Wednesday, May 14, 2008

10 years on: frank sinatra and the american male

Hard as it might be to believe, but Frank Sinatra died 10 years ago today. To many of us youngins, Sinatra is remembered as nothing more than a caricature, a wrinkled old Vegas lounge act who took the cheesy Rat Pack schtick too far but still sang some pretty songs that always made for nice background music or for a swell moment or two at your college buddy's wedding. But if you're the life of kings, you were in college and you were dying to know more after you saw Bono introduce him by saying this at the 1994 Grammy Awards:
Who's this guy that every city in America wants to claim as their own? This painter who lives in the desert, this first-rate, first-take actor. This singer who makes other men poets, boxing clever with every word, talking like America -- tough, straight-up, in headlines. Comin' through with the big stick, the aside, the quiet compliment, good cop, bad cop, all in the same breath. You know his story 'cause it's your story. Frank walks like America -- cock-sure. ... Frank Sinatra. His voice as tight as a fist opening at the end of a bar. Not on the beat, over it, playing with it, splitting it, like a jazz man, like Miles Davis. Turning on the right phrase and the right song -- which is where he lives, where he lets go, where he reveals himself. His songs are his home and he lets you in. But you know that to sing like that you've gotta have lost a couple of fights. To know tenderness and romance you've gotta have had your heart broken...
You soon learned about a man who really was bigger than life because, unlike so many other entertainers, including any number of rock 'n roll poseurs, The Sinatra Way really was a way of authenticity, a non-conformity rooted not in any juvenile desire to be "different" for its own sake, but rather to be exactly what he was, no matter the time or place. When he died, the world seemed to stop: Television and newspaper coverage was incessant, with The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, like many papers throughout the country, publishing enormous keepsake special sections in the days that followed. Philly's WWDB-FM, which used to be a talk station but which also was the flagship for Sid Mark's long-running programs "Fridays with Frank" and "Sundays with Sinatra," cancelled its programming for the entire weekend, instead giving Sid carte blanche to tell old stories and play the old records, with a few updates straight from the family estate in Palm Springs.

All these years later, in trying to recall why, I found myself drawn to the obituary the incomparable Mark Steyn wrote for the London Sunday Telegraph, which Steyn has re-posted on his Web site this week:
If only 20 per cent of the gossip is true, it was an amazing life: Frank delivering two million bucks in an attaché case for mob boss Lucky Luciano; the horse’s head left in an uncooperative producer’s bed; Nancy and Ava and Lana and Marilyn and Lauren and Mia in his bed, being very cooperative, sometimes (Ava and Lana) simultaneously; even towards the end, when ex-wife Mia Farrow told him of her troubles with Woody Allen, Frank sportingly offered to break Woody’s legs. But what’s even more amazing than the life is that the records live up to it, and then some. The swagger and attitude, the chicks and mobsters are the incidental accompaniment; the real drama is in the songs.
Pete Hamill, the legendary New York writer, said at the time that Sinatra's death marked the true end of the 20th century, if only because he figured in it so prominently. Not long after that, Hamill was moved enough to write a book entitled Why Sinatra Matters, which includes the following in its introduction:
He was funny. He was vulnerable. I never saw the snarling bully of the legend. That Frank Sinatra certainly existed; on the day that his death made all those front pages, there were too many people who remembered only his cruelties. But he never showed that side of himself when I was around. On those nights, I was in the company of an intelligent man, a reader of books, a lover of painting and classical music and sports, gallant with women, graceful with men. Perhaps he was just donning a mask in my company, presenting images to a writer so that they would be remembered by the writer in a certain way: a kind of performance. Or perhaps the snarling bully was the true masked character, a clumsy personal invention, and behind the mask there was simply a young man afraid of the world. Or perhaps, by the time I knew him, he had just grown out of his angers, exhausted them, and settled for what he was and the way he was regarded. I don't know. Like all great artists, Frank Sinatra contained secret places, abiding personal mysteries, endless contradictions. On occasion, a curtain would part, there would be a moment of epiphany, and I could see the uncertain older man who wanted to understand what it all meant, the man who said that dying was a pain in the ass. I liked that man very much.
He was a terrific actor, as any number of his films makes plain. But for my money, I like the early scene in Young at Heart, when we first see him standing in Doris Day's doorway, skinny-shouldered and sad-eyed, his hat brim back just so, the camera locked on him for several seconds. It's our introduction to Barney Sloan, a self-described "stumblebum" nightclub singer who was good for a snarky comment or two, but little else. Seeing it all those years after its 1954 release, I couldn't help but feel there was a lot of the real Frank Sinatra in that character, a wiseass dago kid from Hoboken who just happened to make the big time because he had as much balls as he did talent.

But the music, as Steyn has written elsewhere, is "the only reason we’re remotely interested in what broads he’s nailing." His days as a spaghetti-thin crooner who wowed the bobbysoxers while their GI boyfriends and husbands were overseas saving the world from Hitler and Hirohito soon gave way to a voice that gave out on him just as Ava Gardner broke his heart. But he came back, first with his Academy-Award-winning role as Pvt. Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, and then, throughout the 1950s, with a series of recordings that are among the greatest in the popular American songbook. "Like the smoke rings, the loosened collars and pushed-back hat brims of the album covers," Steyn wrote in another context, "it's mere confirmation of what the records tell us already -- that, whether the heady intoxication of Songs for Swingin' Lovers or the bleak resignation of In The Wee Small Hours, these things have happened to him." From then on, he was bigger than big, all the way to the end. In Steyn's obit, he points to Sinatra's ability to phrase a lyric, and while it's true he wrote none of his own songs, he certainly knew how to sing them. I'm especially partial to the sad ones, if only in appreciation of the raw emotion laid bare, as in "It Never Entered My Mind," when he sings the line about having to "order orange juice for one" by placing just the right emphasis on the words "for one" so as to wring every ounce of feeling from them. And just the other day, I again happened upon the rare gem "Everything Happens to Me," which was written by a couple of guys named Tom Adair and Matt Dennis. It concludes with a heartbreaking verse that again would take on a whole different vibe when uttered by some lesser mortal:
Telegraphed and phoned
I sent an air-mail special, too
Your answer was goodbye
And there was even postage due
The best of the books -- aside from Hamill's -- is Bill Zehme's The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and The Lost Art of Livin', published just before Sinatra's death. In it, Zehme expands on a 1996 essay he had written for Esquire: "Men had gone soft and needed help, needed a Leader, needed Frank Sinatra. I wanted to ask him the essential questions, the kind that could save a guy's life. I wanted what might approximate Frank's rules of order." What resulted was an all-encompassing "exploration of the Sinatra mystique" that covers "[m]atters of heart and heartbreak, coolness and swank, friendship and leadership, drinking and cavorting, brawling and wooing, tuxedos and snap-brims..." Of all the wonderful anecdotes, by far the best is the letter-to-the-editor Sinatra wrote to The Los Angeles Times in 1990 after he heard pop star George Michael had been complaining about being a "reluctant" star:
And no more talk about the "tragedy of fame." The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you're singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint that hasn't seen a paying customer since St. Swithin's Day. And you're nowhere near that; you're the top dog on the top rung of a tall ladder called Stardom, which in Latin means thanks-to-the-fans who were there when it was lonely. Talent must not be wasted. Those who have talent -- and you obviously do or Calendar's cover article would have been about Rudy Vallee -- those who have talent must hug it, embrace it, nurture it, and share it, lest it be taken away from you as fast as it was loaned to you. Trust me. I've been there.


mikesielski said...

Great stuff, Domenick. Did you write this entry in the wee small hours?

Anonymous said...

I think he was "Drinking Again" when he wrote it.