Why Sinatra Matters
Ironically, Freddie got it wrong. Music, for one, matters. At least for some of us. That includes Pete Hamill.
Hamill is the last of a dying breed. A high school graduate who became a reporter at and editor of more than one of New York‘s great tabloids. Along the way he’s penned memoirs and novels and this remembrance of old Blue Eyes. I love Pete for his genuine ethnic, outer borough roots. But I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say I also love that he stands as a rebuke to professional journalism schools everywhere.
Pete thinks Frank Sinatra matters and so do I, although maybe not as much. That’s probably a generational thing. Hamill is one generation behind Sinatra, I’m more than two. So it’s fair to say Sinatra means something different to each of us.
For Hamill, Sinatra is iconic–a point of connection and common reference for a generation marked by War and Depression. From his origins as a first generation American in Hoboken through the stints with big bands, the Hollywood years, the Rat Pack and beyond, Hamill, I think, sees Sinatra as the embodiment of a common experience.
That’s not my experience. What Hamill and I can agree on is Sinatra’s peak years–roughly the 1950s to the late 1960s. For me the records he made then mark a particular American moment–proud, confident but with an underlying sadness. Those much maligned 50s were not Reagan’s sunny America. The pain was too recent and even if it wasn’t spoken about it was felt. In Sinatra’s best work that creeps in behind the smile, underneath the hat with the broad band.
Hamill knew Sinatra and came close to penning the authorized biography. This short book is more reminiscence and memoir than biography although Sinatra’s story is told in broad strokes.
Hamill is particularly strong on the New York moments; writing about his hometown seems to tap into Pete’s talent for authenticity. Hamill recounts a late night spent in P.J. Clarkes that rings particularly true. (I’d say you could still have such an evening but you’d be missing the wise guys and old Blue Eyes.)
There are a few editorial problems. I often get hung up on nits and hometown detail is a particular peeve. At one point Hamill has a young Sinatra working a club in Englewood, New Jersey and looking longingly at the bright lights of midtown Manhattan.
Sorry, can’t happen unless you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge. Edgewater, yes. Englewood, no. I could blame some transplanted editor but presumably Hamill saw the galleys and still this got printed.
Even if music isn’t your thing it’s worth a couple of hours of your time to read this book. You just might come away with a deeper appreciation of a man and a moment.
Enjoy this classic moment from Spinal Tap when the late, great Bruno Kirby puts Frank in his proper perspective.