Put Your Money on the Bar, and Listen to Sinatra

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I grew up in White Plains, New York, in the 1960s, reading Pete Hamill’s columns in the old New York Post. It’s hard to imagine now, after all these years of Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing bludgeoning, but at the time, the Post was the great liberal, working class tabloid, featuring the best writing I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. Hamill, who holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, was a huge influence on my decision to go into newspapers in the mid-1970s, and I have read almost everything he’s written—newspaper columns, magazine articles, novels, essays, screenplays and more—over the years.

I also grew up listening to Frank Sinatra on WNEW-AM which was always on the radio in our kitchen, especially when the legendary William B. Williams was on the air with his Make Believe Ballroom. Sinatra was one of the first things my father and I agreed on, and it remained a shared bond until he died.

So it’s no surprise that my favorite book about Frank Sinatra is Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, originally written in 1998, shortly after Sinatra died, and re-released last fall as part of Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration. If you love Sinatra, this book is indispensable.

At just 180 pages, it’s a book you will come back to year after year, and each time, it will reveal new insights about the man and his music. It’s not a biography. It’s really more of an extended essay, a very personal perspective not only on why Sinatra matters, but why he will continue to matter. As Hamill writes:

The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture. The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art always survives. Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relieve the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect.’ In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra.

“That mysterious quality that makes the listener more human.”

I have never read or heard a better description of Sinatra’s genius, and why his music has mattered so much to me almost my entire life. This is an intimate book, one that takes you into the smoky backroom at PJ Clarke’s as Sinatra holds court, and into the back seat of a limousine as it rolls through Central Park in the wee small hours of the morning in New York. On the pages of Why Sinatra Matters, you encounter an artist and a man you will like very much, as Hamill did.

You will love this book for its passion, its honesty, its keen appreciation of art, history, and culture, and perhaps most of all for the understated brilliance of lines like this: “If you loved someone who did not love you back, you could always walk into a saloon, put your money on the bar, and listen to Sinatra.”

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One of my prize possessions: a signed copy of Why Sinatra Matters, with words to live by.

So today, as we mark the 18th anniversary of Sinatra’s passing, listening to his timeless music still represents the ultimate triumph over the banality of death. William B. Williams is long gone, but living in the Philadelphia area, I’m lucky enough to have the ageless Sid Mark still on the air in his 59th year doing an all-Sinatra radio show. (You can listen live on soundsofsinatra.com Sunday mornings from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.)

Since the anniversary of Sinatra’s death falls on a Sunday this year, Sid was on the radio this morning, as he has been for almost six decades, talking about his old friend and playing his music for fans young and old.

I’m also spending time today with Pete Hamill’s wonderful book. Hamill turned 80 last year; I turned 60. Both of us grew up listening to Sinatra on our parents’ radio. So did my daughters. (With Sid Mark filling the role that William B. Williams played in my parents’ home in White Plains.)

I have no doubt that in the decades to come, future generations of listeners will grow up discovering and embracing that mysterious quality that makes them more human.

Coda: Remembering Frank

This is a very good interview with Pete Hamill on McGraw Milhaven’s radio show on St. Louis station KTRS on the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth.

 

 

Dead Flowers for the Decadent and Depraved

For the Kentucky Derby, as with many recurring events in my life, there are certain rituals that must be observed.

Mint juleps, however, are not one of them. Not that I really mind mint juleps. But just as Jack Nicholson, in the classic diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, tries unsuccessfully to order a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken salad because what he really wants is a side order of wheat toast, I simply prefer my mint juleps without the mint. Or the simple syrup. Or the crushed ice.

Unlike Jack, I do manage to get my bourbon—Maker’s Mark has long been preferred in my family. If I’m feeling extravagant, maybe I’ll put an ice cube or two in it. Provided they’re very small ice cubes.

Over the years, I have found that bourbon is the perfect complement to one of my favorite Kentucky Derby rituals: spending time with the late Hunter S. Thompson’s savagely funny and enduringly influential magazine article The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, first published in Scanlan’s Monthly in June 1970 and reprinted almost a decade later in the essential Thompson collection, The Great Shark Hunt. (Read the article in its entirety on Grantland, which sadly has joined Scanlan’s in the literary boneyard where great writing goes to die.)

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For years, the annual Run for the Roses would compel me to pull Shark Hunt off the shelf for a return trip to the Big Bang of Gonzo Journalism, what the novelist William Kennedy, a longtime friend of Thompson’s, called “the great mother lode. Hunter had discovered that confounding sums of money could be had by writing what seemed to be journalism, while actually you were developing your fictional oeuvre.”

Thompson, in a letter to his editor and mentor, Warren Hinckle, writes: “I just read over the Derby article for the first time and it strikes me as a monument to whatever kind of limbo exists between humor and tragedy.

Indeed. Hunter S. Thompson’s writing during his creative peak (which I would date from the publication of Hell’s Angels in 1966 through at least Shark Hunt in 1979, with flashes of brilliance from the 1980s until the end in 2005) proved to be a singular achievement. While Thompson spawned several generations of imitators, none have even approached his genius.

What far too many fail to realize is that Hunter S. Thompson was a gifted prose stylist who worked hard at his craft, at least until the point where the legend consumed the writer. But even in his declining years, before he turned his shotgun on himself in the dead of a cold February night in Woody Creek after football season was over, Thompson still loomed large over his legion of would-be successors, stomping them into the terra.

The Derby article also is significant because it marked the first time Thompson worked with the British artist Ralph Steadman, who would prove to be his perfect creative foil. The pairing of Thompson and Steadman did for publishing what the teaming of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger did for music.

Making Bets

In recent years, I have altered my ritual slightly, thanks to the release on CD of a dramatized reading of the Kentucky Derby piece that features an eclectic all-star cast that includes Tim Robbins as Thompson, Ralph Steadman as himself, Dr. John as the character Jimbo, jazz singer Annie Ross as the motel desk clerk, and SNL alum Will Forte as the car rental clerk.

Released in 2012 on Paris Records, the CD features a score composed and conducted by the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. It’s a marvelous production, bringing Thompson’s viciously chaotic comic scenes to life while hewing to the sacred text. I highly recommend picking up the CD for your collection. It’s also available to those of you on Spotify as well as to the masses on YouTube.

I’ve found it to be the perfect soundtrack on my annual drive to the Valley Forge Turf Club, my nearest OTB, to make my bets on Kentucky Derby day. Which brings me to the other essential musical accompaniment to the Derby: Dead Flowers by the Rolling Stones.

Well, when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby day
I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away

Yes, Keith and Mick knew a bit about the decadent and depraved … I may not make my Derby day bets from a rose pink Cadillac, and fortunately I’ve never shared Keith’s one-time fondness for the needle and the spoon. But I have always loved this song, which inhabits that same limbo between humor and tragedy. No Derby day is complete without it.

So enjoy your mint juleps and My Old Kentucky Home. I’ll be in my basement room, the one with the Elvis bar, with Maker’s Mark, Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. And a bouquet of Dead Flowers.

Coda: More Dead Flowers

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Dead Flowers is that it’s so damn good it could have been written by the late Townes Van Zandt. It wasn’t, but he did cover it. And it’s his version that plays over the closing credits in The Great Lebowski:

And check out this version from 2002, featuring Keith and Willie Nelson with Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III tearing it up. Often, these all-star jams add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. This is the rare exception: