Even Barry Manilow has bad days.
On a rainy Wednesday night last week, Rick Massimo, pop music critic for The Providence Journal, spoke on his life and work to five Emerson College professional studies journalism students, which has included encounters with performers like Barry Manilow.
At first, the two did not hit it off.
"I called Barry Manilow a few years ago... and he was looking for a reason to hang up on me." Early in the interview, Massimo asked if the pop star had spoken with Bette Midler recently. That Midler and Manilow performed together in the 1970s is pop legend, but Massimo was unaware the two had recently collaborated on a Rosemary Clooney tribute CD.
According to Massimo, this irked Manilow and the star abruptly hung up saying, “Way to do your research.”
Instead of trashing him, Massimo wrote a straight-forward piece previewing Manilow's upcoming show.
Massimo continues, "A couple of years later, his (Manilow's) publicist asks me if I want to talk to him again." Knowing that his readers would want the story, Massimo agreed to the interview even though he dreaded it.
This time, it went better.
"The guy was lovely. He was fantastic. He was great. He even said, 'You know what, I've got a major announcement coming in a couple of weeks and I want to tell you first."
Massimo never got that call but the moral of the story to the student-journalists was do your homework and don't hold grudges. Your readers come first.
And one more thing, Manilow has a lot of fans. "People love the guy," said Massimo.
Born in Italy while his father, a Brown University professor, was there on sabbatical, Rick Massimo was raised in Providence where he still lives with his wife and 11 year-old son (he remarried last December).
After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in English, Massimo played the electric bass guitar in the Providence area. "I played in nightclubs, pit bands, and drag variety shows. Anything that paid." This gave him access to the wide variety of musical acts in the city and the distinct groups of people see them.
Massimo loves music and respects the making of it but not all of his fellow music critics seem to have that same regard. "I think playing music is an ennobling act but by no means do I think musicians are more noble than most people. I think this animates my writing. Some music writers don't feel this way."
Massimo passes on ripping easy targets like Manilow and Britney Spears.
As a former musician himself, Massimo experienced first-hand the late-nights in half-empty bar rooms with beer-sticky floors. He gives credit where it is due. "Everyone who gets out there deserves some credit for the generosity and hard, hard, work of performing."
But Massimo warned his student audience that respecting musicians and loving music is not enough for a pop music critic. Pushing back his youthful mane of black hair, Massimo, who will be 46 on October 17, said, "It's a writing job."
Would-be sports writers and pop music critics need to first enjoy the process of relating the experience of what they saw and heard to an audience of readers.
True, covering a concert is a little different than a fire because it has an aesthetic element that requires some subjectivity. The reviewer's artistic critique is secondary.
"The first thing you have to do is figure out what happened. What is the 'verb' of the event? Did (the musicians) play it safe or did they try new things?"
Massimo has written on other things besides music. He has a master's degree in playwriting from Brandeis University and is a resident artist at the Perishable Theatre in Providence, and is working on his 16th play, “Madame Bovary.” He is also working on a history of the Newport Folk Festival.
Close to the end of his second grueling hour of speaking, only Massimo's hair showed signs of fatigue as it now fell to the sides creating wings that threatened to take flight.
As if to underscore his point that the act of making music is worthy of his (and his student listeners’) respect, Massimo again brought up Barry Manilow. "He's not a pop musician anymore. He's an old pro. And I respect old pros.”
Though he is not immune to the glittery pull of the New York music scene, Massimo has no plans to head south.
Reached after his visit to Emerson, Massimo spoke about New York, “I said 15 years ago, that I would move to New York if anyone ever asked me to, but that I wouldn’t move there and wait tables hoping for a break."
In the meantime, Massimo works the pop music beat in his hometown and seems to be in no hurry to leave. He clearly loves Providence and respects its music scene.
"People really know music here in Rhode Island. I would not want to cover it anywhere else."