A Very Good 80 Years: Frank Sinatra's Birthday

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As of December 12, 1995, Frank Sinatra is eighty. And that may be one of the most poignant lead sentences I've ever written.

The celebrations, the hype, the hagiography are in place: deluxe CD sets from Reprise, Capitol, and Columbia; an ABC special aired December 14 with-well-everybody (Tony Bennett, Springsteen, Patti Labelle, etc.) doing Sinatra's signature songs; three-story billboards of Ol'Blue Eyes have been erected along Fifth Avenue in New York, the city of which Sinatra, at his zenith, was virtually an incarnation. He's already received the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan; but don't be surprised if Bill and Hillary find some way of crashing the party (it's election year, after all--and publicly honoring Francis Albert can't, you know, hurt).

What strikes me most about it all, though, is, as I said, the poignancy. Frank Sinatra--Frank Sinatra!--is eighty. It's lovely that he's still with us, that he actually carried the ball all the way downfield, and that he did it--the phrase will be repeated nauseatingly in weeks to come--his way. And yet underneath all the octogenarian adulation, you sense a rather unique melancholy. Somehow--I don't know any other way to say this--it shouldn't be. It's okay if you get old or if I get old: we expect that, we even, bitterly, hope to. It's not okay for our icons (and if Sinatra isn't an icon, then it's a null set): their aging, oddly more than our own, underscores the irreversibility of time's arrow, measures how far we've come since we first heard or saw them.

Thinking about Sinatra at eighty, I've been thinking about Hopkins's "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child." Addressing little Margaret, who's sad at the falling of the leaves, the poet concludes, "It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for."

At least three generations of Americans slow-danced and, with luck, made out with this guy's voice in the background. They got all hot and dewyeyed to the skinny, winsome kid in the bow tie who sang with Tommy Dorsey; or to the hip, knowing fellow with the jauntily-tilted fedora in the fifties; or the tux-clad, increasingly portly and raspy Vegas showman. And they saw the movies: from the gawky but affecting performance in On the Town to the genius of From Here to Eternity and The Man with the Golden Arm to the self-indulgent silliness of Von Ryan's Express and Dirty Dingus McGee. Some dummy is bound to call him "larger than life." Wrong: as with Cagney or Ellington or Astaire, we cherish him because his career is part of the topography of our lives. A recovering technophobe, I bought my first CD player only in 1990. And--though I would never have described myself as a Sinatra fan--the first CD I bought was, inevitably, his 1956 masterpiece, Songs for Swingin' Lovers. "Inevitably," because I could think of no other all-but-perfect single anthology of American popular song at its greatest.

Forget the films, even the fine ones. And forget the tantrums, the excesses, the Cosa Nostra connections, the goofy politics--all the stuff that Kitty Kelley detailed in her biography, His Way. Forget it at least for a moment, and remember the singer.

Novelist Ishmael Reed once said, visiting my class, that he would rather have written the lyrics to "Stardust" than any of his own books. The students were shocked (had they, I wondered, heard the damn song?), but Ishmael was being honest. After the explosion that was rock 'n' roll, we're only beginning to realize that American song in the thirties and forties was and is one of the supreme accomplishments of our culture, that the work of Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart shines with as great a brilliance as, say, the sonnets of Wyatt, Surrey, and Sidney. …