Monday, May 18, 1998

Farewell Mr. Frank

The week ended with a first. After the Friday storms blew by, I turned to Mr. Max and said, "Max, I'm going out to get the parsnips." I truly believe that is the first time that sentence has ever been uttered in the history of human language. Seems that when I was digging up weeds in the garden I discovered I had a dozen very large parsnips growing. I didn't know what they were- at first I thought I had grown some mutant plant combining a potato with a carrot. Just in time my next door neighbor stopped by and said, "Oh you have parsnips." And I nodded knowingly quite proud of this year's crop.

I put them in a pail out in my garage. So Friday evening as I was wistfully listening to my Sinatra CDs I desperately needed something to cheer me up. The brunt of the storm had passed over and the frightening dark skies were now looking more calm. I then remembered my parsnips. I hadn't a clue as to how to fix them so I fried them in butter. The end result wasn't exactly too impressive. Though they looked a lot like potato chips they tasted more like heavily buttered balsa wood.

They went down a little better as Mr. Sinatra belted out I've Got You Under My Skin. Life's accomplishments and disappointments always seem more palpable with a Sinatra tune in the background. "I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near. In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night..."

Years ago my best friend in high school turned me on to Frank. We were at his parent's cabin in Osakis when he played me Frank and Count Basie's It Might As Well Be Swing. I was forever hooked. The man defined the very essence of cool. All these years later when I hear Fly Me To the Moon, or The Second Time Around I get shivers listening to the man. How big a loss is this? It only means we have collectively lost our voice- one that spoke so eloquently for so many. I would argue that is among the saddest losses of all.

I would be extremely hard pressed to pick out my favorite Frank album. Songs for Swingin Lovers captures the essence of being in love better than any other music I can think of. Sings Only for the Lonely captures the essence of the loss of love just as effectively. On those rare occasions when I'm feeling sad and regretful Where Are You speaks volumes. The version of Laura in that song cycle is about as perfect a recording as I've ever heard. And I still think the most underrated album of all time is Sinatra's most thematic effort, Watertown, that tells a story in all its ups and down with emotion and precision just as accurately as the best of novels. "So a dream has to end when it's real and not pretend..." Picking out my favorite Sinatra song would be even more difficult. High Hopes? Little Girl Blue? The Way You Look Tonight? Witchcraft? Each one has touched me and I could listen to all of them over and over again.

My ill fated attempt at a college radio show featured all Sinatra songs. Each week I would get a call from the secretary of the Geography Department who was the campus' biggest Frank fan. Every week she would request One for My Baby (and One More for the Road). Most fans probably think of My Way or New York New York as Sinatra's signature songs. But One for My Baby defined him early on as the classic saloon singer: as the singer who could wring out every last ounce of emotion from the biggest tearjerker song of all time. In his recorded live versions he always introduced it with a long spiel telling the story of a man who has lost his love and is spilling his story to a bartender. The explanations were needless however because each and every version I've ever heard says it all. "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me... We're drinking my friend, to the end of a brief episode. Make it one for my baby and one more for the road..."

For me the most impressive musicians are those that can write their own words and perform them in a way that makes the music uniquely their own while still making it appealing to the masses. Sinatra was the exception. It was his ability to take other's words and make them his own that forever won my admiration. He had the remarkable gift of being able to take a combination of words that had been sung many times before and always make them sound new. Regrets, I've had a few... one of the biggest of all is never having seen the man perform live. I was hoping for another chance. He was the comeback king from here to eternity- whenever anyone thought he was down for the count he would give yet another sterling performance. Despite his reported health problems of the past few years I was still hoping he had yet one more comeback in him. Sadly it wasn't to be. We'll never ever get his interpretation of another great song. We'll never again hear his voice take standard material and make it universally touching to so many hearts. The man had style and unmatchable attitude. For all his well documented faults he forever unflinchingly remained true to his code. His cockiness was only matched by his vulnerability. He sang to those in love and those now out of love; he sang to the hip and to the down and out. Every time one of his songs plays on the radio he opens up his heart and seems to share with what is in ours. That's quite the trick.

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