Perfect Sound Forever


Frankie the crooner Frankie in the movies

Emily XYZ (July 1997)

People who have heard my 2-voice poem Sinatra Walks Out sometimes ask me what have I got against Frank Sinatra. In the poem, I try to reconcile how the same person can be such an obvious genius and such an obvious shithead, or, "How can anyone so wretched sing so well?"

The answer is probably somewhere in that decrepit old armoire labelled "How We Think of Art-Making." We think of art-making as this sublime, uplifiting, transformative process. Which it is - for the artist. But for everyone else, an artist making art is more like a hyena eating a dog. There's nothing to do but get out of the way til it's finished. Take a bath or take a trip, depending on the deadline because, as my writer friend Mike Tyler says, "Human beings feel sad, art-makers make art."

Most artists know the coldness of the nucleus around which their talent spins. Some warn innocent people away, like Lon Chaney, Jr. in the old Wolfman movies. Others isolate themselves rather than subject people to the appalling selfishness that artistic output requires. Then there are those who, either out of sheer perversity or their own neurotic needs, act like jerks and just expect everyone else to put up with it. And everyone does, usually in proportion to the artist's perceived talent or profitability. It is in this category that we find Frank Sinatra - and ourselves, the rest of the world. We put up with him on account of he's so good.

By rights, Sinatra should have been gone a long time ago. God knows he's offensive enough. Yet the 20th century has produced no more sublime vocalist (well, Billie Holiday...). That's why he's still around. Yes, he annoys us. But he makes the stupid, loser moments of life more resonant, more complex, more painful and scarier and way more profound than any of us (especially us Americans) like to admit.

How does he do it? Why is Sinatra the artist so dear to us, even though Sinatra the person is so repellant? This is the thing about a great artist. He twists you one way then the other, and you marvel at how different the world looks from your odd, uncomfortable position. He kicks you, and you're glad to know you're alive enough to feel pain.

With Sinatra, even the silliest song could become a kind of musical ambush. He could strip a tune down or pump it up until it took on a shape he liked, one he could occupy, like an empty house built just for him. Some songs he occupies so thoroughly nobody's voice will ever get in there again ("They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Just One of Those Things," the almost surreal "My Blue Heaven," etc., etc.)

To achieve this, he would sometimes alter the structure of a song. For example, many old tunes have vestigial "intros" that used to link them to the musical they were once part of, and act as a kind of justification for bursting into song in the first place. They used to be considered part of the song. Tony Bennett still likes to sing them. For example, this gentle logic precedes the great Harold Arlen tune, "I've Got the World on a String":

The merry month of May, sunny skies of blue
Clouds have blown away and the sun bursts through may express Happiness;
Joy you may define in a thousand ways
but a case like mine needs a special phrase to reveal how I feel

Quite reasonable, right? Guy tells you that his feelings are sufficiently unusual to warrant some extraordinary expression, then he sings the song. But charming as it is, the intro also delays the song's impact, especially once the song is separated from its dramatic context. Sinatra recognized this, so he hacked off all the intros from the versions he sang.

The result allowed even an old-fashioned tune to become streamlined and modern-sounding. Instead of persuasion to kick off "I've Got The World on a String," we get Nelson Riddle's cascading violins, a thoughtful little upturning clarinet, and then Sinatra's right there:

I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow
got the string around my finger
what a world, what a life, I'm in love-

a couple of horn hits and then bang! We are off. No justification needed beyond the song itself and the cool arrangement, and no bullshitting around. This was the kind of macho musical move that endeared Sinatra to men almost more than women. The way Sinatra sang a love song never made you feel like a fool for being in love.

I could go on and on, but I think the point is made. I listen to Sinatra practically every day, partly because I have a lifetime goal of learning every song ever written (at least the ones in English), but mostly because...he's a great artist. And I like that peculiar, uncomfortable view. And if that ain't love...

Frank in the '90s

Emily XYZ is a NYC writer/performer whose poems for 2 voices have been featured on PBS's United States of Poetry. Her first CD, Electric Magistrate, is coming out on Mouth Almighty/Mercury records next year. She and her longtime reading partner Myers Bartlett will perform at the Soho Arts festival in Manhattan in September.

Also see our 2011 Sinatra/Rat Pack article

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER