under my skin

5.19.98

The death of Frank Sinatra continues to stimulate a lot of memories for me, more so, I think, than for the average fan because my father looked a lot like him and he was, in a sense, the Frank Sinatra of the family.

They were both skinny young men coming of age in a time when appearances meant an awful lot. My father was a very good-looking fellow, and he had a reputation as the guy to be with at the dance. The box of photos in my parents' closet is full of nightclub shots taken at linen-covered tables sometime during what appears to be the fourth or fifth round of drinks. They were all the rage back then, 5x7 glossies that came in a portfolio embossed with the nightclub's logo - very cool.

He was the Bee's Knees, my father, and he had that character of A Swingin' Guy. Whichever woman was going to end up with him would find herself with quite the catch.

My mother was attractive too, and they complemented each other on and off the dance floor. They got married and partied for ten years.

Then I was born. End of party. Well, maybe more like change of party.

My father continued to be the guy who told the dirty jokes at the family parties, and my mother continued to be the wife of the guy who told the dirty jokes at the family parties. But their social circle narrowed considerably after I came along, and without the habitual outlets of their youth, they focused more on habits they could manage closer to home.

Meanwhile the real Sinatra went bigtime, and both my parents were still in love with him. Sinatra music filled the house. Especially when, with me in grade school and dad at work, mom could practice her habits and her affection for Sinatra simultaneously. She'd make a big dent in her hidden stash of Early Times, settle into the living room chair, crank up the stereo, and dream. Then, when my dad came home from work, he could practice his habit of expressing his disapproval of her habit.

Then he'd go mix a few strong highballs and they'd listen to Frank together.

When I finally got old enough to work the record player by myself, there at my fingertips was a library not only of Sinatra albums but bands and singers and orchestras that ran the musical gamut from A to B. To be fair, there was some variety. I could listen to the two-volume set of Victory At Sea, the soundtrack to South Pacific, or the wackiness of Henri RenÚ and His Orchestra.

It wasn't until I was in high school that contemporary music was able to trickle down into my consciousness. Until then, the music in my head was Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, the Ames Brothers, Count Basie -- and it was an insulation for which I'm both grateful and resentful.

The framework of musical reference and standards I developed back then has served me well in that I have an ear for composition, but it cost me socially, so out of touch was I from other kids my age. It's a minor quirk, but it still pinches when I think about how odd I must have appeared in being unable to talk about the most mainstream of contemporary music. If a friend ever achieved the requisite number of accidents of fate that would cause him to actually be at my house, it wasn't to listen to the latest Neil Diamond record.

The main reasons kids didn't come over to my house were wholly other, having mainly to do with that tender uncertainty of whether or not my mother would be drunk after school. I don't think the kids cared, but for me it was the life or death of my own self-worth. It only took a few seconds to know after putting down the school books -- if she had that pasted-on grin, that immutable mask of bourbon and water, then I was better off outside until the streetlights came on. Sometimes I knew even before I'd hit the porch because there was that singing that haunted my secret insulated world...

Francis Albert Sinatra. He was like the wallpaper.

Whether demonstrated by Sinatra’s affiliation with mobsters, or by the faith that if we as a family kept up the appearance of middle-class happiness our lives would fall into place, an honor to an ethic, however unhealthy it may have been, was how we were inclined back then. In the case of my family, there was no intent to harm, damage and injury didn’t happen out of vindictiveness. We were just filled with fear.

What Sinatra’s fears were, I can’t say. But the fears we harbored in our family go back for generations. Though I won’t lay them out for analysis here, I will say that it took me a long time to even begin to fathom the nature of forgiveness, and it remains at times an elusive element. But I've given up all hope for a better past. The actions, reactions, and behaviors I saw back then were the result of a heartfelt need for love, and a passionate desire for happiness however na´vely it may have been manifested.

So now I listen to Sinatra through a series of filters that memory provides. And still that thing he had comes through. The drive and character that made him a man of his time are evident even in what must be the thousandth playing of my "Sinatra At The Sands" album. You hear Basie's band, the drunks in the crowd, the snappy patter between numbers, and you can feel the wave that swept up millions of fans, you get in the groove with the guy and you know in your gut why he lasted so long.

And this week, with his death, a marker is placed. It's the end of the engagement, and what's left behind is a rich musical texture felt in the lightest and darkest rooms of my life, a native lexicon that swings to a tempo as easy and familiar as a heartbeat.


 

Today's Music:


"You Make Me Feel So Young" --Frank Sinatra -- Sinatra at the Sands

 


Wisdom of the Day:


"Talking about things that are understandable only weighs down the mind and falsifies the memory."

-- Alfred Jarry