Category Archives: Music

Just a Notion: ABBA, Gratitude, Faith and Forgiveness

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”
– C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

The Swedish pop music quartet known as ABBA—Agnetha, Benny, Björn, Ana-Frid—must be known by just about everyone in the world, and everybody likely has an instant take on them; mainly it’s either “I love them” or “I can’t stand them.” During their career together from 1972 to 1982, they became popular in Britain and Europe well before the USA, and have been in general a lot more popular in Europe. Yours Truly first encountered them as a young transplant from America to Ireland in the mid 1970s, and at 8 or 9 years of age became enraptured by Agnetha on the record sleeve but also by the insanely catchy tunes and alluring recordings.

Of-course—excepting the prodigious among us—no one has discerning taste in music at 8 or 9. Still, I maintain in the face of argument that I have ultimately developed decent musical taste, and have journeyed through various phases of taste and discernment to the present day, discarding some affections while acquiring others. Yet, I never discarded ABBA. Their lack of coolness in many circles never bugged me; I’ve liked (and disliked) the cool and the uncool, and watched many artists journey through stages of coolness and uncoolness, but all that had no influence on how I enjoyed the music. (Truth be told, I’ve enjoyed being perverse that way.) And as time went on I came to realize that in the end what I like is just pop music. Even when listening to debatably-different genres like jazz, folk, punk, country: it’s all just pop music to me, and I’m always on the lookout for that special transition to the sublime that happens when a great pop song, in the right hands, produces chills, tears or unfathomable joy.

For the epitome of a great pop record, I could do no better than to point to the example John Lennon liked to reference: “Be My Baby,” the Phil Spector tune and production, performed by the Ronettes.

While great popular music can obviously get considerably more sophisticated and mature than “Be My Baby,” that track possesses all the essential elements—irresistible tune, great sound and performance, a persuasive pathos and terrific pithiness—and it hits you good and hard with all of that stuff, which makes it such an attractive archetype.

Over their career, ABBA hit the heights, occasionally the depths, and everywhere in-between, but all in all delivered an amazing number of superb tunes that have more than proven their worth by virtue of their longevity in the popular consciousness. I’ve always had a soft spot for their simplest pure pop confections, like “Ring Ring,” “Hasta Manana,” and “Honey, Honey.” Sure, there’s a treacly quality to those early sides, but a little bit of sugar never added to the bitterness in this world.

And a little later in their career, is there a better pop record about a struggling-to-survive marriage than “One Man, One Woman”? Or a more poignant take on watching a child grow up (and grow away) than “Slipping Through My Fingers”?

I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning the biggest hits of all, because everyone knows them so well anyway. Again, the longevity of these songs is amazing, and—by their own account—shocking to the members of ABBA themselves. Something’s going on when so many thousands of contemporaneous hits are all but forgotten, while these continue to be played and discovered anew by millions of listeners. The use of the songs in movies and musicals has been part of that, of-course, but the fact of their usage in those new forms itself attests to their durability. (Personally, I never dug any of that stuff: I continue to just like the original records, though there are one or two cover versions I’ve enjoyed.)

I’d suggest that for a pop artist or group to generate the continuing public affection that ABBA demonstrably have done, there needs to be some inspirational quality in what they do. There needs to be an evocation of something higher, whatever one calls it; there needs to be a stretch towards the sublime. Cynical music (which unfortunately there’s plenty of) doesn’t last, certainly not in the popular consciousness.

In the case of ABBA, I think this inspirational element is their implicit joy in and gratitude for music itself. It’s audible in the records, and it is contagious, and it infects and uplifts the willing listener. It comes across both in the craft of the songwriting and the obvious care and pleasure the artists take in their performances and recordings.

And, conveniently enough, they actually have a song that expresses it directly. That would be “Thank You for the Music.”

Gratitude itself is kind of a holy thing. (From way back.) And expressing gratitude for music is inescapably a “thank you” to the Creator of music. Now, the song has those cute lines wondering who originally “found out that nothing can capture a heart like a melody can,” and then asserting, “well, whoever it was, I’m a fan.” However, although Mr. Gore invented the internet, everyone knows that no politician, industrialist or even any noble peasant invented music. Music is built in to the universe: the music of the spheres, generated from the form and harmony of reality itself. Humans were not needed to create it, but only, perhaps, to hear it. (And make hit records with it.)

I should say that I don’t mean to tread on the religious beliefs or lack thereof of the members of ABBA here. I have no idea what they are, and I’m happy to assume for the sake of argument that all four are securely secular Swedes. That doesn’t matter: a great song is a song which both emerges from somewhere mysterious and continues off to somewhere mysterious. It is not a manifesto of the songwriter’s opinions, because by definition then it would not be a great song. (Not all songwriters know this, to their detriment, but as attested to by their work, Benny and Björn most certainly do.)

When the first new songs to be heard from ABBA in almost forty years were premiered, there were people assembled in various places to enjoy and share the moment. On hearing “I Still Have Faith in You,” and “Don’t Shut Me Down,” many cried, and some compared it to a sacred experience. It might be easy to deride such reactions, but I think what many fans were experiencing did indeed have a sacred element, in that the tears were ones of gratitude. There was a sense of overwhelming gratitude that something extraordinarily unlikely—and quite beautiful—was actually coming to pass.

After all, ABBA were not supposed to get back together and create new music. For decades, it was never seriously contemplated that they would. They’d been there, done that, couldn’t top it, and obviously preferred to leave it as it was. Their breakup was also not merely the run-of-the-mill ending of a musical partnership, but also involved two broken marriages. Reuniting and trusting one another sufficiently to record an album of new songs (some quite personal) cannot but have required an inestimable level of forgiveness.

And one must also consider the unlikeliness of it purely as a matter of physics and biology, if you will. All four are now in their seventies. What are the chances—not merely that all four would still be living—but that all four would be in sufficiently good physical and mental health to make music like they did forty years ago? That part was completely out of their control, and out of everyone’s. There’s a line in “I Still Have Faith in You” about being “humble and grateful to have survived,” and, honestly, no kidding! The tears of gratitude that listeners shed on hearing that song were unavoidably (even if unconsciously) aimed at that Source of things way beyond human power to fashion: things like the very fact of music itself, and of life. When one is crying tears of gratitude for such things, one is not imagining oneself crying into a void, after all. Where there is gratitude, there is a recipient.

The song celebrates faith in one another, and that is surely a wonderful thing, but of-course our faith in one another is not infinite. We are human. We betray, we fight, we divorce; we get sick and we die. Like gratitude, faith also demands a worthy object, and though unnamed and almost surely unintended, that idea envelopes this song.

And it’s a great song: classic ABBA. As is the album as a whole. In addition to being moving, it was really quite funny hearing these new tracks, because it actually sounds as if they’d just gone back into the studio the week after recording their last album and got started again. In their time, their sound was their own but also quite cognizant of contemporary trends. But on this new record they completely ignore the last 40 years of whatever has gone down in the pop music world and are just right back where they left off. (If anything, maybe more 1978 than 1982.)

One of my favorite songs on the album is in fact an outtake from those years that they pulled out and refashioned. That is “Just a Notion,” and hearing it was the impetus for writing this piece in the first place. I felt something strange and remarkable in it and just had to try and put my finger on it. I have no doubt others have heard it too, although I don’t bump into too many ABBA fans round these parts. But, speaking frankly, it was Bob Dylan who helped me hear it. When he recorded his five LPs worth of Great American Songbook/Sinatra tunes, he uncovered (to my ears and mind and those of others) how so many of these great songs of extravagant romantic love can be heard as part of a heavenly dialogue; as a kind of loving conversation with our Maker. I have no idea how Dylan did this, because he didn’t change a single thing about the songs. (He even copied most of the arrangements from Frank’s records.) But do it he did, and quite resoundingly, and in every way those recordings stand as some of the greatest work he has done in his rather otherworldly career. And in doing so, he highlighted how, when even pop songwriters are doing their best work, they cannot but intersect with that higher order of things, and pull down notes from an ineffable melody being played by the most masterful musician of all.

“Just a Notion” is, as Benny has said, a ridiculously happy song. Musically, the recording evokes the aforementioned Phil Spector just a bit for me, as it delivers a pretty decent wall of sound. (I guess the background brass riffs also evoke Spector for me.) It also defies the usual dynamics of a pop record, in that it doesn’t start low and go up, then go back down and go up again, but instead it builds and explodes, then builds more and explodes more, and then builds MORE and explodes MORE. It’s a lot of fun, if you like that kind of thing.

In the song, the singer is apparently possessed by an inexplicable certainty that she is about to meet her dream lover and they are about to embark on their happily-ever-after life. She is exhilarated by this thought and by her sureness about it, and that’s the whole song—just emphasizing over and over again how much faith she has that this encounter will imminently occur.

Just a notion
That you’ll be walking up to me
In a while and you’ll smile and say hello
And we’ll be dancing through the night
Knowing everything from thereon must be right

In real life there’s a thin line between this kind of thinking and terrible tragedy, of-course, but the song brooks none of that. It is 3 1/2 minutes of perfect joy; indeed, it is ecstatic.

And, recalling the lessons from Bob, the thought of ecstasy might suggest another kind of encounter. On that level, I can’t escape the notion that this song expresses the very kind of intense joy that a true believer—someone gifted with a rare and profound faith—might feel when meditating upon the love of God. Think of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” if you will, or other hymns on the theme. It is the confidence of being secure in the Master’s hand. Even, most blessedly of all, at the very moment of death.

Some may think that a rather macabre idea, but death is the one thing that comes for everybody—much more reliably than a new ABBA album—and wouldn’t it be a consolation if one were able to greet that departure (and arrival) with such a song?

Just so, it would also be wonderful to be able to greet every day of life on earth with such a spirit of hope, faith and joy. Gratitude is due, after all.

Thanks, ABBA.

religious alchemist

Leonard Cohen: Religious Alchemist [First Things]

religious alchemist

Yet one more appreciation of the great Leonard Cohen, this one from yours truly at First Things:

Leonard Cohen was a Canadian, but he was the poet laureate of another nation: a nation of souls by turns sensitive, lost, alienated, ecstatic, bitter—souls seeking truth through the fog of modernity. Cohen was one of those rock-era poets (and arguably the only genuine poet among them) who sounded like he knew something of the utmost importance, even as he spent most of his time sidestepping … (click here for the rest)

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"

Bob Dylan, “Melancholy Mood”

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"
It is (in the sense of those things these days) Bob Dylan’s hot new single: “Melancholy Mood.” The song is best known from its recording by Harry James and his Orchestra, with brand new boy singer Frank Sinatra, in 1939. It was the B-side of “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Neither side charted, though both are masterful and lovely records and show the promise of the Sinatra to come. Bob Dylan’s version is embedded below here via YouTube, with a little more on the song and his own quite lovely take on it coming under that.

Comparing Dylan’s to the Harry James/Frank Sinatra side (also on YouTube at the moment) reveals that it is the very same arrangement, as adapted by his five piece guitar-based band. You would think that someone like Dylan would do it as a song, rather than in the style of a big band, where the singer comes in only after the band has gone through the tune already—but you would think wrong. Where Harry James played his trumpet, we have beautiful solo guitar, and on it goes to about the one minute and seven second mark (just as on the James side) and then Bob Dylan steps to the microphone—the most grizzled boy singer you’d ever want to see—and caresses the lyric the rest of the way.

That has been the modus operandi of Dylan on these “Sinatra covers;” that is, to take one of Sinatra’s original recordings (in a lot of cases there were multiple Sinatra versions to pick from) and to simply try to recreate the arrangement with the five piece combo (and occasional extra). In so doing, and in each case, they come up with something beautiful of their own. Dylan’s singing, of-course, is always his own.

And as with his previous interpretations of these old popular songs, Dylan brings resonances to “Melancholy Mood” beyond the boy/girl love theme that would have been the given way of hearing it before. This song, from a lonely soul, even has something to say along those lines, which sounds so right in Dylan’s gentle and aged voice:

But love is a whimsy
And as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space

The singer’s soul is “stranded high and dry”—all he can see is “grief and gloom / till the crack of doom.” Still, he prays for release from his melancholy mood, and in Bob’s voice it seems to me this has less the sense of a boy praying for his girl to come back and more the sense of the creature praying to his Creator for an infinitely greater kind of release.

Dylan’s gift to these songs is to show just how deep they can go, without changing a note or a word.

“Melancholy Mood” was written by Vick Knight and Walter Schumann.



Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, from which “Melancholy Mood” is taken, is titled Fallen Angels, and is to be released on May 20th. The full track listing is as follows:

1. Young At Heart
2. Maybe You’ll Be There
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
4. All The Way
5. Skylark
6. Nevertheless
7. All Or Nothing At All
8. On A Little Street In Singapore
9. It Had To Be You
10. Melancholy Mood
11. That Old Black Magic
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine

And to all that I can only say: Golly! It’s a great time to be alive.

Frank Sinatra Christmas Special 1957

Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)

Frank Sinatra Christmas Special 1957

Directed by Frank Sinatra himself, and sponsored by the good people of Bulova and Chesterfield, it’s surely one of the classiest Christmas specials ever to go out over the airwaves: twenty-five minutes of unassuming Yuletide excellence. And it’s currently available via YouTube (and embedded below). Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)

A Jolly Christmas Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Review of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.

In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.

To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra White House

Frank Sinatra Sings at the White House (1973 – Complete Film)

Frank Sinatra White House

It would always be a great time to rediscover this wonderful treasure, but it’s especially apt now, in this, Frank Sinatra’s centenary year. On April 17th, 1973, Frank Sinatra performed at the White House, on the occasion of a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of Italy, with President Nixon, First Lady Pat and assorted dignitaries as his audience. It was a sterling show, and it was recorded, but never officially released. For my part I didn’t even know that a complete film of the evening even existed, although the audio has been released over the years in bootlegged form. (My first encounter with the concert was hearing the great Jonathan Schwartz play some extracts of it on New York’s old WQEW in the early 1990s, when I also happened to be in the first full flush of Sinatra fan-dom.)

Frank Sinatra had famously announced his retirement in March of 1971, so this 1973 show was a special exception to that status … and also turned out to be effectively the end of it. His orchestra on the night was the United States Marine Band, with the great Nelson Riddle conducting (including on some of his own classic arrangements), with Al Viola sitting in on guitar and naturally Bill Miller on piano. Continue reading Frank Sinatra Sings at the White House (1973 – Complete Film)

Frank Sinatra Send in the Clowns

Frank Sinatra – “Send in the Clowns”

Frank Sinatra Send in the Clowns

“Send in the Clowns”: It’s an odd song, isn’t it? A bit queer, you could even say. It’s not so easy to get a handle on what it’s about. But undeniably it’s also rather rich, in terms of its musical dynamics and lyrical drama, and I do think that’s why so many singers have been drawn to taking it up and seeing what they can make of it. It’s been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Grace Jones to Roger Whittaker to Van Morrison to … well, maybe that’s quite enough range right there for any song to claim. Continue reading Frank Sinatra – “Send in the Clowns”

Billie Holiday centenary

Billie Holiday and What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Billie Holiday centenaryToday’s the centenary of the great Billie Holiday’s birth, on April 7th, 1915. She died far too soon, only 44 years on the earth. Although she packed a good deal of wonderful music into her career, imagine what she’d have accomplished given another couple of decades; with her light, unstrained but supremely articulate way of singing (and given good health) she could have gone on to make masterpieces and electrify audiences well into her old age. Looking back from the perspective of 2015 it seems like hers was one of the first of the celebrated premature deaths of great musical talents that became a long tragic string. Continue reading Billie Holiday and What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Leonard Cohen and George Jones

Leonard Cohen’s Bow to George Jones

George Jones Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is about to release an album of recordings from his most recent concert tours: not so much the hits as the rarities. On it will be his performance of “Choices,” a song that George Jones made his own and made famous. George Jones and Leonard Cohen were both on concert tours in 2013. George Jones was then 81; Cohen was a fresh-faced 78 going on 79. George Jones didn’t quite make it through his tour, falling ill and then passing away on April 26th. His had been intended as a farewell tour, and indeed it was titled “The Grand Tour,” after his classic record of the same name. And Leonard Cohen’s new album is titled Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour. Continue reading Leonard Cohen’s Bow to George Jones

“Raglan Road,” Van Morrison and Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh poems
If I had to think about it—which I don’t—I guess I would say that Van Morrison is my favorite Irish singer. And if forced to choose—which I’m not—I suppose I’d name Patrick Kavanagh as my favorite Irish poet.

Morrison and Kavanagh meet and shake hands, figuratively speaking, when Van sings “Raglan Road,” a poem that Kavanagh wrote for the old Irish air, The Dawning of the Day. It’s available on Van’s classic album with the Chieftains, Irish Heartbeat, and can currently be heard via the YouTube clip below. Continue reading “Raglan Road,” Van Morrison and Patrick Kavanagh

Shadows In The Night: A Sinatra Tribute or NOT a Sinatra Tribute?

Bob Dylan Tribute to Frank Sinatra?

Back when the album Shadows in the Night by Bob Dylan was first announced, in May of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine and others were all labeling it as “Dylan does Sinatra.” Although Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan have long been the sun and moon in my own musical consciousness (and I’ve always been fascinated by any even-tentative connections between them) I greatly hesitated about jumping on that notion, knowing that a lot of people who don’t know better tend to regard any old popular standards as “Frank Sinatra songs.” We didn’t have a track list. It wasn’t clear what the album was really going to be based upon.

Then we got the track list, and it was immediately obvious to any serious Sinatra aficionado that this album was in fact centered around songs closely associated with Frank; it included songs written for him, songs debuted by him, one cowritten by him, no less than four from a single Sinatra album (1957’s Where Are You?), and most were songs where Sinatra’s rendition is indisputably the one that matters most in musical history. (“That Lucky Old Sun” is an exception, and “Some Enchanted Evening” is assuredly a song that almost everyone has done.) Continue reading Shadows In The Night: A Sinatra Tribute or NOT a Sinatra Tribute?

Frank Sinatra – “Some Enchanted Evening”

Some Enchanted Evening Frank Sinatra

“Some Enchanted Evening,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is not a song owned by Frank Sinatra, in the sense of him having recorded a version so definitive that others wilt before it. It’s been recorded by way too many singers and sung on far too many stages in productions of South Pacific for that to possibly be true. However, Sinatra recorded it on three separate occasions during his career, qualifying it at least as a special number for him. He recorded it first in 1949 for Columbia Records, when the song was brand new, and was being recorded by a whole clutch of competing singers, as was the way of the music world back then. Sinatra’s version hit number six on the U.S. hit parade, but Perry Como’s got to number one. Sinatra revisited the song in 1963, as part of his “Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre” series, where he and musical cohorts like Dean, Bing, Sammy and Rosemary Clooney got together to record sets from several great musicals, including South Pacific. And then he took it on again for his 1967 album (also on his Reprise label) The World We Knew.

In the context of the musical, the song is a recurring romantic refrain which underlies and lifts the love story between a middle-aged man and a younger woman. Divorced from that, as a popular song, it sounds like gentle advice from someone who has lived and loved and lost and maybe loved again, urging those who are younger to seize that enchanted moment when it arrives and hold on to the love they have found. So, one might assume that the older Sinatra would have pulled it off better. But I don’t think so. I think that Sinatra’s first recording in 1949 on Columbia, arranged by Axel Stordahl, is the best of the three. It’s true that Sinatra was relatively young (34), but because his voice then had a kind of celestial quality, he could pull off a song like this one quite well, as if issuing the profound guidance contained in the words from atop some heavenly cloud. (To me, that’s the same reason his Columbia version of “Hello Young Lovers” works so well, although it seems like the song of a much older man.)



The 1963 rendition (actually two takes: one with Rosemary Clooney and one without) is very enjoyable, with a light, cheerful arrangement, but it hardly distinguishes itself from so many other versions. Sinatra’s 1967 take on the song is adventurous in that it is a swinging and bopping rendition, but to these ears it unfortunately doesn’t quite get where it’s aiming to go.

So it is the simplest arrangement, the purest and most romantic reading of the song, from 1949 on Columbia Records, that this listener at least would recommend most fully.

You might obtain it via iTunes, via Amazon, and you might currently listen to it via YouTube.

Once you have found her, never let her go.

#SinatraCentenary

(This post is in honor of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, which we’re marking at the present moment by looking at some of the songs as sung by Frank Sinatra that Bob Dylan selected for his new album Shadows In The Night.)

Sinatra Where Are You

Frank Sinatra – “Where Are You?”

Frank Sinatra Where Are You?

“Where Are You?” is the title track of the first of the two dark albums that Frank Sinatra recorded during his 1950s’ artistic peak with arranger Gordon Jenkins (the second being 1959’s No One Cares). It’s funny: Sinatra himself was known sometimes to refer laughingly to his loneliness-themed concept records as “suicide albums,” but when he was behind the microphone he was clearly nothing but totally serious about each syllable and every note, and was masterful at constructing these albums with an almost terrifying emotional precision.

All of that would have to start with the selection of songs. “Where Are You?” was a song written by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson in 1937 for the film Top of the Town. It was introduced by Gertrude Niesen (and at the moment you can hear all 78 rpms of her rendition via YouTube).

The song treads riskily on an interesting line (I think) between poignancy and blandness. The lyric is so very straightforward, so plain, so seemingly devoid of device, that its very plainness is its only device. Continue reading Frank Sinatra – “Where Are You?”

Frank Sinatra Why Try To Change Me Now

Frank Sinatra – “Why Try To Change Me Now”

Why Try To Change Me Now - Frank Sinatra
In 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,” even if 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 cloud 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 (albeit ably abetted by other great talents in the studio).

Sinatra Why Try To Change Me Now
The 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 marvelous 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 lines 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

(This post is in honor of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, which we’re marking at the present moment by looking at some of the songs as sung by Frank Sinatra that Bob Dylan selected for his new album Shadows In The Night.)

……

Frank Sinatra Bob Dylan

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

Bob Dylan Frank Sinatra 2015
Some 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). Continue reading Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, 2015: A Very Good Year

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan Abides with “Stay with Me”

Stay with Me Bob Dylan

So, 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.) Continue reading Bob Dylan Abides with “Stay with Me”

Reverend Eli Jenkins Prayer

Cerys Matthews – “The Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer”

 

Rev Eli Jenkins Prayer Cerys Matthews

Under Milk Wood is Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices” (i.e. intended for radio rather than the stage), a quite wild and sometimes soaring portrait of the inhabitants of a fishing village in Wales, the fictional Llareggub, depicting both their dreams and a day in their lives.

One of the quieter moments comes at sunset, when the town vicar, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, goes out and says a prayer. The remarkable Cerys Matthews, a woman of so many hats, has just put out a new album with musical treatments of sundry works of Dylan Thomas, titled A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs [full review at this link], and below via YouTube is her performance of “The Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer.” Continue reading Cerys Matthews – “The Reverend Eli Jenkins’ Prayer”

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan – “Never Gonna Be The Same Again”

Never Gonna Be The Same Again Bob Dylan
Although it was during the mid-1980s that yours truly happened to become a Bob Dylan fan, listening to his albums from that period has sometimes seemed like a guilty pleasure. While I’d stick up unreservedly for a certain number of those songs, there are those others that just seem silly. Yet, sometimes I kind of like them anyway. One that I probably wouldn’t have thought to defend in solemn company—but really have always liked—is “Never Gonna Be The Same Again” from his 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Well, now I’m correcting myself, and it’s thanks to hearing a solo acoustic version by Ron Sexsmith (on YouTube at this link).

Happening somehow upon Sexsmith’s YouTube channel (discreetly titled “Rawnboy”) made me feel like I’d found something secret and private (hope I’m not blowing the cover). Although he’s a genuine star and one of the finest pop songwriters of the last couple of decades, here he is just sitting in his kitchen and living room and playing things casually into the webcam, like a million YouTube amateurs do. So he’s uploaded a wealth of acoustic versions of his own songs, and a plethora of affectionate cover versions. (You’ve gotta wish everyone you were a fan of would do something like this. Bob, Van, you listening?) And of all the Bob Dylan songs he chooses to sing, it’s “Never Gonna Be the Same Again.” Continue reading Bob Dylan – “Never Gonna Be The Same Again”

The Cinch Review

Leonard Cohen Predicts the Future

Leonard Cohen predicting the future
So, the other day I saw Leonard Cohen (who as previously mentioned has a new album out) being interviewed on a British television program and during it he was asked if he believed he was an optimistic person, and I thought his response to this question was quite penetrating and timely. He said (and good-naturedly, while wearing a slight smile):

Well, you know, I think those descriptions are kind of obsolete these days. Everybody’s kind of hanging on to their broken orange crate in the flood, and when you pass someone else and declare yourself an optimist or a pessimist, or pro-abortion or against abortion, or a conservative or a liberal, these descriptions are obsolete in the face of the catastrophe that everybody’s really dealing with.

At the present moment, I would daresay that those are words that would strike a definite chord with many of us. (By “us” I guess I’d be referring, in the broadest sense, to we who inhabit the most highly developed and consumerized societies of the world, and are presumed to be insulated from massive and generalized kinds of catastrophe.) I’d venture that many of us have a sense of impending disaster in this insecure age of Ebola and of ISIS and (I’d suggest) the impossible-to-grip transformations that the digital/internet age has wrought in our lives in such a short time. And that is not to even mention the many other manifestations of disorder and danger in the headlines.

However, the funny thing is that Leonard Cohen didn’t actually say these words in an interview just the other day. Continue reading Leonard Cohen Predicts the Future