This week’s This American Life pays homage to Frank Sinatra. Had he lived, Sinatra would have turned 100 on December 12. The singer died in 1998 at age 82, having lived through most of a century he helped define.
The episode is a pastiche of material This American Life has broadcast before. Most of the program comes from an episode aired in 1997. Judging from these segments, This American Life in its early years—the show has aired since 1995—was less adventurous in its production techniques than it is today. Two of the longest segments are simply authors reading aloud excerpts from writing they’ve done on Sinatra. For an example of This American Life’s relative technical ingenuity today, see our recent review of “Regrets, I’ve Had a Few”—an episode from 2014 that, incidentally, takes its title from Sinatra’s song “My Way”.
To listen to an old-school This American Life episode about an old-school singer is to enter an archive of sounds and impressions that earlier generations took for granted as utterly contemporary, even cutting-edge, but which now seem exemplars of sonic simplicity, devoid of special effects or gutsy production. The episode, with its old-fashioned production, and Sinatra, with his saloon crooning, ply the listener with melodies and conversations of a different time. The listener in 2015 can reflect on folks from the 1990s reflecting in turn on a man whose heyday was the 1960s.
The effect the episode gives of entering a time capsule is at its most poignant in act one. The act features Gay Talese reading from his article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966). I assume that most young people today will have heard of Frank Sinatra, but it’s likely that many people just a few years younger than me—even people who want to enter journalism—have never read Talese. Talese’s achievement in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was to create a nuanced, gripping portrait of Sinatra without ever interviewing the star directly. Sinatra declined to talk to him, so Talese instead focused on Sinatra’s inner circle.
The article, a pathbreaking example of New Journalism, continues to exert literary influence. It was a crucial template for Marlon James’s recent Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), which hovers around Bob Marley in a similar fashion. Talese, for me, represents a moment when “innovation” in journalism referred to literary innovation, not to surmising schemes for digital profit models. He, not just Sinatra, is an icon of a generation that now seems long past.
Act two offers a welcome turn away from biography toward music criticism. In a segment from the 1997 episode, the writer Sarah Vowell issues a plea to television newscasters. She urges them: please, do not commemorate Sinatra’s death with his song “My Way”. Aside from the unsavoriness of dwelling on obituary newscasts for someone who—at the time—was still alive, the segment impresses with its analysis of some of Sinatra’s tunes. If Vowell’s subdued, nasal voice sounds familiar, it might be because she voiced Violet in The Incredibles (2005). The third act also attempts some musical analysis, but it flits by in three minutes, almost before the listener can get his bearings.
The fourth act features Michael Ventura reading from his novel The Death of Frank Sinatra (1996). The excerpt has an evocative description of Sinatra singing as an old man, his voice raspy and worn:
“[O]n a high note, the voice cracked. And for an instant, the music soured and the audience flinched as one person. But instead of retreating from that bad sound, Sinatra leaned into it. Sinatra bent the note further into a jazz-like harmony.
And then instead of softening after the mistake, Sinatra held the new note longer and louder, as though diving into it, then took a quick breath and sang the next note, louder still, and fuller, until seamlessly for several bars, it was the voice of 30 or 40 years ago—full and unfettered, resonant and suggestive. Until, again, it began to crack. And again, he used the cracking to modulate back into the voice and style of the old man—on pitch, but raw, one note per beat, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes just off it—keeping the performance tense until, on the last note, the young man’s voice returned, as though saluting the old man who sang it.”
The run of the sentences bends and winds much as we imagine Sinatra’s voice doing. The account recasts an experience all music-listeners will have had: the ambivalence we feel toward a harsh note, a rasping voice, a raw minor chord. These rough notes are where some of vocal art’s most expressive moments are found, in part because they remind us that the voice we hear is embodied and therefore somewhat fragile.
The final act tells the story of two East Village neighbors that began to give impromptu Sinatra concerts. One man’s interpretation of Sinatra bewitched not only his neighbors; it also enchanted the local police. Instead of shutting down the singing for noise violations, a police cruiser requested “Summer Wind” through a megaphone.
What to say of an episode whose two strongest segments are authors reading their work aloud? Ventura’s excerpt is worth listening to in audio: his voice winds and wavers like the Sinatra he describes, and it is unlikely many listeners would want to read his mystery novel in full. And the episode’s rich panoply of Sinatra tunes will remind many listeners of songs they haven’t heard since childhood. But for a retrospective on Sinatra’s life and work the episode is lacking. For one, no segment mentions Sinatra’s career as an actor: he won an Oscar for his performance in the Pearl Harbor drama From Here to Eternity (1953). Although the snippets of songs are well-chosen, and Glass’s assessment of Sinatra’s public image—“half tough guy, half sentimental saloon singer”—astute, I found myself longing to turn off the radio and simply read Talese’s Sinatra profile instead.
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