Frank's final number

Frank Sinatra, the voice of America, is dead at 82. Anticipating his passing last year, Sarah Vowell wrote this column on how the pride of Hoboken should -- and should not -- be remembered.


Sarah Vowell
February 8, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

is there anything nicer than a really good televised obituary? The kind of touching nod to history, slapped willy-nilly onto an otherwise ordered grid of today's war and weather? If you only read death notices in newspapers, you might come to the comforting conclusion that only the strangest people die the man who invented the shoehorn, the suicidal French philosopher whose essays made you want to kill yourself in college. But television news ignores the otherworldly demises of such fringe innovators, preferring instead to witness upstanding taxpayers getting offed by either Mother Nature or the disenfranchised, or, delightfully, to eulogize the glitzy icons of pop. While younger stars are doomed to hastily assembled, dumbstruck
retrospectives whose main point is always "whatta waste," there's no excuse for lazy production values when it comes to saying farewell to golden boys in their golden years.

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In the instance of Frank Sinatra, television producers have been forewarned. The octogenarian singer is ill, in and out of hospitals, and living in a body smudged and soggy from smoke and drink. Any day now, Peter Jennings will cut away from some freak mudslide story (casualties: six registered voters), face another camera and announce Ol' Blue Eyes' death. Later, the "World News Tonight" credits will roll over a tasteful montage of Frank's film stills and album covers. The other networks will run similar tributes, as will the brainiacs at "Entertainment Tonight" and those swingers on "The News Hour" at PBS.

But you know what? It will not matter whether Sinatra's video wake is hosted by the tweedy Jim Lehrer or the perky Katie Couric. Because each and every remembrance will be accompanied by the same damn song: the most obvious, unsubtle, disconcertingly dictatorial chestnut in the old man's vast and dazzling backlog, "My Way." When the guy who generously gave us greats like "I Get a Kick Out of You" kicks it, we won't put on our Basie boots or get a load of those cuckoo things he's been sayin'. We'll be bored terif-ickly, screaming at the set every time he and that sappy string section face the Final Curtain. Get it? He's dead and on tape from the grave talking about how the End Is Near. Spooky.

The only way "My Way" has ever worked is if the person singing it is dumber than the song. Which is why the only successful rendition of it was perpetrated by Sid Vicious. Frank and Elvis for that matter was always too complicated, too full of rhythmic freedom to settle into the song's simplistic selfishness. Not that I ever expected Frank and Dino and Sammy to belt out "With A Little Help From My Friends" and mean it. It's just that "My Way" pretends to speak up for self-possession and personal vision when, at base, it only calls forth the temper tantrums of 2-year-olds or perhaps the last words spoken to Eva Braun. Who wants to be remembered for blind rigidity anyway? Can't you imagine Oliver North defacing the Constitution
with graffiti like "I faced it all/And I stood tall"? Even worse, Sinatra first recorded "My Way" in 1968, the last great year the Western world took a big loud stab at singing along with a largely forgotten tune called "Our Way."

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There are rumors from Belgrade that each night, when the government-controlled evening news airs, the townspeople blow whistles or bang on pots and pans so they won't hear the state's lies. Keep that beautiful action in mind when Sinatra's dead and all the TVs in your more boring, democratic world are playing "My Way." Drown it out. Play something
else to the montage in your own heart. Maybe "Angel Eyes" for its subtle reference to the singer's Mediterranean windows to the soul, for its knowing, jaunty adieu ("'Scuse me while I disappear") followed by a nice Christian harp outro hinting at unlikely salvation. Perhaps "The Song Is You" for its simple, brassy pledge that "the words are true."

I'm tempted to think I'll be cranking up my favorite, "Come Dance With Me," but it's too disrespectfully cheerful to work as a dirge and kind of creepy if taken literally. Who except Tom Petty wants to fox trot with a corpse?
I've decided instead to blare the Capitol recording of Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love." It's the driving question behind the entire Sinatra research project. And it's a lovely pop song, suitably melancholy
for mourning, reflective and wise.

The orchestra starts off low. Enter a clarinet that's somehow lewd and
ponderous at the same time. Frank scrawls the topic sentence, then repeats it, adding one word: "This funny thing called love?" It begins as a rhetorical question, and by the end turns into a cosmic inquiry of God. He says he queried "the Lord in heaven above/Just what is this thing called love" and then he cuts out, as if he's off to face the creator in person.Strangely, after he's gone, the orchestra resolves to a sweet final chord,
as if they have the answer, but Frank Sinatra's no longer around to hear it.

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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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