Feeling the passions Sinatra's torch songs elegised


THERE are other famous people in their 80s who aren't too well, but the one whose decline I'm alert to, the one it makes a difference to me whether death comes for, is Frank Sinatra.

That will be some kind of concluding moment. He was a great figure, not so much in the events of my life as in the colouring of them, inside my head. I remember coming out of the Strand Cinema in Dublin in about 1956, transfixed, after seeing him in The Man With the Golden Arm. And I saw him for real on a wonderful, dreamy, misty night in Lansdowne Road, when he came here not long ago.

That's what? Thirty something years? And all that time, if ever I heard his name, I knew that it signalled something finely done, something excellent and beautiful. He was so good at what he did. His grave, precise, voice shaped his half century. First he sang a certain kind of song a certain way then they wrote that kind of song. Then we felt the feelings to go with the song.

And it wasn't just that he was so good. It was that he was our pattern of elegance, back when there were so few exemplars. When he sang All the Way there was a dry, impersonal, yearning in the tone that we learnt from him, and then that became one of the measures of how we truly felt about spotty youths with names like Decco and Shay.

We were spotty and ungainly ourselves. But we felt the passions that Sinatra's great torch songs elegised. We felt great splodges and wodges of desire and jealousy and disillusion and regret and hope. He put shape on all that. There wasn't a single elegant or world class thing in any of our schools or house's. Except the elegance of his voice and the musical arrangements he commissioned for his voice in albums like Songs For Swinging Lovers.

Sinatra sang I've Got you Under my Skin on that, and a certain driving vigour in it, a controlled excitement, was what we took or I did, anyway - as how you should feel or would feel if you were perfectly suited to someone. His confidence with rhythm was the pattern of all confidence. And the way he swung into You Make Me Feel so Young was the very essence of exuberance - of being here on this Earth, delighting in life and love.

He was such a great musician until just recently that it is hard to imagine that his creativity will not survive the death of his body. We knew him, after all, in unbodily ways - he emanated from the disc of vinyl going round and round on the record player.

He was never young, or old. At Lansdowne Road he did the soliloquy My Boy Bill from Carousel. You try doing that - particularly if you're well into your 70s - and you'll find the measure of respect for him. He seems to be, by the accounts I've seen, not a particularly loveable man. But that doesn't matter now. What matters is that he could easily have got away with giving much less than he gave in his life.

But he wasn't content to be merely a star. He took possession instead of a seat among the minor gods. He was one of the guiding spirits of the age, an artist who took popular song as seriously as it deserves to be taken. He went to every length to perfect the modern art of singing songs in a recording studio with an orchestra. He moved from arranger to arranger, musician to musician, record company to record company, always looking for better, not easier, collaborators. And he never sang a phrase lazily.

EVEN when he did awful songs - I can't bear Love and Marriage myself, or the twee little one about the beaver and the he contributed his full gift of intelligent pace, perfect diction, suppleness of voice, and always that ashy, dry tone out at the edge of his voice that somehow made what he said distinguished, as if he were an emissary for the song itself, not a performer of it.

That absolutely carried over to his physical self. From coming out on to the North Strand that day, the boys around were scanned for how much or how little they looked like him. Sinatra's looks weren't just a way to look they were the way. The thing to be was thin, sad eyed, all sensitive mouth, the face a feline triangle. And as Sinatra got older that lean face kept its weary beauty, even under the toupee, and it was always the face that mattered: for the rest, he might have been disembodied.

He was what was meant in my mind by a sophisticated man, a middle of the night man, a man who'd been around. He was the pattern of a lover, not a husband. These are things you have to know, when you're growing up. Someone has to suggest to you the different relationships that are possible. Not that relationship was a word much used then, or that anything about Sinatra prompted thought of relationships. He was, rather, the solitary man, singing the blues in an empty night club, alone.

The only way to insert yourself into the fantasy was to be the lost or unattainable woman who had broken his heart.

How were these things sorted out in the imagination of young people, in the eras before the mass media brought actors and singers into our homes? In the eras before print and photography? Sinatra - like James Dean, like Elvis, like John Lennon later - gave us concepts of the attractive. There was nowhere else to get them. Ireland in the 1950s or 1960s or - if it comes to that - until very recently, proffered few ideals of stylish self presentation. Who were we to look to? Dev? The Clipper Carlton?

Today, I would seek out as desirable people of middle age who, say, speak Irish and take life seriously and care about the natural world. But when I was 14 and 16 and 18, then a Gaeilgeoir hill walking schoolteacher was more or less the only male ideal around, and with every fibre of our being we rejected that and wanted a Sinatra, all the way from here to eternity.

Since sex didn't officially exist, how were we to know, if it hadn't been for Sinatra, that there is a deadly serious sexiness, which his voice singing All the Way perfectly expresses? He was a cerebral example of the perfectly sexy, not an animal example. There's no poignancy in the decay of his body, as there was in Elvis.

WHEN he does die there'll be a few days of his songs being played over and over. And there he'll be, as achingly attractive as ever. All or Nothing at All, he'll sing, and the time between might never have been.

I read somewhere he told his daughter that what he wanted for Christmas was to be here next Christmas. I wish for him what he wishes for himself, of course. But he is here - he isn't going, anywhere - as long as I'm alive myself. I don't own any tapes or CDs of him. I'd never sit down and concentrate on him.

It is as a treasure that suddenly flashes up out of the mediocrity of ordinary life that he best manifests himself. You stand in a shop, and his, quizzical voice comes on the distant radio. All around you the imperfect falls away, and hearing, him singing you hear one thing done, perfectly.