Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

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Open Season

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Black Santa

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

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A Kwanzaa Carol

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”


“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’


“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”


“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”


“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

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The Worst Noel

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

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Holiday on Ice Cream

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

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Manger? Mangia!

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

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God Bless Us, Every One

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Bah Humdrum

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

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Window Pain

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

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I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖

FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Surface Tension: Michael Mann’s “Heat”

In Michael Mann’s wide-screen, West Coast gloss on his own Miami Vice, the locations almost upstage the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Mann is a locations visionary. He sees a city not so much for what it is as for what it might become. Just as Miami remade itself to better resemble its image in Miami Vice, L.A. may rise eventually to Heat‘s desolate, sand­blasted impersonality.

Mann’s City of Lights, where Vin­cent Hanna (Pacino) and Neil McCauley (De Niro) go through their paces as the last of the existential cops and criminals, couldn’t be more re­moved from the gothic, phosphores­cent L.A. of David Fincher’s Seven. Heat’s color scheme is ultracool. In one inconsequential scene set at a con­struction site, Mann finds a 20-foot­-high pile of baby-bunting yellow sand that perfectly balances the film’s basic bleached blues and grays. The image stays in the mind’s eye long after the formulaic plot has faded. So does the ultimate showdown between Vincent and Neil on the far reaches of an air­port runway, where the immediate question of who lives and who dies is dwarfed by the planes roaring over­head. Mann’s use of scale is as mean­ingful as any great modernist painter’s.

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The splendid visuals aside, Heat is a cosmically silly movie — which does­n’t make it any less entertaining. Mann manages to have his romance of ob­sessed masculinity and send it up too. The joke is in the casting. Pacino and De Niro are as much dinosaurs as the parts they play; Mann doesn’t demand a suspension of disbelief. If anything, thee competition for acting honors be­tween these two ethnic superstars (relics of the wilder side of ’70s cine­ma) eclipses the fictional face-off of cop and criminal.

Though there are no big surprises in either performance, my preference is for Pacino, whose head-fakes and er­ratic speech rhythms have the improvisatory flair of the new Knicks. Pacino manages to be playful even when he’s excessive and never less than true even when he’s over the top. Moment to moment, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Pleasure has never been part of De Niro’s game. He’s a lot better here than in Casino (which isn’t saying much), and just about as proficient as he was in GoodFellas. At his best, these days, De Niro seems admirable rather than awesome. Once upon a time, his rigid­ity was a desperate defense against a rage that might erupt at any moment. He could make one both fear and long for the return of the repressed. But over time, the rage imploded into a black hole, sucking the life from him­ — and from anyone who watches. Here, that inner heaviness, though it doesn’t make for a thrilling performance, is right for the character — a career crimi­nal who’s ultimately undone nor by the desire for love he so carefully guards against as by a need for revenge that is the one thing he can’t control.

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Mann has never gotten the credit he deserves as an actor’s director. In Heat, he does well not only by his two stars but also his supporting cast, par­ticularly Val Kilmer as the most volatile of the partners in crime, Ashley Judd as his intermittently loyal wife, and Diana Venora as a woman who knows she’s too smart to stay married to a cop. She’s so smart, in fact, she almost gets away with using the word “detritus” in the middle of a love scene. ❖


Michael Douglas: Victim Victorious

Well-Fed Yuppie Michael Douglas Lead Charge for Resentful White Men

“Why don’t I just be that guy, that evil white guy you’re always complaining about?”
— Michael Douglas, Disclosure

Was that a threat or a bleat? Or was it only the satisfied acknowl­edgment of a smart career move? Improbable as it may seem, Michael Douglas currently commands a per-picture salary of some $15 million just to play That Evil White Guy You’re Always Com­plaining About.

American movies are the R&D of American politics. To be a reigning male icon is to promote a social agenda — ­it goes with the territory. John Wayne personified anticommunism at home and in the ‘Nam, Clint Eastwood was the original law-and-or­der licensed vigilante, Sylvester Stallone achieved stardom as Mr. White (Ethnic) Backlash. Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the global triumph of American capital, but the world-historic role Michael Douglas has assigned himself is something like der Arnold in reverse.

A well-fed yuppie with a face that bobs and weaves around the frame, pretending to menace the camera like a kid’s clenched fist, Douglas has perfected his ability to pro­ject a glowering sense of aggrieved, put-upon masculinity. Taking on the de­fense of home, hearth, and career against a succession of castrating women, not to mention menacing minority groups and ascendant nationalities, Dou­glas has elected himself patron-saint of America’s leading special interest group. He is the heroic, resentful, white-guy, white-col­lar, heterosexual vic­tim, the social hiero­glyph and talk-show staple we might call the Mighty Kvetch. “Sexual harassment is about power. When did I have the power?” Douglas wails in Disclosure. “When?”

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AMERICAN HEROES ARE STOIC BY NATURE. As the leading protagonist of the bedroom horror genre that Fatal Attraction established, if not invented, back in the Reagan autumn of 1987, Douglas taught men to whine. The quintessential Douglas vehicle is an inverted Gothic romance in which women overcome men and bodice-ripping is a source of masculine pain — or even, in the case of Basic In­stinct (1992), death. The quintessential Douglas scene transforms a cozy home or congenial work space into an arena of mortal combat. As his godlike father Kirk Douglas battled fellow gladiator Woody Strode mano a mano in Spartacus, so Michael strips down to grapple with such harridan temptresses as the Medusa-permed Glenn Close, voracious man-eater Kathleen Turner, “fuck of the cen­tury” Sharon Stone, and big-haired Demi Moore in a custom-built Wonderbra.

A figure of fantastic, self-parodic, gangster­ish drive, the senior Douglas embodied a healthy measure of America’s post-World War II strength. Back in the ’50s, when men were men and women knew their place, he slaughtered screenfuls of Vikings, Romans, and Indians. Douglas pere was the closest thing to a Jewish John Wayne. Regularly parodied by Frank Gor­shin as a hoarse, tic-ridden, volatile neurotic, Kirk was perhaps the ’50s most aggressive action star. The younger Douglas brings his father’s (or maybe Gorshin’s) teeth-clenched, anguished in­tensity to the representation of sex-whimper­ing protests even as he’s being fellated.

American tough guys are notoriously in­expressive. In the course of his sweaty, grab-ass copulations, Douglas dramatizes every cliché about erotic torment as well as the inherent ridiculousness of (other people’s) passion. Fa­tal Attraction features Douglas and Close go­ing at each other as she perches on the ledge of a dish-filled sink. In Basic In­stinct, Douglas brings Jeanne Tripplehorn home, slams her against a wall, kisses her, rips apart her underwear, smooches her again, then pushes her facedown onto a chair and takes her from behind. (“You’ve never been like that be­fore,” she observes grumpily.) As der Arnold might tear apart a phone book, Douglas simi­larly rends the panties off Moore’s body dou­ble in Disclosure, while they clank around her high-tech office like a pair of amorous robots.

The American leading man is never thrown for an erotic loss. But Douglas always manages to win the battle and forfeit the war — invariably these actresses displace him from the movie’s center. The struggle is even biologically determined. As one guy observes in Disclosure, “They’re stronger, they’re smarter, and they don’t fight fair.” The dazed recognition that life is unequal — this is the source of Douglas’s pathos.

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MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S DEMOGRAPHIC PEERS include far more talented actors: Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, to name three. Even Harrison Ford and Richard Drey­fuss exude greater screen warmth. Yet the more limited some actors are, the deeper they burrow into audience fantasies, the less apt they may be to push themselves, the easier they find it to hitch a ride on the zeitgeist.

“Charlton Heston is an axiom,” Michael Mourlet wrote 35 years ago in a once-notori­ous Cahiers du Cinema manifesto defending violence on the screen. “By himself (Heston) constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty.” Michael Douglas is likewise an axiom — even if his particular tragedy usually veers closer to farce and the beauty of his presence is a matter of some dispute.

Audiences pay to gawk at Arnold’s larger-than-life, indestructible will to power. Douglas, while no less ecce homo, more naturalistically regards his oppressors with fear and loathing, trafficking in humiliation and payback. Un­charismatic as he is, Douglas wouldn’t be any­body’s first choice as a leading man. But a true star is to some degree self-invented, having intuited a need that no one had articulated before. Indeed, it’s the sense of faintly obnoxious second-rateness that makes him such a perfect patsy for his powerhouse leading ladies.

Douglas is a selective demagogue. It appears to be part of his marketing strategy to bait women with his sexist complaints, or to pick on immigrants and the homeless, or boast of his courageously unfashionable attitudes. “You don’t have time to get politically correct,” is how he explained Basic Instinct‘s primal appeal. “Which is what movies are about, emotional catharsis.” So-called political cor­rectness has no place in fantasy — or anywhere else, for that matter. In flacking Falling Down, Douglas declared, perhaps more in sorrow than anger, that “political correctness is a state of mind, it’s a dream, it’s nirvana — and it has nothing to do with reality.”

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Douglas casts himself as someone who speaks truth to power (or is it powerlessness?). While it is diverting to imagine Kirk in any of his son’s roles, as a professional Man, Michael is dearly Kirk’s heir. Indeed, before he was any­thing else, Michael was Kirk’s son — which is to say the privileged progeny of’ ’50s affluence and hypermasculine display. Kirk’s career role of Spartacus adorns the cover of Roudedge’s fashionably titled scholarly anthology, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema; self-made and self-named (he titled his autobiography The Ragpicker’s Son, boasting within that he taught his own mother to write her name), he never lost a certain class re­sentment or the sense of himself as an object. Regarding The Champion, the movie that made him a star, Douglas senior told Roger Ebert that he “was probably the only man in Holly­wood who’s had to strip to get a part.”

Kirk cast a giant shadow, at least on his firstborn. Michael Douglas first appears in the text that is Hollywood as a dutifully conflicted son. A commune-dwelling longhair during the ’60s, he broke into the movies as the would-­be Hollywood personification of the torment­ed Vietnam generation. In the supremely am­bivalent Hail, Hero! (1969), he played a hippie peacenik who secretly enlists in the army to please his World War II vet father; in Adam at Six A.M. (1970), he was an idealistic young college instructor. At the climax of Summertree (1971), draftee Michael was actually killed in battle, even as his hawkish parents contentedly made love. (The last film was produced by papa Kirk, then starring in male menopause dramas like The Brotherhood and The Arrangement.)

While falling far below the Fonda kids as a celluloid generational symbol, Douglas did successfully project a counterculture persona into American living rooms as veteran cop Karl Malden’s college-educated, idealistic-liberal protegé in Streets of San Francisco (ABC, 1972-77). In this, he earned Kirk’s approval, defined as staking out a healthy slice of the spotlight: “My father was impressed when I was doing the series because it was seen by 22 million people a week, every single week, in America alone.” Before Streets of San Francisco’s final season, Douglas quit his role as Malden’s foil. In the show, it was explained that he had left the force to become a teacher; in fact, he had retired to savor another late counter-cultural cum Oedipal triumph — as an Oscar-winning producer.

Persuading his father to give up a cherished fantasy of starring as McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Douglas succeeded in getting the picture made and then sweeping the Oscars. “It’s all downhill from here,” he correctly told reporters after the ceremony. Douglas nevertheless followed up by producing a second liberal hit, the meltdown melodrama The China Syndrome (1979), and rehearsing his role as the zeitgeist’s darling. The China Syndrome had the amazing good fortune to open less than two weeks before the near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. “It goes beyond the realm of coincidence; it’s enough to make you religious,” was Douglas’s com­ment at the time.

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LIKE MANY A BEMUSED HOLLYWOOD liberal, Douglas missed the Reagan reformation — making nothing more interesting than two adventure comedies, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), wherein he attempted to pass for a chillier version of Harrison Ford, playing opposite a steamy Kathleen Turner. It was not until that ultimate celluloid father in the White House suffered severe image paralysis toward the close of his second term that Douglas came into his own.

Fatal Attraction (1987) was Douglas’s Spartacus — a midcareer, midlife political manifesto that remains his top-grossing ve­hicle. Cannily, he promoted it as a form of sexual backlash: “If you want to know, I’m really tired of feminists, sick of them. They’ve really dug themselves into their own grave. It’s time they looked at themselves and stopped attacking men.” For the first time, Douglas presented himself as a male advocate and, in doing so, revealed a demagogue’s knack for bringing a crowd to its feet. As was well-documented at the time, the movie inspired an extraordinary degree of viewer participation, with spectators typically exhorting Douglas to “kill the bitch!” as he defended his family against the crazed assault launched by Glenn Close’s jilted one-night stand.

As Fatal Attraction, which put adultery on the political map, presaged the fall of Gary Hart, so Wall Street ap­peared less than two months after the Octo­ber 1987 stock-market crash that signaled the demise of the boom-boom ’80s. An openly “liberal” movie, Wall Street provided Douglas with an openly villainous role. His portrayal of financier Gordon Gekko was that of an unapologetically and totally powerful white guy — the megabully that lives deep inside every whiny wimp. The part, which won Douglas an Oscar, may be closest to his heart: “I don’t think Gekko’s a villain,” he explained at the time. “Doesn’t beat his wife or his kid. He’s just taking care of business. And he gives a lot of people chances.”

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Taking care of business, giving people chances. Since then, Douglas has enjoyed uncanny timing. His 1989 Osaka-set thriller, Black Rain, globalized Fatal Attrac­tion‘s sense of white men under siege. The movie, in which a typically baffled and enraged Douglas lashes out at an incomprehensibly alien (and, in some ways, “unmanly”) culture, materialized even as popular resentment peaked against the Japanese companies that — then blatantly buying up “underval­ued” American landmarks like Rockefeller Center and Universal Pictures — threatened America’s status as the world’s preeminent capitalist power. Falling Down, one of the first movies to portray Los Angeles as the new behavioral sink, was in production dur­ing the 1992 riots.

Originally asked to play Falling Down‘s heroic (but henpecked) cop, Douglas intuitively asked for the more fiercely self-pitying and demonstrative role of the laid-off defense worker known, from his license plate, as D-FENS. No less rabble-rousing than Fatal Attraction, Falling Down inspired audiences to cheer as Douglas crashed a Korean grocery (“I’m standing up for my rights as a consumer — ­I’m rolling back prices to 1965″), beat a bunch of Latino gang-bangers, dissed a homeless panhandler, and terrorized the robotic counter kids in a generic fast-food parlor.

For the benefit of the press, Douglas defended D-FENS as the personification of America’s lost middle class. What seemed lost on him was that if life in 1992 was re­ally so rough for middle-class white guys, how much worse was it for everybody else?

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REVENGE FANTASIES ARE A MAJOR COMPONENT in popular entertainments, particularly those designed for the disadvantaged. In this respect, Douglas has devised a more sophisticated form of slasher film. His vehicles are all about putting the shoe on the other foot, turning victims into victimizers and vice versa. Just as immigrants and the homeless make life lousy for hardworking Americans in Falling Down, so Fatal Attraction‘s stalker and Basic Instinct‘s serial killer are female, as is Disclosure‘s rapist. Meanwhile, Douglas is persecuted, passed over, laid off, divorced, beaten up, molested, and harassed.

A successful movie star is to some degree a public servant, shoring up those cultural norms perceived to be in crisis, or effecting a miraculous reconciliation of opposing values. Douglas’s stardom depends on his capacity to project simultaneous strength and weakness. He is the victim as hero — a bellicose masochist, aggressive yet powerless, totally domineering while bat­tered by forces beyond his control (includ­ing, of course, those of his id). It’s the same rationale by which O. J. Simpson can represent himself as a victim of spouse abuse, even if it is his own.

Basic Instinct is echt Douglas — it al­lowed him to synthesize all his previous roles in the person of an arrogantly fallible cop with an addictive personality. His heightened state of deprivation, having given up ciga­rettes, booze, and cocaine when the movie opens, alludes to his offscreen life: Douglas’s media image is typically that of the licentious workaholic. Magazine profiles emphasize his tremendous, ongoing success as well as his public battles against substance abuse and “sex addiction” in the context of a long-run­ning society marriage.

Douglas asks pity for the constraints un­der which he suffers as well as for those urges that he indulges. Both are defined as Woman. But where Sigmund Freud wondered just what it was that women desired, Douglas knows only what it is they don’t: “If we followed the rules, we’d all be these sensitive, upstanding, compassionate men­ — and no women would want us.” Hence the logic of the Evil White Guy.

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On one hand, men are persecuted. “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands,” Douglas told the press while pro­moting Fatal Attraction. In that movie, Close demands that Douglas “face up to your responsibilities,” just as Moore, in Disclosure, orders him to “come back here and finish what you started!” The fear of being worked (or fucked) to death is matched by another anxiety. Basic Instinct is fascinated by Sharon Stone’s lesbian attachments, while Disclosure makes early, joking reference to a situation in which a child has two mommies. But these references seem less homophobic than misogynist — the manifestation of a male’s fear that he might be expendable. (It is an amusing footnote to the protests directed against Basic Instinct that one deliri­ous group of activists demanded, among oth­er things, that Douglas’s character be made lesbian and recast with his movieland ex-wife Kathleen Turner.)

Women define Douglas’s success as a movie star as well as his representation of life as a man. Even when women are not the primary enemy, as they are in Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure, they serve to exacerbate his predicament. Douglas’s crooked cop in Black Rain needs to make extra money for child support. The vengeful loser in Falling Down is driven over the brink by a cold and rejecting ex-wife. “I have to come home,” he warns her, hav­ing just delighted the audience by telling off an uppity vagrant.

There’s an underlying sadness here. Douglas, after all, was six years old when his parents split up. Broken families are at the center of The War of the Roses and Falling Down. Black Rain and Fatal Attraction alike are haunted by the image of beleaguered pa­triarchy. Disclosure opens with Douglas’s in­effectual announcement that “I am The Fa­ther and when The Father says put your jacket on — you put your jacket on.”

You do if Daddy is Spartacus. Just as Douglas suffers the humiliation of always being the son, so he is frequently put in the position of defending something he fears may no longer even exist. Thus, Basic Instinct evinces the most pathetic longing for Kinder und Küche. Projecting an ideal future with literal man-killer Sharon Stone, Douglas goofily suggests that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after.”

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“I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?”
Michael Douglas, Falling Down

AS THE EMBODIMENT OF WHITE straight male power on planet earth, American presidents typically consort (at least in the national dreamlife) with those Holly­wood ego-ideals and doppelgängers who, like themselves, define what it is to be presumptive Master of the Universe.

Nixon identified with John Wayne, as well as the characters Patton and Dirty Harry. Underdog candidate Jimmy Carter was associated with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Reagan, in addition to playing himself, could morph into Indiana Jones and Stallone-as-­Rambo. For the overcompensating Bush, there was (by then, a kinder, gentler) Arnold Schwarzenegger and diffident Kevin Costner. For Clinton, who has been known to both whine in public and sniff around Sharon Stone, it is Michael Douglas — that is, if it is to be anyone other than Dead Elvis or (oh, the horror!) Barbra Streisand.

Although Disclosure hasn’t proved as mighty a windfall as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct — are we getting tired of him yet — Douglas has at least temporarily sup­planted Arnold as Hollywood’s Mr. America. Junior, the latest and most radical varia­tion on the monstrous Schwarzenegger physique, tanked with squeamish audiences. (In his hubristic self-sufficiency, a pregnant Arnold made the mistake of playing both characters in a bedroom horror flick — and for comedy no less.) What, especially in the autumn of 1994, was Arnold getting in touch with his female side compared to the spectacle of the ex-hippie, glib yuppie Dou­glas rallying the troops once more — pre­vailing against another oversexed, postfem­inist, smart-assed, professional bitch? Yes!

That sort of appeal can take you straight to the top — just ask the Republicans. Indeed, as unlikable as he is, Douglas will next appear in the role of a successful politician. Wayne, Eastwood, Stallone have never gone this far. As his crowning achievement, Michael Douglas has been cast in the title role of Rob Reiner’s The American President. What’s more, it’s a romantic comedy. The Ragpicker’s Grandson, playing a wid­owed commander in chief (ding, dong, the bitch is dead), presumably ups his belea­guerment quotient by getting involved with a comely environmental lobbyist (heh heh), Annette Bening, whom his aides must smuggle in and out of the White House boudoir.

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Can it work? Will the wily Bening char­acter attempt to hijack the president’s health care program? Does she accuse him of in­decent exposure? Try to steal his job? Attempt to eviscerate the D·FENS budget with an ice pick? Can the long-suffering American people forgive this well-meaning but spineless victim of his indiscretions and appetites — his basic instincts? Will we “Hail to the Chief” chump? Assuredly, providing that he asserts his presidential prerogative and puts that tricky lobby lady in her place. (Douglas should have no difficulty with the requisite flackery: Corporations are going through a terrible crisis because of environmentalists’ unreasonable demands. The greens are digging their own grave.)

Just before Christmas, gossip columns reported Douglas hanging out at the White House to absorb the presidential vibe. So was Douglas sizing up the newly chastened Bill Clinton to prepare for his ultimate ex­ercise in belligerent self-pity, heroic victimization, and protection of the realm? Or was it, somewhat more logically, vice versa? ❖

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies

1995 Village Voice article by J Hoberman about resentful white men portrayed in Hollywood movies


Whiny White Guys

Save the Males: The Making of the Butch Backlash

All this whinin’ and cryin’ and pitchin’ a fit
Get over it. — The Eagles

Only in America are there holidays to compensate for what has been lost. Martin Luther King Day signifies the humanist dream deferred. Halloween is an urban celebration of fantasies that cannot be lived. And Super Bowl Sunday is the Day of Male Bonding. It commemorates an institution that has all but lost its authority.

It wasn’t always this way. Once there were holidays devoted to the worship of womankind, while men made the rules of public life. But as women intruded, observances like the Easter Parade lost their luster. Now it’s men who need rituals to affirm their im­portance. The perfect occasion arose in 1967 — four years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique — with the first Super Bowl. Were it not for our need to mark the archaic, this climactic football game would not be such a commercial bonanza, nor would it echo the gendered polarities of beauty pageantry and war. For one sacred afternoon, men gather to chug a brewsky with the buds, and the demands of sexual equity are suspended. The Super Bowl is a reverie of the way we were.

But this year, the Day of Male Bonding came early. The nation awoke on November 9 to a new political alignment. Sixty-two per cent of white males had voted for Republican Congressional candidates. They were credited with producing the first GOP majority in 40 years. Not since Ronald Reagan had the right savored such a victory, and the conservative press was quick to capitalize on it. The Wall Street Journal, where Rush Limbaugh is known as a “sensitive fellow,” hyped the term Angry White Males, and before you could whisper, “Hillary is a bitch,” America had a new minority.

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OF COURSE, THERE HAVE ALWAYS been angry white men. What’s new is their emergence in this country as a political bloc. These guys are on a well-publicized rampage, howling about their loss of power, casting themselves as victims and everyone else as their oppressors. What’s so wacky about this role reversal is that white men clearly hold  the lion’s share of political and corporate power. They lead the major religions and run the military. But they have lost something less tangible, without which they cannot continue to rule: their legitimacy.

White men are no longer the whole against which we measure all the parts, but one more angry special interest group. Once they were “mankind,” now they’re just another niche in the endless segmentation markets and identities. This new “community” has its own jargon and its own outrageousness. Limbaugh is a specialty much like kente cloth or rainbow flags. “Rush,” wrote one book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, “is the ultimate guilty pleasure for guys weary of being bound by the cultural straitjacket of political correctness.”

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

P.C. is the official expletive of the Angry White Male. What began as a wry leftist critique of its own puritanical tendencies has become a term of derision for all things multicultural, feminist, or gay. The emergence of this epithet, at the same time as other, less elegant slurs have made a comeback, affirms the new pecking order of abuse. The only group it’s not hip to dis these days is straight white men.

But even this ritual baring of teeth reflects the tenuous state of male prestige. A major shift in consciousness has made the aphorisms about female pulchritude and male power that dot the Western canon seem archaic. The notion that women are born “to ben under mannes governance,” as Chaucer put it, must now be continually asserted, because it is no longer self-evident. No wonder so much energy is devoted to constructing a fundamentalism of male supremacy. The very fact that he needs to form a political bloc suggests that the white male no longer takes his influence for granted. That’s why he’s angry: He is still the major player, but he is no longer the game.

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The conflation of power with truth, justice, the natural, or the divine is called hegemony. It’s what allows a dominant class, race, or gender to maintain its credibility. When that God-given right to rule is undermined, the loss of status can be devastating — especially when it occurs along with a loss of wealth. That’s what created the new Republican majority.

No one bothers to recall that men and women colluded in the last great Republican rout of 1946. Pollsters didn’t even measure women voters as a separate category until 1982, but the gender gap has been a fact of political life ever since. Fewer women voted in the last election than in ’92, and those who did tilted slightly toward the Democrats. This means the Republican majority, so potent in the short run, is built on highly unstable ground. If more women go to the polls in ’96, and some men redirect their anger toward the corporate masters and their congressional servants, the Democrats could be back in power.

But in order to attract the backlash vote, it would have to be a Democratic Party with a David Letterman edge, a par­ty that mocks its own identification with the weak and the powerless. It would have to slough off guilt and stand up to the “unreasonable” demands of women and minorities, singing along with the Eagles anthem for the Angry White Male, “Get Over It”:

Complain about the present
and blame it on the past
I’d like to find your inner child
and kick its little ass

These New Democrats would embrace male power. Perhaps, like Letterman (and Limbaugh), they would smoke cigars.

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THE DAY OF MALE BONDING WAS scarcely over when The New York Times announced that cigars had become “a prop for the ’90s.” The remarkable photo on page one showed a young, besuited white male puffing away on what the reporter called “a statement of cool authority and elegance.” Sitting behind him, in shadow, a black man looks uneasy lighting up. Both are patrons of a cigar club, that new Manhattan environment where men gather to bask in what one pro­prietor called “a whole romantic era, the Victorian smoking room.”

He wasn’t talking about a singles bar. For though women are welcome in these clubs — after all, it’s the law — their real place is on the service staff, enhancing the prosthetic effect of a good cigar by handling it, lighting it, and even clipping the tip. Less than 1 per cent of cigar smokers are women, which makes these establishments a perfect setting for the romance of male bonding. But the steep price of a stogie ($22 for a Dominican Montecristo) signals that not just any dude can be part of this coterie. Un­like Super Bowl Sunday, cigar clubs aren’t supposed to be a democratic experience. The idea is to bring together two of the most powerful impulses in human history: camaraderie and class.

Cigars are the ultimate accoutrement of male power, the gentleman’s gat. Which is why it’s significant that, in the past year alone, sales have risen by more than 50 per cent, according to one manufacturer. This boom is largely due to young smokers look­ing for a high-status buzz. As the president of the Cigar Association of America ex­plains, “there is a male backlash” and a hunger for the days when male power was such a given it was rarely remarked upon. Cigars are a traditional instrument of that era, commemorating the moment after din­ner when ladies retired while gents remained at the table to huff and puff. Cigar chic is one more sign that the yearning for symbols of male supremacy is eminently marketable. In an age where culture creates politics, and commerce makes a style of both, the butch backlash is becom­ing chic.

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THE NAZIS KNEW ALL about the power of the archaic. They built their reich on racist and sexist traditions that were al­ready in collision with the evolution of lib­eral societies. The allure of the Übermensch was all the more intense because he was passé. Something similar sustains the Angry White Male. This right­-wing version of Encino Man harks back not just to the postwar “golden age” of the one-income, two-parent, male-cen­tered family, but to the primordial days of all­-male hunting parties.

Of course, we no longer hunt for survival or depend on physical agility and muscle mass to hold territory. Warfare is in­creasingly conducted by remote control, and eco­nomic life is bound up with technical expertise. These shifts in the human condition make male su­premacy obsolete. Women are coming to power not just because of their col­lective will but because ob­jective conditions favor gender equity. The femi­nist revolution, as it is sometimes called, more closely resembles an evo­lution of the species. But because this leap forward involves altering patterns of behavior that have been practiced for many millennia, the course of change is uncertain and the anxieties potent enough to create a backlash. The male bond, no longer functional, is even more powerful as an artifact of the old ways.

In contemporary culture, Archie Bunker was the first Angry White Male. But good old “Ah-chie,” as Edith called him, was a bigoted buffoon who got his comeuppance, of­ten at the hands of his longhaired, upwardly mobile son-in-law. Archie’s resentment was rooted in class. He wasn’t meant to stand for men, or even white men, but for the eminently vulnerable white working stiff. In the end, like Ralph Kramden, Archie wanted love more than power.

Times have certainly changed. The sit-­comic ritual of male rage and reconciliation has given way to pure aggression, directed not at the powerful but at subordinates who refuse to take it lying down. Some time dur­ing the Reagan era, the racial animus that drove Dirty Harry was augmented by the gendered fury of Sam (“I don’t support wife beating, but I understand it”) Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. These were no lov­able loudmouths, but demonic figures of male authority whose crudeness was pre­sented as a higher form of truth telling. Heroically blue collar, they appealed to a middle-class audience eager to hear that women, blacks, and gays were walking all over straight white men. Kinison and Clay accommodated this burgeoning butchoisie by avoiding jokes about class. They confined their rage to race and sex. And under their aegis, the droll misogyny of Henny Young­man (“Take my wife. Please!”) and the coy ressentiment of Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) were transformed in­to sadism. Stand-up became the home base of the butch backlash.

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Soon, the fury appeared in rock music, where sexual and racial epithets became a cur­rency of hip discourse. White fans, who had already been schooled on metal and hardcore, eagerly identified with the rage of rap. In their hands, the hiphop stance was turned on its head, producing white racist epithets. But the bulk of this dissing was directed at women and homosexuals — or,  ever in the vernacular, bitches and fags. These sexual slurs had a double meaning. Not only did they ex­press what white males felt about their loss of authority (including the power to name all people and things in the world), but these words were part of a male language, and their elevation invoked the most primitive device for maintaining dominance: the bond.

The Super Bowl is a one-night stand, but backlash rock and sado stand-up are on­going reminders of a power that has lost its glory. Still, these forms are far too lewd to be of use to a politics that must observe the pieties of Christian fundamentalism. For conservatives to harness the butch backlash, it has to be expressed in a more wholesome way. Enter talk radio, with its populist im­primatur and its decidedly antierotic agen­da. Here was rock without rhythm. But the shock jocks did borrow something from the pop culture they condemned: its epithets. Bitch and fag are male terms of derogation that denote an “unnatural” self-assertion by women or homosexuals. As talk radio became an affiliate of the Republican party, these slurs became part of an overtly polit­ical presentation. It was only necessary for the men at the mikes to clean up their act a bit. A bitch was now a feminazi (c.f. Rush Limbaugh), a fag was a militant homosexu­al (at least on The 700 Club).

This same strategy has taken root in Congress, where the new Republican poohbahs revel in sotto voce slurs. Richard Armey’s use of Barney Fag, murmured to a group of reporters he thought he could count on to share the joke, was one exam­ple of the new respectability of hate speech. Newt Gingrich’s confidential salute to the first lady is another. (What’s the big deal? Mother Gingrich later asked. Aren’t there buttons calling Hillary a bitch?) The cur­rent Congress so resembles a locker room that ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts re­cently observed, “The House these days is no place for a mother.”

Neither is the Connecticut statehouse. When a nominee for commissioner of vet­erans’ affairs was criticized for referring to gay men as “lollipops,” he insisted he hadn’t meant to be offensive. “It’s just the way an old marine talks,” the nominee explained. Precisely: The old barracks jargon of racial and sexual slurs was intended to bond men into a war party; epithets helped to establish the boundary between the in-group and everyone else. That tactic has been adapted by the GOP to cement its bond with the the Angry White Male.

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REPUBLICANS COME EASILY TO THIS politics of symbolic solidarity. It was the core of Richard Nixon’s plan to exploit the backlash against civil rights. Now Nixon’s Southern strategy has been applied to women’s lib­eration. Never mind that the tradi­tional blue-collar household has always included many working women, or that today their income is all that stands between many families and poverty. To the extent that feminism presents alternatives to the dominion of the patriarch, it can be blamed for the loss of starus once accorded, as a matter of course, to white men.

What about the angry black man? Why is he not part of the pissed-off fraternity? Doen’t he have a beef with bitches, too? In fact, there’s ample evidence of a butch back­lash in the black community. From Tupac to Tyson, images of vehement masculinity abound. But in white America, black male rage is regarded as a pathology, while white male rage is seen as the basis of a politics. As in Birth of a Nation, black male rage is sex­ualized and repressed while white male rage is idealized and unleashed.

In reality, both are aspects of the same response to the growing influence of women. O. J. Simpson and Clarence Thomas are actors in the same sitdram that produced the Republican victory. And this reaction is part of a global backlash that has ignited fundamentalist explosions in every major faith. How much more can be ac­complished when the enemy within includes not just infidels but feminists. How much easier it is to convince women — enjoined by a lifetime of experiences to “stand by your man” — that their best interests are served by the old order. Not many citizens of the Third World would buy that argument from their former masters. Nor would many African Americans vote for candidates opposed to affirmative action. But, though white women have been major beneficiaries of such programs, in the last election, near­ly half their votes went to the Republicans.

Not that any party has a patent on the butch backlash. Plenty of Democrats are pissed off, too, and the administration is running as fast as it can from feminism (not to mention affirmative action). But Bill Clinton will have to do more than present himself as a kinder, gentler Republican in order to win back the whiners. He will have to toe the conservative line: that white men are the real victims, and minorities the real oppressors. Without this Big Lie, the back­lash could not cohere. Which is why con­servatives have appropriated the left’s vo­cabulary of aggrievement. A right-wing bumper sticker proclaims SAVE THE MALES.

An op-ed piece in the Daily News is a telling example of the new rule about who’s allowed to be a victim and who is not. “No­body gives a damn about me,” one white male student grouses. The author, a female professor at the University of Cincinnati, supports his claim. Undergrads like him, she writes, “enjoy no special admissions consid­erations, support services, and designated scholarships, no departments equivalent to women’s or African American studies.” She doesn’t mention that these beleaguered bach­elors are taught from curricula that stress the achievements of white men, and go on to earn more than other college graduates. They’ve had affirmative action for 5000 years.

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JUST HOW OPPRESSED ARE WHITE MEN? It depends. They come in all classes (though the Republicans would like them to forget that fact), and when it comes to economic status, the rich ones are doing better than ever. But for blue-collar workers, the loss of earning power is very real, indeed.

Actual income has fallen sharply over the past two decades, largely because of the shift from well-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying work in the service industries. The result has been a rude awakening from the American dream, at least for the gener­ation that came of age before the ’70s, when workers could expect to double their standard of living every 25 years. Now it would take 65 years to achieve that same gain.

But the pain hasn’t been shared equal­ly. According to the census bureau, the me­dian income of white women rose by 10 per cent between 1979 and 1993, while the median income of white men dropped by the same rate. (Among blacks, a similar dis­parity exists, but both sexes continue to earn less than whites.) A major reason for this gender gap is the traumatic migration from assembly lines to hamburger grills. For white men these new jobs mean lower wages, but for women and minorities, who have always worked for less, these same jobs represent an improvement. Largely because of this historical inequity, the earning gap has narrowed over the past 20 years. Though women still make only 70 per cent of what men do, that’s up from about 60 per cent in 1979. All this has precious little to do with affirmative action, but if you’re a white male with shrinking fornmes, it’s easy to imagine that women and minorities are getting all the breaks. Especially if that’s what Rush keeps telling you.

The butch backlash enables Republicans to profit from the growing inequalities of American life, while deflecting attention from those who are really responsible: the white men who set wages. Super Bowl Sun­day and other signifiers of the male bond belie the fact that professional men have gotten richer on the backs of their blue-col­lar buds. The salary gap between educated and uneducated workers is now wider in the U.S. than anywhere else in the developed world. And guess what? Though women have made striking inroads into the professions, the higher on the corporate ladder the less visible they are.

Women comprise only 6 per cent of di­rectors at Fortune 500 companies, and their committee assignments nearly always involve public relations, while the real power posts on corporate boards remain in male hands. If anything, it’s these women, in their tailored power suits, who should be pissed. In­stead, as former Times columnist Anna Quindlen reported, they meet in restaurants for discreet grousing sessions, hoping not to be overheard as they mutter the one unacceptable epithet these days, about the “whiteboys” who run their companies.

This term, appropriated from black slang, became part of the Clinton White House when it was used by the likes of Lin­da Bloodworth-Thomason to describe the all-male policy preserve in the West Wing. But since Leon Panetta’s arrival and Hillary Clinton’s retreat, “whiteboys” has all but vanished from the Washington lexicon. It certainly could be applied to the House, where Re­publican leaders are following corporate form by choosing women to present the party line — especially on social issues — while white men hold all but one of 18 committee chairs.

The spectacle of the powerful blam­ing the weak would be comic if it weren’t so effective.

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BUT MAN DOES NOT RULE BY BREAD alone. If the butch backlash were merely a re­action to material deprivation, it wouldn’t have such appeal to prosperous professionals. That it does only shows how pervasive this shift in status has been. Even when men and women do not compete for scarce resources, they battle over who makes the rules. The structure of the family, the etiquette of sex, even the proper use of pronouns — all are in contention. And the score adds up to a loss of authority for men. Add to this incursion of women the explosion of gay culture and the proliferation of racial categories and it’s clear that, in the largely symbolic realm of hegemony, straight white males are feeling the pinch. They lack what they didn’t need as long as they stood for the whole: an identity. Now they’ve got one, rage and all.

To be sure, the refusal to admit that white men still hold the largest share of ma­terial power gives their anger an unreal qual­ity. But that has never stopped reactionaries, and this movement has a mission to restore the old order. Women, blacks, and gays have a place in it, but not as au­tonomous beings. They are to resume their traditional roles in ritual deference to mas­culine authority. Women must appeal, blacks must kneel, and gays must heel.

This is the allure of Howard Stern. He reconstructs the order, waving his dick around symbolically before a delighted black woman. Stern recalls a world where white men rule by righteous banter. Every­one else must play along or take the burn. He’s a working-class hero whose audience, like the backlash itself, includes many pro­fessionals. Indeed, a recent book-signing appearance by Stern nearly shut down Wall Street. Even some powerful women are drawn to this action, especially if they are politicians out to reassure their own angry white men. Just to show she’s no bitch, New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman named a rest stop after Stern.

Humor is an important weapon in the butch backlash, used to enforce the order by ridiculing those who won’t abide by it. Call-in shows are perfect for this police ac­tion, because they allow the jock to create an imaginary bond and to disconnect anyone who threatens it. This cannot easily be achieved in real life. But not everyone is enchanted by interactive executions or amused by the prairie-like cadences of Rush, even in print. For the upscale backlasher, there’s that self-described “Republican reptile,” P. J. O’Rourke.

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Only The Wall Street Journal could regard this Bud Lite version of Oscar Wilde as “the funniest writer in America.” Like Limbaugh, O’Rourke conflates right reason and male supremacy, but in the voice of an ar­chaic aristocrat. He can sound like a parody of William F. Buckley as he affirms “the im­mense fatigue everyone is feeling with equality,” using the collective pronoun everyone the way the very rich do: to mean us. In this order, there are noble white men and the un­grateful new masses. “Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, cripples, women, and guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show are all demanding to be treated as equals,” O’Rourke writes. “Ho­mosexuals are just one more voice of com­plaint in an already too querulous world.”

Fifty years ago, O’Rourke would have had to include the Irish, not to mention the Italians and Jews. But sexism and racism have supplanted ethnic bigotry. Of course, the same old interests are served: The rich get richer while the workers get to vent on their designated inferiors. Imagine the alterna­tive — workers blaming those who actually profit from their loss — and you can under­stand why the Republicans have invested so much in the Angry White Male.

By displacing the old class affinities on­to gender and race, the Southern strategists have created an estate to which any righteous white dude can belong. Even the former professor who crafted the coming California voter initiative that would ban affirmative ac­tion can announce, with disarming pride, “Count me among those angry men.” The appeal of this fantasy goes well beyond the working class. But just as rich Republicans have mastered the idiom of the common man, the Angry White Male wears a blue collar even when he’s a millionaire.

A complex mythography instructs us that the working man is blunt, devout, virile, stoical, and ready to fight when wronged — in short, the embodiment of traditional masculinity. Machismo is his inheritance, passed from father to son like a job in the construction trade. Never mind the brutality of his passage to manhood, the systematic hardening that has numbed him, or the crushing impact of that process on his own children, not to mention his mother and his wife. This is the icon conserva­tives have built their backlash on, and its power transcends class because it speaks to the disquieting sense of male loss. For what is missing from the culture of equity — as it is from the alternative family — is the almighty patriarch: His God, his laws, his sense of what it means to be a man.

Restoring the lost father in his most cul­turally idealized form — as the head of a white working-class family — is what makes the Re­publican agenda so attractive. It’s why the next presidential campaign is shaping up to be a race between Bill Clinton, the fatherless child who reminds us all too much of our pat­rimonial loss, and Bob Dole, the wounded, wizened, wrathful dad.

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BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO HONOR thy father by smoking his cigar. Hegemony must be seen to coincide with “natural law” or it can easily be confused with brute force. This is why conservatives are so eager to assert that the social order is a reflection of nature, and not just a set of biases that privilege straight white men.

In this war of restoration, sexual and racial supremacy march arm in arm. Charles Murray’s contentions about the heritability of intelligence have their equivalent in the recent rash of “data” demonstrating that sexual inequality is built into human biology. Though Murray’s ideas have achieved a frightening respectability, they have also met with strong resistance from the intellectual mainstream. But ideas about the impact of gender on ability are harder to dismiss, if only because there are differences between women and men — some of them obvious, others subtle but measurable. No one has been able to demonstrate that these distinctions account for women’s destiny. Yet many men who would never be tempted by Murray’s racial analysis find merit in equally spurious claims about the sexes.

Consider John Stossel, who began his TV career as an award-winning investigator of consumer fraud. Lately, he’s jumped on the backlash bandwagon with a series of prime-time specials that puncture liberal myths. Last month, Stossel took a peck at “eye-opening research” suggesting that “Boys and Girls Are Different” after all. Ah, but are the sexes programmed for inequality? Stossel poses a rhetorical question and answers with a rigged response: “Should gender influence our place in society? Some research says yes. Some people don’t want you to hear about it.” This hint of censor­ship echoes the heady image of feminazis organized into an authoritarian “thought police.” But they can’t stop this heroic reporter from speaking truth to feminist power. Stossel enlists “other voices, quieter voices, perhaps,” drawn from “the world of science,” to counter their views.

You’d never know from this show that researchers strongly disagree about the im­pact of biological differences. You’d think it was a settled issue that “men and women just operate differently.” Or that human nature is timeless and unchanging rather than constantly evolving. “Maybe this is a social problem that needs to be fixed,” Stossel admits. But then he hammers home the Limbaugh line: “If we’re born different, if we think dif­ferently because our brains are different, then trying to fix these differences will be pointless, expensive, maybe even hurtful.”

Stossel’s worldview is common on the op-ed page, home of the angry white pundit. John Leo, who has found his niche as a syndicated critic of the politically correct, was quick to jump on newly published data demonstrating that women and men use their brains differently. Never mind that, as the researchers reported, both sexes appear to arrive at the same level of competence through different neurological routes. For Leo, as for Stossel, this is further proof of what has always been evident to his senses, at least: that women are the weaker, more emotional sex. Now that feminists are no longer in a position to suppress this truth, Leo proposes a new system: “Let girls and boys compete,” but without “sexual quo­tas.” (Read affirmative action.) If the result is a return of male privilege, it must be be­cause that’s what nature decrees.

In fact, there is no science of sexual inferiority. There is only the history of male supremacy, and the pattern it imposes on human identity. The revival of essentialist thinking about both sex and race comes at a politically propitious time: just as the de­bate about affirmative action is getting un­derway. Not only does this new social Dar­winism undercut the rationale for such programs, but it helps to define the unnatural­: women who cherish their autonomy.

It’s no surprise that, in the year of the butch backlash, the old accusation of “man­hating” is back in style. This time it’s com­ing not just from shock jocks but from in­tellectuals like Camille Paglia, the libertine’s Rush Limbaugh. In a recent tangle with feminists (moderated by that old libera­tionist William F. Buckley), Paglia urged “all people who espouse progressive values [to] go back to looking at the ordinary lives of women who love men.” The implication is that feminists don’t love men. That Paglia is a lesbian hasn’t stopped her from invok­ing Betty Friedan’s warning about “the lavender menace.” It’s all part of playing­ — and playing to — the male power game.

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Of course, it is entirely possible to love men — and to relish sex with them — without worshiping male power. Two feminists made that point in a recent issue of Mirabella, but the editors played the pieces with a cover line that bows to the backlash. FEMINAZIS? NOUS? they asked wryly. (Never mind that, if you consider Limbaugh’s definition of a femi­nazi — woman who strongly supports abor­tion rights — the only honest answer would be “Oui!“) At Mirabella, which is part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable, the truth must be packaged so it corresponds to the contours of male power.

Women’s magazines in general have been quick to reflect the anxieties aroused by the backlash. Their tone grows accommodat­ing, even as men’s magazines ram home the new orthodoxies. GQ attempts to solve its lingering butch problem in the latest issue by decrying the fate of “Male Victims of Politi­cal Correctness.” An editorial makes a populist case against “The Tyranny of Prescribed Culture.” (Read countercultural elite.)

Meanwhile on Seventh Avenue, the male gaze falls on the spring line. Women “want glamour again,” Versace announces. Clothes that echo Hollywood in the ’40s — the golden age of female passive aggression­ — are being touted for what the L.A. monthly Buzz calls “the year of dangerous curves.” As for the executive suite, Harper’s Bazaar an­nounces the arrival of the “soft power suit.” Wear it with one of those new corsets and you’re dressing for genetic success.

The threat of rejection by men has always been a powerful deterrent to women’s liberation, as have the epithets applied to men who can’t or won’t dominate their wives: henpecked, pussy whipped, and that telling liberal euphemism, wuss. In the past, political assaults on the autonomy of women have been abetted by an all too compliant media, as in the postwar years, when Rosie the Riveter was coerced into retreating from the workforce and admitting that “father knows best.” We can expect to see a postmodern version of this patridoxy, along with numerous scenarios of sexual reconciliation based on women’s sensitivity (and subordination) to men’s needs.

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BUT AMERICAN CULTURE EMBRACES contradictions, if only to sell them, niche by niche. The image of women according to Phyllis Shlafly (who once warned that feminism is doomed “be­cause it is based on an attempt to re­peal and restructure human nature”) has never really taken hold outside the parameters of Christian rock. And though the Angry White Male is very much a creature of the dream machine, there are other, more complicated messages on the marquee.

Even as shock jocks continue their dri­ve-time harangue, and stand-up comics keen over their loss of dick privileges, young people flock to see films about triumphant dumb guys. Not that these dudes are sensi­tive. But even when they are antisocial, like Beavis and Butt-head or Wayne and Garth, these “failed men” stand outside the loop of butch authority. They bond, but not to hold power; they love, but not to be in charge. Forrest Gump and Ace Ventura have libidos but not cojones, that is, they lack the will to dominate.

Such floating icons express our ambivalence about male power. We are eager to restore it even as we embrace its over­throw. And despite the allure of an ancient icon, many women — and men — see the butch backlash for what it is: a solidarity of fools. Though it is always tempting to be part of a trend, the awkwardness of this re­crudescence is apparent. As the passage from Willie Loman to Jackie Mason suggests, white male rage can no longer be played as tragedy, only as farce.

So how far will the butch backlash go? Can it take us back to the days when, to use the hip vernacular, white men rooled? Not bloody likely. They can demonize people of color, but they cannot make them disappear. They can expel immigrants from hospitals and schools, but they cannot make Ameri­ca a white nation. They can punish queers, but they cannot make them ashamed again. They can confound women with falsities about their true nature, but they cannot drive them from the workplace. (Indeed, they can’t afford to.) Nor can they restore sexual puritanism and the double standard that went with it. The jack of liberation is out of the box. And the engine of equality churns on, leaving male supremacy further and further behind.

The emergence of the Angry White Male is more like a last stand. The glory is gone, but the power won’t be given up without a fight. And precisely because that birthright is what’s at stake, the butch back­lash is very dangerous, indeed. It has the ca­pacity to inflict enormous pain on the alien, the illicit, and the needy before it runs its awful course. So fasten your seat belts, com­rades, we’re in for a bumpy ride. ❖

Research: Rahul Mehta

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein

1995 Village Voice article about angry White guys by Richard Goldstein


Sinatra at 80: Pal Frank

In the course of working on a cabaret show commemorat­ing Lorenz Hart’s 100th birthday, I returned with trepida­tion to the 195 7 Columbia film of Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. It was just as lame as I remembered, if not worse. But Sinatra was much better than I had recalled — in fact, everyone else seemed lifeless and pale in comparison, as if traumatized by his infamous on-set be­havior.

Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too re­spectable, conventional, decorous, and pol­ished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance. He looks strained in the movies in which he was teamed with the more experienced Kelly, playing a young innocent from the boroughs. (Give me a break!) It didn’t read for a minute, al­though he wasn’t a complete stiff, like some fellow crooners (Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Johnnie Ray). Still, put Frank at Harry Cohn’s studio and you’ve got a meet­ing of minds — no camouflage here, no hypocrisy. They’re both such crumbs.

Cohn had bought the screen rights to Pal Joey back in 1944, as a vehicle for Kel­ly and Rita Hayworth, the team that had just scored big for Cohn in Cover Girl. But MGM wanted too much money for an­other loan out of Kelly, and the project was shelved for 13 years, by which time Frank was bigger than Gene and poor Rita had to play the older woman rather than the in­genue for which she was once intended. The whole show — script and lyrics (thank you, Sammy Cahn, for nothing) — was strangely bowdlerized. Vera Simpson, the Hayworth part, was made a wealthy wid­ow and former burlesque stripper instead of a married society dame. On the other hand, Kim Novak’s ingenue became a naïve chorus girl (is there such an animal? I mean outside Hollywood backstage musicals?) instead of a naïve stenographer, so she could wear revealing outfits.

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The film’s opening is deceiving. You think the picture might be fun. A siren blares over the Columbia logo, and the first shot tracks a police car racing to catch a train. Two cops have Frank/Joey in tow, and one of them tells him, “You entertain­ers are all alike. You think you own every dame in town.” (Well, don’t they? Didn’t Frank?) They hurl him onto the train as it pulls out of the station and the credits come up. Wow.

The locale has been moved from gritty Chicago to pretty San Francisco, the first no­ticeable mistake. Already the story has been softened, though Frank always looks great on location. Maybe because he wasn’t a true movie star, he never looked quite natural on a set — his small frame shrinking in the hot­house atmosphere of a soundstage. But put him in a raincoat and trademark fedora and have him walk the streets of metro­politan America, and he comes alive on screen. His cockiness and swag­ger make sense on a street.

The minute he steps into the Barbary Coast Club, however, we are too obviously on a Los Ange­les set, and his star wattage goes way down as we get the first real taste of Joey Evans: weasely, low-rent opportunist. As fascinating as this kind of character is and despite the movie’s mellowing of him, Frank can’t make him lovable, can’t share his humanity with the audience. Except when he sings. He has no trouble captur­ing Joey’s unsavory qualities. Nobody laughs at his jokes (according to Shirley MacLaine, no one laughs at Sinatra’s either, though he keeps cracking them, which sort of earns our admiration), and he treats every woman as an object of scorn or sex­ual gratification. In fact, the only warmth Joey ever displays is toward his dog, Snuffy.


Anyway, here he is on stage: “This next song is dedicated to all the saloon keepers who have blown their liquor li­cense — “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.'” Nobody laughs. Then he starts to sing — ­with just a piano, rubato. He looks askance at the mirrored ball, moves around the stage marking his territory and getting a feel for the club. Once again, Frank Sinatra comes alive, graceful, supernal. Every movement is measured: he closes his eyes, throws back his head, and though his singing voice is an extension of his speak­ing voice, now it has conviction. Now, somehow, he’s suddenly a decent human being. When the song kicks into tempo, that spirit is still there; he doesn’t sacrifice his sincerity to swing. Even the looks he gives the dub owner and band can’t detract from the song. He’s hired.

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We next hear him sing at a charity ball at Vera Simpson’s sumptuous Nob Hill mansion. Joey wears a red dinner jacket, just a member of the band sitting on the side, waiting for his cue. He gets up, shrugs his right shoulder, adjusts the microphone, and sings “There’s a Small Hotel” in a so­ciety dance-band arrangement that can’t di­minish the pure magnetism of the moment. In a way, it’s easier to examine his extraor­dinary technique when it’s set off by a con­ventional background, gleaming as a dia­mond would in a plain metal box.

Frank was 42 when he made Pal Joey, maybe a bit too old for the part, but his age made the character’s hollow, lonely life that much more pathetic. While singing, he’s al­ways checking out the “mice” — his quaint reference for desirable women. He sees Ri­ta Hayworth on the dance floor and sings directly to her. He’s composed, confident, and unfortunately appealing. He has her number. In fact, Rita (who is undermined throughout the picture by unflattering mid-range shots and make-up so inept Cohn might have slathered it on himself) even allows him to humiliate her into doing a bump-and-grind. He pulls the same trick with Kim Novak. “I got plans for that doll. Ring-a-ding plans. This little mouse takes a special kind of baiting.”

“You’re wasting your time. She ain’t goin’ for it,” the club owner fires back.

“They all do.”

He walks on stage and sings “I Could Write a Book” — pulling Kim from the wings to sing the last chorus with him. Works every time. Though at first resistant, she finally caves in and loves it. With any oth­er singer, the seduction might be less than convincing — a threadbare musical-come­dy device. But because it’s Frank, the scene is believable and lethal. She’s doomed.

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Yet the “piece of resistant” as Joey puts it, is “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and it’s no ac­cident that this was the hit of the movie. The song was interpolated from another show, Babes in Arms, nearly 20 years earli­er, and in 1939 the word tramp had a dif­ferent connotation than in the repressive 1950s: a Bohemian vagabond — as Hart’s lyric makes dear — rather than a slut. The song was conceived to be sung by a woman (Mitzi Green introduced it with much suc­cess) as an ode to her own independence. But Frank knew what he was doing; he had already recorded the number for an album, but delayed its release so that it would have greater impact in the film.

Rita Hayworth comes to the Barbary Coast Club and asks Joey for a song. The chairs have already been placed on the ta­bles and the band has retired to the kitchen, but this is rich Mrs. Simpson, so they all hop to their marks. Frank starts singing at the piano and the first time Rita hears the word tramp, directed right at her, she flinches. This is seduction through insult. Frank stands up, shoves the piano away with his foot, exhaling cigarette smoke — a gesture ripe for parody, though he carries it off with such command that you don’t really mind how incredibly stupid it is.

He and the song are fantastic, the lat­ter completely transformed to serve his pur­pose, a stroke of genius. Rita calls him “Beauty,” and his songful seduction is in­deed a thing of beauty — cold and glittering and perfect. He has passed the test. And what’s his reward? He gets to follow Rita Hayworth out of the club carrying her wrap. Who says it isn’t a matriarchal soci­ety? After that flawlessly realized and forceful scene, the film slides down one of San Francisco’s steeper hills. Still, in that in­delible moment, Rita Hayworth’s reaction is ours. She illuminates why a strong, in­dependent woman has put up with so much bad behavior. This crumb could sing — beatifically. ❖


Sinatra at 80: A Frank Top 10

Frank Sinatra’s first great record was “All or Nothing At All,” but “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a 1940 Tommy Dorsey disc, was his first hit, and offers the earliest evidence of Young Blue Eyes synthesizing his influences: the lyric-driven, storytelling approach of Bing Crosby, the intimacy and vulnerability of Billie Holiday, and ultralegato timing of Dorsey. The song was written by Ruth Lowe, a pianist in Ina Rae Hutton’s all-girl band, and its success undoubtedly reflected her state of mind at the time. As Sinatra recalled, “It was a sad commentary because [Lowe] had a brand new husband, a Canadian flyer, who got killed in the early part of World War II.” She presented the song to Dorsey, who let his rival Glenn Miller make the first (unsatisfactory) record, before trying it himself. Arrangers Freddie Stulce and Axel Stordahl used just the rhythm section, Dorsey’s trombone, and the Pied Pipers; Sinatra suggested that pianist Joe Bushkin switch to celesta. As Jo Stafford, the most famous of the Pipers, remembers, “It was very tough to hold the pitch, because there was so little background from the band.” They required two sessions to get it right, but “I’ll Never Smile Again” became the sig­nature song of the Sinatra-Dorsey collabo­ration, and Sinatra would reprise its combi­nation of achingly slow tempo and supertight multivoice harmony throughout the decade and at least as late as the 1954 “Don’t Change Your Mind About Me.”

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Cole Porter’s 1932 song proved the most constant and diverse of all Sinatra career mantras. Apart from using it as the open­ing theme for many seasons on radio, he has sung “Night and Day” in every conceivable fashion, resulting in six officially released versions. Sinatra first recorded it early in 1942 at his first solo session, which predicted the development of his mature ballad style. While the original Bluebird version maintained the vestiges of a dance tempo, later ’40s recording of the Stordahl chart gradually slowed the piece down into a concert feature. In 1956, with Nelson Riddle, he reconceived “Night and Day” in a post–”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” style for A Swingin’ Affair, yet that uptempo version is only marginally faster than the ’42 ballad treatment. Sinatra then reworked the Riddle chart, once for sextet and once as a concerto grosso that alternates between Red Norvo’s Quintet and full orchestra. Over the years Sinatra came up with at least four other ver­sions — Latin with flute and bongos, lush with strings, mano a mano  with guitarist Al Viola, and, regrettably, a disco-style sin­gle. No singer has possessed a song more completely than Sinatra does “Night and Day.”

Just as Ellington tailored tunes for his great instrumental voices, the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne and orchestrator Axel Stordahl helped Sinatra mastermind a brilliant stream of ballad performances in the mid ’40s. Where pre-Sina­tra pop vocal arrangements tended to be strictly off-the-rack, every element of the Cahn-Styne-Stordahl-Sinatra performances is precisely cut to fit the singer’s jib. On “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the team deploys the deep-lung singing style that Sinatra had inherited from Dorsey — even the longing title is too much for most pop singers to address in a single breath. In moving beyond the dance-band sound of his apprenticeship, Sinatra and company so understate the rhythm that the pulse is suggested rather than stated. Cahn’s lyrics played a vital function in stabbing the overall Sinatra character of ’40s radio and film — the supersensitive young swain blown about by winds of emotion beyond his control. The recording has the “quiet” ending device he used long in­to the Riddle years.

The Sinatra of the ’50s is associated chiefly with a hard-swinging style, although he had actually sung fast tempos since his Harry James tenure. More than simply singing fast, what Sinatra achieved with Nelson Riddle on Capitol Records was a renais­sance of the great swing band tradition, refitted with a harmonic sophistication our of early-20th-century classical music. The Sinatra-Riddle swing albums are rarely up­roariously fast, mining instead what the singer described as a highly danceable, Sy Oliver-inspired “heartbeat” tempo. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956) is faster than most, giving Sinatra and Riddle the opportunity to build from tender whispers to orgasmic screams. These are expressed not only by Sinatra himself but by trombonist Milt Bernhart, who, atop a polyrhythmic pattern inspired by Kenton-arranger Bill Russo’s “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” emerges from the ensemble as Sinatra’s instrumental alter ego. His solo has a raw, atavistic energy partly because he hadn’t realized he was expected to improvise on the song’s bridge and so he ignored the chord changes Sinatra renders with transfiguring passion and excitement for an incomparable climax. (See Milt Bernhardt’s story for more details)

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“The wonderful thing about Nelson and Frank,” arranger Billy Byers commented re­cently, “was they were so strong in the com­mercial department that they could turn around and make a really artistic album, like the one with the string quartet, which sold about five records.” That album, Close to You, derives from a unique subsection of the Sinatra idiom. While Sinatra alternat­ed between uptempo swingers and heart-wrenching torchers in the ’50s, he and Riddle also explored the kind of optimistic love songs the singer had done so well with Stordahl. Sinatra’s preferred vehicle when traversing this beat was a double quartet chamber group (not unlike the one Max Roach leads today) — tour strings plus four rhythm, with rotating soloists. Sinatra in­troduced the format in his first-ever album, 1945’s The Voice, and brought it to a boil with the 1956 Close to You. “With Every Breath I Take,” a song introduced in a Bing Crosby film, is a flawless Sinatra performance; as the title coincidentally infers, every breath, every vocal gesture, every phrase is exactly where it ought to be — not a microscopic nuance is out of place.

The darker Sinatra-Riddle albums maintain a sense of epic tragedy (developed earlier with Stordahl and later with Gordan Jenkins) tempered with raw intimacy. Sinatra refers to his heavier ballads as “saloon song,” yet in the most celebrated of those songs, he mixes in more parts from symphony hall than the corner pub to produce a downer of a cocktail. Indeed, Only the Lonely (1958), the album on which “One for My Baby” was released, combines harmonic textures inspired by Ravel with a rhythmic sensibility informed by Lester Young. It’s the high point of several thousand Sinatra concerts, also signifies the most famous collaboration of Sinatra and Bill Miller, his pianist since 1951. As percussionist Emile Richards opines, “There’s no one who plays saloon piano like Bill docs on ‘One for My Baby’ He’s really the boss of that.” Not merely an accompanist but a featured actor in this Mercer-Arlen music noir, Miller’s subtle keyboard established the barroom rise-en-scene. Sinatra communicates such overwhelming pain partly because his mood contrasts so strikingly with Miller’s spare deadpan background. What does the cocktail pianist care about the drunk unburdening himself to the bartender? Paradoxically, Miller supports Sinatra while sounding as through he were ignoring him. In 1993, Sinatra and Miller rerecorded “Baby” in a harrowingly moving performance, making that long, long road seem more traveled than ever.

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As Sinatra once observed, “Billy May almost always uses the extra percussion, like vibraphones, xylophones, bells and chimes and all that jazz.” Where Riddle excelled at saloon-like tunes, May — an arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller — helped Sinatra make merrier melodies. Over the course of three similarly titled albums for Capitol (Come Fly/ Dance/Swing With Me), the two perfected their approach and then brought it to a boil with the 1961 Sinatra Swings (a/k/a Swing Along With Me), recorded for the Chairman’s own label, Reprise. This album improves upon all the key strengths of its predecessors: the three­-chorus, spectacular “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” amplifies the hyperswing of “Come Dance With Me”; the travel selections, “Granada” and “Moonlight on the Ganges” restore the blend of whimsical humor and irresistible rhythm that made Come Fly With Me a classic. On “Ganges,” which Sinatra gleaned from Tommy Dorsey, May creates a shimmer­ing seventh veil of strings around the most imposing percussion section this side of Sun Ra.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Most musicians admired Gordon Jenkins’s successes as a songwriter, but many found his string-heavy orchestrations a trifle old hat compared to Riddle and May. Yet even cynical Bill Miller admits, “Frank has an old-fashioned side, and Gor­don Jenkins represents that. As a singer, he doesn’t hear the harmonies the way we would. He hears those high-swinging strings that were Gordon’s gimmick.” Although Jenkins scored some great saloon songs for Sinatra, his gorgeously grandiose textures were often marshaled for material a lot simpler than, say, Lorenz Hart. A 1961 hit for the Kingston Trio, “Very Good Year” depicts life as a succession of vintage wines and rendezvous with ever more cosmopolitan dames. Sina­tra and Jenkins inflate this repetitious faux-­folkie feature into a piece of performance art with a power that suggests a grand aria. Structurally, it consists of four parallel choruses, each a discrete reminiscence. Be­tween these episodes, Jenkins reprises a wailing string-and-oboe passage that moves between minor and major keys and grows increasingly severe with each seg­ment, ultimately sobbing and throbbing in a searing finish.

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This 1961 Sinatra & Strings arrangement (an earlier Stordahl treatment was issued on V-Disc) has proven to be not only the most durable of many orchestrations by Don Costa, but in recent years has emerged as the most powerful vehicle of Mr. Very Old Blue Eyes in concert. Composer Arlen provides a perfect bridge between Sinatra and the blues: the singer evokes a gospel feeling even in a song that uses predominantly major chord and a bridge, which Sinatra really tears his teeth into. In ’61 Sinatra could hardly get as earthy as Ray Charles, whose version his alludes to in the use of solo wind players in the intro. But by the ’90s, with much of Sinatra’s chops and his ability to sustain notes gone with the wind, he puts more and more em­phasis on this tune as a vehicle to express his earthier side. While Sinatra is as tender and loving as ever, a blues-tinged under­current of aggression runs through the song today.

“Strangers in the Night” was Sinatra’s biggest selling single of the ’60s, but the singer and his audience prefer his and Nel­son Riddle’s last great collaboration, “Summer Wind.” Johnny Mercer adapted a German song, composed by Henry May­er, providing an English lyric that Perry Como first rendered in a dull country rendi­tion in 1965. The lyric describes a strong breeze that blows across Italy from North Africa, signaling the end of summer. Sinatra plays the unrequited lover, while the or­chestra and a Hammond organ share the role of the wind. Riddle has constructed a characteristically catchy hook to represent the elements, first wafting gently, then wailing in counterpoint to the singer. As Sinatra’s emotions mount, the wind lifts the music ever upward with the help of two modulations (D-flat to E-flat to F), into a hurricane crescendo, before drifting away as tenderly and cruelly as it entered. ❖


Sinatra at 80: Practice Makes Posterity

In recent years, more people have asked me about my trombone solo on Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” than just about anything else I did in music, which is gratifying because for many years no one knew who played it. One writer even credited it to Juan Tizol. The performance is, in a way, derived from a record that Bill Russo wrote for Stan Kenton, “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” a refer­ence to the longitudinal location of Havana, Cuba, that had a montuno section for trombone. Actually, that record was in turn indebted to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” which Gillespie wrote with George Russell. That was the first instance of a mon­tuno in big band jazz. But then Russo wrote his piece — not a copy, but a piece with that flavor, done very well, with a very good Frank Rosolino trombone solo. It’s one of Stan’s best records really.

Now in retrospect, I don’t think the approach to the song was Nelson Riddle’s idea. We’re talking 40 years after the fact, but it occurred to me much much later that “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a Frank Sinatra recording that went into a Latin type of a thing in the middle, with the trombones — first bass trombone, then another trombone — was in this tradition that began with Dizzy and was adapted in a fresh way for Kenton. And it was one of Sinatra’s first really important Capitol dates — there were other dates earlier, but this one took him to a whole differ­ent level. And, remember, it’s Capitol Records and Kenton was one of its biggest stars. So it occurred to me all these years later that the A&R people at Capitol were better acquainted with Kenton and his recent suc­cesses than they were with Frank Sinatra, who had returned from a floundering ca­reer only a few years before. And in plot­ting that particular number somebody, not Frank, suggested this approach. He prob­ably wasn’t too crazy about the idea, be­cause Nelson wrote it at the last minute and it wasn’t released as a single, only as part of the album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, which was drawn from about three record dates.

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I’d been on dates with Sinatra before. His first arranger at Capitol was supposed to be Billy May, but Billy had a band that went out on the road, and the dates were set and they couldn’t get Billy back, or he wasn’t available, or couldn’t be found — I don’t recall which. In order to do the dates, they brought in Nelson Riddle and that was Nelson’s first exposure to Sinatra, on­ly he didn’t get label credit — Billy May did on the singles “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “South of the Border.” Nobody at the time knew that Nelson had writ­ten them, because although he led the band, word got around that these were Billy’s charts and Nelson was sworn to secrecy. Later they were obliged to give him his chance, and by the time we did Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, everyone could see Sinatra and Riddle were a great team.

So for the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” session, I walked in early. I always got to a record date well ahead to see what was coming so that I could get nice and nervous. Some peo­ple would say you’re out of your mind, but I just felt it was wiser. I’d relax a little more as time passed, but then I’d find myself at a session, turn page and see something very hard and, without any practice, it’s time to start playing it. The public doesn’t realize that the band gets there and within minutes will be recording the music for posterity. That’s the way it always happens. The on­ly time it didn’t happen that way was when you had bands on the road, Ellington, Glenn Miller, the swing bands; then the music was known because they had months on the job, at dances, to try things. But the way it’s done to this day is the studio play­ers walk in to do a movie and they will do that score before lunchtime. They have to be that good. Few people realize what that takes — they think they had a week to re­hearse and take it home.

Anyway, I arrive early and I see that the whole song is in G-flat, six flats, which wouldn’t bother the singer, but for an instru­mentalist it isn’t easy to come up with something graceful where there’s nothing written, just chord symbols and fills of some­thing in G-flat. So I’m looking at these symbols — ­just little chicken tracks with the name of the chord, G-flat. And I didn’t even realize until much much later that that part, that section was the bridge of the song, the part that goes, “I’d sacrifice any­thing, come what may, for the sake of having you near.” If I had even begun to know that; I would have had something planned, something related to the melody, who knows what. But I just didn’t know. And it does stay on one chord for quite a while anyway-the melody con­tinues in the same change. So we start and I kind of plotted out something that fit. I figured I was going to play it.

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Well, until recently I didn’t know how many takes we made. I had lost track of the number, there were that many. But a young­ster called me a couple of weeks ago, a young man who is writing a discography on Sinatra and he called me for anecdotes. I told him I just remembered playing take af­ter take, and that I left the best stuff I ever played in the first half a dozen takes, when I was still fresh — I’m telling you, the fiddle players were applauding me at that point. And this youngster reminded me there were 22 takes! I had really kind of written it off, because pretty soon it wasn’t a matter of re­ally making history, but of getting through it, you’re so tired, Twenty-two. I think it was about the third number in the session, and I was also given all the lead parts to play. The other players in the trombone section really couldn’t have anyway, cause it was George Roberts on bass trombone; and Juan Tirol, which was a thrill for me because I’m an Ellington nut and there’s Juan Tirol sitting next to me, but Juan was not really a lead trombone player; and Jimmy Priddy, who was also a copyist for Nelson Riddle and had played lead with Glenn Miller. But these charts were not his bag, so he wasn’t going to play it; he would have walked out of the studio. It was up to me. And I’m a hero in those days, right? — still fresh from Kenton, still had road chops. Well, that passed quickly enough. Five years later, I didn’t have those chops — there is no way you can be a studio player and keep that kind of lip or endurance. It went and it went fast. Rarely did I get calls to play that way. The typical work I was doing was cues for television shows, where a very moderate level of excellence is re­quired, once in a blue moon something hard. And then I began to wor­ry about what I’d do if I had to play something re­ally challenging after 10 years of studio work.

That fear got to a lot of players, especially trumpet players, who then began to drink or worse. It’s the fear of being caught doing some­: thing you really can’t do anymore. On the road every night, you’re play­ing hard — it’s second na­ture. Studio work, sometimes you work five days and nights in a row and then nothing happens for five days or more. Of course, you made a lot of money. I was here at a very busy time. And it was good for young jazz players because Shorty Rogers helped to break the doors down. Shorty got a couple of pictures out of the clear blue sky. But before that nobody who played jazz was considered able to walk in and do a studio call. They were convinced you couldn’t read, or you wouldn’t show up, or you’d fall down drunk. In that sense, we were all trailblazers. So somehow I got through that solo, and now 40 years later people still want to talk about it. Incredible! ❖


Sinatra at 80: Frank Swings

Add to the ever growing number of 12-step programs Accompa­nists Anonymous. AA, a semi­-fictional organization founded by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians, is dedi­cated to helping instrumentalists avoid the frustrations of accompanying singers. Many jazz musicians don’t like singers, and some will go to great lengths to avoid play­ing for them. Not without rea­son. Most singers haven’t taken the time to develop the skills required to communicate musical ideas, especially within the frame­ work of jazz. Frank Sinatra is a rare excep­tion. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as a jazz musician, yet many jazz musicians credit him with having made tremendous contributions to this art form. His artistry encompasses much of what jazz musicians strive for.

Sinatra’s mastery lies in his ability to communicate the true meaning of a song in its complete form, the music and lyrics simultaneously, without sacrificing the im­portance of one for the other. His vocal quality, intonation, diction, phrasing, and sense of swing are integrated and balanced in a way that has brought us unequaled per­formances of American popular songs.

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Some of Sinatra’s most memorable recorded performances were made in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period during which he released recordings first for Capi­tol Records and later his own label, Reprise Records. By this time in his career he had cultivated and refined the skills that created the sound and style that defined him from the beginning.

Frank’s earliest recordings for Victor and Columbia are certainly pleasant. He always sang in tune and with a beautiful sound. But in those early years, Sinatra was in many ways underde­veloped. He definite­ly lacked the swing feel that would later become one of his trademarks. And in the early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, discerning listeners will notice how long he sus­tained notes and how much vibrato he used. Frequently, singers become overly fo­cused on the sound of their own voices. They seem to be listening to themselves singing instead of focusing on delivery of the music (cf., just about any Broadway cast album or cabaret record). As a result, they tend to make themselves more important than the song. Frank wasn’t en­tirely guilty of this. But occasionally, on his early records, one detects an unmistakable self-consciousness in the way he projects his voice. He was much more of a “crooner” in those days, at times even corny. But the feeling generated by the Dorsey rhythm section and the style of those orchestrations required him to ap­proach the vocal line as he did. And so even in these early record­ings we hear evidence of one of Sinatra’s most important attribut­es: He always maintains a strong musical relationship with his ac­companiment.

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The time spent with the Tommy Dorsey band allowed Sinatra to obtain and refine much of the technical and musical material that would later be part of his style and repertoire. (His later vocal per­formances are saturated with big band swing rhythms and jazz articulation and phrasing.) That kind of information can on­ly be acquired by observing instrumental­ists. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Sinatra in 1959 and 1960 dur­ing his tour with Red Norvo, recalls: ”Frank used to always tell us that he learned a lot while he was on the Dorsey band. Es­pecially about breathing. In those days the singers always sat up on the stage with the band during the instrumental numbers. Frank said he used to sit there and watch the way Dorsey’s back would fill up with air between phrases.”

In 1957 Sinatra released A Swingin’ Affair for Capitol, and from that point on listeners become aware of a change. The voice was deeper, richer, more resonant. He had become direct, us­ing less vibrato, not “singing” as much. By the mid 1960s, a new Frank Sinatra had completely emerged, his groove deeper than ever!

That groove is a big part of what distinguishes Sinatra from every­one else. At some point between the late ’50s and early ’60s, he realized that for vocalists the key to swinging lies more in where you stop the note than in where you start it. This bit of informa­tion is something many other singers simply haven’t learned. One way Sinatra discontin­ues the sound is through his use of dic­tion, especially conso­nant sounds. When a word ends with a con­sonant, the note that accompanies it can eas­ily be stopped. A sound that has a clear­ly defined ending has rhythmic value and therefore can be in­corporated into the groove of a song. In Sinatra’s case, this is usually a swing feel.

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Critics can object all they want to Frank replacing a the with a that in the lyric of a song. But those mannerisms can’t always be dismissed as tough guy stuff. Frank knows that a word with a defined stop, like that, swings more than a word that hangs in the air, like the. It func­tions as part of the rhythm, part of the swing groove. Many singers don’t swing because they sustain notes so long that they sabotage the rhythmic relationship between the vocal line and the music’s pulse. They don’t partake in the primary ingredient in music: rhythm.

Listen to “A Foggy Day,” from the 1961 Reprise album Ring-A-­Ding-Ding. The accompaniment in the first chorus is played in a broken­-two feeling by the rhythm section. Sinatra sings fluidly with a legato approach, and his voice is cush­ioned by the strings and saxo­phones, playing sustained notes. In the second chorus, the groove changes to a four feeling, as the strings are replaced with brass and long notes are sub­stituted with shorter ones. Accordingly, Frank shortens his notes and adjusts his rhythmic placement, fully participating in the newly established swinging groove. The rhythms he chooses are generally tra­ditional big band swing figures, and they are always calculatedly and confidently po­sitioned within the structure of the accompaniment.

The swing of Frank Sinatra is beauti­fully captured on the Reprise recordings where he’s featured with Count Basie’s band. Frank sings rhythmic figures in very much the same way that the band plays them. They have the same time-feel and produce a powerful sensation of swing. For that reason the Sinatra-Basie sessions, es­pecially It Might as Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands, are among the fa­vorite recordings of jazz musicians. Saxo­phonist Bob Berg, known for his work with Chick Corea and Miles Davis as well as his own bands, is an avid fan: “To me, Frank Sinatra is the perfect singer, the Rolls­-Royce of singers. And you know, it’s really amazing how many jazz musicians love Sinatra. Miles really liked Frank. I remem­ber him telling me to check out the way Frank phrases.”

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Without question, phrasing is one of the most challenging aspects of vocal per­formance. We all phrase when we speak — ­spoken language has starting and stopping points, long and short sounds, antecedents and consequences, inflection, cadences, and natural places to breathe. These compo­nents also exist in music. Songs are con­structed by combining musical language (a series of organized sounds) with spoken language (a series of organized words). The key to Sinatra’s masterful phrasing is that he has a command of both languages and can speak them simultaneously. (No easy task, and one that can get especially com­plicated when the words and music were not written at the same time or suggest contrary intentions.) The truth is very few people can really do it. But Sinatra does it effortlessly, and with tremendous regard for the intentions of the composer and lyricist.

Sinatra’s bilingual abilities are exquis­itely demonstrated on the 1963 Reprise re­lease, The Concert Sinatra, a collection of eight beautifully performed compositions flawlessly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. These recordings exemplify Sinatra’s mas­tery of the delicate balance between words and music, and demonstrate how, perhaps more than any other singer, he understands the ways they connect. The bulk of his recorded work is a catalogue of unsur­passed renditions of songs. His innate tal­ent and his cultivated skills are worthy of the highest admiration. His performances have educated generations of musicians, es­pecially jazz musicians. At a Carnegie Hall concert in the early 1980s, Micky Weisman, who was part of Sinatra’s management team, ran into Miles Davis in the cafe, and they had a conversation that confirmed Bob Berg’s recollection. “He was there with Cicely Tyson. We spoke for a while and I remember he told me, in that raspy voice of his, that he got a lot of his phrasing from listening to Frank’s records. He said he learned a lot from Sinatra.”

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For most musicians, nothing more need be said. In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental. And though it hasn’t always been acknowledged or understood, Sinatra has made a sub­stantial contribution to the education of countless musicians. If Miles could learn from him, we all can. ❖


Sinatra at 80: The Greatest Singer of Them All

The editor, in inviting me to contribute to this issue wrote, “One subject you might be able to shed light on is the perceived split between Sinatra the incomparable romantic singer and Sinatra the intemperate monster and his dubious associates?”

Younger people, who know little more about Sinatra the man than can be gained from the depictions of him by comedian Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live, would take him to be nothing but a rude, charmless bully. The fact is, Frank has al­ways had enormous charm. When he is ei­ther in a good mood or his right mind, de­pending on one’s perception, he is an endearingly likable fellow. He is, however, much more complex than Tony Bennett, who has always had the persona of a genial, smiling, carefree Italian peasant, rather like one of those happy monks in a rural monastery. Behaviorally, Sinatra is from a different planet altogether.

Although I have personally never done an anti-Sinatra joke, they have long been common in the comedy trade. One night, when Milton Berle was presiding over a star-studded dais, he introduced Sinatra and then said, “Frank, make yourself at home: Hit somebody.”

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For years Shecky Green has done the following routine: “You can say what you want about Sinatra, but the man once saved my life. That’s right, he did. I was stand­ing out in front of Caesar’s Palace one night and three big tough guys began to kick the hell out of me. They were giving me a terri­ble beating, but finally Frank came up and said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”

Another line that made the rounds was, “I hear that the pope has been thinking of making Frank Sinatra a cardinal. Can you believe that? Actu­ally, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, ’cause then we’d only have to kiss his ring.”

But comedy is about tragedy and the reality behind all such jokes is truly sad. The deepest part of the tragedy, of course, is that Frank must have known, after all his fits of fury, that he had behaved abom­inably, and yet he was apparently unequal to the task of breaking out of such a destructive behavior pattern. Let the man who has nev­er had such a problem cast the first stone.

But if you do, be sure it doesn’t fall where Frank can pick it up.

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A fair-minded approach to the prob­lem posed by the editor will, I suspect, please neither Mr. Sinatra’s admirers nor his detractors, for the former will resent any negative criticism of him whatever, and the latter will be so critical of him on moral grounds that their evaluation of his profes­sional gift is likely to be seriously distorted.

The ancient observation about heroes and gods that are discovered to have feet of clay is, of course, relevant here. The fact is that all gods and all their human creatures have feet of clay. Indeed, many of us seem to consist almost entirely of clay. But whether we admire or loathe anything — a man, a political philosophy, a religion, a football team — we insist, consciously or not, on bringing our egos into the valua­tive process, as if our personal reputations stood or fell on the basis of the accuracy of our assessments, so poorly do we reason. We want life to be simple, when it is in fact hopelessly complex. We want our heroes to be totally heroic, even though that has nev­er happened. On the other side of the coin, we want the objects of our scorn to be per­ceived as totally evil, and that, too, not on­ly has never happened but is not even the­oretically possible.

It is a wonder we have any heroes or heroines left at all, given the modern news media’s tendency to emphasize scandal and gossip. So long as the neg­ative portrayals of public figures are sub­stantially accurate, a philosophical ra­tionale can be developed for the exposé mode of journalism, but it is hard to say where the public stands on this issue. On the one hand Americans, to judge by their newsstand purchases and television-viewing habits, have an appetite for ugliness so con­suming that it has much in common with the classical chemical addictions. On the oth­er hand, that same public sometimes carries its adulation of public figures to extremes that border on the idiotic. As regards Elvis Presley, for example, I was one of the first to recognize his talent and importantly further his career, but to stand in the hot sun for four hours waiting to get in to visit his for­mer living quarters, or to purchase some tasteless knickknack dignified by the word memorabilia — is comment really necessary?

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So — as regards Sinatra, are all the sto­ries about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semi-psychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.

But should that lead us to deny Frank’s brilliance in a recording studio? Absolute­ly not. Does the fact that Mozart, as a hu­man being, would appear to have been something of a jerk entitle us to denigrate his music? Benny Goodman was cold and inconsiderate but is still the clarinet champ. Frank Sinatra in his prime was, to put the matter quite simply, the best popular singer of them all. His gift was just that, of course. The great practitioners, of any profession­al discipline, do not become so as a result of determination, long hours of practice, or any other such admirable application of conscious energy. The truth is much sim­pler but at the same time more perplexing. The great musicians, athletes, philosophers, scientists, scholars are great primarily be­cause of a genetic predisposition. Physicist­-mathematician Richard Feynman was not so brilliant because he practiced to be. He just was. Michael Jordan did not become the greatest basketball player of all time simply because as a youth he spent an extra few minutes on the practice courts after the other boys had gone home. He was supe­rior by nature. As for Sinatra, he may have imagined that his breath-control was a trick he learned from watching his early em­ployer, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, and in­deed the acquired knack had some practi­cal value for him. But does anyone seriously believe that if Mr. Dorsey had communi­cated the same information to 1000 singers, the other 999 would have achieved Sinatra’s eminence?

In the end, is it possible to fit the two large pieces of the Sinatra puzzle smoothly together? I think not. It’s easy enough to say that the moral idiots who actually ad­mire him for his vengefulness — the same types who spray ”Free Gotti” graffiti at New York construction sites — ought to be ashamed of themselves. The fact is that they never have been and never will be. But to let Frank’s weaknesses as a man af­fect our judgment of him as a singer is both dumb and unfair. Forget all that cliche disc-jockey dumbo-talk about the Chairman-­of-the-Board and Ol’ Blue Eyes. The man was still the greatest singer of them all.

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We might be tempted to think that the mark of a great artist is discernible in terms of his influence on other performers. But that is only a reliable general­ity, not a law. I happen to think that Erroll Garner was the great­est popular pianist of our century, and yet not a single other jazz pi­anist has seriously followed in his footsteps. Many of us occasional­ly show flashes of his two separate styles — the rhythmic or the ro­mantic — but we always seem to be doing an “impression” of him, just like, as actors, we might imper­sonate Jimmy Cagney, Richard Nixon, or Donald Duck. It is a fascinating though digressive question as to why none of us piano play­ers, even those with good-enough chops, ever dreamed of following Erroll out into that mysteriously beautiful part of the cre­ative universe he inhabited, whereas hun­dreds of jazz players have been influenced by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Pow­ell, Bill Evans, and other keyboard masters.

As for Sinatra, he was strongly influen­tial. To this day, in assorted lounges across the continent, one can hear young singers — and sometimes old ones — who are performing either loosely or directly in the Sinatra style. This is not unprecedented, of course. An earlier generation of baritone vocalists consciously imitated Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. In fact, one of them, Perry Como, became enormously popular by doing so. Once, when asked to explain his singing style, Perry was honest enough to say that he just tried to sing like Bing. If Sinatra was ever influenced by anyone, it never showed. He was his own man right from the first.

To think of him as just another cute Italian singer would be misleading: He has absolutely nothing of the old country in his voice. His sound is pure New Jersey Italian, which is another thing altogether. But what a marvelous sound, what a beautiful approach it was, for delivering those bril­liantly catchy or romantically endearing songs of the ’30s and ’40s.

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It is an interesting question as to how and why, in that portion of a journal’s pages usually set aside for analysis of the glorious art of jazz, Sinatra is properly considered a jazz vocal­ist. This will naturally have to be ex­plained, as it would not have to be in the cases of, say, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and others whose abilities as practi­tioners of jazz have never been brought into question. But strictly speaking­ — a practice that isn’t particularly popu­lar — Frank never sang a note of jazz in his life. And yet there is some hard-to­-define sensibility — the word hipness comes to mind — that does not make us feel surprised when certain vocalists, over the past half century, while not­ — again strictly speaking — jazz perform­ers, nevertheless were welcome in clubs that specialized in booking jazz performers.

The point is that, despite our wish to think tidily about such matters, such an ideal simply cannot be achieved when the two important relevant components of our perception are (a) jazz and (b) popular singing. Was Billie Holliday a jazz singer? A case can be devel­oped for either a yes or no answer. And the same goes for Peggy Lee, David Allyn, Blos­som Dearie, Johnny Mercer, and a host of other singers, all of whom were marvelous and hip, even if they never changed a single note originally set into musical context by Gershwin, Carmichael, Ellington, Porter, Berlin, and the other giants of the Golden Age of American music.

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God, how we could use Frank now, in his prime, if if were possible to tinker with the great clock of time. I mean now, in an age when much of the theatrical profession is a matter of vulgarians entertaining barbarians; now, when you don’t know what the frig most rock singers are even saying, when even teenage rock addicts concede that they have to listen to an album 14 rimes before they can figure out what the lyrics on various tracks are. Now, in an age when popular singing chiefly involves white zombies stomping around the stage spastically, moving with an incredible lack of grace, wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Frank on camera, on stage, simply and clearly, without effort, enunciating the brilliant lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields? Just Frank, not lunging like a homeless derelict on speed, not wearing thrift-store castoffs, but just standing there in a tux singing “I Should Care” or the verse to “Star Dust.” Most such appealing fantasies are wistful because they have no hope of becoming reality. But this one in a sense can become real because we still have the man’s recordings. In other words, we still have Sinatra at his best.

And that — to put the matter very plainly — is better than any­body else’s best. ❖


Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater
Voice Jazz Special, June 20, 1995

Frank Sinatra will be 80 this year, on December 12, an event telegraphed by several commemorations, notably a three-concert salute at Carnegie Hall in July and a complete retrospective (24 CDs) of his Reprise recordings, scheduled for re­lease in the fall. Never before has the totality of his recorded work been so readily available. His complete Columbias and RCAs are boxed, the Capitol and Reprise albums have been reissued, as have various anthologies, and other performances of ambiguous legal standing — radio and TV broadcasts and the like. In recent years, Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets became his best­ selling album ever, his life was told in a miniseries, and he concluded what will probably be his last tour. He’s performed for several seasons with cue cards, and rumors of memory loss and mental confusion are rife; the nitwits behind the Grammy telecast felt sufficiently empowered to give him the hook, as though he were a Ted Mack contes­tant. Even his children are back in the news with cryptic messages — the for­mer conductor now singing to beat the band; the former “tomboy in lace” now flashing her 54-year-old pubes. Happy birthday!

Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octo­genarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Proba­bly nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally under­mines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and pro­motes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply sig­nify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future gener­ations, Sinatra is one entertainer who in­stilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physi­cal violence per se; though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more gen­eral sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan-on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes, of which Sinatra was Chairman of the Board, not to mention boss of bosses.

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You can hear that fear stick in the throat before erupting in overeager guffaws during his amazing 12-minute monologue on Sinatra at the Sands, a deeply embar­rassing attempt at humor, replete with Amos and Andy-isms in which Sammy is dismissed as a custodian (after seeing him on TV, “I sent him a wire, ‘No you can’t!'”), Dean is lampooned as a drunk, audience members are heckled, his father is belittled, and so it goes. One imagines Sinatra paying good money for the jokes (“I was so skin­ny, my eyes were single file”), determined to make them work. But it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of Sinatra that as an en­tertainer he can do anything — sing, act, dance — except be funny. In Tony Rome, he asks a pet owner, “You got a pussy that smiles?” and you squirm like a worm on a hook. Maybe he’s just too self-conscious. If you want to be funny, it’s usually a good idea to let the audience laugh at you before you ask it to laugh with you. Sinatra, how­ever much he may protest to the contrary, doesn’t want to be laughed at. Les Paul tells a story of the first time Sinatra sang a duet with Bing Crosby on radio; the younger man missed a low note that Crosby in­stantly collared, interpolating, “Is this what you were looking for, son?” The king of bobby socks was not amused.

But there is another side of Sinatra, where parody doesn’t intrude, where he is in fact emblematic of sage maturity, where his interpretations of verses of varying qual­ity are evened out by a semblance of expe­rience that promises and often delivers rap­port, understanding, perhaps wisdom. That’s the Sinatra of our dreams. In song, the voice is honed with craftsmanship so knowing it doesn’t have to call attention to itself. Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping fur air as Sinatra effortlessly plots a 16-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to no­tice anything but the absolute dra­matic rightness of his decision. For this is a Sinatra who is above all else a great story­teller: in Ellington’s memorable phrase, “the ultimate in theater.” In the spell of his artistry, we forget the moral ambiguity as­sociated with a Gambino poster boy; and we know — even if he doesn’t — that the stalwart liberal of “The House I Live In” is the true Frank, not the disappointed favor-seeker who abandoned progressive politics for the Palm Springs militia.

Sinatra’s street-tough persona is irresistibly softened by an artistic control that is innovative, physical, and hard-won. The voice — or The Voice; as it was once known — is transformed, its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for ex­pressive purpose, so that even the old Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence. Although the vocal deliveries of most pop baritones (Crosby, Arm­strong, Astaire, Cole, Ecks­tine) follow readily from their speech patterns and timbres, the cynical diction of Sinatra’s Jilly’s-barfly mode contra­venes the beauty of his timbre; and not just in crass monologues. Yet when he steps into a song, the manners of a punk are instantly aban­doned for those of an alluring troubadour — almost as if the offstage Frank were chagrined by a perceived unmanliness regarding his profession. His pronunciations differ: he sings a short, English a, but he speaks a flat, nasal one. As Gene Kelly made movie dancing seem athletically heterosexual, Sinatra makes singing a manly art, but a compli­cated one — aggressive, physical, seductive, sexual, vulnerable, sadistic, masochistic, dis­turbing. It’s always difficult to reconcile the man who sings “Night and Day” on Sina­tra & Strings, to choose one of a thousand examples, with the concert performer who demeans women reporters as whores of the press, to choose one of dozens.

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Yet Sinatra is a superb actor. On a con­ventional level, he brought to ’50s cinema a wiry kind of naturalism that is most cred­ible when he plays small men, loners: Mag­gio, an assassin, a junkie, a cop. When he’s teamed up with another man or a woman, he loses stature. He was far more authen­tic as Nathan Detroit than Brando was as Sky Masterson, but as the prole in High Society, he was outclassed by Crosby (who, significantly, considered his duet with Sinatra, “Well, Did You Evah?” his fa­vorite movie scene). Sinatra’s real genius as an actor, however, has little to do with the movies, and is defined by the character he created in concert, on records and record jackets, and on TV. To look, at early photographs of the scrawny crooner who finagled his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band and laid siege at the Paramount is to be astounded at how little he had to work with — beyond The Voice. Skinny to the point of gaunt, he had a homely, lined face with a wide mouth and small obsidian eyes. His management could hire women to swoon as he crooned, but they couldn’t convince anyone he was Gable. So the original image that was sold to the fan mags and eventually Hollywood was of an innocent, more often than not in a sailor suit, in need of a mother.

It’s of interest to recall that Sinatra was born the same year as Billie Holiday, whose influence he has often acknowledged. Yet Holiday, who began recording at 18, is largely associated with the 1930s, while Sinatra, who didn’t record until he joined with Harry James — at 23, in 1939 (the epochal “All or Nothing at All”) — is a figure of the war years. Most of the male stars of that period were either older favorites, who couldn’t be drafted, or younger and often suspiciously undrafted men who in effect filled in for performers who went overseas. Sinatra was the first singer in a decade to challenge Crosby’s hegemony, but even he was vulnerable to the post-war reaction against a generation of makeshift stars. Re­turning soldiers were none too sure they wanted their wives swooning for anyone, and as late as 1949 Sinatra was still trying to get by with moonlit ballads (notwithstanding “Bop! Goes My Heart”), bow ties, and a sheepish grin. Soon he was begging for work — selling cutlery on television; playing dumb and dumber in movies with Jane Russell, an actress known mainly for her bra size, and on record with a TV celeb named Dagmar who was famous exclu­sively for her bra size. Boobs are forever (right, Nancy?), but Frank Sinatra wasn’t. Bobby-soxers were no longer swooning; they weren’t even wearing bobby socks. Be­sides, he was said to be a comsymp, which didn’t play as well in the early ’50s as it did a few years earlier or later.

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And that’s when Sinatra created the role of the century. He completely reinvented himself: parted his hair, put on some weight, changed his music. His famous performance in From Here to Eternity cer­tainly helped, reestablishing him as a commanding personality and restoring his vul­nerability — toughs reportedly threatened Ernest Borgnine for knifing him in the movie. But Frank couldn’t sustain a career as a likable Italian-American wiseass who gets killed every time out. So in Suddenly, he took the Borgnine role, playing an as­sassin and in Young at Heart, he took his turn as John Garfield. As a singer, he had to remake himself as a killer as well, a tran­sition presumably made easier by an ago­nizing marriage to Ava Gardner. The voice soon shook with sorrow, self-pity, and re­solve. He began to swing; indeed, he invented a new style of swing, an optimistic four-beat volley that in its way was as re­moved from the fussier rhythms of the ’30s as the contemporaneous developments in r&b. With Nelson Riddle and Billy May writing arrangements, he dressed basic big band instrumentation in the finery of flutes, strings, and harp. Some detractors dis­missed his rhythm as a “businessman’s bounce,” but the more assured Sinatra became, the wickeder that bounce. Rhythmic integrity is one reason his recordings of the ’50s and ’60s have survived as classics.

He now had everything but a person­al style. The attitude and outfit he needed was close by in the person of his friend Jim­my Van Heusen, the brilliant songwriter, who, until late in life, was a bachelor with the most envied little black book in town. He was beloved of Hollywood madams, one of the most prominent of whom is said to have bought him an airplane (he was a li­censed pilot) as a token of appreciation. Van Heusen was the kind of guy who kept an icebox on his porch empty except for rows of martini glasses and a pitcher to fill them. He was tall and hugely charming, not especially handsome, but catnip to women, and effortlessly stylish. Born Chester Babcock (Bob Hope adopted the name for movie roles), he took his nom de plume from the shirt manufacturer famous for ads that fea­tured one-eyed male models. He favored fedoras with wide bands and liked to sling his jacket or raincoat over his left shoulder.

If Van Heusen hadn’t lived, Sinatra would have had to invent him. Onstage and on album jackets, he played the part to perfection. The new Sinatra of the affluent generation was nothing like the beanpole crooner of the Paramount. He was riveting and sure, the embodiment of good times, the keeper of old songs that somehow no longer seemed quaint or sentimental when he sang them (consider the provenance of “It Happened in Monterey” in his hands a rigorous swinger, but previously a waltz warbled by the Brox Sisters, one of whom — coincidentally — would eventual­ly rob Jimmy Van Heusen of his bachelor­-hood). Above all, he was adult. He sang to adults. He had turned himself into an em­bodiment of all those returning servicemen who were redefining American society and business. He was their troubadour, just as Elvis was that of their children. He said to them: this is what we look like, this is how we sing, this is how we treat our women and are treated by them, this is how to re­lax, and this is how we age. Sinatra’s transformation was complete: he was hand­some, charming, at times quite dazzling.

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Not until the mid 1960s, when he was in his early fifties, did he attempt to elicit the good opinion of his audience’s kids, with two arguable exceptions: “High Hopes,” from Capra’s unholy film, A Hole in the Head, was an attempt to reach tod­dlers the way Crosby had with “Swinging on a Star”; getting Elvis to make his first post-Army appearance with him on TV was a patronizing if savvy bow to the Nielsens. Teenagers in the ’50s were often resentful of as well as bored by Sinatra, and as adults they are often surprised to realize that his peak years coincide with Presley’s. He wasn’t singing to them. He sang of supreme assurance, and teenagers are confident of little. He celebrated love the second time around when most teenagers are lucky to gave gotten there once. He idealized the comforts of booze. He sang about sex in the voice of someone who had been there — a lot. Teenagers are — or were — more comfortable with Doc Pomus laments and Norman Mailer essays.

In the course of redefining adult pas­times, he frequently made himself a candi­date for derision, along with those dopey adults who followed him to Vegas, actual­ly wanting to be part of the clan that gave us Ocean’s 11. He compensated for his hair-trigger temper with exaggerated hilarity. Occasionally, the grand performance was shaky, the meta-adult seemingly un­-moored. The smart Sinatra of the songs be­came unglued by the aroma of real politi­cal power. If he pimped for JFK, he gave better than he got. He was more himself in “the house I live in” than the Oval Office he allegedly schtupped in. The end of the beautiful fantasy of the affluent generation was embodied in rat pack insipidity a good two years before Dealey Plaza. Francis Al­bert Sinatra’s contributions to the American language:




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Forget his pop hits of the ’60s. His image was no longer tenable. He seemed somehow to deserve a daughter who sang like Nancy Sinatra. So in 1971, it didn’t mean all that much when he walked away; retirement at 56. But a few years later, he was back, preceded by a press campaign that saluted him as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” a so­briquet not earned with affection but bought from a publicity firm. At first, the comeback didn’t promise much. He was ensnared in his usual press feuds and was out of voice and overweight when he hit the Uris Theater (with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie), looking sullen and sounding defensive. The children of the ’50s took their shots. The idiot jazz critic in The Village Voice wrote, “I have never found his interpretations of popular songs more sub­stantial than those of most pop singers, who are usually content to hit the right notes and enunciate the lyrics, however moronic … Sinatra’s records are more catalytic than absorbing. For Sinatra is a great craftsman but not an artist.”

But Sinatra’s audience was changing, and so consequently was his standing. As his original audience pushed 60, he was at long last discovered by its children, who, no longer acne-scarred or bell-bottomed, finally understood what those songs were about. Lost love, one for the road? — hey, let me get this round. Now his champions were younger than Frank Jr., and they didn’t treat him with the casual admiration/contempt due a contem­porary, but with the awe reserved for a living … well, legend. His movie days were finished, and for a while nobody wanted to record him, and Garry Trudeau reminded everyone who needed reminding what a scumbag he could be. But Trilogy was a huge success, and so were his concerts, which now drew bi­-generational crowds. He em­bodied a major life lesson: Never dismiss an artist just because he plays golf with Spiro Agnew. And yes, an artist he was, not a craftsman. Like Garbo or Chaplin, he looms over the cultural life of the century, defying analysis, because every generation has to figure him out from scratch.

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And where do you be­gin? The list might change with the weather. But you wouldn’t want to miss his aching rueful lament, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” or ”Time After Time,” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily”; or the ecstatic duet with Louis Armstrong on “Birth of the Blues” (The Edsel Show, 1957); or the Metronome All-Stars’ “Sweet Lorraine.” Or the two studio albums with Basie, especially the first with its ingeniously embellished “Pennies From Heaven” (an inevitable ri­poste to those who insist Sinatra can’t sing jazz). Or the prolonged inspiration of Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Close to You, Come Fly With Me, Come Swing With Me, I Remember Tommy (with its improbably fast “I’ll Be Seeing You”), Moonlight Sinatra, Sinatra & Strings, and All Alone. Or ”Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Have Dreamed,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,”‘ and “I Had the Craziest Dream?” Or “Thanks for the Memory” from She Shot Me Down, his last great album. Or the neglected and deli­ciously dilatory Francis A. and Edward K.

Did I miss many of your favorites?  Mine too: I forgot the Dorseys and Only the Lonely and A Swingin’ Affair and a dozen others. It’s a vast legacy. The Sinatra achievement is not least a guide to modern orchestration — a how-to concerning the adaptation of old pop to postbop consciousness. And Sinatra, no less than his great arrangers — Riddle, May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver, Don Costa, Neal Hefts, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, and the rest — knew all about reclamation projects. A peerless interpreter of our best lyricists, Sinatra is expected to demonstrate unexpected depths in the work of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. But the real test of his transformative powers are those songs beyond redemption, an area in which his ability is at one with Armstrong, Crosby, Holiday, and very few others. Who else would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” previous­ly the subject of burlesques by Fats Waller and Laurel and Hardy (in Blotto), but in Sinatra’s hands a joyous, straight-faced romp? Sinatra’s imperviousness to the song’s clumsiness is symptomatic. The generosity he hasn’t always been able to sum­mon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music. ■