Monday, March 14, 2016

For What Is a Man?

At the tail end of 1968, the day before New Year's Eve, Frank Sinatra went into a studio in Hollywood and spent half an hour laying down the vocal for what would become the title track to his next album. The year had been a rough one for Sinatra; in August, his marriage to Mia Farrow ended after just 25 months. Frank had wanted her to quit acting and spend her life as his wife, but Mia had other ideas; Rosemary's Baby came out two months before they split for good. Frank was 52; Mia was 23. Still, most of us would say it's better to have loved Mia Farrow and lost her than to never have loved Mia Farrow at all.

Sinatra may also have been wondering if the hits had dried up. He and his daughter Nancy had gone to Number One early in 1967 with "Somethin' Stupid," but he hadn't reached the Top Twenty since. Fiftysomething-year-old pop singers rarely make comebacks.

Frank was going in that evening to record a song that had been specially written for him by Paul Anka. Anka had heard a French pop song called "Comme d'habitude," for which he wanted to write new English lyrics. Over dinner in Florida, Anka had had a conversation with Frank in which a weary Sinatra said, "I'm quitting the business. I'm sick of it; I'm getting the hell out."

"At one o'clock in the morning," Anka said later, "I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, 'If Frank were writing this, what would he say?' And I started, metaphorically, 'And now the end is near.' I used words I would never use: 'I ate it up and spit it out.' But that's the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows."

The song was "My Way." With the year ending, his marriage ending, his youth ending, possibly his career ending, Sinatra went into the studio and put his whole sorry life into that vocal performance. As he faced the final curtain, Frank managed to sum up his sordid past and questionable future in the space of four minutes and 35 seconds. No matter what he had lost along the way, Frank had his dignity and self-worth, and no one would ever take that from him.

"My Way" is often interpreted as a boast, a challenge to anyone who would dare Frank to do things differently, but it's about his past, not his future. Bono called Sinatra "the champ who would rather show you his scars than his medals," and "My Way" is all scars. Regrets? He's had a few.  Whatever he lost along the way, and the song makes it clear that there had been plenty lost, he had faced it all and he stood tall. A man can't be expected to win every time; all he can be expected to do is to be himself. To be a man.

Sinatra's vocal is magnificent, starting out ruminative and inward, doing that soft-loud-soft thing long before Nirvana or even the Pixies. He carries out his vowels on "But through it all/When there was doubt," then bites off the consonants at the end of "I ate it up/And spit it out." With his impeccable breath control, he turns on a dime from "I did it my way" to "I've loved, I've laughed and cried."  The regret seeps into the space in the line "I've had my share of ... losing," as if he can't bear to say the word. But when it comes, the word itself is clear and forthright.

He finally builds to the song's climax when he sings, "I took the blows, and did it my way." The control of the vocal emphasizes that at no point does he seek to evade responsibility; admitting the occasional defeat has only made him stronger. It's made him his own man.

The other exemplar of 20th century masculinity, Cary Grant, embodied what every man aspired to be, but what none of us actually were, including famously Cary Grant. "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Cary once said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." Sinatra, by contrast, was what every man was. Even after all our missteps and losses, it was never too late to reclaim our self-worth. None of us could become Cary, but we always had the chance to be Frank.

"My Way," of course, became Sinatra's signature song for the rest of his days, which consisted mostly of concert performances. He had only one more Top Forty hit left in the quiver: "Theme From 'New York, New York,'" in 1980. He retired, briefly, in November 1970, a year and a half after "My Way" had left the charts. It was in almost every respect a career-capping performance that couldn't be topped.

Yes, it was Frank's way. The rest of us can only hope to live up to that standard.