Frank Sinatra: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer

By Nelson, Michael | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Frank Sinatra: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer


Nelson, Michael, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Enter any music store and ask for the Frank Sinatra section and you can expect two surprises, one obvious, the other less so. The obvious surprise is how many bins of Sinatra compact discs and audiocassettes you will find. Music stores are not museums-they stock what sells. Web sites are a bit more eclectic, but even so it's a bit startling to enter "frank sinatra" into the "Search" box at, say, Amazon.com and learn that 256 musical items are available for purchase, along with 117 books and 144 videos. To be sure, Sinatra was a prolific and commercially successful musician who had hit records in each of seven consecutive decades, beginning with the 1930's. But, even so, this is 1999, a good year after his death. And unlike Elvis, unlike Hendrix, unlike Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, Sinatra was not young when he died: he was 82 years old.

The other, less obvious surprise that awaits the Sinatra hunter in a music store is where his records are kept. They are in the rack called "Easy Listening," just east of Henry Mancini and just west of the Fred Waring Singers. The assumption seems to be that anything your parents or grandparents listened to when they were young, before the advent of rock, was easy on the ears. But could anything be less easy, more unsettling than hearing Sinatra sing "One for My Baby" or "When Your Lover Has Gone," music that he called "saloon songs" and that critics described as "suicide music"? In these songs and in many others like them, Sinatra sang about life at the bottom of the abyss. He always sounded like he lived there.

No one could sing of loneliness better than Frank Sinatra-- unrequited love, love gone wrong, love lost. Observers without number, noting the contrast between Sinatra's life-always tempestuous and sometimes violent-and his tender, evocative, and sensitive singing, have wondered with the novelist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison "whether his life springs from one set of impulses and needs and his work from another, whether. . . Francis Albert Sinatra-a man bruised and bruising-is so divided as to be crazy." In truth, not madness but loneliness is the key to understanding Sinatra, both the man, who dreaded solitude yet so often felt alone in the entourages with which he surrounded himself and the audiences before whom he performed, and the musician. Even his songs of joy-and no one could express unbounded happiness more thrillingly in his singing than Sinatra-were manifestations of his fundamental loneliness. Just as the athlete who crouches the lowest can jump the highest, so could the singer who sank most deeply into despair express the exhilaration of temporary release from the demons that plagued him more convincingly than anyone else.

II

The wellspring of the great river of loneliness that ran through Frank Sinatra's life is not hard to find: he was an only child in a first-generation Italian-American family. Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, a city densely populated with immigrant Catholics of one ethnicity or another, in 1915, long before American Catholics had come to regard birth control as an acceptable (or even an available) option. Virtually every kid in the neighborhood was one of five or six or nine; Francis Albert, almost uniquely, was alone. The journalist Pete Hamill, in his research for Why Sinatra Matters, found that "Old-timers from Hoboken would remember him later as a lonely boy, standing in the doorway of his grandmother's building, watching life go by without him." Sinatra himself told Hamill, "I used to wish I had an older brother that could help me when I needed him. I wished I had a younger sister I could protect." It could not have helped that his parents had wanted a girl instead of a boy.

To make matters more exceptional (and worse) for the young Sinatra, not only did his father work long hours, so did his mother. Dolly Sinatra was a leading cog in the Hudson County political machine of Frank (I Am the Mayor) Hague.

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