Articles in section: 'Commentary'

Frank Sinatra – “Why Try To Change Me Now”

Why Try To Change Me Now - Frank SinatraIn a career not short on greatness, “Why Try to Change Me Now” is an especially great Frank Sinatra song, and a great Sinatra moment, all the more so as it is actually two moments: two great studio recordings. There are of-course many songs that Sinatra recorded twice (and more) and they’re always very good for providing a window into how he developed as an artist, as this one is. It can also be noticed that the songs he revisited through his career are all great songs. He recorded his share of cheesy or schlocky tunes over the years—a few of which were big hits, indeed—but each of those he recorded just once.

His first recording of this tune was in 1952, and it was his final recording for the Columbia record label.

Sinatra had signed with Columbia in 1942, at the age of 27, after leaving the Tommy Dorsey band, and it was during this era that he came to be known as The Voice, and what a voice it was. Although no longer as purely angelic as on some of those great Tommy Dorsey sides, Frank’s voice wasn’t straying in these years so very far from paradise; it was deeply romantic, and he could conjure with it just the sufficient level of ache when needed. It was the voice that brought out the bobby-soxed girls and made them faint (and worse). But it was a voice anyone could appreciate, with wonderful expressiveness and the remarkable vocal and breath control that Sinatra had worked for years to achieve. It can be heard at its best on the great ballads that Sinatra sang in those Columbia years, like “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” and “I’m Glad There Is You,” often with the great Axel Stordahl conducting and breaking new ground in the musical framing of a vocalist. Sinatra could swing pretty good too, on tracks like “S’Posin'” and “Five Minutes More,” but he would find his best shoes for swinging years later with Nelson Riddle and Billy May.

On that final recording date in 1952, the bobby soxers and the acclaim must have seemed to be in the very distant past. His divorce from his first wife, Nancy, and his relationship with actress Ava Gardner had knocked him off any angelic pedestal in the popular consciousness, and he’d been struggling as a recording artist and performer. He’d been let go by not only his record company, but also by his movie studio and talent agency. He’d been having real problems with his all-important voice, having difficulty just getting through performances. For his own part, Sinatra maintained that he was glad to get away from Columbia Records: he’d fought for years with producer Mitch Miller over matters of taste, Miller being very fond of novelty records (most infamously represented in Sinatra’s case by the record “Mama Will Bark“) and had to have been dreaming of the freedom to record just what he wanted, just how he wanted. The only problem was that he had no replacement record contract and poor prospects for one. No one on earth could have predicted then how well Sinatra would be doing in just a few short years, following his own muse (though ably abetted by other great talents in the studio).

Sinatra Why Try To Change Me NowThe title of this song, “Why Try to Change Me Now,” seems almost too pat in retrospect as his final turn at the microphone for the record company that he’d felt was trying to change who he was as an artist. But it being Frank Sinatra with a great song in his hands, the record is far, far more than merely a gimmicky goodbye.

The composer, Cy Coleman, noted that Sinatra slightly changed the melody at the opening of the song. He is quoted by Will Friedwald (in the best book I know on Sinatra):

I listened to the record and it sounded so natural, the way that Frank did it, that I thought to myself, “He’s right.” So I left it that way. So I changed the music! That’s the first and only time I’ve ever done that.

The arrangement was by Percy Faith. You can hear the record (or at any rate a digital shadow of it) via iTunes, via Amazon, and currently via YouTube.

The song opens:

I’m sentimental, so I walk in the rain
I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain
Could start for the corner, turn up in Spain
But why try to change me now?

It is in this verse, the next verse and the bridge the song of a misfit, someone who feels himself a bit off-kilter, something of an odd man out in the conventional, modern world. This is not such an unusual theme for a popular song: one could make a very long list of songs with similar sentiments. “Pretty Vacant,” by the Sex Pistols, would be one. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” by Bob Dylan, would be on that list too. And both are enormous fun in their distinct ways. But the beauty and grace of this take on the theme is just that much more conspicuous when you compare it to such others. There is a restraint in the anguish and alienation that is being expressed with merely a wry shrug (as opposed to a molotov cocktail) and there is no singer better able to distill and express that than Frank Sinatra. His voice is beautiful here, but, knowing where he was at in his life, you can just read the great weariness between the lines.

And then there is the final verse, where the song reveals itself as being addressed in just one all-important direction:

So, let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown
You know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down
Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now?

It is a plea to someone whose acceptance matters more than all the rest of the world. And Sinatra voices that last questioning couplet with an exquisitely unstrained sense of yearning and of heartbreak. It is inexpressibly masterful.

Envision, if you will, a tragic twist of fate or two, and this might have been the last record Frank Sinatra ever made.

But, thank God, it was not. And seven years later, in 1959, Sinatra was standing in front of a microphone to sing “Why Try To Change Me Now” again, this time for his album No One Cares.

In the preceding years, under a new contract to Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra had recorded masterpiece after masterpiece, and along the way defined the potential of the long-playing record in popular music. In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Only the Lonely, Come Fly with Me: these and others can be seen now not merely as great records but irreplaceable cultural treasures. (We’re lucky indeed that millions of copies exist.) Sinatra’s very voice had changed; it had gathered maturity, acquiring some cracks that weren’t there before but only an ever-deeper capacity to communicate a song to a listener. Working with brilliant arrangers and musicians, but commanded finally by his own discerning vision, Sinatra recorded some of the most refined, truly adult and simply marvelous popular music that has ever been committed to any medium, before or since.

By this point, he was coming close to the end of this near-perfect run (though he had lots of great stuff still to come). No One Cares was without doubt one of his “mood” albums, the mood succinctly expressed in the title. For these LPs, a crucial element was the way in which Sinatra chose songs without regard to their vintage. There were songs specifically written for the project (like the title track by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) and others from decades previous (like “I Can’t Get Started,” by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, from 1936). The point was to create a whole that held together, greater even than the sum of its great parts. The arranger in this case was Gordon Jenkins. He is not treated by critics as untouchable to the same degree as fellow arranger Nelson Riddle; he had an approach that could sometimes be considered a bit repetitive or simplistic, featuring what are often described as “high keening strings.” (Riddle, by contrast, was always varied and inventive.) Yet, in these years, Sinatra did not over use Jenkins’ talents. So, the two albums from this period, Where Are You? and No One Cares, stand as great examples of Sinatra’s voice framed by Jenkins’ sparse, emotive and exceedingly dark arrangements. (Ironically enough, Sinatra also called on Jenkins for his Christmas album.)

While Sinatra, in the second act of his American life, had enjoyed enormous professional success in the middle and late 1950s, he was still a human being, and other aspects had not gone quite as well. His very anguished relationship with Ava Gardner was officially ended with their divorce in 1957.

But from wherever it came, there was never much doubt that great darkness was there under the surface for Frank, and he could tell the truth about it, like no one else, when he was in front of a microphone.

So, his second recorded reading of “Why Try To Change Me Now” is taken significantly more slowly than the first, every note and syllable carefully measured out. It can be heard via iTunes or via Amazon and currently via YouTube.


Frank’s singing still possesses enormous grace and restraint, but the song is performed as if treading on a ledge that is now substantially thinner. Sinatra’s voice has that added depth that maturity has brought and at the same time some added weaknesses, and he puts all of this into play with devastating but still ultimately unstrained effect (and therein lies a crucial element of his genius).

When he reprises, in the end, the final questioning couplet of the song …

Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now?

… his voice conveys an expectation that is different than before. In the Columbia recording, the singer has a love, and he is at least yearning for a positive, accepting answer to his questions. Here—it seems at least to these ears—the words are sung as if to an abyss, to a lover who he wishes would answer him, but one who he knows is no longer listening …

#SinatraCentenary

……

Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, 2015: A Very Good Year

Bob Dylan Frank Sinatra 2015Some of us are date-oriented and some of us are not. By dates, I refer neither to the fruity nor to the romantic kind (though the same statement would probably apply to both) but rather the chronological sort: anniversaries, birthdays, milestones and the like. Some of us are date deniers, wondering whether it matters that such and such happened so many years ago on this date. This day is still little different from yesterday or tomorrow, after all; it’s just another day, significant only for what it achieves for itself, surely, and not its numerical coordination with some other day.

Bob Dylan, however, has apparently been paying some attention to dates. The first track (“Full Moon and Empty Arms”) to be heard from his forthcoming Sinatra-themed album was released to the world last May 13th, the day before the anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s death in 1998 (perhaps someone’s itchy promotional trigger finger caused it to come out a few hours early, at least state-side). And the album itself is being released right here in the first part of 2015 A.D., which happens to be the centenary of Sinatra’s birth (his birth date being December 12th, 1915). [Read more →]

Bob Dylan, “Stay With Me,” Studio Audio Released

Stay With Me Bob Dylan studio audioWay back in May of last year we first heard “Full Moon and Empty Arms” from the forthcoming Bob Dylan album, Shadows in the Night. Today we have the release of the studio audio of “Stay With Me,” a song that Bob Dylan was closing his live performances with on his most recent tour, written by Jerome Moss and Carolyn Leigh and first recorded by Frank Sinatra. The audio can be heard via NPR (thanks to David H. for the tip). UPDATE: And now you can hear it below via YouTube: [Read more →]

Pope Francis Punches Out the Wrong Guy

Pope FrancisBarely a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the additional murders that followed, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has made some remarks on the broader issue of free speech and the appropriate response to insults to one’s religion. According to the Associated Press, he spoke in an interview aboard the papal airplane and opined that there should indeed be limits to free speech, which he illustrated with this example:

If my good friend Dr. Gasparri [an aide to the Pope] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.
[…]
There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.

It may be surprising to many to hear Pope Francis speak uncritically of punching someone for merely delivering an insult or curse. What happened to turning the other cheek? That was, after all, kind of a big theme with the gentleman who started this whole Christianity racket (in which—full disclosure—yours truly endeavors to sometimes participate). What was his name again? [Read more →]

Pens versus AK-47s and Cartoons versus Atrocities

Je Suis CharlieWhat happened today in Paris at the offices of the publication Charlie Hebdo ought to be a watershed moment that forces just about everyone in what we think of as the free Western world to remember what freedom is, and one that makes the ever growing threats against that freedom no longer possible to deny or excuse. However, a few hours into the watershed moment, it’s not exactly clear that this will the result. There has already been plenty of equivocation, talk of how what the satirists at Charlie Hebdo did was too provocative, and so on. Indeed, it was meant to be provocative, but in a free society provocation by way of ideas and statements should only produce in response other ideas and statements: not riots, not punishment under the law, and not bullets from a Kalashnikov. The spontaneous gathering of people in the streets in France (and around the world) to stand up for those massacred today, symbolically lifting pens into the air, is, on the other hand, a reason to hope that the correct lesson is being drawn by the critical mass of citizens. [Read more →]

For Christmas in New York: Murder

Officers Ramos and LiuRafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in Brooklyn yesterday, five days before Christmas. They were shot to death as they sat peacefully in their patrol car, eating lunch, and performing duty that would have found them without question coming quickly to the assistance of anyone in trouble in the nearby public housing project, as NYPD officers do on a routine and daily basis. The church that Officer Rafael (Ralph) Ramos regularly attended was reportedly packed this morning with those showing sympathy to his bereaved family. Ramos himself, a devout Christian, was to graduate today from the New York State Chaplain Task Force. His partner, Officer Wenjian Liu, had gotten married just two months ago. He and his bride were described today by a neighborhood acquaintance as having been “quiet and clearly in love.” [Read more →]

Will the Last Horse to Leave New York City Please Sweep Up After Himself?

New York carriage horseTaking up an issue central to the platform of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City Council this week introduced legislation that would ban the horse and carriage business in New York City. It remains to be seen if it will be passed. It’s likely no visitor to Manhattan would be unfamiliar with the sight—especially in and around Central Park— of these iconic horse-drawn carriages.

If the legislation passes, it should be emphasized that only the horses will be banned from the city, and not the drivers. The drivers might be offered job “retraining,” or apply for green aka Boro Taxi medallions, or perhaps drive proposed novelty electric vehicles in place of the horse carriages. The horses will be, well, put out to pasture, ostensibly. [Read more →]

Heartburn? Try Sleeping On Your Left Side

Heartburn Sleep Left SideHowever strange one might think it that the president of the United States was first reported to have been sent to the hospital today for “a sore throat” and afterwards was diagnosed with “acid reflux,” it seems an opportune time to share a bit of knowledge I wish someone had shared with me much sooner.

In particular, this piece of advice ought to be shared on every bottle of TUMS® or ROLAIDS® or PEPCID® AC® or [fill in your own preferred over-the-counter antacid preparation]. Informing people of this, however, would necessarily reduce the sales of such substances; so, even in the information age, this information is not very commonly available. [Read more →]

Bob Dylan Abides with “Stay with Me”

Stay with Me Bob DylanSo, on his current tour—or, if you prefer, the current leg of his “Inevitably Going to End One Day” tour—Bob Dylan has been closing his shows in an unprecedented manner, with a song he had never sung in concert before. I’d daresay that precious few singers have sung this song in concert before (and I’d bet the house that no one has ever closed the show with it).

It is a song titled “Stay with Me,” and it was written specifically for a 1963 film directed by Otto Preminger called The Cardinal. Jerome Moss composed the score for the film, and Carolyn Leigh wrote the lyrics for this, the film’s main theme. And the film is about an actual Roman Catholic cardinal; that is, it follows the life of a protagonist named Stephen Fermoyle from Boston as he becomes a priest and goes through various dramas before ultimately rising to that office in the Church. (Curious fact: the “Vatican liaison” on the film was one Joseph Ratzinger.) [Read more →]

Why Sad Music is Cheering

sad musicThere’s been a flurry of stories in the press in response to a study that “reveals” the fact that sad or melancholy music provides consolation to human beings. There are references in these stories to the concept of “nostalgia;” a quote from the study itself states this: [Read more →]

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