidence regarding Donald’s homosexuality.

Donald had one good male friend that I knew of, a short, part-time actor with Aryan features and the physique of an amateur weightlifter who was even dumber than Donald, and lazy. He didn’t work other than the three or four parts he landed a year, usually one lead in a community-theater embarrassment and a few spear-carrying gigs at the big theater in town. Mostly he cadged from girlfriends and half-heartedly sold drugs. I called him the Slothario, which Sharon, who didn’t like him either, thought was clever. Donald and the Slothario would go to nightclubs often, reportedly to pick up women. They even bought notch-less belts from a neighborhood cobbler and leather worker, stole a leather punch from a hardware store, and would actually add notches to their belts in commemoration of successful seductions. Of course anyone can punch a hole in a belt, and no way was Donald getting it up for all those girls. My theory was that Donald and the Slothario were lovers. Donald also had steady girlfriends, including a tiny, laconic brunette named Sara with no “h” who, when she worked as a peep-show model, called herself “Sar-ahh!” Donald and Sara dated for almost a year. My theory was that Sara was also gay, either by birth or as an occupational acquisition. During the year that Donald and Sara were going out I sometimes found myself in situations that led me to wonder how effectively the tinted windows at Paulie’s Hot Tomatoes cloaked the peeping customers. I figured I caught a break when Donald and Sara broke up.

It was around that time, though, that Donald and Sharon started spending even more time together, mostly away from our apartment. By then there were a few clubs in Minneapolis where one could disco, and they would do that, sometimes going to a party after the bars closed so that Sharon wouldn’t return to our bed until 3:00 a.m. One Easter Sunday I remember she was logy and irritable all day. It didn’t occur to me until late in the afternoon that she was hung over. I was so slow on the uptake, such a dolt. She started telling me about a group of East Indian guys who were also going out dancing, how charming they were. One, an aloof, lanky guy named Divyanga who was said to have fallen out of favor with his Brahmin parents, came to a party that Sharon insisted we throw. He said, “It’s nice to meet you. Sharon’s a great dancer,” as if I had given her instruction. He wasn’t charming.

One night I bought a new edition of Password, the game, and suggested we share a bottle of wine and play a round or two. Sharon and I both liked Password. She however had plans to go out for drinks followed by dancing and then who knows what with Donald and the Slothario and the East Indians. I was welcome to come, she insisted. But I wasn’t. I noted that she took almost forty-five minutes to get ready, roughly twice as long as usual. I also noted that she looked really good. After she left I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate and resorted to TV, which, predictably, only aggravated my depression.

That night Sharon came into bed around

3:00 a.m. again, maybe 3:30, and her breath smelled like vodka and orange juice and cigarettes and she tried to arouse me but I rolled over and feigned sleep. The moment was not unlike those described in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” Later, I suspected that she had gotten horny dancing with the East Indians and had hoped to seduce me in order to pretend I was someone else. Once during lovemaking she had asked me to portray Hubbell Gardiner, the Robert Redford character from The Way We Were, but that was different. I didn’t mind. After Divyanga moved into our apartment and I moved in temporarily with Gary the building manager, I also began to doubt the plurality of the East Indians, a ruse no doubt to make de facto dates seem like non-threatening group socializing. Only Divyanga, whom Gary the building manager seemed to know well, had come to our party, and when I asked Sharon, a poor ad-libber, what the others were named, she pretended not to hear and then when asked again came up with “Ravi” and, after yet another pause, “Big Ravi.”

Two days after my Password proposal was rejected, Sharon told me that she did love me, but she was no longer in love with me. I had no use for the distinction. I fell from the couch sobbing, not a long fall, but dramatic. I held on to the coffee table, my legs were folded up like a little boy’s. Sharon was faced with the situation in which you want to comfort the person whom you have just discomforted. She sat there quietly until I stopped blubbering. Stupidly, we slept in the same bed that night. In the morning I stared apocalyptically at her un-blanketed body. She was wearing only underwear, which I took for effrontery. In fairness it had been a warm spring night.

I’ve been crying with decreasing regularity, though still frequently, during the six months since. Actually, my crying has increased over the past few weeks, since I was assigned to review Guilty, in six hundred words. Guilty is a sad record, a record about being made foolish by love, about desperation and deceit. Gary the building manager is an AC/DC fan and will be glad when my assignment has been dispatched. Gary’s a good guy. Divyanga is cheesed with me for extending my temporary stay at Gary the building manager’s, and seems to think I’m not allowed to do my stair-climbing and hall-walking exercises throughout our apartment building, as if I had access to some other building. But I guess Divyanga isn’t the boss of me. I notice that Donald never comes around anymore. Divyanga has barred him, no doubt. The guy is paranoid, though he’s right about Don.

Guilty ends with a song of romantic betrayal called “Make It like a Memory.” But that’s silly because what’s worse than a painful memory? Barry Gibb has not read his Proust, at least not carefully, though his melodies sometimes approximate Proustian delicacy.

My current favorite is “Never Give Up,” quasi-Arabic funk to my ears, potentially a showstopper, but comparatively paired down, the string and horn players sent home for the night, the bass creeping or maybe skulking. Streisand is self-important where she used to be self-deprecating, but she’s jive talking on the verses and it’s funny, deliberately funny. The lyric has her suffering from a dry throat. She’s non-metaphorically lovesick. “I will never give up,” she sings, stretching out “I will” for a full measure, eliding the “r” in “never,” making the word an even more emphatic “neva!” The point is reiterated on its way to the chorus’ staccato conclusion and the album’s summary question: “I will never give up, never give up, never give up. I will follow you home. How can you turn me away?”