Frank Sinatra has received far too many tributes already. Even before his death last month there was the 80th-birthday hoopla of 2 1/2 years ago, followed by the flock of recently published books circling, vulture-like, in clear anticipation of his passing. At this point any recounting of his accomplishments--his unassailable greatness as a singer, his somewhat more assailable greatness as an actor, his impeccable taste as a curator of the great American songbook, his ancillary talents as both philanthropist and thug, his status as a totem of midcentury masculinity--inevitably takes on a dutiful, ritualistic air. So what better way to breathe a little life into the process than with an insult?
"George Steinbrenner with a voice" was the epithet coined by a colleague of mine--born in the baby boom's dead center, it should be noted--who objects to the bad-hair Republican bluster of Sinatra's later years, his belting out of all those anthems of middle-aged self-assertion. He did it his way. He can make it anywhere. He picks himself up and gets back in the race--that's life, or Sinatra's blowhard version of it anyway. It is the artfully projected world view of a casino entertainer, a glorified greeter, whose job it was to make old guys with bum tickers and second wives feel good about themselves.
On one hand, my colleague's view of Sinatra as scourge of baby boomers--the anti-Judy Collins, if you will--is a crude caricature of a complex artist, as reductive as any neo-swinger's fetishistic prattling about the man's way with a pocket handkerchief. On the other hand, it is a caricature I too used to believe in.
Should anyone even care what people like my colleague and me think of Sinatra? My own higher notions about music were incubated while listening to Jethro Tull albums (whoa--a flute!). Sinatra's body of work, meanwhile, stretches back to the 1930s and is nothing less than "the final statement on pre-rock pop," as Will Friedwald, the invaluable Sinatra scholar, recently wrote of the Songs for Swingin' Lovers! album, released in 1956 and generally considered Sinatra's finest LP. "Something radically different just had to come next," Friedwald continues, "because nothing in the realm of Tin Pan Alley could top this bravura celebration of grown-up love." You can't sum up Sinatra's achievement more succinctly than that.