Profile: Frank Sinatra - So set 'em up, Joe

Nik Cohn pays tribute to the Chairman, the Voice, the Icon from Hoboken

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My friend Max tells this story. He had just arrived in New York for the first time, sometime in the early 1970s, and thought he'd celebrate with a dry martini. So he walked into P J Clarke's, the quintessential Manhattan saloon, and sat down at the bar. All around him were well-fed men, no longer young, drinking Scotch and talking sports. So this is it, he thought: New York, New York. Then suddenly all hell broke loose. Two men set on a third one, beat the crap out of him, chased him into the street. The barman, meanwhile, made no move to intervene. "The bastard got what was coming," he judged.

"Why?" Max asked. "What did he do?"

"Called `My Way' a fag song."

Case closed, right there. There were many foolish things you could do in a bar like this. You could talk dirty, get falling-down drunk, even break down and weep, and still walk away intact. But one thing was sacrosanct. You did not disrespect Frank Sinatra. Not the Chairman of the Board. Not in his own world.

What world was that? The world that still belonged to males. The good life, the fat life, where men could roister and carouse to their hearts' content, and no one tried to tear their playhouse down. Where smoking and drinking were badges of honour, telling dirty jokes was proof of masculinity, and any woman who didn't like it was a killjoy, most likely lesbian.

It was a blessed and balanced cosmos, this, fashioned entirely for men's greater ease. A perfect lotus land, in which wives were content to bring up the kids in the suburbs, and good secretaries existed to drop their drawers whenever the boss felt so inclined. It was never too late or too early for a quick belt or three, or a steak with all the fixings. Baseball and boxing mattered, books didn't; broads were fine in the sack, but only the guys really understood; and America was great. The greatest country on God's green earth, now or ever.

In reality, of course, this earthly paradise was past its prime by now. The Sixties - Vietnam, women's lib, gay pride, civil rights, those dirty dope-fiend hippies - had poisoned everything. Outside the confines of P J Clarke's, and other sanctuaries like it, a man's world had turned mean and cold. But when Sinatra sang, you could ignore the chill. So long as Ol' Blue Eyes was in charge, boys would still be boys.

The irony was that he'd began as the enemy. In the early 1940s, when his publicists called him the Voice and shrieking bobbysoxers hurled their knickers at him in the Paramount Theatre, red-blooded American males took a dim view. Too skinny, too fragile, far too sensitive-looking - there seemed something sickly about him, almost perverse. The way he made women act, it wasn't right. All those hysterical fan clubs, The Slaves of Sinatra, The Sighing Society of Sinatra Swooners, never mind The Flatbush Girls Who Would Lay Down Their Lives For Frankie, it made a guy sick to his stomach. Bing Crosby, now there was a real singer. A man's man, played golf. But this kid Sinatra? He looked just like a nancy boy.

It took damage to make him right. Only when the hard years of drinking and womanising had taken their toll, and the teenage girls had long since stopped screaming, did he become the patron saint of Regular Joes.

The series of albums that he cut with Nelson Riddle in the Fifties, above all Songs For Swinging' Lovers, reinvented him. In place of the neurasthenic youth, all eyes and legs and hollowed cheekbones, there now appeared the ageing boulevardier. Glass in hand and cigarette drooping, stingy-brim hat pulled low to conceal the receding hairline, he looked like 60 miles of rough road, and his singing voice was fraying round the edges. No matter. The more mileage, the better. Real men showed wear, they scarred. But they survived. That was what counted, in the end. They endured.

Feminism notwithstanding, there were millions of women who were also attracted by his new incarnation. If it was males who crowded the bar jukeboxes and sang "Come Fly With Me" in the shower, it was largely females who bought the records, sold out the live concerts. At least, with Sinatra, they knew what they were getting. He might cheat, might lie, but he carried a thrill. In the dark, at a safe distance, bad behaviour carried its own romance. And then, of course, there was always that matchless voice.

In this second coming, Sinatra was monumental, a part of American mythology; and, as such, indestructible. Every few years, some avid muck-raking journalist would come along and try to tear him down. They'd dig up dirty secrets from his Hoboken upbringing, that his adored mother had been an abortionist, that his Uncle Babe had been charged with murder. Tie him in with the Mafia, or accuse him of wife-beating, or vilify him as foul-mouthed, booze- sodden, a vicious has-been. But all of these exposes missed the point. To his constituency, his very incorrigibility was his deepest magic. The more he played the outlaw, strutting and blackguarding, thumbing his nose at the law, or pissing on the press, the more heroic he seemed. Far from a monstrosity, he became a symbol of independence; a throwback to a ruder, cruder, yet somehow purer America, where men could still be themselves, without apology or compromise, and got away with it.

Here, in atavism, lay his ultimate power. Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, granted, but the major American icons in this age - Elvis, Muhammed Ali, John Wayne, even Richard Nixon - have all embodied some aspect of loss. Loss of innocence, loss of grace, loss of freedom, loss of honour. Or, in Frank Sinatra's case, loss of manhood. The world has gone cissy. No man alive can walk free, uncompromised. No man, that is, but the Chairman. He alone can't be bought or bowed, never settles for second-best. The record shows, I took the blows, and did it my way. Exactly.

Life or death, at such mythic levels, become irrelevant; mere technicalities. Another thing that Elvis, John Wayne et al have in common is that their true expiration dates came years before they actually croaked. The Sinatra who appeared on the 1993 album, Duets, with such young whipper-snappers as Bono, Luther Vandross and Carly Simon, was essentially a ghost. It hardly mattered when his vocal tracks were recorded; if he laid them down ten years ago, or even twenty, what odds? His performances long since ceased to be about his singing, and turned into mass observances.

Never mind, then, that his voice was shot, or that he tottered on stage, or that he couldn't remember lyrics. For those in thrall, he only had to open his mouth and croak one line, and it would be forever a quarter to three, in some nowhere saloon where the barman was called Joe, and he wouldn't throw you out if you got loaded, would not interrupt when you got maudlin and toasted the end of a brief episode, no, he'd understand, and make you feel at home, feel safe; because he was a man, after all, and so were you. And even if the world had changed, and everything was shot to shit, a man must stay true to his code.

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