observations and opinion
It was a cold Fall and the apartment was freezing. By the mattress on the floor, a space heater buzzed out orange warmth and the threat of an electrical fire. Albums were stacked up against the wall. Bedclothes, and other clothes, spilled out across the room.
Saturday morning was bleary-eyed and juiced with black coffee. I would go to the corner for bread. She would put some olive oil in the pan, then layer it with slices of tomato, onion and maybe peppers. It sizzled for a minute and then she’d break eggs open on top, carefully glooping them in with yolks intact.
After a few minutes of steaming on the stove, sprinkled with pepper and salt, the eggs would be ready. She’d cut the messy deliciousness into pie-like slices and drop it on our plates, with a chunk of bread. We sat at her ancient formica table, poking the crusty loaf into the yolky mess of it.
But it was never just the two of us, because there was always Frank. I was a “mangia cake” for sure, but Frankie, he was truly paisan. Her eyes glistened with laughing tears, when she played Sinatra’s wretched cover of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm.” But that was just the goofy, crazy ironic kind of thing young people always find. The real treasures weren’t buried too deep.
Decades have passed since then. Frank passed too. On this cold, clear December morning we mark his 100th birthday. A Century since The Voice, Old Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board, leapt out into the world. I bet on the day he was born, Baby Sinatra was already looking for an angle, you know?
Sinatra’s life was like a century in itself: it had booms, busts, wars, times of peace. He lived at the apogee of the American Century, was in many ways the physical embodiment of 20th Century Americanism: wily, talented, ambitious, generous, selfish, materialistic, painfully romantic, burning with energy and lust for life. Frank was a Democrat and a Republican.
Frank could be bombastic or beautiful, modest yet menacing: a sinful saint. No, he was of a more a saintly sinner. His eyes flashed with anger and shone with tears. And he owned the coolest house ever, at Palm Springs.
Sinatra was an actor, from the beginning, looking for a part. He found it. And the other thing is, Sinatra could sing. He had a good voice, but he was a great, great singer.
Like most of his fans, I associate Sinatra with the ebbs, flows, agonies and ecstasies of my life. There are too many Frank Sinatra recordings, even to make a list of the great or the best. I’ve been listening to the guy my whole life, so here’s my arbitrary and imperfect set of suggestions:
In the Wee Small Hours the whole album. Frank works through the agony of a great love gone very, very wrong. “What is this thing called love?” he asks, “this funny thing, called love. Just who can solve its mystery, and why does it make a fool of me?”
This Love of Mine is an old-fashioned, truly tragic song. He is rich with love and romance, aching to surrender it, but she doesn’t want it.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is a perfect example of Sinatra’s work. The song says what it says, but he infuses it with a reluctant sorrow: sure, it will be merry. Sure it will. Now pour me another drink.
My Funny Valentine stands out because it is technically perfect: the arrangement, the phrasing, the voice matched to the words riding along the melody. This is a song that has to be deadly serious or it’s silly. Deadly serious with Sinatra.
Strangers in the Night was Frank’s last real big hit. One day when I was maybe six years old, at one of those restaurant table mini juke-boxes, I plopped in nickel after nickel re-playing it, over and over and over again. Until my old man finally said “enough!”
The Summer Wind. A gem from the Nelson Riddle era. An amazing, swinging arrangement. You can feel the heat in the breeze. I danced with a girl one night to this. It was the start of something good. Brief but good.
What Is this Thing, Called Love? Just because it’s beautiful. Sweet horns, melancholy but masculine. Cole Porter’s lyric is sweet, but a little angry too.
Songs for Swinging Lovers the uptempo Riddle album masterpiece to counter the sorrow and gloom of “Wee Small Hours.” I did “I’ve Got You Under my Skin” at a friend’s wedding, long ago. They’re divorced, but the song lives on.
Only the Lonely is the saddest damned song there is, pretty well. Listen to his voice, the phrasing, the way he fills each syllable with musicality and toughness. The whole album (“Frank Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely”) is melancholy and blue, but stirring in its beauty, like dusk on winter night when the sky turns silver before falling dark.
If you find love, hang on to each caress
And never let love go
For when it's gone, you'll know the loneliness
the heartbreak only, the lonely know
All the Way. Recorded in the later part of his real recording career, when Frank began belting and barking a bit. But this anthemic piece is ideal for that voice, announcing what every great Sinatra song says: I’m all in, baby! The whole enchilada!
Finally, if you want to listen to something about Frank Sinatra, tune your ears to This American Life, Episode #54 .
Life gives us a lot, and takes a lot from us. Frank Sinatra is someone who got back all that he gave, and gave life everything.
Who knows where the road will lead us?
Only a fool can say
But if you let me love you, it’s for sure I’m gonna love you
All the way, all the way
And finally, a nod to Frank’s famous assault on religious bigotry in his short film, “The House I Live In”