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Michael Bolton: hero or hack?

Critics detest him, but millions of fans love the musician

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It isn’t easy being a big goon. But there I was, just one in a circle of big goons at Pittsburgh’s Star Lake Amphitheatre, getting my chest pounded in by a woman who didn’t even know I was alive. She had tears in her eyes; she had joy on her face. She was looking over my shoulder, and she was silently mouthing one word, over and over: ”Michael Michael…Michael.”

Midway through his concert, while his band members took turns soloing, blond-streaked belter Michael Bolton had suddenly appeared in the middle of the audience, a spotlighted surprise, robustly bellowing ”Georgia on My Mind” and instantly being rushed by fans who wanted a piece of…his clothes? His flesh? His hair? Who knows? All that stood between Bolton losing everything, even the two glands that give him that voice, was a circle of big goon bouncers, his security, and one big goon writer seeking color for his story — human drool shields against women of all ages, shapes, and sizes.

Bolton, 39, should be the happiest man alive. He should be positively gleeful. Night after night in concert, he comes face to face with adulation from an audience that is predominantly female and conspicuously possessive of its man Mike. ”The songs mean something to my audience,” says Bolton. ”The lyrics get them through some very tough times.” He sells bazillions of albums — actually, 9 million of 1991’s Time, Love & Tenderness, and 7 million of 1989’s Soul Provider. Both remain on the Billboard charts, where they’ve just been joined by his newest, Timeless (The Classics) — a collection of covers including ”Reach Out I’ll Be There,” ”You Send Me,” and ”Knock on Wood,” with not one Bolton original — for a total stay of 247 weeks on the charts. Since he has already had big hits with covers of such soul classics as Otis Redding’s ”(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and Percy Sledge’s ”When a Man Loves a Woman” (which soared to No. 1 last year and scored him a Grammy), how do you think a complete album of this stuff will sell when it comes out at Christmas? Especially when it’s backed by his first hour-long TV special, airing on NBC Oct. 28?

So all of this should make Michael Bolton very satisfied, all the more since he used to be a nothing. The music industry is full of people who lived the first half of his career: Two failed solo albums in the mid-’70s as Michael Bolotin — can you say it? — then two more as part of a fatally bland hard-rock group called Blackjack. Others would have called it a day and headed for the bar. Bolton persevered, writing hits for people like Laura Branigan (1983’s ”How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which he also made No. 1 himself in 1990) and Barbra Streisand (1989’s ”We’re Not Makin’ Love Anymore”). Then he got the concept, and the concept was: No dry eyes, no dry seats. Bolton made an album called Soul Provider and became exactly that for the surprisingly large portion of the populace that knows ”Georgia” mainly as the theme from Designing Women that’s sung by that black guy. He is pretty much set for life.

And yet Michael Bolton is troubled. There is something like a little fly buzzing somewhere in the back of his brain, under all the hair, and it says, ”They’re out to get me.” Who? Music critics. He talks about them a lot, probably too much. On stage in Pittsburgh, before singing ”Since I Fell for You,” Bolton lays it out to his audience. ”Sometimes some critics just don’t get it,” he tells them. ”They say I shouldn’t record the classics.” This, rest assured, does not go over well with the Star Lake Amphitheatre’s patrons. ”As long as I think you want to hear it, and I want to sing it,” Bolton tells them with conviction, ”I’m gonna do it.” They roar.

Bolton doesn’t like critics, and they don’t like him. Here’s a short list of reasons why they’ve elevated him to — and this is a fair assessment — the No. 1 slot in their hate parade:

*Bolton’s voice lacks subtlety, they say, and his singing is terminally overwrought.

*He has hits with ”white” versions of R&B classics.

*His own songs are cheesy pop fluff.

*He sells enormous quantities of albums while true artists like Mudhoney, Pavement, and Momus flounder in undeserved obscurity.

*He thinks he’s hot stuff.

*So do women.

*His hair looks funny.

Bolton hates critics because, he says, ”I was under the delusion that people who are hired to critique music are qualified.” In simpler terms, he hates them because they hate him.

Their hatred isn’t that hard to fathom. By birth, critics are temperamentally opposed to great pretenders who make a lot of money recycling the work of seemingly more worthy, less successful, originals. But why does Bolton let the critics bother him so?

It’s not like he has nothing else going in his life. While his 15-year marriage to one-time exercise teacher Maureen McGuire ended in January 1991 (counseling didn’t work for the couple, but Bolton still recommends it), he now has full custody of his three teenage daughters, lives with them in Westport, Conn., and can record in the studio he had built next to his posh pad there. ”I can go up the stairs, walk across the lawn to my house, and have dinner with my kids,” the native of nearby New Haven says proudly. ”People who don’t have careers that take them away wouldn’t understand this, but for someone in my position, dinner with your kids is a new concept.”

Dinner with other women, however, is not. Bolton’s current flame is actress Nicolette Sheridan; he won’t say much about that relationship (though gossip flew in late September when together they hit an L.A. party also attended by Sheridan’s nominal husband, Harry Hamlin, from whom she recently split). He’s only a bit more open about other women he’s been linked with, such as Marla Maples (”Marla and I were friends and we’re still friends”) and Julia Roberts (”Julia and I never went out together. That was a rumor that got started because we did this TV show together in London. I whispered something funny into her ear, she turned beet red, and the next day people were saying that there was this big thing going on between us.”). One gets the impression that if the media want to link Bolton with some of the world’s most attractive women, that’s okay with him.