My dad's a tremendous Frank Sinatra fan, so I happily grew up in a home where his records often played. Some of my earliest music memories are listening to, and loving, the great songs on my dad's albums: In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, especially Sinatra’s Swingin' Session. The latter’s “When You’re Smiling,” “I Concentrate On You,” “My Blue Heaven” are spirited and fast and I’d love when upstairs doing my homework or idling on a weekend I’d hear the needle drop on the family stereo in the rec room. I knew my dad was in a good mood, and I knew that the next hour or so was going to be fun. Sometimes, usually after dinner, usually after a martini or two, he'd disappear down to the rec room and in the dark listen with the headphones on, moaning along atonally, his eyes shut. My mom would smile behind her hands and this would become a house sound — sonorous but wailing, tuneless but urgent — that the family would laugh at, and about. But I intuited vaguely that those moments were necessary for my dad, that somehow they were unavoidable.
Listening to the bossa nova take on Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners,” I’m brought back to the 70s and our split-level suburban home, the air-conditioned rec room, the period furniture, the stereo and quadraphonic speakers, my swaying dad. Is this a Saturday night and my parents home from their weekly dinner out, my dad loosened and sentimental with wine...
...“The lyrics, Joe, the words. Listen to how he sings them.” Must you dance every dance, with the same fortunate man?...Your lips touching his face...Can’t you see I’m longing to be in his place? “The way he sings them. Somehow he lets you know exactly what he’s thinking. Oh. Sinatra was a master.” My dad’s eyes are wet, and I’m glimpsing his romantic (romanticized?) past again, entanglements from decades earlier that I can only guess at, but his mood is weighted with something, not flimsily mawkish. You know exactly what he’s thinking. What is my dad thinking: what-if or what is? Sinatra’s fifteen years older than my dad, singing about a heartbroken guy in a club who’s contemplating a silly ruse with a hoax phone call so he can get his shot at the girl on the dance floor. On the outside. I’m a kid. I get it. “It’s his phrasing.” The strings playing minor notes. I want to say, yeah I hear it.
A few days later and I gush at my dad about the final movement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” which I’ve been listening to obsessively. “Dad I picture a guy and a girl on top of different apartment building in New York, looking out across the alley or the street at each other during a rainstorm, but they can’t have each other!” My voice cracks. My dad gets it. I’m feverish and embarrassing in my adolescent discovery. I’m returning the favor. I know exactly what you’re thinking.