[JPL] OP-ED GUEST COLUMNIST Notes From the Chairman
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Sun Jan 11 11:20:04 EST 2009
January 11, 2009
OP-ED GUEST COLUMNIST
Notes From the Chairman
Once upon a couple of weeks ago ...
I¹m in a crush in a Dublin pub around New Year¹s. Glasses clinking clicking,
clashing crashing in Gaelic revelry: swinging doors, sweethearts falling in
and out of the season¹s blessings, family feuds subsumed or resumed. Malt
joy and ginger despair are all in the queue to be served on this, the
quarter-of-a-millennium mark since Arthur Guinness first put velvety
blackness in a pint glass.
Interesting mood. The new Irish money has been gambled and lost; the Celtic
Tiger¹s tail is between its legs as builders and bankers laugh uneasy and
hard at the last year, and swallow uneasy and hard at the new. There¹s a
voice on the speakers that wakes everyone out of the moment: it¹s Frank
Sinatra singing ³My Way.² His ode to defiance is four decades old this year
and everyone sings along for a lifetime of reasons. I am struck by the one
quality his voice lacks: Sentimentality.
Is this knotted fist of a voice a clue to the next year? In the mist of
uncertainty in your business life, your love life, your life life, why is
Sinatra¹s voice such a foghorn such confidence in nervous times allowing
you romance but knocking your rose-tinted glasses off your nose, if you get
too carried away.
A call to believability.
A voice that says, ³Don¹t lie to me now.²
That says, ³Baby, if there¹s someone else, tell me now.²
Fabulous, not fabulist. Honesty to hang your hat on.
As the year rolls over (and with it many carousers), the emotion in the room
tussles between hope and fear, expectation and trepidation. Wherever you end
up, his voice takes you by the hand.
Now I¹m back in my own house in Dublin, uncorking some nice wine, ready for
the vinegar it can turn to when families and friends overindulge, as I am
about to. Right by the hole-in-the-wall cellar, I look up to see a vision in
yellow: a painting Frank sent to me after I sang ³I¹ve Got You Under My
Skin² with him on the 1993 ³Duets² album. One from his own hand. A mad
yellow canvas of violent concentric circles gyrating across a desert plain.
Francis Albert Sinatra, painter, modernista.
We had spent some time in his house in Palm Springs, which was a thrill
looking out onto the desert and hills, no gingham for miles. Plenty of
miles, though, Miles Davis. And plenty of talk of jazz. That¹s when he
showed me the painting. I was thinking the circles were like the diameter of
a horn, the bell of a trumpet, so I said so.
³The painting is called Jazz¹ and you can have it.²
I said I had heard he was one of Miles Davis¹s biggest influences.
Little pithy replies:
³I don¹t usually hang with men who wear earrings.²
³Miles Davis never wasted a note, kid or a word on a fool.²
³Jazz is about the moment you¹re in. Being modern¹s not about the future,
it¹s about the present.²
I think about this now, in this new year. The Big Bang of pop music telling
me it¹s all about the moment, a fresh canvas and never overworking the
paint. I wonder what he would have thought of the time it¹s taken me and my
bandmates to finish albums, he with his famous impatience for directors,
producers anyone, really fussing about. I¹m sure he¹s right. Fully
inhabiting the moment during that tiny dot of time after you¹ve pressed
³record² is what makes it eternal. If, like Frank, you sing it like you¹ll
never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.
If you want to hear the least sentimental voice in the history of pop music
finally crack, though shhhh find the version of Frank¹s ode to insomnia,
³One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),² hidden on ³Duets.² Listen
through to the end and you will hear the great man break as he truly sobs on
the line, ³It¹s a long, long, long road.² I kid you not.
Like Bob Dylan¹s, Nina Simone¹s, Pavarotti¹s, Sinatra¹s voice is improved by
age, by years spent fermenting in cracked and whiskeyed oak barrels. As a
communicator, hitting the notes is only part of the story, of course.
Singers, more than other musicians, depend on what they know as opposed to
what they don¹t want to know about the world. While there is a danger in
this the loss of naïveté, for instance, which holds its own certain power
interpretive skills generally gain in the course of a life well abused.
Want an example? Here¹s an example. Take two of the versions of Sinatra
singing ³My Way.²
The first was recorded in 1969 when the Chairman of the Board said to Paul
Anka, who wrote the song for him: ³I¹m quitting the business. I¹m sick of
it. I¹m getting the hell out.² In this reading, the song is a boast more
kiss-off than send-off embodying all the machismo a man can muster about
the mistakes he¹s made on the way from here to everywhere.
In the later recording, Frank is 78. The Nelson Riddle arrangement is the
same, the words and melody are exactly the same, but this time the song has
become a heart-stopping, heartbreaking song of defeat. The singer¹s hubris
is out the door. (This singer, i.e. me, is in a puddle.) The song has become
To what end? Duality, complexity. I was lucky to duet with a man who
understood duality, who had the talent to hear two opposing ideas in a
single song, and the wisdom to know which side to reveal at which moment.
This is our moment. What do we hear?
In the pub, on the occasion of this new year, as the room rises in a
deafening chorus ³I did it my way² I and this full house of Irish
rabble-rousers hear in this staple of the American songbook both sides of
the singer and the song, hubris and humility, blue eyes and red.
Bono, lead singer of the band U2 and co-founder of the advocacy group ONE,
is a contributing columnist for The Times.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
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