[the simpleton]

December 30, 2002

Found object:

The Chairman of the board's personal Waterloo


During a recent viewing of Vincente Minelli's 1958 picture Some Came Running, I was once again struck by Frank Sinatra's ability to encapsulate a cultural epoch. The movie's story (from a novel by the brilliant war writer James Jones, no less surefooted in treating the home front than he was in defining the peacetime Army in From Here To Eternity and depicting the battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line) and performances (featuring fine work by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and even Arthur Kennedy, one of those old nudniks I would ordinarily avoid like the Marburg virus) were impressive on their own; but what really caught my attention was one scene that wasn't even central to the film.

In the scene, Sinatra, playing a recently discharged soldier, checks into a room in a boarding house and begins unpacking his kit bag. Each item in the pack reveals some key piece of information about his character: a whiskey bottle to show he's a heavy drinker, a dog-eared manuscript to show he's a writer, and so on. And so we'll understand that he is not merely a writer but a Serious Man of Letters, Sinatra draws out, one by one, a small library of cinder-block sized books whose hard covers signal the manly seriousness of their authors—there's The Portable Faulkner, a Steinbeck collection, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, a volume of Hemingway...

You could plan that scene for weeks and not come up with a more appropriate collection of literary lions to illustrate the concept of important literature in the late fifties. It's not just that the books are big; the writers are big too—heavyweight thinkers, full-blooded men (and only men) who know the hard life, authors as big and lusty and brawling as the land they sing, who would no sooner deal in trivialities than they would publish fewer than 400 pages at a clip, who write not just for an age but for all time. For mid-century literary masculinity, only these titans would do. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, would be a bit too much of a pantywaist for this crowd. Dos Passos? Man enough, but a little too... artsy. John Cheever? I think you'll be happier in the ladies section, thank you! James Jones, of course, was himself very much in this two-fisted literary tradition, but still too new at the time to be full-fledged mentor. Hard cheese, because 1958 (the film is ostensibly set in the late forties) was just about the last time you could have passed off this collection of longwinded geniuses as the summa of literary attainment.

Thus we have a scene that perfectly draws certain notions of American manhood at a certain moment. And the Chairman is there; if you wanted to be a hardbellied litterateur in 1958, and you needed some behavioral cues, all you had to do was look at Frank Sinatra. It certainly didn't require a figure of Sinatra's caliber to pull off the scene I've just described, but it's almost inevitable that Sinatra would end up playing it. From his early days as a duplicitous draft dodger, through his heyday as a gin-sizzling hipster and then a greaser-hating square, and even up through his final persona as an embittered Reagan Democrat, Sinatra could embody stages in the evolution of the American Male in ways that were perfectly apt.

And sometimes, perfectly inapt. For Sinatra is often at his most revelatory when he tries to put on a contemporary persona, and fails. It's hard to remember now, when Sinatra looms as such a changeless, insufferable icon of the martini age, that at various times he strove mightily to catch up with changing fashions in self-creation, puffing and wheezing from the exertion. This is the Sinatra of the "Both Sides Now" cover, of the colossally embarrassing marriage to Mia Farrow, of the scraggly late-sixties beard. It's the Sinatra who really represented a generation of American men, caught flat-footed by the social changes of the sixties, not wanting to be out of it but unable to get in on it, and never really sure what "it" is.

[frank the hippie]

It's also the Sinatra of Watertown, an undeservedly obscure LP from 1969. Recorded at about the same time the Manson family members were carving out new modes of hippie self-styling, Watertown is a poignant attempt to get Ol' Blue Eyes up to speed with the kids. As such it is both an artistic curiosity of great interest and a work of profound irony. It is Frank Sinatra's rock opera.

"Since Sinatra was pretty much the originator of the concept album," one fan writes, "it was only natural that during a time when rock bands were acting like they invented the idea, he should remind everyone just who started the conceptual ball rolling." Sinatra fans have a tendency to credit The Voice for every innovation short of the airplane, so this overstatement is to be expected. As a rock opera, the lite-rock Watertown is closer in spirit to Strauss's domestic Intermezzo than to the arena-shaking bombast of The Who. In fact, if the album ultimately doesn't succeed, it's because a successful concept album needs to be part of a constellation of ancillary products and deadly earnest drama. That level of commitment was beyond Sinatra, who might work hard on a project but would never go through the humiliation of staying in character during concerts, staging full-glam media events, playing with screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan.

It is, however, interesting to see how close he came. "To launch the project, we had envisioned a one-man TV show," says Watertown producer and co-composer Bob Gaudio, in a fascinating interview:
[Co-writer Jake Holmes] and I discussed what would be an interesting thing to do for Sinatra. What we could do that he hadn't done before. We just hit on putting him in a small town. Having a small-town approach and taking it down as much as we could to basic life in Middle America. We tried to strip all of the gloss and sheen off of it. We were asked to come up with something unusual, something different, a concept album if you will.

Gaudio also has a theory for why Watertown failed to find an audience. "He just wasn't happy with his singing at the time and he didn't want to do any television or films," Gaudio says. "He made very few personal appearances. Unfortunately, he didn't want to hold the album back. In retrospect, we would have been better off sitting on it for as long as it took. We needed a launching pad and never got it."

These quotes may suggest that Watertown is a frequently discussed album. It is not. Here is all of Nancy Sinatra's only entry about the work in Frank Sinatra, An American Legend:
August 26, 1969: Dad recorded the album Watertown. Produced by Charlie Calello (sic), written by Bob Gaudio for Frank, it was about Watertown, New York. Recalls Bob Gaudio: "It was designed to be a TV special, a story of a small town and a guy's trials and tribulations. It lost the impact and turned out to be an album that not too many people understood."

John Rockwell, in Sinatra, An American Classic, writes only, "He... essayed soft-rock concept albums, with an incongruous collection of wispy Rod McKuen musings, A Man Alone, and a more persuasive suite entitled Watertown, by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes."

Kitty Kelley's biography His Way is a book otherwise beyond praise, and more importantly never misses an opportunity to dwell on the Chairman's failures, faults and general monstrousness; but Kelley's discussion of Watertown, while absolutely astute, is brief. "When he listened to his voice on his next album, Watertown," she writes, "even he was chagrined. Some critics felt it was too progressive for his traditional audience, but not enough so to attract the children of Woodstock. The album sold only 35,000 copies."

More recently, we have a perceptive review by blogger "D" ("Sinatra sings to the subtext and not to the surface meaning"), a breezy pick by Tucson Weekly's Dave McElfresh ("a high point in the downward spiral Sinatra's career was beginning to take"), and a succinct description by Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide ("Not only does it tell a full-fledged story, it is his most explicit attempt at rock-oriented pop... Constructed as a series of brief lyrical snapshots that read like letters or soliloquies, the culminating effect of the songs is an atmosphere of loneliness, but it is a loneliness without much hope or romance..."). And that's about it. Not much recognition for a record that not only marked an important turning in Sinatra's career, but may point the way toward future Sinatra appreciation.

[lonely guy]

Like all true concept albums, Watertown is summed up by its cover art, which is credited to Don Snyder for the album design and Ove Olsen for the pen and ink cover. The cover drawing, of a nearly-deserted train station, stretches across the front and back of the foldout album jacket (another loss for the compact disk age); the picture hints at both the small-town languor (a rain-slicked street, lined with a barbershop, firehouse and nondenominational church, appears empty), and the sense of abandonment (a distant line of smoke indicates the train has left the station—a point that will be alluded to specifically in the lyrics) that form the record's central themes.


Like Hitler, Ove Olsen is a draftsman more skilled at drawing buildings and structures than at rendering human figures. This drawing of a man leaving the platform is the kind of stiff-limbed sketch only a regular reader of simpleton could truly appreciate. Is he sporting a beard? That would complete the grooving-with-the-kids effect, but the drawing is so poor we can't tell. Nevertheless, this guy's placement, toward the edge of the front cover, facing a pair of (even worse-drawn) children, is significant.

The inside cover art, in another half-nod to the youth culture of the late sixties, is a collage, but a tasteful one, depicting a pile of letters, anniversary cards, books, and photos spread across an old rug. These items seem to signal the wreckage of a marriage, and sure enough, Watertown turns out to be a song cycle, part narrative and part meditative, about a guy whose wife has deserted him with their two sons. Along the way, we get brief portraits of small-town extras ("John Henry came to cut the lawn/Again he asked me where you'd gone/can't tell you all the times he's been told/but he's so old..."), but the cycle's real theme is the aftermath of the breakup.

And it's literally a cycle. The first track ("Watertown") and the last ("The Train") form two halves of the same scene—the sad-sack husband waiting at station ("She says she's comin' home," the penultimate song has promised), and filling himself so full of hopes for a happy reunion ("Even bought that summer cottage yesterday") that everybody, except the husband, knows he's going to get stood up. "The passengers for Allentown are gone," Sinatra trails off, "The train is slowly moving on/But I can't see you anyplace/And I know for sure I'd recognize your face."

Between these two bookends, the record features a brave-face elegy ("people say to me, you need company/when you have some time to spend/drop around and meet a friend"), an epistolary song addressed to the wife ("I think the house could use some paint/you know your mother's such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can/she sure needs a man") an apostrophe ("Elizabeth, Elizabeth"), an ironic breakup narrative ("there is no string ensemble/and she doesn't even cry"), and a grab bag of lyrical and story songs.


As these word-sheet excerpts show, Watertown's concerns are strictly domestic, even mundane. The record hasn't got a potential single, the melodies are without hooks or radio-friendly phrasing, and the lyrics rely heavily on that plodding "she does this and then she does that" play-by-play that gained ground in the seventies and eighties. (For a more recent stab at this style, listen to Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, an album which, unlike the September 11 attacks that inspired it, proved mercifully forgettable.) Nonetheless, the record is surprisingly effective, never descending into the abominable songcraft of, for example, the Bergmans and Michel Legrand, who took the art of unrhymed, arrhythmic, humdrum tunelessness to ghastly extremes in their Yentl soundtrack. Bob Gaudio composed or co-composed most of the hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and even when he's consciously limiting himself, he retains his gifts for melody and lyrical flow.

For all the novelty of hearing Sinatra doing album-oriented rock, the concept is probably the least innovative thing about Watertown. The cyclical abandonment form was invented by the Victorian writer George Meredith in his novelistic sonnet cycle Modern Love, which covers the breakup of a marriage in biting detail. The glimpses of small-town life that dot the album are familiar from Spoon River Anthology.

The mood of the album has an even more contemporary model—the sensitive guy style that began in the late sixties and reached its peak in 1975 with Morris Albert's legendary "Feelings." Sensitive guy songs made extensive use of the absent—and if possible, dead—wife as a dramatic theme. For a good example, try Mac Davis's "Don't Cry, Daddy" (covered by Elvis himself), which features the immortal couplet "You've still got me and little Tommy/Together we'll find a brand-new mommy." Almost the entire (too brief!) career of quintessential sensitive guy Bobby Goldsboro hinges on divorcing or dead wives—see "With Pen In Hand," "Autumn Of My Life," "Honey," et al. (The wife in Meredith's Modern Life winds up dead as well.)

This sort of wimp rock was the most congenial rock style for Sinatra, although even here he brings a certain bullying Úlan that doesn't entirely fit the mood. It must have been a sense of this disjunction that led him to cancel the one-man Watertown TV project. Sinatra was too powerful a presence to sit comfortably in a context of solid mawkishness (though the details surrounding his divorce from Ava Gardner in Kelley's His Way—a book that, once again, I heartily recommend—show a man capable of gargantuan self-pity). To play Watertown dramatically would have required the skills of a Mike Farrell.

From its fondness for dispatching woman in various ways, you can guess the central irony of sensitive guy art: Devised as a compromise position for family men displaced as the structures of male privilege crumbled, it remained a solidly male-dominated field, replacing outward aggression toward women with passive aggression toward women. In almost all sensitive guy divorce songs, for example, the woman abandons not only the husband but also the kids—a phenomenon whose frequency was as vanishingly small in the sixties as it is now. Intriguingly, there's an indication that Gaudio and Holmes may have been aware of this condescension. "Lady Day," a cut that is not on the version of Watertown I have (but is apparently available on a French import CD), seems to describe the wandering wife in greater detail. Here's how Holmes assesses that song in an interview:
I saw this woman as someone who had talent. She wanted to be an artist or a singer. He was a hometown person. His whole orientation was family and business. He was the kind of guy who really lived in Watertown. She was more restless—a more contemporary woman. She wanted to do other things. She wasn't liberated enough to tell him, and she didn't think he'd understand. He was basically a good guy, but she wanted more. She abandoned her family and went for a career. The postscript was whether or not she got it and was it worth it.

It's easy to see how ironically this song would have played when set against something like "What A Funny Girl (you used to be)," which more than lives up to the patronizing tone set in the title ("You always had a thousand things to do/getting all involved in something new/always some new recipe/the kitchen always looked like world war three").

How successful Watertown is as a project, I'm not really qualified to say. My appreciation of Sinatra extends mostly to a warts-and-all fascination with him as a charismatic and appalling cultural figure, rather than as a performer. (For me, Sammy was the only Rat Packer who mattered.) Somebody who appreciates Sinatra's art less ironically than I do could pass better judgment on the album.

But I think there are some areas on which Watertown's influence was clear. First, it was a major milestone on the path to Sinatra's first retirement. Coming after the Rod McKuen curio, Watertown was followed by another disappointing album, Sinatra & Company, and by the box office bomb Dirty Dingus Magee. In the midst of these multimedia failures, Sinatra had an ugly run-in with Sanford Waterman, manager of the Las Vegas Caesar's Palace, after Waterman confronted Sinatra about his abuse of hotel credits. According to eyewitnesses, Sinatra began threatening the casino manager and shouting anti-Semitic slurs, and Waterman ended up pulling a pistol and pointing it between the Chairman's eyes. Sinatra announced that he would never play Las Vegas again (just as, a decade later, he would swear off Atlantic City following his "Go back to China" dustup with Golden Nugget blackjack dealer Kyong Kim). Shortly thereafter, disgusted with his art, his industry, and maybe himself, Sinatra announced his retirement.

All of Sinatra's retirements were notoriously brief, but Watertown had one more permanent effect: It ended his efforts to attract youthful listeners. If he'd continued on this track, who knows what covers we might have heard in later years—Sinatra versions of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" or Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning"?

But the effort to hip up with the kids was not as simple as that. I think critics paint with too broad a brush in thinking that Watertown was an effort to attract the Woodstock generation—an effort Sinatra even at his most deluded must have realized was hopeless. Demographics do not break down into neat packets, with the Wake Island generation yielding directly to the Woodstock generation. The bulk of Sinatra's listeners were in fact tweeners slightly younger than himself. Tom Brokaw is unlikely to write a book-length encomium to this generation; nor will Tom Hanks play one of them as a retard in a decades-spanning epic. But hey, they fought the Korean war, and they were the real Watertown generation—young enough to have their marriages wrecked by the sexual revolution, but too old to enjoy the benefits of women's lib and consequence-free copulation. By skewing younger, Sinatra wasn't so much fishing for a new audience as he was trying to reconnect with his original audience. The anxiety of the tweeners is not the feeling that your moment is past, but that you never had any moment at all. This is the dilemma of Peter Sellers in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, of the would-be swinger couples in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.

That sense of Prufrockian anomie formed an element, but only a small element, of Francis Albert Sinatra's art. But it forms all the art of another Sinatra, a Sinatra whose life has been one of emotional vacuity and quiet desperation, a Sinatra shot through with the anxiety of missed greatness. I am speaking, of course, of Frank Sinatra Jr., possibly the most under-appreciated figure of postwar popular culture. Every element of Frank Jr.'s biography—the tender-years divorce of Frank Sr. and Nancy, the bitter (and frequent) interview complaints about his father's emotional distance, the pathetic attempts to make it as a cabaret singer, the highly suspicious circumstances of his kidnapping—hints at the kind of domestic frost and ignoble tragedy that Watertown offers in abundance. If Frank Jr. is to live up to the greatness of his birthright, he will do it by way of Watertown and through the more ungainly, thick-around-the-middle parts of his father's legacy, by recalling not the supremely confident Chairman, but the man who had too many regrets to mention.

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