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Thanksgiving 2020

The Art of Giving: Francis

Many years ago, during the turbulent decade of my 20s, I wrote a poem entitled “Francis”. I no longer have the verse, and I did not include it in any of my poetry volumes. Certain pieces of writing are composed for personal and private purposes. They do not extend beyond the self, and thus, are not true art.

I can recall a couple lines of verse:

Long have I waited for you . . .

Long have I needed what you could not give . . .

And then the clincher, the real kicker, the one-line, gut-wrenching refrain:

I return to my bed, empty again.

Obviously, I was in a state of despondency, perhaps even approaching depression. I did not yield to the black dog, however. I came to terms with the never-ending sadness that was a one-sided love, and then the sadness ended.

It is entirely possible that I chose the name of the poem-protagonist because of Frank Sinatra, Francis Albert, to be specific. He was an only child, insatiably driven to compete vocally with Bing Crosby, fiercely and irrationally compelled to prove his worth in the world of singing, maniacally motivated to be the #1 in vocal artistry, desperately torn by inner and outer demons to prevail over a wretched childhood and a child-damaging mother. Forget about the passive, illiterate father who may have been the bigger victim of the non-maternal hand that crushed the cradle.

Frank succeeded, on many levels, to achieve those stratospheric heights that he controlled with a clenched iron fist, along with the fisted assistance of the Mob. I’ve always believed that the listening public, and many of the individuals in his private realm, dealt more with the inflexible and fiery mechanisms of a man defending a very fragile ego, than with his talent.

His voice was rare, and beautiful, in its youth. It was a small voice, prone to break down under harsh conditions and over-use. The young Sinatra proceeded to damage his gift, almost as if to prove to himself that he could climb and rise with the voice, in spite of self-harm, to even greater heights.

What a wicked way for any singer to treat his talent!

And yet, it was a given, given the nature of Frank Sinatra, that his way, inasmuch as he claimed it was “My Way”, was more the Mob way. That way was largely out of his own control, even as he attempted to control the things he could not control, and he tossed away portions of his life that he could have at least attempted to control.

The singer has a unique relationship with the internal instrument known as Voice. It’s a part of himself, and, at the same time, once it becomes a commodity, it no longer belongs to him. The vocal artist has to surrender to that paradox, and let the chips fall where they may. The music history of Sinatra reads like a build-and-destroy cycle that repeated itself so often, it became blasé. Frank might have even bored himself with himself.

His small voice was a genuinely intimate expression of his self. That self did not fully mature, and so, as an artist, as a singer, he did not mature. He repeated versions of the same song throughout his recording career. The original, or initial, cut was usually the superior one. Why redo the past?

Because Francis could not accept the past. Mistakes, regrets — he had more than a few. He had gobs of self-created messes, caused by an egocentricity that was more off the charts than were his hit songs.

As he got older, though not necessarily wiser, Sinatra was able to use his position of dominance in a field that had been tilted in his favor — ever more to his advantage. It was not a tender trap. It was the ego, slicing portions of his ability to love, to give. While Dean Martin (whom I admittedly admire much more than Frank) used his weekly television show to nurture and promote new, young talents, Sinatra made use of new sounds, new musicians, new trends and new talents to promote only himself.

The sense of fulfillment in such a utilitarian user strategy is very small, almost non-existent. The ego becomes a prison from which the artist cannot escape, no matter how many upbeat tempos or innovative swings of the strings are tried. Sadly, very sadly, the creative impulse in the very young man who was Francis Albert Sinatra got used to protect himself from assaults that he generated as a way of proving, to himself more than to others, that he was a legend in his own time, not in his own mind.

He wasn’t a legend in his own mind, but his enormous sense of entitlement froze the warmth of giving that separates an artist from a performer. Frank was good at performing; he did not create, as much as innovate. The reason for that self-sabotage limiting of his astoundingly accurate ear was his astoundingly selfish self.

When I wrote that poem, Francis, I was attempting to recover emotionally, even psychically, from having loved a man, or two, whose entire existence revolved around himself. If you have ever loved a man unable to give, you can understand the type of bruising, wincing pain that effort to reach another heart entails. That guy and I had one thing in common: I loved him, and he loved him too.

In reality, in essence, such a person does not love at all. There is a truncation of the emotion known as love from the very point of departure from the heart. I cannot define or explain how any human being arrives at that miserable state of living only for himself; I can only state, with the certainty of experienced sorrow, that such a person never finds true love, because he can never give true love.

To be the child of a self-absorbed, ego-centric person is even more painful than to be an adult trying to love him, or her. The progeny of the Ego is granted the privilege of living in his shadow, as an extension of his Self. It’s a cold, lonely shadow that only gets colder and more lonely as the parent takes from the child what, in a natural and healthy relationship, he ought to give to his Issue. And it becomes a real issue, the role-reversal that occurs when a child must give to the parent what that parent did not get from his parent. You can see how the genetic mess becomes shambolic!

For that horribly crippling limitation of the heart to take place within a singer of love songs — it’s a vicious joke on himself. I recall vividly the day, or night, that Dean Martin died. I had to look up the date of the departure of Francis Albert from this world. He’s with the angels now, but I’ve a very strong feeling that ascension followed a rocky road.

Frank had to earn his wings, after clipping the wings of so many other male crooners who might have found a larger stage on which to sing, a larger movie role to play, a bigger crowd to swoon over him. He could only promote someone who was a reflection of his ego. What a lonely existence in the spotlight on a stage that still failed to give him the love he so terribly craved.

The gift of giving from the heart is the hallmark of a true artist, the necessary alchemy of an unforgettable singer. Sinatra is remembered in ways he’d not ever planned, arranged, strategized or connived. When I read the massive moans and groans about What the “h” Happened to the World of Pop Music, I think of Francis, and his tight-fisted supremacy in a world that collapsed for lack of oxygen for undiscovered singers who just might have made it big . . . like one Teen Idol of the Bobby Soxers.

The gift of giving to the art of singing is not his legacy, but maybe, from ground zero, singing from the heart can start anew with lessons learned from this message, an unintentional gift from the Chairman of the Board, the kid from Hoboken whose heart got broken, young and often:

Drop the ego at the door, kiddo, when you pick up the mike, if you want to make a difference in this life.

The art of giving in singing works that way, no matter the song, the sound, the arrangement, the era, the fad, the mania that never lasts. It’s the art that goes on forever.