Frank: The Voice

We Need To Discuss Nancy. Also, Frank's Custom Underwear.
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 10 2010 2:08 PM

Frank: The Voice

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Dear J,

I'm glad that you quoted the passage in which Kaplan called love, not sex, pop's (life's?) ultimate subject. As one who's long argued that the rhythms, hooks, and refrains of popular music actually invented American sexuality—that music is the language that arises when this clandestine realm enters culture and becomes defined—I feel prudish pulling away from the horniness that infuses Kaplan's prose and often drives his narrative.

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Yet what is sex without feeling, without the spiritual side of possessing and being possessed? Let me quote the philosopher Cee Lo Green, whom I recently interviewed for my day job. "Emotion is something that you don't simply receive," said the soul man. "Emotion is compelled. Other than that we're just shells, until we're possessed or reanimated …" That's the other thing Frank learned from Ava: that it's one thing to chase or otherwise procure tail, but it's another to let yourself be invaded and led by desire, the way your ears are overtaken by a melody.

If pressed, I'll bet Kaplan would agree with you that Sinatra's hunger was more romantic than priapic. He sought that proverbial floating "place for us" that lovers can create, and which is also all tied up in the idea (and realities) of family, a huge element of this biography.

Kaplan hints at but ultimately underplays Sinatra's other major unfulfilled romance, with his emotionally absent father. One way to read the singer's spin on masculinity is as compensation, the need to articulate the strong male self he never found at home. Kaplan focuses more on Sinatra's ties to his mother's strangling apron strings, naming Dolly as the "Napoleonic" godfather figure Frank feared but also emulated. I'll read this bio's second volume just to see what happens when Dolly dies.

Then there's Nancy, Sinatra's first wife and other mother, who plays her own somewhat shadowy role in Kaplan's story. She's that first love every famous person seems to keep in the background, "the only one who really understands me"—Kaplan portrays Frank whispering this to Nancy over the phone at 4 a.m. after Ava's left. But I think Nancy also stands in for pop's general audience: the tolerant but skeptical public beyond the singer's bobby-soxer base. Her raised eyebrow, her "Mona Lisa smile," fed another desire that compelled Sinatra: to love and be loved not only in the exalted way expressed in his songs for Ava, like the heady "Like Someone in Love," but on more ordinary terms, appropriate for the guy who mugged with Eddie Cantor and eased through songs like "Everybody Loves Somebody."

During and after that first marriage, while Frank crept through Hollywood bars and borrowed Palm Springs bungalows with hookers and hangers-on, Nancy stayed home, serving spaghetti at her dinner parties and playing charades. Sinatra remained deeply attached to that domestic sphere during the years Kaplan chronicles, even squiring his kids to the Shrine on the big Oscar night that concludes this volume.

I'm curious about how the next chapter in Sinatra's life—the Vegas period—provided him with a way to create family on his own footloose and rather lonely terms, a nearly all-male nuclear unit (there was Angie Dickinson, who makes a quick debut as a useful distraction in The Voice) that thrived where Nancy's style of domesticity was no longer needed: in hotels, where somebody you don't know makes your midnight meals and changes your sheets.

The longing that lay at the heart of Sinatra's early flowering became something else in middle age. Partly, as you note, the sophisticated swinger role he perfected at Capitol came into existence so Sinatra could sing September songs, standing strong for those participants in popular music culture who couldn't relate to the teen-age mood that took over circa 1956. (I'd love to read a comparison of mid-period Sinatra and Chuck Berry, another guy who managed to be relevant in the rock era while responding to the world as a grown man.)

But I also think Sinatra stayed great by giving up on that fantasy of "a place for us," slowly but surely refashioning his romantic hunger into something more manageable and contingent. One thing I've always liked about the older Sinatra is that he always seemed to be fully grounded in his body, in its creaks and groans as well as it more glorious elements. (Speaking of which, I can't believe we made it through this exchange without once mentioning Sinatra's much-rumored need for custom underwear, cited early by Kaplan as a major character-builder.) I'm excited to know what Kaplan, so good on Sinatra the besotted lover and the brokenhearted family man, makes of him in those years when, as the chairman of the board, he devoted himself not so much to crazy love as to complicated alliances.

Thanks so much for another fantastic conversation, Jody. Mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all … but I get a kick out of you.

Bring on Sammy Davis Jr.!

Love,
Ann

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Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.