Freaking Out Squares

Friday, October 27, 2006

Frankly, My Dear...

Such a baaaaad title, given the text I'll be taking today. And it's a Gone with the Wind reference, which I know will send a certain person who shall remain anonymous (Marcia) to the loo with dry heaves. As they say in the Jack Chick tracts, haw haw!

Ahem. As I mentioned, I've been rereading Sarah Vowell's books lately. I can't help but love a self-realized history geek who manages to work President James A. Garfield into the same sentence as Lou Reed, and who publicly admits to once having uttered the phrase "Wonder Twin powers...activate! Form of...a straight-A student." That said, I also "can't help but" feel like a total dumbass in her literary presence. I mean, the lady is a nerd. And I envy that. I wish I had the drive and the attention span to "go too far and care too much about a subject," as SV describes herself. Oh, sure, I have the Rosenberg case to keep my soupcon of nerdosity thumpin', but that's nothing compared to SV and the geekiness of some of my friends. The Pirate, for example, has a master's in medieval history. He can also hold forth on physics, current events, George Balanchine versus Jerome Robbins, Bela Bartok, and every war movie ever made. Only twice have I been able to point out errors in his narrative. Once, he claimed Auschwitz was liberated in April 1945, but I happened to know it was liberated in late January of that year. Another time, he claimed that Morgan Freeman was the original Gordon on Sesame Street. I am in the proud possession of a book called Sesame Street: Unpaved, and was thus able to inform him that the only 1970's kids' show on which Morgan Freeman appeared was The Electric Company. Both times, the Pirate felt it necessary to go look this shit up on the Internet rather than take me at face value. How insulting! I suppose that's what I get for jettisoning my "commitment to excellence" shortly after my mother died, so exhausted was I by her campaign to turn me into a Stepford student by drilling me on the various works of obscure Baroque composers and clobbering me upside the head. But I digress, per usual. Point being, as a former straight-A student myself turned surly underachiever, I am wildly intimidated and self-loathing in the face of such overwhelming nerdiness, whether leaping from the pages of SV's books or filtering through my telephone courtesy of the Pirate.

But there is one area in which I feel confident enough to refute SV's position, and that is on the topic of Frank Sinatra. As with Elvis, another one of SV's musical heroes, I have never quite understood the Sinatra mania in which at least two-thirds of my fellow townspeople appear to be in possession. Don't get me wrong--I like Sinatra. I find him enjoyable to listen to, albeit in small doses. "New York, New York" never fails to engender a big, goofy grin on my face, "Luck Be a Lady" makes me want to throw on the glad rags and swill a few martinis at the Stork Club, and even "Something Stupid" sets my toes tapping, despite the fact that he's singing it with his daughter and because Sideshow Bob sang a version of it in the Simpsons episode wherein he marries Aunt Selma and subsequently tries to murder her during a postcoital viewing of McGyver. ("And then I go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like explode you." Remember that? Sigh.) But too much Sinatra is like being drenched with maple syrup. I don't need to feel like I'm in a mob movie for more than oh, say, ten minutes before I find myself yearning for things like bagels and the Equal Rights Amendment. (For the record (hee), I feel compelled to state that I really. Don't. Like Elvis. At all. "Jailhouse Rock" is about all I can handle before I have to snap off the radio and bleach my brain.)

I was partially raised by my maternal grandparents, and so I grew up listening to the greatest hits of World War II. Go to my grandpa's house, and you can still listen to 8-tracks of the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Vera Lynn, and the Andrews Sisters. But there's nary a Sinatra album, cassette, or CD in the house, although many years after her death, I discovered that Frank had been my grandma's favorite singer at one time. When I asked my grandpa why, he said "Because he's overrated." Hmmm, thought eleven-year-old I. He's certainly ubiquitous. (One of the perks of having an intellectual despot mother was learning words like "overrated" and "ubiquitous" at a fairly early age. Those things stayed lodged in my brain; the complete works of Monteverdi did not. Tough titty toenails, Maman.) Summering at the Jersey shore as a kid, I could neither fathom nor handle the Sinatra onslaught that seemed to befall us every time we set foot on certain areas of the Boardwalk. What was the deal with this guy? Why, like Elvis, did he have to be everywhere? What was so all-fired great about him, and what was my problem (and my grandpa's) that we were unable to jump on the Frank-wagon?

My dad, per usual, opened up the Sinatra phenomenon a bit for me in my teens. I learned that at least some of the Frank adoration was warranted, that he was actually a fine musician, and that he had an amazing arranger, Nelson Riddle, who unflaggingly accomodated him after he famously lost his voice sometime around the occasion of his marriage to Ava Gardner. (Another thing I didn't realize, that the Frank with whom I was most familiar was post-voice loss Frank. I've since heard recordings of him singing in the '40s and I recall an angelic tenor, not too different from the crooners emanating from my grandpa's 8-track.) Why so many people slobbered over the man, my dad could not explain. The girls loved his looks, but to me, he was a rubber-faced doofus. (Still is. Heresy!) And yes, he was a fine singer and an excellent showman, but still, why was he a friggin' industry?

Beatlemania, for some reason, I could totally dig. It's not that I'm completely against hero worship. In fact, that's how I've conducted my relationships for most of my life--find someone to worship, hope they pay attention to me, and do everything possible to gain and hold that person's attention, lest I find myself forced to commit suicide. Gee, wonder where I got THAT, Mother? I don't advise living your life this way, and I'm working very very hard to find a new, less degrading way of relating to people, but I get it. It makes sense to me. If I'd been born thirty years earlier, I have no doubt I would have been running after the moptopped lads from Liverpool screaming my lungs bloody. At the very least, I would have ensconced myself in my dorm room at Berkeley, playing "Tomorrow Never Knows" over and over while ingesting copious amounts of acid. And no, I'm neither unaware of nor insensitive to the fact that John and Paul were hardcore Elvis worshippers.

Like anything else of this ilk, when all is said and done, I suppose it's a question of personal taste. The Beatles were brainy. They were trippy. They went to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They assaulted my young, fertile mind with such lyrics as "Now my advice for those who die/Declare the pennies on your eyes" and even "Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna/Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe," backed up by wailing guitars, overdubbed strings, and weird, dissonant harmonies. The most sensitive of my erogenous zones has always been my brain, and the Fab Four infiltrated my gray matter with the power of a hypodermic needle delivering a shot of the purest amphetamine. Then, too, let's not forget that they were British. At the crux of hero worship is a strong sense of inferiority, and like many of my tribe (Americans, not nerds), my reaction to the British can best be encapsulated by that old New Yorker cartoon in which an old lady states, "Everyone in Paris is so sophisticated. Even the streetcleaners speak French." Clearly, I'm not the only one with the need to feel inferior to something. Yes, I can and do blame my mother all I want for kindling this need in me, but I have to wonder if I wouldn't have felt the same had she been a garden-variety Bohemian with PMS who didn't beat the living shit out of me every time I failed to cater to her myriad psychotic needs. After all, there's a reason Christianity has been such a, well, "success," and we can't blame it all on the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.

And Frank Sinatra? Well, he was smoove. There is a difference between "smoove" and "smooth," and while I'm wont to respond to the latter, I'm rather allergic to the former. "Smoove" is specifically about "come here, baby, I'll buy you diamonds and mink." As spineless as I tend to be, I've never fallen for that jive. If a fellow tried some line like "Your mother should be arrested--she stole the stars and put them in your eyes" on me, I'd laugh in his face. By contrast, when my high school boyfriend told me "You have this alluring quality that makes me want to stand riveted to this spot talking to you all night, but I can't, because my fucking mother needs her car back by one," I fairly swooned. Then, too, I never felt inferior to Frank. We're both from the same people, although as I frequently remind my dad, being one-quarter Italian does not a paisan make. But I think it has less to do with ethnicity than it does the idea of What Women Want, or What Humans Want. Most humans--well, American humans, at least--are easily smooved. They love it. It's no surprise that we have the pituitary case we do sitting in the White House. And although I liked the guy, although I cast my first presidential ballot for him, Clinton was a grade-A smoover. But even though I'm still pissed at him for essentially destroying the last vestiges of the American Left, at least in the mainstream, at least the guy had the goods to back it up, even if he often didn't use them for honorable purposes.

I suppose I get it the Frank thing now, at least on an intellectual level. But I don't want to turn this into some kind of ideological battle any more than I already have. In short, I guess it's more like preferring tomatoes to carrots than it is declaring one's political allegiance, but maybe if I keep this up long enough and do some hardcore research, someone somewhere will give me a Ph. D.

As for Elvis? If someone reading this wants to explain THAT whole mishegoss, be my guest. Because I really. Don't. Get it. At all.

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