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Sinatra: the voice in my life.

It all started with my sister, 10 years my senior, going to the Paramount Theater and coming back a new convert. My sister loved all the famous singers of the 1940s. But now she and her friends grew wild about Frankie--no one like Frankie! Why were all these Jewish girls, just coming out of depression and war, just learning about the Holocaust, falling for this Italian boy from Hoboken who looked so innocent and sang of love when they knew he was up to no good with eros on the brain and larceny in his heart? The girls knew that Latins (and that meant Italians in those days) were lousy lovers. Sinatra could try a little tenderness, but he could be kinda tough when he had to be. The Jewish girls still dated the Jewish boys, but in their fantasy world they dreamed of others--of Cornel Wilde as Chopin, of Nelson Eddy in the desert, of Cary Grant wherever, and Frankie, wonderful Frankie.

In my sister's case, she wanted her brother, who had a nice voice, to sing like him. The first thing, even before foisting Frankie's records on him, was to get him a bowtie. It had to be the right one, so we went to downtown Elizabeth, to Kaye's Men's Clothing Store and looked and looked till we came up with that special tie--not too wide, not too narrow, not too bright, not too dark--that would evoke but not imitate the ones of our hero. The only trouble was I was as fat as he was skinny. And I was a morose unhappy boy with the dread of Nazis staring out of my hazel eyes and a fear of losing my sister deep in my heart, while the bright light of an insane national myth shone in Sinatra's eyes as deep as the Mediterranean off Genoa or Siracusa that not even Mussolini, the mafia, or the mean streets of Hoboken could completely dispel.

I was no rapid nor rapt recruit. I hated those hokey songs on The Voice. I didn't want to admit I needed someone to watch over me; I knew I stood less than a ghost of a chance with any girl I fell for; I knew trying a little tenderness just wouldn't work for me. But what other options did I have? Perry Como could sing "Till the End of Time", Dick Haymes could ask "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," but Sinatra was on the Hit Parade and sang everything. I heard him sing "Begin the Beguine," "Soliloquy" from Carousel, "Old Man River"; 1 heard all the corn and the kitsch, all the bad, the good, and the best. Early on I heard him sing "Sweet Lorraine" with the Metronome All-Stars and "If You Were but a Dream." And the best ballads--"I Concentrate on you," "Time after Time"--plus those first torch songs that would be the keys to his soft and hard future--"One for the Road" and "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears out to Dry."

I remember singing some of the songs at family circle meetings when old CP and New Deal aunts and uncles put aside their unbridgeable differences for a day of nostalgia and communion; and as part of the pageant us young ones came forward to do the things we'd been coached to do--to show that we'd be part of a future happier than the darkened past. And there I'd always be, suit on, topped by my Frank Sinatra bowtie--ready to sing whatever song I'd been forced to learn for the occasion. "When You Walk through a Storm," "Night and Day," or even (believe me, I did it) "The House I Live In"--whatever seemed to fit the moment or didn't fit as the circle widened and broke in different ways over the years. Then came the summer camp performance of Annie Get Your Gun when I was Frank Butler singing "My Defenses Are Down" just like Frank-Someone-Else--when my mom signaled from the fifth row that the string from my cowboy hat was hanging on the rim and I nonchalantly flicked it down, only to have it land on my nose as the crowd laughed and my leading lady's knees began to buckle and her face blushed as red as a bleeding carrot. So when we came out together singing "They Say that Falling in Love Is Wonderful," me singing Sinatra and not Howard Keel to her sweetened Betty Hutton and not Ethel Merman, she kept moving away from me as I moved closer to her until I had all but to yank her into place so I could whisper "so they say" before the big kiss that all but caused her to fall from the stage as she tried to duck away just as I laid it on her.

Soon after, my cousin Leonard actually married into an Italian family and we went to a wedding with a real gumba singer and then, joy of joys, a Sinatra soundalike who could do the slow torch ones at least as well as the up-tempo ones, giving some realism and depth to the whole occasion and opening my own world from my own little niche to a wider range of beings and feelings.

Little did I know that this wedding was just the prelude to my sister's betrayals, as she dated frantically to escape the world of her working parents and a home where she had to take care of a baby brother 10 years her junior. They warned her against goyish singers and musicians, so she ended up with a magician who chopped a head of cabbage in two and then stuck her head in the same guillotine. I screamed like a bobbysoxer and kicked at his legs. Then he was gone, as Sinatra was--only Frank was off to Hollywood; and then she met and married a salesman and amateur musician, a French horn player who kept her away from show biz as much as he could but ended by taking her to California--but not to Hollywood, like our Italian Hoboken hero, but North Hollywood, like so many Jews of his time.

Meanwhile she left me her photo and record albums--of musicians and singers, of Sinatra and others, singing this and that, which did little for me as he went downhill with dogs in the window and Mama barking and other such horrendous stuff. Until, all but ruined by Ava's leaving his life, his throat scarred and scored in the throb that seemed to catch in his every phrase, he learned to sing for every wounded and broken soul like me, suffering from the loss of their sister and then my truest love, Ellen Feldman, who left me behind just as Sinatra released In the Wee Small Hours, and Sylvia who left me (Where are you?), and Laura Rachel who thoroughly dismissed me (Only the Lonely) so that my life, more like Joe DiMaggio's and less like Arthur Miller's, then sank into its lowest depths. So that in my case, when having left New Jersey and the Sopranos behind me, having formed a singing group and realizing I didn't have it to sing as he sang, I too moved to the west coast and, all but in the shadow of the Capital Records stack he'd built with his singing, suffered the loss of the last Jewish flames of my young life, and after eating my 35 cent barley soup at sundown returned to my Hollywood hovel apartment to play the torch songs over and over on my old phonograph, falling asleep finally, and only awaking in time to hear them once again ... even as I left the Jewish girls and met the Italian and then Latin American women who became central to my life. And as for my sister, I resented and shelved her for years, until after my mother died and she became almost the other mother of my lovetorn life.

Power hungry, caught up in a fight against death for the sake of a fame he could somehow imagine as immortal, a shooting star forming his ubiquitous and unnerving pack, ending up on his own rack, rotting and ever more reactionary in more ways than one--it all became like The Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse: the more corrupt and embittered he became, the finer, more beautiful, became his art, until those last, often terrible years. It somehow seemed that he tried to record every song that just might become part of the American songbook, making each one his own, no matter who else had tried. And most of the time he did it. Yes, yes, as he too often said, he did it all his way, retaining only one thing for most of the ride: his mastery of overt and inner rhythms, and some miraculous ability to express the deepest sense of pain that only Billie Holiday, or just a few others, on one song or another, could outdo. He cavorted with Reagan, danced with that other Nancy, and even damaged that utopia of racial equality that had always been his greatest strength--that horrendous Amos and Andy imitation on his session with Basie on the Sinatra at The Sands album, the terrible comment about "that wonderful boy" even as he sorely mourned the death of "his shadow," Sammy D. Almost always respectful of the gifted musicians who worked with him, false in so many ways, he was only fully, thoroughly true in one crucial way.

You don't have to take my word for it. You can just read the reactions of so many as you google your way through the titles of even a few of his songs and albums--forget the swingin', pulsing', pushin' Frank most people died for and stick with the torch song core. You can read all the articles and books they've written on him, and I've read a large share of the best; you can talk about Italian manliness and all the rest, but for some reasons no one has completely explained, somehow over the years Sinatra's singing convinced so many of us that his way of feeling was ours as well and that he expressed us better than anyone else, even ourselves. He formed our subjectivities, taught us how to suffer, how to live and breathe deeply out of pain and loss. What was it in his background that prepared him to do what he could do, what in mine or others' prepared our feelings to be shaped by his phrases, his musical turns? These are mysteries explained only in part by our shared experiences as alter-ego sons of European migration into New York. But how explain ourselves? How explain the sorrows of young Werther in our time? It's all beyond rational understanding; it has to be in the music and in the words, it has to be in the deepest reaches of a man who, no matter how crass or wretched, rightwing or ragged his outward manifestations might become as the years went by, had and kept some inner connection with the most intimate pangs of being that many of us felt in a large part of that terrible century that ended some time ago.

The late Stuart Hall is quoted as having said that the music of Miles Davis for him represented "the sound of what cannot be." Sinatra's was the sound of what one longs for but cannot be or have and yet tries to attain nevertheless again and again until there is no way left to live and one must die.

DOI: 10.1177/0014585815583286

Marc Zimmerman

Emeritus, University of Houston, USA

Corresponding author:

Marc Zimmerman, do Global CASA and LACASA Books-Chicago, 2120 W Concord Place, Chicago, IL 60647, USA;

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Title Annotation:Notes
Author:Zimmerman, Marc
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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