“Wheels up” is an aviation expression that always tickles my ear. It has an imperative faux-military quality – not unlike something Tom Cruise might have said in Top Gun. In touring parlance, it means “time of departure” – and this afternoon as we boarded the private Gulfstream that takes Team Barbra from city-to-city on her mini tour, “wheels up” was scheduled for 2:30pm. As the engines revved with the intensity of a NASA rocket, Barbra closed her eyes and gestured with her hands, to envelop the plane and its passengers in a shield of protective “white light.” And then, to borrow a phrase from the old Superman TV series, we took off faster than a speeding bullet.
Let it be said that no one ever starved on a Streisand tour! Within a matter of seconds after reaching altitude, platters of tasty food suddenly appeared and the conversation turned lively. The reviews from last night’s performance at Chicago’s United Center were beyond glowing, so everyone on board, including Barbra, Marty and Richard-Jay felt like the show was finally firing on all cylinders.
About 1 hour into the flight, I had a revelation. I realized, that I will use just about any excuse to break my diet, and flying is possibly the very best one in my arsenal. There are simply no caloric intake rules that apply when strapped into a fuselage zipping through the atmosphere at seven hundred miles an hour. So, when our wonderful tour manager, Marty Hom, advised there were two flavors of ice cream in the galley, coffee and chocolate, I felt obliged to taste both, if only to let my teammates know my personal preference. I guess I’m just a giver.
Temporarily sated, I gazed out through the oversized vacuum-sealed window at the topography below. My mind wandered to 1981, when I’d had the good fortune of pitching Charles Koppelman (Barbra’s Executive Producer at the time) a few songs which she ultimately recorded. “Comin’ In And Out Of Your Life” and “Memory” (from Cats) were included on a compilation LP titled Memories (Love Songs in the UK) and both became hit singles.
In a magnanimous gesture for which I’ll always be grateful, Charles invited me to attend a mixing session for another song I’d pitched, that Barbra was recording in Los Angeles. When I entered the studio, she was sitting with her engineer, intently evaluating a vocal take by putting check marks on a grid. (One check mark for OK… two check marks for good… two check marks and an exclamation point for very good.)
Once the playback stopped, she looked up and Charles introduced me as the new song plugger in town. She was very sweet, explaining how tough it was to find good material. Then she gave me a warm smile, extended her hand in thanks… and turned her attention back to the engineer. That was the extent of our meeting. It may have lasted all of four minutes.
When you reach a certain age, you come to realize that seemingly random events which, at the time, bore little relationship to each other, can be viewed in hindsight, like a brilliantly constructed novel with reappearing characters and resolving plot lines. So here I am, 35 years later, 35,000 feet up in the sky, and somehow it feels strangely inevitable that I should find myself flying from Chicago to New York, on a private jet, sitting diagonally across from the greatest singer on the planet.
So how was the Chicago concert?
You’d practically have to stick your finger in a light socket to get a sense of the electric voltage careening though the arena when Barbra made her entrance. That palpable energy remained unabated for the next two hours. We witnessed an artist in peak form, delivering each song with full commitment.
Maybe the show seemed doubly exciting because it was the first time I genuinely felt relaxed, sitting in the arena like an audience member. When you know the “mechanics” of a show, clocking all the variables means you’re listening with a critical ear. Which video package is supposed to start on which cue… does Barbra leave the stage after “Papa, Can You Hear Me” or bask in the applause…. will the drummer remember to play side-stick on “Evergreen… will the audience respond to a song they’re unfamiliar with?
I once heard 16 time Grammy-winning record producer David Foster explain how he evaluates singers (and he’s worked with some of the best from Whitney to Celine), “There are good singers, there are great singers, there are brilliant singers…and then there’s Barbra Streisand.” Well that’s exactly how I felt, sitting in the audience in Chicago. Every night of this tour has been special, but this was somehow more special.