January 11, 2009
Op-Ed Guest ColumnistNotes From the Chairman
Once upon a couple of weeks ago ...
I’m in a crush in a Dublin pub around New Year’s. Glasses clinking clicking, clashing crashing in Gaelic revelry: swinging doors, sweethearts falling in and out of the season’s blessings, family feuds subsumed or resumed. Malt joy and ginger despair are all in the queue to be served on this, the quarter-of-a-millennium mark since Arthur Guinness first put velvety blackness in a pint glass.
Interesting mood. The new Irish money has been gambled and lost; the Celtic Tiger’s tail is between its legs as builders and bankers laugh uneasy and hard at the last year, and swallow uneasy and hard at the new. There’s a voice on the speakers that wakes everyone out of the moment: it’s Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” His ode to defiance is four decades old this year and everyone sings along for a lifetime of reasons. I am struck by the one quality his voice lacks: Sentimentality.
Is this knotted fist of a voice a clue to the next year? In the mist of uncertainty in your business life, your love life, your life life, why is Sinatra’s voice such a foghorn — such confidence in nervous times allowing you romance but knocking your rose-tinted glasses off your nose, if you get too carried away.
A call to believability.
A voice that says, “Don’t lie to me now.”
That says, “Baby, if there’s someone else, tell me now.”
Fabulous, not fabulist. Honesty to hang your hat on.
As the year rolls over (and with it many carousers), the emotion in the room tussles between hope and fear, expectation and trepidation. Wherever you end up, his voice takes you by the hand.
Now I’m back in my own house in Dublin, uncorking some nice wine, ready for the vinegar it can turn to when families and friends overindulge, as I am about to. Right by the hole-in-the-wall cellar, I look up to see a vision in yellow: a painting Frank sent to me after I sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with him on the 1993 “Duets” album. One from his own hand. A mad yellow canvas of violent concentric circles gyrating across a desert plain. Francis Albert Sinatra, painter, modernista.
We had spent some time in his house in Palm Springs, which was a thrill — looking out onto the desert and hills, no gingham for miles. Plenty of miles, though, Miles Davis. And plenty of talk of jazz. That’s when he showed me the painting. I was thinking the circles were like the diameter of a horn, the bell of a trumpet, so I said so.
“The painting is called ‘Jazz’ and you can have it.”
I said I had heard he was one of Miles Davis’s biggest influences.
Little pithy replies:
“I don’t usually hang with men who wear earrings.”
“Miles Davis never wasted a note, kid — or a word on a fool.”
“Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern’s not about the future, it’s about the present.”
I think about this now, in this new year. The Big Bang of pop music telling me it’s all about the moment, a fresh canvas and never overworking the paint. I wonder what he would have thought of the time it’s taken me and my bandmates to finish albums, he with his famous impatience for directors, producers — anyone, really — fussing about. I’m sure he’s right. Fully inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you’ve pressed “record” is what makes it eternal. If, like Frank, you sing it like you’ll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.
If you want to hear the least sentimental voice in the history of pop music finally crack, though — shhhh — find the version of Frank’s ode to insomnia, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” hidden on “Duets.” Listen through to the end and you will hear the great man break as he truly sobs on the line, “It’s a long, long, long road.” I kid you not.
Like Bob Dylan’s, Nina Simone’s, Pavarotti’s, Sinatra’s voice is improved by age, by years spent fermenting in cracked and whiskeyed oak barrels. As a communicator, hitting the notes is only part of the story, of course.
Singers, more than other musicians, depend on what they know — as opposed to what they don’t want to know about the world. While there is a danger in this — the loss of naïveté, for instance, which holds its own certain power — interpretive skills generally gain in the course of a life well abused.
Want an example? Here’s an example. Take two of the versions of Sinatra singing “My Way.”
The first was recorded in 1969 when the Chairman of the Board said to Paul Anka, who wrote the song for him: “I’m quitting the business. I’m sick of it. I’m getting the hell out.” In this reading, the song is a boast — more kiss-off than send-off — embodying all the machismo a man can muster about the mistakes he’s made on the way from here to everywhere.
In the later recording, Frank is 78. The Nelson Riddle arrangement is the same, the words and melody are exactly the same, but this time the song has become a heart-stopping, heartbreaking song of defeat. The singer’s hubris is out the door. (This singer, i.e. me, is in a puddle.) The song has become an apology.
To what end? Duality, complexity. I was lucky to duet with a man who understood duality, who had the talent to hear two opposing ideas in a single song, and the wisdom to know which side to reveal at which moment.
This is our moment. What do we hear?
In the pub, on the occasion of this new year, as the room rises in a deafening chorus — “I did it my way” — I and this full house of Irish rabble-rousers hear in this staple of the American songbook both sides of the singer and the song, hubris and humility, blue eyes and red.
Bono, lead singer of the band U2 and co-founder of the advocacy group ONE, is a contributing columnist for The Times.