C'mon In

Thoughts, remarks, links, ideas, & notes on music, film, culture, friendship, love, sex, literature, sports, women, wine--from my mind and the minds of many others. Add your own...

Monday, September 21, 2009

The House I Lived In: Frank Sinatra & His Music

It seems like Frank Sinatra and his music are more alive today than when he was actually with us. TV shows, remastered re-issued cds, Vegas tributes and now a Twyla Tharp Broadway revue featuring his music called "Come Fly With Me"--Frank is everywhere these days. Loved, revered and admired for his tough, take no crap attitude and of course all the wondrous music.

It's nothin' new to me. Frank's always been in my house or in my head. Growing up, Sinatra’s music filled my house. As a boy I recall the presence of his voice being a symptom of good times--parties, Saturday nights, perfume and cigarettes, cuff links sweeping down to pat my hair. People briefly at the top of their game. Certain songs--”Fly Me To The Moon,” “Tangerine,” “Where Or When”--still evoke the fragile good fortune that comes with familial and social blessing. Sinatra is so laden with family emotion and generational demarcation that writing about him has seemed daunting.

In my adolescence, Sinatra became all that was square and phony: anathema to the counterculture, actually now the dominant rock and roll culture. When compared to rock’s songwriters, songwriters like Gershwin, Porter, Van Huesen, Cahn and Kern seemed like Tin Pan Alley irrelevance. That's what we thought anyway. It was not the only thing I was wrong about. I now know that the Sinatra songbook, particularly the songs of Cole Porter, represent stylized imagination at its most refined. Genius is often one word where there once were eight. And the currency of timeless work is in tackling the big subjects: Love, Death, Aging, Faith and Loneliness.

Anyway, my father hated rock and I hated Frank. Our stalemate was beautifully balanced. I’m not entirely sure when the thaw came, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I can’t believe how much the old man has learned in the last few years. There are still some things that can put a young listener off on Sinatra--his mythical meanness, his ribbing of Sammy Davis in the Rat Pack days (which was extremely misleading; Sinatra was an ardent civil rights activist), his clumsy interpretation of rock songs (in George Harrison’s “Something” Frank sings, “You stick around, Jack, it may show”), his punchy sentimentality, his ultimate descent into self parody. (All of the greats, with their style once so powerfully fresh and seminal, seem to eventually erode into self parody.)

Like many of this century’s great artists Sinatra is highly enigmatic. James Isaacs points out in his liner notes to Sinatra In Paris that there’s an artistic schizophrenia attendant to Sinatra’s genius: There is Sinatra--an artist worthy of mention in the same breath as Picasso and Casals--and Frank--everybody’s Pal Joey, the King of the Ring-A-Ding-Ding, in Dave Marsh’s words “the original Gangsta rapper.” It’s the difference between his singing voice, that cello-like instrument sustaining rosewood notes and romantic dreams of The Love, and his speaking voice, which is never more than a few short blocks from Hoboken via Las Vegas.

The cocky swagger fronts the bruised feelings--That's Frank. My father has always said that Sinatra achieved his tone from having his vocal cords stomped on, from getting kicked around. Sinatra was washed up a bit at 38, between recording contracts, singing poorly, divorced and hopelessly in love with Ava Gardner, not working as much as he had in his “Voice” period.

There’s little question that he went on to become the greatest interpretive singer we’ve ever heard. It was Frank who perpetrated the macho myth; Sinatra, on the other hand, lived to sing. He never condescended to his audience. Instead he increasingly valued his audience and moved closer to it as he aged. He eventually transcended popular culture completely and made age and enduring--rock’s great enemies--his most potent subject, save love.

I have a bootleg of Frank, Dean and Sammy at Sam Giancana’s club in Chicago, the Villa Venice, in November of 1962. The height of their powers. It’s hilarious, poignant, utterly embarrassing and totally dated--great period piece farce. Any good singing, even any respect for the audience’s expectations, are secondary to boozing. Out of the blue a woman, a fan from Milwaukee, hesitantly approaches the stage. Says she drove all night and can’t she please hear a serious song? Martin tells her to buy an album. Much laughter. Frank, meaner, mockingly offers her bus fare home. When she insists on hearing “Nancy” there’s an enormous sea change: Frank becomes Sinatra.

Along with “Night and Day,” “Nancy (With The Laughing Face)” was something of a charmed talisman for Sinatra; he would eventually record it four times before retiring. But on this night he becomes contrite, shuts Dean and the crowd up, calls her request “fair and reasonable” and proceeds to kill the song. Not a dry eye in the house. Frank knew where his bread was buttered; Sinatra loved his audience and had the goods to reach both their hearts and souls.

Ironically, Sinatra actually hurried the demise of the big bands he loved so much by ensuring that the front man was the focal point of the performance. It’s what he did with the projection of language that kills me, even after much hard-headed analysis. Instead of using melisma or even “sung” syllables, Sinatra developed a legato conversational quality that emphasized meaning as much, if not more, than melody. In another irony, it was this quality of Sinatra’s that then paved the way for rock’s great lyrical expressionists--Dylan, Lennon and Joni Mitchell. When they first showed up, Frank hated ‘em. Same with Elvis. By the late 60s he was doing TV with Elvis and regularly recording rock related material.

Every singer--really anybody who sings--marvels at Sinatra’s physical gifts. It’s been said that his jaw has a certain shape that accounts for some unusual projection of sound, etc. One thing is true. When he sang, nothing but sound came from his mouth; that is, very little breath or forced vibrato accompanied the full voice. In this sense his instrument was much like a cello--a brandy soaked tone reflected from wood and string.

Sinatra also did much to invent the concept album, an innovation usually associated with Sgt. Pepper or Tommy. While at Capitol in the 50s he alternated humongous concoctions of swing--Songs For Young Lovers (1954) Come Dance With Me (1959)--with sad song cycles like In The Wee Small Hours and Where Are You? 1958's Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely is simply one of the finest collection of mood songs ever recorded. “What’s New,” “Angel Eyes,” “One For My Baby” and “Blues In The Night” all on one record. Of course much credit goes to a trio of brilliant arrangers--Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and the unmatched Nelson Riddle--for this amazing emotional range over the years.

After starting Reprise Records in 1961, Sinatra had one unqualified triumph, 1965's September Of My Years, and a late 60s string of very interesting failures. But it’s the love songs we’ll forever expect--no, need--from Sinatra. Love songs are becoming a scarce commodity today. And no one sings of the Big Love anymore, that nostalgic notion that says that action is larger than intent.

My father used to tell me, once a day it seems like now, to TURN THAT GUITAR DOWN and get a hair cut, put on a tux and make a livin’ singing Sinatra songs on cruise ships. And my buddies and I would drag our ass into the garage, turn up the guitars and laugh at how short sighted and unhip he was. Now I call up the old man and he’s listening to my own record in the background. I’ve been trying to get him to listen to some of these remastered Sinatra cds for almost six months. I can’t get him to listen, can’t get him to talk about how great Frank is. He wants to talk about rock & roll or my music, of all things. Our stalemate remains beautifully balanced.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The GM Bankruptcy and the Failed Promise: Next Time Kiss Me First

In Detroit in the fall of 2009, to be pissed off or scared is nearly the norm--and I'm not alone. Like many of the 122,000 salaried GM retirees (and their wives, husbands and children) who are in the process of getting comprehensively screwed by what is or was General Motors, the US government, and the US bankruptcy court in the Southern District of New York that's handling the GM bankruptcy, I'm bitter.

Nearly thirty years ago, my father, a GM employee until he retired in 1989, received a life insurance policy from GM as a form of compensation. It's something he was proud of, something that gave him real peace of mind over the years.

Last week, at 85 and in poor health, he received a letter from GM and the newly-involved Met Life insurance company stating that the entire policy was cancelled immediately, although he could re-apply within 31 days to pay his own premiums for an individual policy of up to $100,000. The monthly premium for that amount--a fraction of his long-held existing policy--would be $847 a month. Not possible for most folks, let alone a widower on a pension. And it comes with another lovely little clause: if he were to die within two years of initiating this policy, the only benefits paid out would be the collected premiums, not the $100,000.

Going off an actuarial table that I found at the Social Security Administration website, if an 85 year old man were to actually buy the full amount of the policy he held for all those years, premiums would be more than $45,000 for a single year. Then, consider that term life insurance policies hold no cash value, and that the actuarial tables show a one-year mortality rate for 85-year olds of about 11%. The bottom line, as corporate lemmings like to say, is this: There is not enough -- and there was never going to be enough -- money in the so-called bail-out to pay for any sustained period of time for the impacted retirees and their beneficiaries. When it comes to the bail-out, the bankers got theirs, the insurance giants got theirs, but the auto companies and their employees got theirs from behind.

This is of course morally reprehensible. Disgusting. Had he known 35 years ago that this would happen to his policy in his late years, he surely would've bought adequate life insurance along the way. That opportunity is now ripped away from him, gone. My mother passed away in 2008, so this next disturbing aspect is not an issue with our family. But the question looms: What of the thousands of other men and women of his age who are GM retirees who will now leave elderly spouses and impaired dependents penniless upon their own death?

My dad epitomizes the Greatest Generation. He was a lieutenant in the Air Force during WWII, came home, went to MSU, married and began a family. He then worked at the GM Assembly plant in Flint after the war, on the floor, before returning to his hometown of Saginaw to run the credit arm for Draper Chevrolet for many years. He's always been a car man, and he gave the auto trade his life. He began working as a salaried GM employee in Trenton, NJ in 1971, and stayed there for several years before being promoted to Detroit in the early 80s, where he oversaw a field team of 15 lobbyists working in the country's state capitals. He retired in 1989.

He was raised with a sense of obligation toward his community. You got involved and aligned your own ambition with the common welfare of your place and your people. He was the mayor of Saginaw from 1962-'66, nominated the city's first black mayor, and twice ran for State Senate. He was President of the Michigan Municipal League. While at GM, he aggressively and successfully fought for our current seat belt laws.
So when I think of my dad, I think of someone who always treated life as a progressive, optimistic adventure. He loves America and believed in and loved every minute of his GM work life. To him, life was a grand experience, to give in to the cliché, a journey of possibilities. I know few people more beloved by others than my dad, and it's probably because I've never known a better listener. His manner is to always inquire about your welfare, rarely talk of himself—and listen. His life has been made up of people of all walks, all means, all creeds, and colors. He lived his life not as he found it, but as he made it happen.

He grew up on the east side of Saginaw in the 20s & 30s, a place that formed his values and convictions But as he aged, he accepted the world’s change, and found in himself the ability to change, to think less conventionally, to think broadly about things he once thought were absolute. I think of him as someone who held in his heart the fire’s center. Someone who was alive–alive with talk, alive with faith, alive with friendship, alive with responsibility, wanting many things at the same time, always saying the reassuring thing, ambitious while still being someone you could count on, always.

And even if he thought his life to be at times too hard or frustrating, he never shared that desperation; he kept on greeting the good and the bad with the same face. And when things were really good, and he was at GM in its best days, he never lost his common touch. And when things were really bad, he did that hardest thing, and put his head down and took care of his family while maintaining his dignity.

Now it's really tough however. His health care has been decreased as well, but not eliminated in full. Amid all the recent bailout billions, banking loans, insurance industry debt forgiven, and exorbitant bonuses paid to men and women who performed poorly, something like this is being done to a man like my dad, and thousands like him. After believing things were one way for more than 30 years, to find that you're uninsured and not feeling well is very much akin to the Bernard Madoff situation, which was considered the crime of the century. And the government is finding money for those plaintiffs! Is the GM Bankruptcy also a crime?

It was, of course, the members of President Obama's task force who forced this--a result that said such costs would not be supported any longer. And it was Obama's resolution that said that public resistance, from the likes of Rick Waggoner, would be met by getting kicked to the curb (which he was, and quickly). Now that the political will has been shown to cut off these costs (and with precious little blow-back from anyone anywhere), it's not as if there will be political will to restore them. So I hold President Obama and Treasury Secretary Geithner accountable in this, for their lack of vision, and lack of concern.

It won't be GM, and it won't be the government, and it won't be Met Life, but possibly there's enough in something called the Motors Liquidation Corporation till to do something for these retirees. Or, there may one day be a class action settlement on all this, but it will be well after my dad's gone, and will likely be next to worthless, pennies on the dollar. There's no legal recourse, no answer from congressmen I've contacted, no answer from Met Life or GM. New GM (GM Reinvention) doesn't want to know about "old" GM--that's also very clear.

This last generation of GM corporate leaders, from Waggoner, Bob Lutz and John Smith on down, should be held directly accountable, their hundreds of millions in bonuses made conspicuous in comparison to the retirees' losses. In fact I hold the last generation of GM leaders responsible for the litany of failure that crushed GM, once the safest bet in the world: the Fiat fiasco, the bungling of the Oldsmobile shutdown, the Aztec, the Hummer, the disastrous end to the original Electric Vehicle program, and of course the poor financial planning that ultimately left the company far too vulnerable to the events of the past year.

A Michigan-based group called the GM Retirees Association hired a San Francisco law firm to bring their cause before the Bankruptcy Court, with no success. As their lead counsel said to me yesterday, "The first thing we learn in law school is that very few wrongs in this world are actually redressed."

The beautiful go blameless, part XXIV.