Friday, November 26, 2010

Learning Empathy With Sinatra

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’ Loversespecially 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.

I loved listening to those albums with my dad because we’d move close together during those hours. He's of southern Italian heritage and it never takes much — small family joys, a hug, a run-scoring double — to moisten his eyes. But nothing brought out his warmth and emotional life more for me than Sinatra’s voice. I’d sit on the couch and listen along, and imagine my dad's younger self, that half-shadowed Brooklyn figure, pre-Mom, more heavily accented, thinner, smiling at young women whose faces I couldn’t picture, taking the subway into New York for a nickel or a dime and humming along to songs in his head.

One of his favorite Sinatra albums is the sublime Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. Pushing forty with five children, my dad bought the album when it was released, in 1966. This was an unusual record and sound relative to the hard swing albums, and when it would come on I knew that my dad’s mood was subtly different from when he’d play ‘S’posin” or "I've Got You Under My Skin," or even "Blue Moon," smiling along, shuffling his feet on the rec room floor and gently clapping his hands. The Jobim album is lush, mysterious, nearly tropical in its emotional humidity; yet for all of its smoky sensuality, it’s also cool, controlled, and elegant. A formative album for me (with my dad’s blessing I took it when I moved to graduate school), the Sinatra/Jobim collaboration is of its Pop Brazilian-scented era yet also, in its subtle orchestration and Claus Ogerman's nimble, elegant arrangements, transcendent.

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.


But for perspective: around this time my parents came home from their Saturday night dinner, tipsy. Peaking in our KISS fandom, my younger brother Paul and I were listening to Paul Stanley’s solo album. The four connecting posters hung on the wall in the basement, and upstairs in the rec room we were completing the shallow pop myth. My mom and dad came downstairs, their smiles loose, their eyes a little glassy. They muttered something and laughed quietly and looked at each other and started slow-dancing to Stanley’s chintzy “Tonight You Belong To Me.” My brother and I were mortified, unable to know what to do, so we looked at each other, and then at our feet. My parents danced in a small private circle to the corny ballad, and I flushed and grew annoyed, embarrassed at their tenderness and affection. I wish a little of the empathy my dad taught me with Sinatra could have pushed up through my adolescent pride. I wish I’d known exactly what they were thinking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.