Sinatra: The mild years: To those who've seen him on stage recently, Frank Sinatra's collapse last week wasn't a great surprise. Both memory and footsteps are failing, and despite odd moments of magic, even his fans must wonder why he carries on

'I DON'T know what happened to the songwriters,' he said sorrowfully, for the third or fourth time that evening. 'I don't know where the songs went. But tonight . . . tonight we're going to sing only the good songs.' And he peered out to the edge of the stage, as if searching for a sign.

Six weeks ago, the concrete bowl of the Omni Centre in Atlanta, Georgia was less than half full for Frank Sinatra. If he'd been able to see out beyond the footlights, past the 50- piece orchestra, past the ringside tuxedos and bouffants, past the plaid shirts and the Spandex tops in the middle rows, up to the galleries arrayed in vertiginous ascent around the hall, he would have seen thousands of empty red plastic seats.

That's the good thing about footlights. The performer can't see the audience, or the absence of one. But the audience wasn't what Sinatra was searching for on this night, six weeks ago. He was looking for his lines, scrolling upwards in six-inch-high

cathode-blue letters on four oversized television screens placed on each side of the stage, feeding him not only the verses and choruses of his songs but also the names of their composers, whom he has always liked to credit in his introductions.

The last time I'd seen him, in the summer of 1990 at the London Arena, an aircraft hanger marooned on the Isle of Dogs, he'd given a perfectly standard latter-day Sinatra concert, the sort that features copious references to his affection for good old London town and the usual heavy-handed jokes about booze. His voice was a bit shaky, as it has been for years, but he looked in solid enough shape. In Atlanta, less than four years later, he seemed a different shape altogether: a disturbingly slight figure, almost a cruel caricature of the old trademark silhouette perched on a bar stool with a snap-brim hat tilted back and a jacket languidly tossed over one shoulder. Now the too-luxuriant silver toupee and the too-high heels of his dress pumps had changed his proportions and his balance, making him appear physically tentative in the one environment where, for 60 of his 78 years, he has been able to make the most natural expression of his gifts.

His thoughts seemed adrift. Sometimes he fumbled the names of the songwriters, although they were staring at him in huge letters from all points of the compass. And occasionally, as the songs progressed, he would misplace a word or repeat a line already sung. Nor, in the introductions, did he reveal anything but a shadow of the old ring-a-ding ebullience. It became clear that he was performing not frommemory but from the reserves of some deeper faculty, a reflex conditioned by decades of stages and microphones and footlights.

The standing ovation was still in full spate when he clambered from the stage on the arm of his warm-up man, the comedian Don Rickles, and headed down the aisle towards the dressing-room. Above the throng, the silver toupee could be seen from a distance as he paused to shake hands and accept good wishes. The rest of the audience collected its belongings and drained away down the channels and sluices of the concrete bowl. But five minutes later, surrounded now by only a dozen or so fans, Sinatra had still not made it to the dressing-room. As he let his hand be shaken and inclined his head towards his admirers' encouraging words, there didn't seem to be any rush.

IT'S NO great secret that Frank Sinatra is suffering from symptoms associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease, the most pronounced of which is the gradual loss of memory. Hence the autocues, and more.

Late last year, Sinatra was back in the news when his record company released his first new recording in years: an album of duets with contemporary singing stars both obviously compatible (Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett) and seemingly incongruous (Gloria Estefan, Bono). In the US, advance orders topped a million; in Britain, Duets lodged itself in the top 10 during the pre-Christmas buying spree. There was much comment on the fact that Sinatra and his fellow singers were never actually in the recording studio together; in fact the guests had phoned in their contributions, thanks to the miracle of fibre optics. Less was said about the aesthetic disaster of the results.

Ten days ago Sinatra returned to the headlines. On stage at Radio City Music Hall to accept a special lifetime award during the American record industry's equivalent of the Oscars, he began to ramble and was cut off by the director of CBS's live telecast, who called for an ad break. This was taken by many of the other performers present - not least Bono, who had introduced Sinatra and presented him with the award - as an insult to a great man, and the network was forced to apologise.

Then, last Sunday night, four days after the awards fiasco, Sinatra collapsed while singing 'My Way' to 3,600 people in Richmond, Virginia, after complaining several times about the heat on stage in the Mosque Auditorium. He was rushed to hospital for tests, but discharged himself within hours and flew home to Rancho Mirage, his spread between the desert and the San Jacinto Mountains in Palm Springs, California.

Rancho Mirage, a compound of bungalows, has been Sinatra's home since the early Sixties, when he built it as a base- camp for the notorious Rat Pack: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. Now Davis and Lawford are dead, Bishop is retired and Martin is in a state of suspended animation, and the guests at Rancho Mirage these days are less likely to be hell-raisers than the house-trained type: Roger Moore or Barbra Streisand. 'It's a relatively modest place,' someone who visited the place recently told me last week. 'But it's like Fort Knox. You don't just go in. You're brought in, by armed guards. And it's just as hard to get out.'

Not, it seems, for Rancho Mirage's host, for whom - more than 60 years after his professional debut - the Atlanta and Richmond concerts were part of a continuing performance schedule that includes a date in Wilmington, North Carolina on 14 April, five nights at the Foxwoods Casino in South Easton, Connecticut in May, and two engagements at the Sands Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey from 5-8 May and 4-7 August.

Why does he do it? One person I spoke to, a man who has been observing him from near and afar since the late Forties and is wise in the ways of showbusiness, said that it must be the money: 'Look, there are two wives and three kids. The first wife's still alive. Never remarried.' That's Nancy Barbato, his hometown sweetheart, whom he married at Our Lady of the Sorrows Church, Jersey City, in 1939 and divorced 11 years later, after she had borne him three children and he had fallen in love with Ava Gardner, his second wife. 'They all depend on him,' my informant said. Not Ava, who is dead, or Mia Farrow, her successor, who has since provided for herself elsewhere; but Nancy and Tina, his daughters, and Frank Jr, who tried a singing career of his own but now earns a salary conducting his father's orchestra, and Barbara Blakely Marx Sinatra, the former wife of Zeppo Marx and (since 1976) the fourth Mrs S.

Others, though, doubt that a man with Sinatra's career gross could possibly need the cash. For them, what propels him on to the stage is a kind of grown-up version of the phenomenon that Keith Richard, attempting to analyse his friend Bob Dylan's inability to tear himself away from the airport-limo-hotel-gig routine, recently identified as 'road fever'. For rock 'n' roll, this remains uncharted territory. Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan have yet to find out whether, like their heroes Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, they can still get away with it into their sixties. For a saloon singer like Sinatra, though, there are the gloomier examples of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, who bled to death in front of a transfixed audience. People love that kind of thing.

'He obviously gets some kind of lift out it,' said Ted Nunn, of the Sinatra Music Society, whose London branch will hold its monthly meeting this afternoon at Baden Powell House in South Kensington - a few hundred yards from the Albert Hall, scene of many memorable Sinatra nights - with discussion of last week's events likely to displace a tribute to the recently deceased Dinah Shore from the top of the agenda. 'I just don't believe he needs the money. He's too popular to retire, isn't he? And what would showbiz be without him? I dread to think.'

BUT NEVER mind about why he still does it. Why do we still go to watch? 'Some of our members say they'll still pay to see him when he's in a wheelchair reading the telephone directory,' Ted Nunn observed, when I asked him about the attitude of the diehard fans. They may not have long to wait.

Honest reverence is one reason for our undiminished

interest. The morbid fascination involved in the public dismantling of a great man is another. Is the spectacle of Sinatra's decline closer to the final years of Elvis Presley, who went ga-ga in a silly costume in Vegas, or those of Muddy Waters, who was giving performances of impeccable dignity right up until his death? There are moments when it resembles both.

In Atlanta, after reaching a noisy climax with the rapturously received dreck of 'My Way', Sinatra closed the show by pulling up a bar stool, lighting a cigarette and delivering Sammy Cahn's and Jule Styne's 'Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry' - one of the most exquisite of his saloon ballads - with a miraculously precise tenderness, every line pulled taut and that warm, dark, cello-like bel canto tone holding firm against the orchestra's glowing crescendo. If you half-closed your eyes, you could imagine that this was what it must have been like in his prime. And suddenly there seemed no rush to finish, no rush at all.