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SEEING IT HIS WAY : Sinatra's Perfect Artistry Outweighs His Imprfect Life

September 06, 1990|JIM WASHBURN

A few years ago I received a kind note from Frank Sinatra, a response to a review lauding one of his Orange County performances. After ascertaining the letter was genuine--not something my associates had faked on joke shop stationery--the next step was figuring out what to make of it.

Sure, I was proud and kind of humbled to warrant his notice, but I also felt somewhat of a traitor to my craft. Hasn't one of this world's longest wars been the 50-year brawl between Sinatra and the press? Isn't it practically a journalistic badge of honor to have caught a punch from Frank or one of his underlings?

And long before becoming a writer, I felt an antipathy towards him. In the Us-versus-Them schism that so marked the '60s, Sinatra was most certainly Them . Like the oldsters who had castigated him and his music 20 years earlier, Sinatra dismissed the rock music I loved, calling it the product of "cretinous goons" and "a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac." This from the man whose albums were probably the greatest seduction tool since the advent of alcohol.

At the time, his whole brand of music seemed like a creaking sham, nearly corporate with its glib tunesmiths, glossy orchestrations, and Sinatra's smug delivery. In both film and music, the whole notion of the groomed, classy "star" he represented was falling by the wayside, replaced by brooding young minds who, for better or worse, were doing their own thing.

Even Elvis seemed hopelessly old-fashioned in the '60s. After Dylan and the Beatles, artists had to be self-contained--writing their own songs and strumming their own instruments--and (so we imagined) untouched by the show-biz bull epitomized by Las Vegas and its greatest gaseous star, Sinatra. When we did look to the past, it wasn't to his crafted wares but to the raw loam of Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Howlin' Wolf. If we wanted jazz, it would be the consuming fire of a Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker, not the Chairman of the Board or whichever of his countless nicknames he was answering to then.

As the decade progressed, Sinatra's offstage actions weren't any too endearing to youth either.

When a generation took to the streets to protest an immoral war and the mailed hand of "law and order," Sinatra abandoned his New Deal-New Frontier past and chummied up to Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, whom--spiffy library or no--some of us still regard as traitors to democracy.

His shift to the right, some tomes have speculated, was due to Bobby Kennedy's investigation of Sinatra's mob buddies. Stories linking him to underworld figures continued to surface in the late '60s, and, until the release of "The Godfather" in 1972, the Vietnam generation wasn't as enamored of mobsters as earlier generations had been--they seemed too much like the government we were stuck with.

So, the hell with Sinatra, I figured, as I cultivated holes in my faded jeans and hunkered down with pretentious Jethro Tull concept albums.

At a recent O.C. appearance, singer Michelle Shocked remarked that "political correctness has been a serious social disease for the last several years," and ain't it the truth?

Sinatra may have done little to redeem himself ethically since the '60s. Indeed, he's since made unrepentant money-runs to South Africa's Sun City, and Kitty Kelley's 1986 biography, "His Way," smudged out a damning portrait of Sinatra as a venal bully.

But even if every accusation of moral blindness in Kelley's book were true, both it and many in my generation have been equally blind to the blatant, obvious humanity of the man.

Obvious? French singer Charles Aznavour had this to say about Sinatra: "It is impossible to sing like a saint and be a bad man."

The grand effort of Sinatra's 74 years wasn't duking cameramen, bedding starlets or flinging his arms around politicos and "made men." It was what he did behind a microphone, and the humanity revealed there, the emotion and revelatory genius of his talent, is one of the great treasures of this century.

Rock impresario Bill Graham once said that the two greatest performances he had seen in his life had been by Frank Sinatra and Jimi Hendrix, and the galactic distance I once perceived between those two performers doesn't seem so great to me now. It was easier, perhaps, to recognize the genius in a pioneer like Hendrix, to applaud the courage in pushing a musical form into vast uncharted regions. But it is no less brilliant or brave to work within an established form, looking inward to the innumerable instants and delicate gradients that can render a work unique. In both, ultimately, it isn't the form but the emotion shared that matters.

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