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COMMENTARY : Sinatra Reaches the December of His Years


NEW YORK — It's a quarter to 3. I'm sitting at home with the stereo on, quietly so as not to wake the family. The floor is strewn with more than 20 Frank Sinatra albums, from the Dorsey sessions of 1940 to my '50s favorite, "One More for the Road."

On a chair is "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," in which Sinatra takes an absurd Sonny Bono song and makes it sound as meaningful as something by my fondly remembered late acquaintance, Mr. Sammy Cahn.

There's no one in the place except me . . . and two of the friends that Sinatra used to introduce at many of his concerts: "Mr. Chivas" and "Mr. Regal." Soon they too will be gone. We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a long episode. Sinatra is singing "one for my baby, one more for the road." But soon he must sing it no more, for the road is coming to an end.

It is difficult to imagine a world without Sinatra singing. But it is a subject we must confront. Over and over in my mind, I have been reliving the night of June 10, the first of three consecutive evenings of Sinatra performances at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. He did not seem well.

It was agony to watch the greatest entertainer of our lifetimes stumble around the stage, unable to read the seven oversized video screens that coached him with the lyrics, unable to remember the words to songs he has sung thousands of times. "What the hell are the words?" he shouted in the middle of "I've Got a Crush on You."

Some viewers of this sad spectacle were satisfied just to be in the presence of a legend. "Sure he forgot words and his voice sometimes failed him but . . . we love him for it!" one woman wrote.

Love is a funny thing. Sometimes it makes us blind to the faults of those closest to us, which--considering our species' stunning absence of perfection--is a good thing. But sometimes that love also protects us from facing painful truths about those we cherish.

Of course, people with problems find it difficult to admit the truth to themselves. The word psychologists use is denial . Let us stop our denial and face the uncomfortable fact that for the sake of his health and the sake of his reputation, Frank Sinatra should be elevated to Chairman of the Board Emeritus. He should retire, with dignity.

It has been an extraordinary run. For more than 50 years--50 years!--Sinatra has been the standard by which every other popular singer is judged and found, in whatever way, wanting.

Others may have better pipes--you could make an argument that Tony Bennett has a voice technically superior to Sinatra's in terms of range and power. But as great as Bennett is, he knows who stands where in the firmament: He recorded an album of Sinatra songs last year called "Perfectly Frank." I haven't heard about Sinatra recording a Tony Bennett tribute.

But that's because it's not just about singing. It is about charisma, those intangible qualities of confidence and power the great ones possess.

Sinatra is the most formidable entertainer of our history. He's already outlived Elvis by 35 years. If Sinatra and the Beatles had started the same year, the Beatles would have broken up shortly after the end of World War II.

So the fact that Sinatra's voice these days has a rusty creak to it doesn't bother me at all. I've seen him perform about 10 times--roughly every two years since 1974, when, as a young man of 58, he returned to Madison Square Garden in New York. Standing in what looked like a boxing ring, with a huge television audience watching, the heavyweight musical champion of the world sang with the force of Dempsey, Louis and Ali combined.

But Sinatra has stayed in the ring too long, and now he is risking his reputation. If enough people spend $100 to see him stumble around a stage, they'll start to think of him as a punch-drunk club fighter, not the champion of all champions.

That's what it was like June 10. Sinatra disoriented. Unsure where he was, geographically. Losing his place in the songs, not even able to find cues in the arrangements he's been using for more than 30 years.

In the introduction to "One for My Baby," the classic saloon song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Sinatra set the mood by putting a cigarette in his mouth.

Scene: He flicks his lighter, but can't get the cigarette to burn. He shrugs, tosses the cigarette on the floor. I fear that he is so oblivious he will pocket the lighter while it's still burning. Sinatra wipes his brow. Surely he knows the words to one of his most intimate and familiar ballads. "It's a quarter to 3, there's no one in the place, except you and me." But that is not what Sinatra sings. "I . . ." lurches from his mouth. Sinatra pauses, perplexed. ". . . And when it's gloomy." Bad guess.

He finally meanders back to the melody, but it's too late. It's time to say thanks for the cheer. And for the people who love him to take the keys from his hand before he hurts himself. It's time for Frank to sing one for my baby, but no more for the road.

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