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Good Times at Sinatrapalooza
Communing with "fat bastards," french-fry murderers, and guys who wear enough jewelry to open a Zales - plus, a note on the Trump indictment
I’m away this week, and on the run. Not from The Law, unlike some ex-presidents I could mention. Yes, I know I’m required by statute as a ringside commentator at the tragicomic fight club that has become our national life to at least make passing mention of Mr. Trump, who has the distinction of becoming the first ex-president to be indicted on federal charges. Much as he was the first president to be impeached twice, the first president to inspire his droogs to sack the Capitol while protesting an election that he clearly lost, and the first president to extend “best wishes to everyone, even the haters and losers, on this special date, September 11th.” I keep hearing one pundit after another say we are in unprecedented territory. To which I say: Thanks, Scoop. We’ve been in that territory since about 2015. The unprecedented is starting to feel a bit precedented. The only thing that would feel unorthodox now is normalcy.
And yes, I know I should interrupt my away-ness to write a thundering, screechy 5,000 word denouncement of The Don’s gangster-like behavior. But I feel like the media has it pretty well covered. Though upon reading the indictment on Friday, and seeing all the pretty pictures of places where Trump stashed documents that don’t belong to him, I did offer this micro-insight on Substack Notes, a place I sometimes go against my better judgment to drum up business when my devoted readers haven’t gotten the job done on the word-of-mouth front. (Subtle hint.)
On account of me not being at my regular battle station, that’s all you’re going to get from me on the subject for now. Though don’t fret. This is Trump we’re talking about. There will be plenty more indictments for us to get worked up over. We’ll be discussing his legal woes until he dies. And in case you forgot, he’s only 76 years old, and his father lived to be 93. So it’s all about pacing ourselves.
Before shoving off, however, I went looking through the vault for a journalism offering, so as to not leave you bereft, or to drain the color from tomorrow, which is not just Trump’s arraignment day, but our most hallowed of holidays, International Albinism Awareness Day. (I’m not making that up. This year’s theme is #InclusionIsStrength.)
While doing so, I was reminded that 25 years ago last month, The Chairman of The Board, Frank Sinatra, left us. I’m not going to pretend I was some Sinatra superfan. Though I was a casual one. If you’re half Italian, it’s in the unofficial rulebook that you must be.
Shortly before Francis Albert Sinatra checked out to meet his maker, or perhaps to meet the guy who rules further south if you believe Kitty Kelley, I headed to Atlantic City to commune with a rowdy bunch of his actual superfans at Sinatrapalooza. Like Frank himself, they were darkly hilarious and poetic and beautifully flawed. Before arriving, I thought it might be a goof piece, something like what Don Rickles did to the roster at the Sinatra roast. But it ended up becoming a love letter to Frank and his people. You might enjoy it even if you have no affinity for Sinatra’s music. So here it is:
Thirty years ago, Gay Talese wrote a famous essay called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." These days, Frank Sinatra has much more than a cold. There's the two recent heart attacks, the Alzheimer's rumors, and now, the tabloids are certain he has bladder cancer. His family says he's fine. But whoever the guy is who keeps getting photographed in wrinkled pajama tops with Abe Lincoln growth and his rug sagging left doesn't look like a serenely aging version of the snap-brimmed, elegantly haberdashed Sinatra of the Capitol years, or even the last-legs penguin-suit-and-party-heels Sinatra of the mid-'90s. Frank isn't talking -- he always regarded the press as a bunch of "buck-and-a-half whores." But the smart money says that at 81, he's about two hands shy of the big casino.
So there is a tinge of finality and high purpose when my Frankophile editor dispatches me to the second annual "Sinatrapalooza" convention in Atlantic City. Not only do I go to retrieve some of the best esoterica the nation's Sinatra collectors can offer before Frank expires and jacks the prices to hell -- the real mission is to separate the chaff from the wheat, the true Sinatra crazies from the nouveau swingers and cigar-and-martini chicks who ape Frank's Rat Pack Era fabulosity with all of his tics and none of his soul.
The good news is, the irony buses don't run 20 miles outside Atlantic City to the low-roller Sheraton hotel (decorated in the conch-shell pastels of a Sarasota retirement center) that is home to Sinatrapalooza. These 100 or so devotees love him more than his fourth wife, Barbara, does, and last weekend's assemblage was a three-day vigil of karaoke and elegiac commerce, with no hope of Frank's making a cameo. "He's in bad shape," says conference organizer and alpha-fan Rick Apt (manager of the Sinatra Web site, www.blue- eyes.com). "He ain't goin' anywhere."
Though many already speak of him in the past tense, they all call him "Frank" as if they know him. And in a way they do. They know his birth address in Hoboken, and that his favorite color is orange, and that his smokes were Lucky's, and that his drink was Jack Daniels, and that "Summer Wind" is the most perfect hybrid of swinging melancholia ever vinylized, and that "In the Wee Small Hours Of the Morning" is the best friend you'll ever have if your wife leaves you.
And it is easy to go drippy, as do so many slumming intellectuals and shot glass sentimentalists from the Pete Hamill school of ooze. Keeping in mind that Sinatra was, or is, a marginally irreverent guy: driving golf carts through windows, throwing a glass pitcher at Buddy Rich's head, ripping phones out of the wall at the Sands for being the wrong color, ripping pages out of scripts when shooting interfered with "'tini time," hanging out with monikers like "the Crusher" and "the Weasel," and eating ham and eggs off a hooker's chest with the good silver.
The true fans embrace all facets of Sinatra. They scarf up the artifacts with their Sinatra MasterCards: eight-track versions of his last solo album, L.A. Is My Lady, old TV Guide covers, expired coupons for his pasta sauces, even video of him testifying at the Nevada Gaming Commission hearings. They celebrate not only his triumphs, but his embarrassments: his disco version of "Night and Day," the remake of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and anything having to do with Frank Sinatra Jr.
They've internalized his vim and exude his style. Like 21-year-old Joseph Mizzi, who wears a black suit with an open butterfly collar and keeps all his money in a roll, the bills arranged from high to low, with the presidents facing the same way. Then there's Stanley Palter, the 66-year-old furniture salesman, who forgot to pack his dress pants for the dinner and dance, but who shows up anyway in coat and tie, tasseled loafers, gray nylon dress socks -- and shorts, because he "wanted to look sharp," like Frank.
You can see it, too, in the karaoke session, where a club singer from Brooklyn who sounds as silken as Johnny Hartman, but who wears the tux of a discount magician, dangles his long ash over the kelly-green carpet, yelling encouragement to the atrophied old dolls and socks'n'sandaled wheezers who suddenly seemed ennobled by "Witchcraft" and "The Best is Yet to Come."
"Take it uptown, baby," Frank Sinatra prods one of the karaoke boys. No, not that Frank Sinatra -- another one, who seems to have renamed himself in tribute to the Chairman of the Board. He has a phone card that reads "Frank Sinatra," even. But when somebody asks him to prove it with a driver's license, Sinatra looks insulted. "I don't drive, I'm driven," he deadpans. (Like Frank, he has an entourage, two guys named Johnny Schiano and Johnny Bread. "They don't call him 'Bread for nuttin'," Johnny said of Johnny. "That's all I'm gonna say.")
This was not a wake, but a mildly ribald, coarse homage, appropriate to the subject. I have after-dinner drinks with Rick Apt and Nicky Russo, an Atlantic City liquor-store owner with apple-butter coloring and cufflinks the size of hubcaps. My wife doesn't own as much jewelry as he is wearing in one shot: twin pinky rings, four bracelets per wrist, a gold chain that contains a crucifix, a "Boss" charm, an Italian horn, and a gold Sinatra head with blue sapphires for eyes. We watch the DJ clear the dance floor with "Send In the Clowns," and Nicky offers amicable threats: "If you play that Snoop Doggy Dogg, it'll be your last song."
As Rick attempts to get serious, telling me how his dad died when he was young and Sinatra became a father figure, Nicky's Dewar's nearly escapes through his nose. "Yeah," he says, "Frank used to take him down to Little League." And here he slips into clipped Hobokenese, in imitation of The Man: "Hit the ball, ya fat bastahhd!"
There are moments when I hear the voices of grown men -- strong men, who lift things for a living -- crack a little when describing Sinatra's last shows in 1994. Brad Lorrico, a 56-year-old who "loads trucks" and who has seen Sinatra perform live about 110 times, was there when Frank told the same jokes three times and introduced Frank Jr. (his bandleader) four times and couldn't get through a song even with the TelePrompTers he had taken to using in the late 1980s. "I don't think Frank ever cried in public," he says, "but that night, he actually had tears. People in the audience would start cheering and finishing his songs -- like, 'Frank, you're there, the rest isn't important. You're there for us -- and we're here for you.'"
It is usually at this point in a Sinatra article that scholars will tell you his six-decades staying power is due to his long-breath techniques, his intonation and dynamics, his sustained legato, his vocal color. But it's a little simpler than that, says Harold Klein, a 68-year-old Baltimore builder who sells Sinatra clocks and watches: "He's got the most charisma. He could walk out on the stage and fart, and they would applaud."
Klein, in his white pants and blue denim shirt with epaulets, can relate to Sinatra. He too has a charismatic bent, sometimes to detrimental effect, like when he's insulting our mistake-prone waiter ("He should come with an eraser on his head") or fighting with other perfectly likable vendors ("I wanna tear his eyeballs out" he says of one) or excusing Sinatra's beastly appetites ("He's had more women in bed than Johns Hopkins Hospital").
Almost unanimously thought of as a blowhard and a bully at Sinatrapalooza, Klein brings to mind what Sinatra friend George Schlatter, the producer, once said: "Frank is just like you. Just like me. Only bigger." So I sit enraptured, watching Klein bite the head off a french fry as spittle collects in the corners of his mouth and he perfectly distills what the technocrats and the detractors and the hipster arrivistes often miss about what makes Sinatra Sinatra:
"He projected an air of danger, as if to say, 'Darling, I'm gonna sing to you, or I'm gonna break both your fuckin' legs.' But it was beautifully dangerous. And if you lay down one night in the dark, and put on the headphones, and listen to him sing 'Only the Lonely' or ‘I’m a Fool to Want You,’ you hear a man open up his heart. To be a real singer is to stand bare-ass naked in front of 10,000 people, and to bare your heart, and to touch those people and make them say, 'I remember when I was in love -- there's nothin' like it, man.'"
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Bonus Tracks: My favorite Sinatra song of all time (which Bruce Springsteen has called the one song he could listen to for the rest of his life) is Sinatra’s 1966 recording of “Summer Wind.” It was originally a German song (“Der Sommerwind”) that Johnny Mercer put to English without ditching the metaphorical properties of the sirocco, defined by Merriam-Webster as the hot dust-laden wind that blows in from the Libyan deserts, across the sea, accosting the northern Mediterranean coast chiefly in Italy, Malta, and Sicily. Since I already hyperlinked to the full version above, here’s a clip I’ve always loved – the best-ever cinematic use of the song– Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts playing wiseguy stickball to it in the 1984 film, The Pope of Greenwich Village. Not everyone can pull off playing stickball in their suits and smoking cigarettes on the pitcher’s mound.
And here’s one of the favorites of my old french fry-eating pal from the story, Harold Klein. Sinatra doing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” on which he had a rare songwriting co-credit. Misery inspires creativity, I guess. Sinatra first recorded it in 1951 with the Ray Charles Singers, and he was plenty miserable at the time. His career was on the downswing, and he was having a torrid love affair with Ava Gardner. The latter doesn’t sound too bad, you say. But his wife, Nancy, was not a fan. She initially wouldn’t grant him a divorce, the Catholic Church condemned him, and Sinatra reportedly felt guilty over the fallout of the affair putting his family (which then consisted of three young kids) through the ringer. By the time he re-recorded it in 1957, he and Gardner had married and were divorcing, too. (Not before, however, she’d hauled off to Madrid to have an affair with Spain’s most popular bullfighter.) I hyperlinked to the 1951 original above, but I prefer his 1957 post-Ava-wreckage version, recorded at the Capitol Records Tower on what was Sinatra’s first stereo album, Where Are You? It was his unlucky-number-thirteenth studio album, but it was a pretty lucky song for Sinatra. Considered a standard, it’s been recorded by over 100 other artists, everyone from Billie Holiday to Elvis Costello to Bob Dylan.