Cultural Gutter: The Cosmic Crooner

This article originally appeared on the Cultural Gutter, February 18, 2016.

Frank Sinatra wasn’t at the top of his game in 1980. He needed a hit. A sure thing. So he did what any aging icon would do: recorded the weirdest goddamn album of his career. It begins with an orchestra tuning up. As the cacophony fades into music, a familiar voice tinged with melancholy joins in, crooning, “My name is Francis Albert, and I sing love songs, mostly after dark, mostly in saloons” as the backing choir sighs “Francis Albert…Sinatra.” As if he needed an introduction. Pop music might have left Sinatra behind, but his voice was still recognized by almost everyone, even in 1980, the year he recorded the nearly eleven-minute-long epic “What Time Does the Next Miracle Leave.” He was still an icon, if a fading one. But then, maybe that’s worse than having never been an icon at all.

Sinatra’s career was full of songs about loves lost, mistakes made, and regrets that haunt you as you prop yourself up at the bar in the wee small hours of the morning, alone, and order one more for the road. But in 1980, at age 65, songs that might have seemed contrived when he was a skinny blue-eyed kid were lent a little more gravitas. If he wasn’t commanding the top of the charts in the year that also saw the release of, among others, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, he could still command a room. He was still Frank Sinatra. It was in 1980 that the man so adept at looking back at the past decided to look forward, to the future, and record the strangest damn album he ever made. And yes, that includes his concept album, Watertown, and A Man Alone: The Words And Music Of McKuen, his tribute to the poetry of Rod McKuen.

As the story is told by pianist and composer Vincent Falcone, who was working with Sinatra in the recording studio one day in 1978, Sinatra’s long-time producer Sonny Burke burst into the room and interrupted the session. There’s a lot of things a man shouldn’t do, and interrupting Sinatra in the middle of recording a new version of the Cy Coleman tune “I Love My Wife,” is at the top of the list right alongside, “Don’t try to tell Frank Sinatra the desserts on the dessert cart are just for show; if he wants that cheesecake, he’ll have that goddamn cheesecake.” Sinatra and Burke retired to another room for a lengthy conversation that probably started with Frank angry but ended with him coming out into the studio and announcing, “That’s it. We’re not going to do anything else until I do this project.” The project was Trilogy, a sprawling encapsulation of Sinatra’s career timed to coincide with his 40th anniversary as a recording artist.

Cosmic traveler Frank Sinatra

Street of Dreams

Sinatra and Burke hoped to hire Nelson Riddle, the arranger on so many of Sinatra’s landmark albums from the 1950s, to work on the first of the parts, then titled “The Past: Collectibles of the Early Years.” Unfortunately, Riddle was nursing a grudge against Sinatra over a fundraiser Frank skipped out on. Unable to convince Riddle to put the past aside for “The Past,” they hired another longtime collaborator, Billy May. “The Past” finds the aging superstar retreading familiar territory, delivering the kind of maudlin love songs and swingin’ tunes fans had expected from him for so many decades. Out of place in 1980, sure, but there was still an audience, if older, for Sinatra’s brand of easy listening. Not everyone’s grandparents were going to embrace David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). And there’s some good stuff, including “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” with its sinister undertones lurking beneath a jazzy, upbeat tempo—Sort of a Sinatra take on Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is,” only less jaded. That woman couldn’t even be impressed by her own house burning down.

For the second part, “The Present: Some Very Good Years,” Sinatra worked with Don Costa. Costa had been around Sinatra since 1962, but most recently he had been the guy associated with Frank’s ill-advised attempts to appeal to the youth market. “The Present” features Sinatra recording rock and pop hits in his own style. He’d already covered plenty of the sort of pop music that had rendered him uncool, and honestly, it’s not like Sinatra-ing up a Billy Joel tune takes much Sinatra-ing up. He also does an Elvis song, despite being on record as hating rock’n’roll — though, once again, it’s not like “Love Me Tender” was one of the King’s raucous hip-swivelers. One of the songs on “The Present,” Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York” from the flop Martin Scorsese film of the same name (Liza Minnelli performed it in the movie), cemented Trilogy’s status as a hit record despite the critical lambasting visited upon the album as a whole. It’s surprising to realize that one of the signature songs associated with Sinatra came so late in his career, from a movie with which he had nothing to do.

So far, so what, right? Everything for those first two albums is pretty rote Sinatra, perhaps well-positioned to be referred to as “dismissible” but hardly deserving of vitriol. “Reasonable tunes for old folks,” one might say. Not his best, not his worst. Why then is this considered such an out-there record? Well, there was the third disc, saddled at the time with the meandering yet appropriately-bloated title “The Future: Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses, further enumerated as A Musical Fantasy in Three Tenses for Frank Sinatra, Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and Mixed Chorus.”

This beast was wrangled by Gordon Jenkins. and it is where Trilogy earns its bizarre reputation. Jenkins worked with Sinatra on one of Frank’s best melancholy albums, No One Cares, the songs on which Sinatra referred to as “suicide songs.” Jenkins loved strings and bombast and over-the-top romanticism. On “The Future,” he completely unfetters himself, indulging his every melodramatic whim. Jenkins’ flare for moodiness infuses this third part of the trilogy. “Holy Christ, how am I going to learn all that stuff?” Sinatra reportedly exclaimed when they began working on the massive tangle of orchestra, chorus, and lyrics. “But it put me out the first time I heard it. Really knocked me out.”

This is what the inside of Frank Sinatra’s head looked like in 1980.

Before the Music Ends

In a time that was steeped new wave, punk, disco, and electro-funk, “The Future” is as backward-looking as it is forward. The subtitle for this third record in Trilogy was mercifully shortened from the original to “Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses.” The sort of space-pop sound he taps for The Future is from the past, and he combines it with standards-style jazz, show tunes, gee-whiz Disney wonder, and the bleak introspection Jenkins seemed to bring out in Sinatra and at which Sinatra excelled. 140 musicians and back-up singers (including Loulie Jean Norman, whose biggest hit was and still is the wordless vocals on the theme song to the original Star Trek) were involved in the year-long project. The result is everything people accuse it of being: beautiful, bombastic, ridiculous, overblown, and moving.

As Frank needlessly introduces himself on the first track of the third album, we get the feeling that we’re once again in “lonesome crooner” territory, with Frank backed by a breathy choir and soaring strings and woodwinds. As Frank ruminates on getting older, sitting in the backyard, having a drink and probably expecting Dean Martin to grill him up some hamburgers, it all seems perfectly normal…until the Mission Control announcer starts naming off planetary destinations, at which time one assumes, possibly, Frank drifts off to sleep and dreams about exploring the universe. Cue the bombastic brass, soaring strings, zu-zu-zoom-wow chorus (though Esquivel’s chorus never cursed this much), and utterly bizarre lyrics that find Sinatra traveling the spaceways, visiting far-off planets, beholding the wonders of the cosmos, marveling at the technology of the future, and of course, wooing a girl on Venus.

“The Future,” despite being divided into separate songs, is one long suite, a concept album in which Sinatra taps the space-capades sound of 1960s “bachelor pad pop” of artists such as Esquivel and Les Baxter as he prowls around the solar system. The mood shifts wildly and abruptly, here light and breezy, there haunting and melancholy, and elsewhere as grandiose as a Busby Berkeley musical number. “Uranus is heaven!” Sinatra proclaims as the choir chants “Heaven!” over and over. Don’t tell me he didn’t know exactly what he was doing there, even if he pronounces it “You’re a nuss” — which sounds like some in-joke insult he’d sling at Peter Lawford. When an ethereal female voice asks him how he’ll recognize heaven, the music suddenly goes traditional Italian like Dean Martin is suddenly overseeing the planet, and Sinatra explains that if he’s met at the gates by someone giving him a big pizza pie, he’ll know he’s in Heaven.

He’s less of a fan of Pluto, where the devil dwells; “a rotten place, an evil misbegotten place.” Sinatra probably wouldn’t have lost any sleep knowing the planet would later be demoted to dwarf planet. Still, Frank admits, if Pluto is our solar system’s stand-in for Hell, then it’s probably where most of his friends will be waiting for him. It sounds like something one would hear on a people mover in Disney’s Tomorrowland. Well, if Frank Sinatra was writing the narration, anyway.

The second track, “World War None,” once again places us in a familiar Sinatra setting: the desert. One thinks perhaps Palm Springs or Vegas, at least until a male chorus starts aggressively chanting “War! War! War!” Suddenly, everything goes post-apocalyptic, with Sinatra’s upbeat tempo betrayed by visions of fire and destruction and the need to purge ourselves of hate and violence so that we can have a “World War None.”

The next three songs comprise a self-contained trilogy within the Trilogy. The space-capades chorus celebrates all the wonders of the Jetsons-style future Old Man Sinatra now inhabits, including rockets, spaceships, computers, “inventions,” and most miraculous of all, “little buttons you can push…and push!” When faced with the innovations of the future, all Sinatra really wants is a conductor’s baton, with which he could work musical magic that would put the UNIVAC to shame.

The final song of The Future, the final song of this whole oddball excursion into Sinatra’s strange vision of things to come, is another ten-minute epic that examines Sinatra’s own obsolescence. Now, when Sinatra walks into a bar, rather than being among fans and friends, he feels forlorn. “I know nobody here,” he remarks quietly. He dreams of traveling back in time, of being a kid back in Hoboken. Never has the lyric, “And a special thanks…to GIACOMO!” ever been so triumphantly and boisterously chanted out to the heavens. His only wish at the end of his trip through the galaxy, after his vision quest to the future, is to make one more album with good friends and good musicians, to rage against the coming of “that cat with a scythe” by singing away his final hours.

Gordon Jenkins and Sinatra

They All Laughed

Trilogy: Past Present Future is the sort of bloated, self-important, but achingly earnest vanity project that warms my heart. It was Sinatra’s first studio album since 1974 (that one was another album of contemporary hits covers, in case you have ever wondered what “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” would sound like as a Sinatra song). He could still pack a live show (sometimes because his associates made sure people were recruited to fill empty seats, since nothing but a full house was good enough for Frank). But the popularity of his concerts wasn’t reflected in his record sales, which were poor thanks to, frankly, some lackluster material plaguing him in the 1970s as he struggled to find his place in the strange new post-Vietnam world unfolding around him. Between 1974’s Some Nice Things I’ve Missed and 1980’s Trilogy, the only thing he released was a disco rendition of the lounge standard “Night and Day.”

Needless to say, Frank staked a lot on Trilogy. To some degree, it paid off. The album was a hit despite how dark it is at its core, despite how many critics loathed it, and despite how out-of-step it was with pop music of the time (Sinatra nabbed a Grammy nomination for the album; he lost to Kenny Loggins). It went gold and hit number 17 on the Billboard charts. Just below it, at no. 24, was another bizarre triple-record experiment from a band which, though much more current, was similarly going out on a limb in 1980 with some wacky material. That album, The Clash’s Sandinista!, was released on Sinatra’s 65th birthday.

Reviews of Trilogy were mixed. New York DJ Jonathan Schwartz referred to the album as “narcissistic” and “a shocking embarrassment.” If there was any question whether or not Sinatra was truly “past his expiration date,” all it took was one phone call from the Chairman of the Board to WNEW to get Schwartz suspended. Others were more enthusiastic, at least about “The Past.” “The Future” fared worse, even in reviews that were otherwise complimentary. For a long time, Trilogy was all but forgotten save for “New York, New York,” and no one thinks of that song in its original context or recalls the album on which it appeared. But then, on the 35th anniversary of the record and on what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday, people started writing about the album again. Removed from time and place (which is fitting), the anachronistic nature is less evident. Cool is a fickle beast. Those who were cool at one time either die young or inevitably grow old enough to see themselves become uncool. But if you stick around even longer, eventually cool comes back around to you. Time blurs the lines.

In 1980, Sinatra took the criticism hard but ultimately, as befits such an odd, ambitious record, decided to look toward the future. “A lot of people around the country don’t understand it,” said Frank. “I think the lyrics will wear well. They’re too imaginative not to.” He wasn’t wrong. Trilogy, a delirious expedition into science fiction space pop, has taken the listener out to Pluto and returned them to where it all began: inside the mind of an aging icon, a man coming to terms with his past, and his place — or lack of it — in the future. A hundred years after his birth, here we are still, talking about Frank Sinatra. Over three decades after it was released, people are coming back to Trilogy, perhaps initially as a curiosity. Many are finding that, while the criticisms leveled at it might have been accurate, those criticisms mean less now, and the album means more.

Enjoy that pizza pie on Uranus, Frank.

Notes and References