Bono on "My Way" Forty Years Later

Today's New York Times featured an op-ed piece by singer Bono which argues, delightfully, that Frank Sinatra's voice got better with age. This is in sharp contrast to many music critics and pop culture wonks who insist that Sinatra's voice deteriorated into an embarrassing, bumbling caricature in the last ten to fifteen years of his life. The rock singer honors the jazz singer by calling one of Sinatra's most popular tunes a timeless anthem: to life lived on one's own terms, and to hope.

This writer was present in May of 1994 for Sinatra's second-to-last performance at Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Ledyard, Connecticut (USA). The singer was either intoxicated or tired and indeed failed to live up to the technical quality of prior performances. He had an excuse, however; he'd been informed of the passing of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and would cancel the shows booked for the following days; opting instead to fly to New York to be with her family.

Some members of that Ledyard audience were quick to criticize the singer's reliance on a teleprompter for lyrics. Others criticized his exaggerated swagger, blaming his staggering on the whiskey he consumed on stage and off (despite the fact that he didn't slur a word). Overall, however, no one could accuse him of failing to put "the Sinatra touch" on the audience. The audience's roaring response to the singer said it all. Nobody in the audience knew that 1994 would be Sinatra's final year of performing publicly.

Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern’s not about the future, it’s about the present.

— Frank Sinatra

The Sinatra quip above came from a discussion Bono had with the singer shortly after they cut the tune "I've Got You (Under My Skin)" for the smash success album Duets (Capitol B000002USN). Sinatra critics submit that Duets (and 1994's Duets II) suffer artistically because the participants were asked to sing over recordings of Sinatra and the orchestra. Sinatra proponents rightfully come to the rescue by submitting that the albums were over-produced. Indeed, producer Phil Ramone failed to rein in Sinatra's partners in song at many points. Bono's decidedly uncool falsetto, wailing and screaming over the trombone solo in "Under My Skin," is a prime example. Sinatra, I guess, didn't seem to mind. And that's all that matters.

Just a few days before the publication of Bono's piece, I was talking with a well-respected jazz bass player about how well a lot of songs written in the 1930s were standing the test of time. Of course, the conversation came around to Sinatra, who'd recorded many of the most popular readings of those songs. This individual was hyper-critical, dismissing all of Sinatra's work in the last ten years of his life as second-class. I argued that emotion, delivery and style was a big part of what Sinatra conveyed and that we must certainly forgive him the ravages of age on his voice (a reviewer of Duets on Amazon.com asks why Tony Bennett should be excused from such criticism).

Like Bob Dylan’s, Nina Simone’s, Pavarotti’s, Sinatra’s voice is improved by age, by years spent fermenting in cracked and whiskeyed oak barrels. As a communicator, hitting the notes is only part of the story, of course.

— Bono

Bono accuses Sinatra's voice of breaking (perhaps purposely) at the end of the Duets cut "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" and he's right. By the time Sinatra recorded it for the final time, it had indeed been a long long road. Sinatra passed away four years minus five days from the date of the Ledyard concert mentioned above. Bono has added his voice to the legions who're of the opinion that Sinatra remains timeless and inimitable.

UPDATE: In the interest of fair and even reporting, Bono was skewered by his peers at the blog "Struggling Writers" the day after publication of his column. Moreover, pop culture/gossip watchers gawker.com featured the Struggling Writers piece and entertained comments from their member bloggers. One of the more delicately worded comments about Bono's piece was "he's no James Joyce."

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