[23 July 2009]
Here are two recordings made by Frank Sinatra after his prime. Sinatra, a ‘40s singing sensation whose most seminal albums appeared in the ‘50s, was struggling to remain relevant when he recorded My Way in 1969. By then he was a 50-plus-year-old relic who was seen as out of touch by the youth of the times. This was the year of Woodstock and Altamont.
And then 17 years later, the Chairman of the Board is still at it. This time he’s performing live at the Meadowlands stadium in his home state of New Jersey. The 70-plus singer is still able to belt out his old hits, thanks to a crackerjack band and a supportive audience. This concert recording has never been previously released, and for good reason. While Sinatra is far from feeble, he’s also far from the golden-throated baritone from his youth. He never hits a wrong note, but he doesn’t take any risks either.
Examining these two albums from the perspective of the present reveals much about Sinatra’s artistry and the changing times. It’s been 40 years since My Way and more than 20 years since he performed Live at the Meadowlands. What was once contemporary has become dated and quaint, but not insignificant. The one rule about popular music is that everything changes. That doesn’t mean music gets better. Even mid-level Sinatra ranks higher than most other performers’ best stuff. There is a reason he’s a legend, the gold standard to which other singers are compared. These recordings offer some insight into why that is.
The title song on My Way has become a standard of individualism in the face of insurmountable social odds. It carries more than a whiff of arrogance and implies defiance against convention and authority. But by 1969, Sinatra was a symbol of adult values and conformity. His music had become the new tradition against which rockers rebelled. So what does he do, but declare his solidarity with those who value independence and does it in a way that also includes his adult audience.
The song “My Way” serves as the album’s original centerpiece as track six out of ten (two bonus tracks are included on the new edition). Don Costa’s production of the tune engagingly frames Sinatra’s performance. It begins with a prominent tinkling of a child’s toy piano as the crooner sings of his impending death, “And now, the end is near / and so I face the final curtain.” Sinatra evokes the wisdom of age to reflect on his youth. The crooner slowly articulates each syllable as if each word drains the last ounce energy from his life. But magically, he gains strength by pondering his past. His voice grows stronger as the song continues. Sinatra didn’t follow the road less travelled, but “travelled each and every highway.” In other words, he lived life to the fullest, and more importantly, he did it his way.
By the time the song closes, a full orchestra is employed with blaring horns and zithering strings, but Sinatra’s voice is always the loudest instrument. The importance of one human being against the world, against even death, is the not so subtle moral of the story. It’s the egotistic proclamation that says “I matter” that every person, young and old, believes. No wonder the song had resonance for all during the Age of Aquarius, and later was covered by such disparate narcissistic icons as Elvis Presley and Sid Vicious.
Sinatra’s acknowledgement of his aging allows him to seduce both young and old. He doesn’t try to compete with youthful rivals, but embraces them. His cover of the Lennon/McCartney composition “Yesterday” makes it clear he has seen more of life and love than those blokes simply by loving longer, but he conveys his respect for the song through his serious rendition of the rock classic. He takes the opposite tack on Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” as he plays with the words to show his type of swinging (“foolin’ with that young stuff like you do”) has become dated during the sexual revolution. The other material on the album tends to highlight his cosmopolitan maturity as he offers translated versions of French and Latin pop hits with sophisticated arrangements.
While My Way offers the portrait of an artist as a mature performer looking back at life, Live at the Meadowlands suggests an old man showing his family a scrapbook of memories. Sinatra may sing “You Make Me Feel So Young”, but a creakiness in his voice creeps into certain songs that reveals he hasn’t transcended his age. When he croons, “Even when I’m old and grey / I’m gonna feel the way I do today”, you know he feels good and vital through the act of performance, yet one can’t help but hearing the weakness in his voice.
There are pleasures to be found here. Sinatra is a perfect host. He praises the many songwriters, arrangers, and other performers whose works he covers. He effusively thanks the audience for showing up and offering their positive energy. He pays sincere tribute to his players, who offer great accompaniment and never miss a beat or cue. Sinatra has the experience to phrase lyrics with an appropriate snarl or a laugh as if he’s simply chewing gum, such as when he sings long lines like, “Ask him to sit this one out and when you’re alone /I’ll get a waiter to tell him he’s wanted on the telephone” from Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners”. The effort seems effortless.
The material here ranges from his days with Jimmy Dorsey (“Without a Song”) to his more contemporary hits (“L.A. Is My Lady”) to everything in between. There are 21 cuts crammed on this disc, with only three songs from the original concert missing because of technical CD length restrictions.
The highlight here is another song that looks backward at one’s life, “It Was a Very Good Year”. Sinatra has lost the bravado he once had. His excitement is all in his memories. This is sad, but it is a sad song (“The days grow short / I am in the autumn of my years”). Who would have thought Sinatra would grow old peacefully?
Sinatra’s music was better when he was more pissed off at the world. He may have once sung about everything being “Nice ‘n’ Easy”, but that only worked because we knew he wouldn’t be satisfied for long. “Live at the Meadowlands” showcases the mellower, self-satisfied side of the man during the height of the President Reagan administration, where the Chairman was a friend of the conservative White House occupants. Sinatra, like many others of his generation, may have thought he had the right to relax and reflect on his past glories. But getting on in years should not be an excuse for not making more of an effort at living in the present moment.