Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

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That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

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Thumbnail sketches

  1. IMG_7012For the past couple of years I’ve been suffering (although that’s a strong term for what is an inconvenient irritation at most) from a permanently split thumbnail.
  2. Of all the signs of encroaching old age that one might fear (creaking joints, high blood pressure, spreading waistline), grooved fingernails seems like something trivial, but when one of the grooves is so deep that the nail just splits and stays split, it’s a pain in the arse.
  3. The doctor was no help when I mentioned it (on an unrelated visit) some time ago. Just shrugged in a don’t bother me with your cosmetic problems kind of way. Then again, Doctors hate it when you try to get a two-for-one visit, don’t they?
  4. I have never looked after my nails properly. Never had a manicure, never looked after the cuticles, and often suffered from hangnails and the like.
  5. The grooves, I thought, might be caused by something like lack of iron, but I really don’t think I’m anaemic. So it was probably age or something, but why does age punish me with a split nail?
  6. Keeping it short stops you from catching in on random objects and splitting it even more, but when you forget, it can literally be anything: pulling on a glove, opening the car door, pottering in the kitchen or garden.
  7. It’s a nail of two halves.
  8. I’ve tried all kinds of products. A cosmetic groove filler, plus a supposedly nail strengthening varnish, plus a nail strengthening liquid, for example. I’ve tried products for brittle nails, damaged nails, and even nail fungus. Nothing seems to work.
  9. (My conclusion with the nail products thing is that they are mostly nonsense, though I will admit my nails seemed less brittle and flaky after all this treatment.)
  10. The last time I caught the slightly-too-long nail on something and split it badly was so severe (and quite painful) that even now, weeks/months later, my nail has what looks like ingrained dirt trapped underneath it. It might be oil, or the black stuff I painted on the garage roof the other week, or dried blood, or, you know, dirt.
  11. I finally read something that seemed to make sense, which indicated that the cause of this kind of thing is trauma to the nail matrix (maybe I hit it with a hammer or whacked it in a door), as well as dehydration of the nail or cuticle.
  12. The same article indicated that the last thing you want to do with splitting nails is use nail strengthening solutions. Oh.
  13. IMG_7006So I’m trying on last time with a range of products to moisturise and feed and repair. I have a range of Nailtiques products in a sampler set (£30!), which includes moisturiser for cuticles, nail bed, hands, (feet), a protein to paint on, and a nail oil (which seems a bit like Olbas oil).
  14. Nails grow at 3mm per month, it says here, so I’m guessing I need to keep this up for three, four months to see if anything good happens – in the meantime, keeping my nail as short as possible to avoid catching it on stuff.
  15. This is my life now.