LAMENTATION FOR A PUNK.... A major figure of American popular music has died and the press didn't focus on his gang associates, his drug habits, the role of money derived from running drugs and whores in starting his career, his philandering, his vicious misogyny, his ruthless public attacks on the press, his associations with politically dubious characters (some of them criminals), or even the records he had made in recent years that were artistically hideous attempts to do nothing more than line his pockets.
Instead, the coverage was about the music he made, onstage and on record, the powerful effect it had on musical tastes and our sense of what constituted good style, his innovations as a singer, his achievements in film and TV, his loyalty to his friends, and the continued devotion of his fans long after his artistic demise.
Frank Sinatra deserved all this. He was a great singer. But why can't Sinatra be just a great singer? Why does he have to be the only great singer?
Sinatra had to be the only one because after him, all the rest were tainted, by being black or Southern or radically disaffected from conventional mores. Those mores allow us to pretend, when it is convenient, that black ghetto kids forming gangs that run drugs in their communities are more dangerous than the Mafia controlling entire American industries, that more people have their lives ruined by coke, heroin and marijuana than by booze, that Louis Farrakhan is the bogey man and Richard Nixon's anti-Semitism was safe enough, that the music that operates by the standards of Afro-America is mere commerce while the music that operates by the standards of Euro- America (with its various thefts from Afro-America concealed and denied) is Art.
Frank Sinatra wasn't any more boorish than Marilyn Manson or Rick James, his pretensions weren't any greater than those of Marvin Gaye or Carlos Santana, and, in fact, when I found out Sinatra had died, I was listening to Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Johnny Mercer, with its great versions of "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," the song that inspired "Louie Louie," "That Old Black Magic," and "Blues in the Night." I still get a cold chill of excitement every time I hear the guy sing "I get no kick from champagne" and, at the end of a Yankee game, nothing sounds better than "New York New York."
But Frank Sinatra is now being presented as a hero, and he could never be a hero of mine. Yes, he acknowledged that Billie Holiday was the greatest singer he ever heard, he sang "The House I Live In," and he hosted that New Deal film on tolerance. Yes, he eventually agreed to appear on stage with Elvis and sang songs by the Beatles and Billy Joel, and allowed Bob Dylan to salute him, and even hung out with that other ultimate Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen.
In the beginning, Sinatra was even a symbol of pride for Italian-Americans, an ethnic group looked down upon with hatred and disdain. But sometime after that, Sinatra allowed himself to become a a different kind of symbol, the model for the Angry White American Male. More than anything else, this accounts for his alliances with Nixon and Reagan, for his loathing of women as public figures, and for his hatred of the media (even though 95 percent of the time it kissed his ass, just as it kisses the ass of most of the Angry White American Males who complain about the press most loudly).
Sinatra began to slip into this symbolic role in the mid- 1950s, when he became part of the effort by the Tin Pan Alley establishment, especially ASCAP songwriters, to discredit the new musical synthesis by claiming it was the product of payola and other swindles. In the process, Sinatra lied to Congress. In 1956, he told a House Subcommittee that his recording career had faltered beginning in 1950 because Mitch Miller, his Columbia producer at that time, had shoved down his throat "inferior songs" published by BMI (which was open to all sorts of people, including the black, Southern and working-class writers, banned from ASCAP, who were fashioning rock'n'roll). Miller later showed the committee that in their three year association, Sinatra had recorded 57 sides, of which only five were published by BMI.
"Rock'n'roll smells phony and false," Sinatra wrote in Life in 1957. "It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration...it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth." I suppose this remark was "tasteful," to the extent that he didn't join the Alabama White Citizens Council in labeling rock'n'roll "animalistic nigger bop." But don't tell me it was some quaint old fogey mistake. It was another lie. Sinatra knew the history of American popular music; he knew what had been happening in jazz and R&B as big bands shrank to small combos and jump blues evolved into R&B and that evolved into rock'n'roll. He knew that, in Birmingham, Nat "King" Cole had been beaten up by Frank's fellow rock critics in the White Citizens Council.
At a moment of tremendous social and musical importance, when he could have made a difference, Sinatra joined with a batch of liars and left it to Cole's wife, Maria, to make the only statement to that House subcommittee that accurately portrayed the new music as a direct development from black American culture.
In recent years, many rock writers have taken up the Sinatra banner, which I believe they've done because they want to show that they know it's not just about guys who write their own songs and that they understand that American pop music had a beauteous history before Elvis and Ray Charles and Ruth Brown. That's fine with me.
But when James Brown, a titan whose achievements humble Sinatra (who was not a writer or a bandleader or an instrumentalist at all, let alone a great one) dies, his obituaries will focus as much on his prison record as on his mind- boggling contribution to music. I know that if Chuck D (God forbid) got hit by a car tomorrow, his obits would mention Farrakhan at least as prominently as the Bomb Squad. I know that Keith Richards' life will be seen, in most obituaries, through the lens of his addictions. Ike Turner's immense talents as musician, arranger, talent scout and record producer will probably be entirely ignored in favor of accounts of his abuse of women.
And so if fair's fair, let's remember the real Frank Sinatra, who stood up for hoodlums, took great pleasure in performing in the casinos where they laundered their drug profits, belittled women and bullied the press, and, oh by the way, once made an album called In the Wee Small Hours that is one of the greatest ever recorded.
May you live 100 years and may the last voice you hear be
Snoop Doggy Dog's.--Dave Marsh