Remembering Frank

Article excerpt

MUCH OF WHAT'S BEEN WRITTEN ABOUT FRANK SINATRA smacks of the sexism with which the singer was associated, especially the endlessly repeated declaration that he was "the greatest popular singer of all time." The rhetorical frenzy inevitably associated with the passing of an artist of genius frequently assumes the character of that artist's best or worst traits. For instance, tributes to Ella Fitzgerald were testimonials to her godlike elegance, disinterestedness, and intelligence. She was the platonic ideal of American song; her distinct lack of vulgar ego inspired the same in her eulogists. The elevation of personal preference into absolutist dictum, in Frank's case, has everything to do with gender, race, and class: He was a rich, powerful, macho white guy, so naturally he's the greatest ever, blah, blah, blah. Tiresome.

Accompanying this process of apotheosis, whereby the Chairman of the Board becomes Master of the Universe, is a near-universal acknowledgment that the guy was an insufferable bastard. In most of what I've read, the implication is clear: His glorious music proves that there's something redeemable in rich white bastards, a contention with which I take serious issue. An ardent fan of Richard Wagner and Ezra Pound, I am accustomed to admiring the work of deeply shitty people, for God sometimes makes real monsters who happen to be great artists. Sinatra's heartbreaking "Willow Weep for Me" no more redeems right-wing, skirt-chasing boozehounds as a group than the Cantos redeem right-wing, paranoiac racists (redundant, that). Whether those recordings redeem this particular boozehound is a question for theologists; there are, after all, nine circles of hell, and maybe one of the more comfortable ones has a spot reserved for Frank. The lower, more unpleasant circles are reserved for the presidents with whom the singer has been recently associated. Sinatra's personality changes for the worse were concurrent with the deterioration of the righteousness of his politics. When he was young and dazzling, he was the son of Dolly Sinatra the Hoboken abortionist; he supported FDR, campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, and sang "The House I Live In." He was a skirt-chasing boozehound when he made his greatest recordings but still a Democrat and a proponent of civil rights; nevertheless, a myopic, self-pitying despair begins to settle in. Sinatra's talent and taste didn't desert him till he started campaigning for Nixon and dancing with Nancy Reagan, after which, for the first time in his recording career, he started to sound dated, corny, unsubtle, caricature-macho, less and less like himself, and more and more like his seedy imitators. …