He Did It His Way

FRANK SINATRA IS AN OLD MAN, and in recent years he's taken to doing the things old men do. He forgets the words to favorite songs, and he seems to drink more than is good for him. He tells creaky, corny jokes, and sometimes when he's talking he rambles on for too long, until somebody gets the nerve to cut him off. He makes antiquated, off-color remarks and uses unfashionable words like "broad." He keels over in public places, scaring the dickens out of everybody around him. It's not unusual behavior for an 80-year-old, but it doesn't quite suit a legend. In fact, it's starting to embarrass us a little. Sinatra's like an aging uncle we love dearly but dread seeing at Christmas. We just can't predict what he might do. Will he get drunk, or fall off his bar stool? Will he insult Sinead O'Connor or Shirley MacLaine? Worse yet, will he beg us to let him sing in a fractured, failing voice that is perhaps better left unsung?

So, like caring, custodial children, we're nudging him away from the spotlight. As Sinatra milestone hoopla crests in the coming weeks, you'll notice that the man himself has taken an uncharacteristic sideline position. When an ABC concert special airs on Dec. 14 (his official 80th birthday is Dec. 12), an unlikely cross section of Sinatra worshipers from Tony Bennett to Bruce Springsteen to Patti LaBelle will parade across the stage, singing his songs and paying him tribute. Sinatra will be in the audience, sitting back like the grand marshal as the festivities pass him by. For his 75th in 1990, he embarked on a Diamond Jubilee tour that trotted him all over the globe for nearly two years. No such appearances this time around. He hasn't officially retired, but no concerts are scheduled. It's better this way, right? Who can do their job at 80 as well as they did at 40?

When Sinatra the man recedes, the world will have to content itself with Sinatra the legend. And this month is ring-a-ding-dinging with activities befitting a legend. Five years ago, if you had told us that anything could outstrip the three-CD Capitol box set, four-CD Reprise box set and relentless touring that accompanied the 75th, we wouldn't have believed you. Butt his celebration is even more excessive, more exhaustive, more obsessive. Four CDs? Ha. On Nov. 21, Reprise unveils a gargantuan 20-CD, 24-hour, 452-track, $499 extravaganza that packs all Sinatra's 1960-1988 studio recordings plus a 96-page hardcover book into a nifty brassbound trunk. It'll barely fit under the Christmas tree. Columbia has released "The Best of the Columbia Years," a smaller but no less impressive feat of repackaging. Capitol offers "Sinatra 80th: All the Best," a two-CD overview of the most repackaged years of all, 1953 to 1961. "Sinatra 80th: Live in Concert" features a summit with Luciano Pavarotti on "My Way." "Duets" I and II just weren't enough.

And that's just the music. Several new books are on the market, ranging from Will Friedwald's detail-driven musical appreciation "Sinatra! The Song Is You" to No. 1 daughter Nancy Sinatra's cozy, cuddly scrapbook "Frank Sinatra: An American Legend." A syndicated eight-hour radio retrospective will be broadcast from Nov. 18 to Dec. 10. Christie's will auction art and memorabilia on Dec. 1. There's even a Sinatra necktie collection. In case you're not choking already.

The problem is that Sinatra the legend without Sinatra the man just doesn't cut it. The legend is too huge and unwieldy; it encompasses too many songs, too many moods, too many oceans of time. When speaking about Sinatra the legend, it is impossible not to speak in hyperbole. He's bigger than Elvis! Bigger than the Beatles! The most important and influential popular musician of the 20th century! Even Sinatracan't refrain from hyperbole. On "Sinatra 80th: Live in Concert," he introduces "What's New" by calling it "one of the nicest songs, written by a couple of hard-working musicians." "My Heart Stood Still" is "one of the best love stories that anyone could speak or sing." And "Soliloquy" is "one of my favorite pieces of music ever, that ! ever had to sing." What else is there to say? All the 80th-birthday product saturating the market is overwhelming because the career it defines is overwhelming. It took Sinatra a lifetime to create it, and it would take any listener almost that long to listen to it, absorb it and digest it properly.

What helps is that Sinatra, the man, has always been phenomenally good one on one. He reveals himself most plainly in the saloon songs, when it's just him and piano, as in his version of "One for My Baby," from the brilliant 1962 "Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris." When he sings "Can't you make the music easy and sad?" his voice realigns the melody into a descending scale, as if sadness were dragging him down with each step. The 80th-birthday product offers some other, wonderful keys to Sinatra, the person. "The Frank Sinatra Reader" reprints Gay Talese's top-of-the-heap 1966 profile, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." In it Sinatra picks on a guy whose boots he doesn't like, picks on the director of a TV special and generally behaves like a belligerent jerk. But, Talese writes, when he started to sing, "it was suddenly obvious to everybody in the studio that something quite special must be going on inside the man, because something quite special was coming out."

And that massive new Reprise trunk set is a trophy you won't be able to resist. It moves from the exquisite, Nelson Riddle highs of"Summer Wind" to the goofy, misfired lows of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," but fishing between those extremes one can puzzle together a portrait of the singer in complex, later life.

Yet all of these are mere approximations. A black-and-white photograph, no matter how beautifully tinted; a classic recording, no matter how pristinely remastered; a televised image, no matter how electrifying, will never replace the drama and emotion of seeing Sinatra in person, in the flesh, present. Maybe it's because he's not of the video age, maybe it's because he predated the digital revolution. But technology doesn't do him justice. When Sinatra appears on stage, a whole world that he helped create--a world of swing bands and ballroom dances, of New York glamour and Vegas cool, of casual grace and unguarded romance--shakes around inside him like a potion and spills out into the air through his voice. You can hear it on his records, you can see it in the pictures, but you can only feel it, taste it, bask in it when he's there in the room with you. The shimmer can't be replicated or manufactured. When Sinatra stops singing, it will fade from the air, and we won't be able to get it back.

Which is why maybe we need to adjust our patronizing attitude toward the elder Sinatra. Because even when he forgets a line, even when his voice skips and rasps like a scratchy old record, he has never once performed without leaving that shimmer in the air. In fact, Sinatra is proving himself to be a very remarkable older man. "When I heard Sinatra sing 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?' at the Meadow-lands," Tony Bennett says, "he actually went deeper than any time I've ever heard him. Some people say he doesn't have the vocal equipment. OK. But Michelangelo left things out of his last great statues, and when you look at them, you participate in what was left out. Your eyes fill in the spots. All of a sudden, all you feel is soul." Sinatra's soul is staring straight at us.

He Did It His Way | News