Suspicious Minds

There comes a time in the middle of any half-way decent liberal arts major's college career when she no longer has any idea what she believes. She flies violently through air polluted by conflicting notions and theories, never stopping at one system of thought long enough to feel at home. And until she figures out that the flight between questions is itself a workable system, she'll crave answers, rules, a code. She will spend a part of every week, sometimes every day, watching The Godfather on videotape, finding in Clemenza's instruction to his partner-in-crime, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli," a manifesto of moral certainty. The grisly, backa-the-head murder of a rat fink associate is all in a day's work, but the overriding responsibility is to the family, and Clemenza takes a moment out of his routine madness to remember that he had promised his wife he'd bring dessert home.

The college girl becomes so obsessed with the land and people in the Godfather films, that she'll spend a few days of her Christmas break -- alone -- in Sicily. On a stormy, January day, she'll go to a small coastal village (in search of a Byzantine mosaic she liked in one of her school books) and find herself the only lunch patron at a tiny, family restaurant. She is regarded (no, stared at) as if she glows in the dark. Moments later, they'll wish she glowed in the dark, as the power keeps going on and off. The Muzak version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is playing and it flickers, too, so that every four seconds it's dark and silent, which is a relief, considering that the rest of the time, it's loud and the entire family have seated themselves across from her and gape without smiling. The eggplant on her plate is wonderful, but such is her desire for escape that she's never chewed so fast in her life. She will leave with a new understanding of the word "xenophobia." When she returns home, she'll keep watching those films, but she'll no longer envy the characters' compulsion for duty. Though she'll keep being jealous of the clothes.

I lit my cigarettes like he did, I wore the kind of clothes he wore. I still do. ... Not because I was imitating him ... but because I was imitating all the people who gave and taught me life, and they took so many of their cues from him. ... European princes had taught them grace; American streets taught them flair. They didn't need to learn violence from anyone. That, they were born with. And Sinatra blended all this better than any, and sang as he did so -- sang of love, and of pride, despairing of one and reveling in the other. And this was why Sicilians especially gave him respect, in the peculiar way Sicilians use that word, meaning homage, deference, consideration, and that invitation to betrayal, loyalty.

Those are the words of Mike Rose, ne Michael Rossellini, the private eye protagonist of Michael Ventura's new novel The Death of Frank Sinatra. Rose, a born and raised Las Vegan, is the son of a minor mobster trying to make it straight. Or as straight as is possible for a character that's half Philip Marlowe and half Michael "I keep trying to get out ..." Corleone. Frank Sinatra towers over the story as an organizing principle -- Rose's hometown's true hero, as well as his mother's true love. "Frank Sinatra," Mama Rossellini often said of her youthful tryst with the singer "was no disappointment."

The only disappointment of Nick Tosches' otherwise spine-tingling Dean Martin biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams is Tosches' treatment of Sinatra. While Dino is the wise guys' irreverent hipster hero, Francis Albert is a brown-nosing mama's boy who bows to his kingpins' commands. Whether or not that was, is -- despite Ventura's title -- true about singer/mob relations, it's a big fat lie in sound, a fan's only real concern. Because as a singer, Dean Martin was a boot-licking slave to convention and Frank Sinatra in his greatest performances was a stark-raving anarchist -- the Godfather, if you will.

I've listened to Sinatra's Capitol Years recordings about 800 times. I know all the words, and sometimes, I sing along. When I do, there always, always comes a moment when Frank just peels out of a phrase and leaves me eating his dust. Measures, beats, other musicians, these things have no hold over him. He plays with metronomes as if they're toys, twirling his voice around temporal constraints, carrying over a split-second here, moving an accent over there. And the way he does it has nothing to do with moral certainty or family or loyalty or any of the time-honored bonds of his past. When Frank Sinatra sings, it's all about the moment. Michael Ventura understands this better than anyone, and his several-page description of a Sinatra concert is his book's greatest glory: "The lyrics were trite, obvious, sentimental. Somehow he made them true. The music was simple to the point of childishness. Somehow he made it complex." Because maybe the finest music is not, as Adorno wrote, "an enemy of fate," but rather, a replacement for it. And a recording of a simple but complex song can compress fate into an eternal, unavoidable present, beyond morals, beyond good and evil but encompassing both. Frank Sinatra's voice is the gun and the cannoli at the same time. As he once sang, "You can't have one without the other."

By Sarah Vowell
Svowell@aol.com

Michael Ventura reads from The Death of Frank Sinatra Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Booksmith, 1644 Haight; call 474-6159.

 
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