I don’t remember the exact moment I became a Sinatra fan. I started listening to his work in the early 90s, inspired by more contemporary singers who looked up to him than by any sense of music-history know-how. Having been raised to an eclectic diet of opera, Elvis, Abba, Olivia, and country gold (Cash, Jennings, and Cline, mainly), there was something vaguely … dangerous about Francis Albert. I couldn’t put my finger on it but his voice, even at its sweetest, had a hint of something that both scared and delighted me. Only many years later did I understand that quality to be sex appeal -not the smooth, suave, safe sort, but the rough-and-tumble variety, where passion came before pronouncements.
Sinatra never had to be smutty to seduce through song; it could be a slight pause, a tiny added grace note, a lingering phrase. He deeply understood how tied up creative power was with sexual power (and vice-versa), and he used it, grandly, carefully, proudly and loudly, as he got behind the wheel of The Great American Songbook, flashing a smile, a dark stare, a cocked eyebrow, cruising by, leaving a wispy trail of cigarette smoke in his wake, and enough baritone reverb to echo through eons. Since his passing that Songbook has been reduced to a series of pieces that are mere vehicles for a bland, safe, PC-style seduction, souped up in a red hot convertible and tinkling horn. Sinatra would never be so obvious.
Though he had an undoubtedly operatic approach, and knew a thing or two about a romantic tune, Sinatra’s sound let in the darkness through time; his voice became full of shadow, of color, of subtlety and suffering and self-doubt. It reflected life experience, of course – and what a life it was. James Kaplan’s exhaustive 2010 biography of Sinatra’s early-to-middle years is a mighty tome that rivals Ulysses in sheer size and detail. Until Kaplan publishes the companion piece, we won’t know about Sinatra’s final years – but I have my own specific memories of today, involving comforting older women in a shoe store, whose lives, memories, and perhaps even passions, were so tied up with the man and his music.
Taking a break from writing, broadcasting, and interviewing has been healthy.
Even with all the stress the holiday season brings, it’s still been good to get a proper break from the normal routine. It resets the brain cells. A lot of changes feel like they’re afoot, and through this break I’ve been able to embrace and explore them, amidst the hub-bub of shopping, wrapping, cooking, baking, drinking, socializing, and… sleeping. The changes aren’t part of a 2011/new-year-resolution thing, but are, truly, a sweeping, every-aspect-of-life thing. It could mean a shift in career objectives; it most certainly means a change in locale.
If you’re been following me on either Facebook or Twitter (or both), you’ll know I’m moving to New York City in the spring. It’s slightly hard to get my head around it, because I’m so happy with my life here in Toronto, but at the same time, a change is very overdue, and I’m definitely the go-big-or-go-home type. You can’t get much bigger than New York. It was with bemused affection that I watched lastnight’s Times Square spectacle; when Sinatra’s version of the immortal theme song of the city came on, I actually got a lump in my throat (and it wasn’t the mix of foie gras and champagne, honest). There’s something about change that’s both inspiring and frightening; it’s built that way for a reason, I reckon. I’m off to the Big Apple in a couple weeks for a reconaissance mission. Expect interesting writings, observations, photos. And may your new year be happy, bright, prosperous, and full of … change, in the best way.
Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I’ve been thinking I am the actual age I’m turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I’m focusing on the champagne that’s being uncorked at the end of the day. It’s a start, right?
I’ve also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I’m overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It’s cheering and surreal, all at once.
Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world… well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn’t put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.
At some point, I knew my hands weren’t made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn’t dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I’d write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.
While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I’ve done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I’m especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim‘s interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there’s a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you’ll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim’s tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn’t know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.
That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would’ve been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I’d been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he’d been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.
My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother’s smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I’d heard of Francis Albert. I’d heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin‘s work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs … that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like “Lonely Town”, “Angel Eyes” and the famous “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.
Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don’t succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn’t sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!,Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.
I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love –love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:
Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory… I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.
Maybe that’s why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies… we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.
It’s been challenging to get in the Christmas spirit this year.
I’m marking one year since my father’s passing, which makes things sad, and I’m also marking ten years next year that I’ll have moved back from living abroad. Decades bring lists, reflections, and reminiscences on choices made and accomplishments won. Time, that old browbeater, keeps running by. It’s been especially tough for me and, I think, many others like me in the media industry; there have been layoffs, buy-outs, so-called “re-structurings” and considerable drops in income. I’m not actually able to buy presents this year, a fact that both mortifies and relieves. Karloff might intone, “maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store… maybe Christmas means a little bit more” but of course the nature of Western society is such that the act of buying or not has been rendered not so much a choice as a duty. And yet I’m the sort who’s taken a keen delight in the act of giving, which is a kind of lovely gift infused with reciprocal energy.
So I eschewed buying gfits -out of basic pocket-book necessity -in favour of hosting friends for a meal this past weekend. Combining a Christmas-y get-together with my own recent birthday made for a festive, fun atmosphere; we ate, we drank, we laughed. New friendships and connections were formed, experiences and observations shared, beautiful food and drink passed around. It felt like the perfect gift. And no, I didn’t post a bit of it online; no Facebook updates, Flickr photos or in-the-moment tweets. Somehow, choosing to keep the gathering out of the online public eye made it all the more intimate and special. I’d like to think one of the things I can give myself, my friends, and the world is a firm sense of borders, and an understanding of privacy. Narcissism be damned; the evening wasn’t about me, or any one person, but about us, as a unit, sitting around a food-filled table, drinking, talking, laughing. I was reminded of the innate value of friendship that evening, and how it is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
Still, there is, of course, of dealing with family this time of year. Are we friends with our family? Working towards it? Given up? I hate to admit it, but the first couple of years back from my time overseas, I’d purposely vanish in a haze of rummy nog and mulled wine to avoid the stress. This is not a wise course of action. I’m happy to say my own relationship with my family has improved to a point I could’ve never imagined a year ago, let alone ten. The old agage that “peace begins at home” has never felt more true. And this year, I have decided that music might be the best medicine -or perhaps complement. I’m still dealing with swallowing the bitter pills of guilt for the present, and nostalgia for the past, but knowing I’ve formed such strong, positive relationships with good, sincere people is a great reminder that those pills are … well, useless. I should spit them out so I can smile at the lovely sounds of Frank, Dean, Ella, Vince… et al. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Right?