Frank Sinatra 1915-1998

THE LAST CROONER

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra's death at 82--almost everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra's absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We're mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded ''All or Nothing at All'' with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the ''good war'' and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll--in short, the generation that spawned the '60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

There was not much difference--you could look it up--between media coverage of Sinatra's passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby's was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead--we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don't give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music--he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like ''bachelor,'' ''divorcée,'' ''illegitimate child.'' The revival of '50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra's artistry will outlive it--but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don't believe it, buy a tricornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey's band to lay siege to the Paramount--the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn't recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was--intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor--the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase--was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality--what can you do in a faint?

The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette's, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. ''I Fall in Love Too Easily,'' one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn's lyric is characteristically simple:

    I fall in love too easily.

    I fall in love too fast.

    I fall in love too terribly hard

    For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer's dramatic plight. We're in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince's betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. ''E strano,'' he sighs, and sings, ''I fall in love too easily.'' The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra's skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words--so simple, so obvious, so why can't everyone do it?

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