Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rat Pack Redux: Grown Ups, ca. 1960

(reflections on the musical revue The Rat Pack Live at the Sands, performed at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Sept. 30, 2007, and THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP by Diana West.)

Sinatra, and to a lesser extent Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, were the model adults whose images on tv and voices on the radio filled the background of my first decade. I can't say I liked them. In fact, they creeped me out. Somehow, though I was something younger than six, I knew that Frank Sinatra was singing about death when he got to the last verse of It Was A Very Good Year, "I'm in the autumn of my days." The lyric, the ominous strings, and his world-weary delivery spooked me. Now it makes me chuckle to think that Sinatra then was years younger than I am now. The whole song is a juvenile view of maturity, each verse remembering a decade in terms of girls' hair and alcoholic beverages. Around the same time I heard Sinatra's buddy Nat King Cole singing Young At Heart with its equally spooky last lines, "If you should survive / to a hundred and five. . .." If? IF? That song sent this morbid little child in a panic to his grandmother for reassurance that, yes, she and I would survive. Ditto, My Way, in which Sinatra describes his entire life in the past tense.

I've since grown to appreciate the craftsmanship of the great American Songbook that Sinatra championed, to admire Sinatra for championing it and for adding his own edge to the songs, and I've grown to love the sound of the fifteen-piece band that Nelson Riddle arranged for. So I attended a traveling revue that ostensibly recreates highlights from a two-week Las Vegas act that Sinatra, Martin, and Davis did.

I hoped that RAT PACK LIVE AT THE SANDS would give me a taste of what it was like to be an adult in 1960, and it did - revealing to me something unexpected: if this was entertainment for adults in 1960, then the great shift decried in Diana West's THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP was already in full swing (pun intended). The whole Rat Pack shtick was one joke repeated endlessly: "We're grown men, behaving badly. See us indulge ourselves, insult each other with locker-room banter, and try on silly costumes." Not that this production did it badly. The Sinatra imitator's delivery of songs was to my ears indistinguishable from the original's. But in this context, even the best of the romantic songs came off as polished and bloodless, and the shlocky ones as ironic. No wonder the Boomers at first found them to be tired and phony.

In the foreword to a book of Sixties music that was published in 1971, the editor contrasted the "more authentic" Sixties folk-rock style with the artifice of the earlier era. That, too, is silly. The folk-rock style simply substituted a new kind of artifice, one that had been around for decades. I think of that atrocious faux-folk hymn by an Ivy League anthropologist "I Wonder as I Wander" (Christ would die "for you and for I" -- me shudders at the affected grammar). It's just the two hundred year old idea of the "noble savage" updated. Now, the songs in that book by Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell seem like Brahms compared to the audio graffiti they call hip-hop -- all in the name of being "real."

All of this makes me doubtful that Diane West has correctly diagnosed our problem. She acknowledges that the 20s pop culture was also iconoclastic and devoted to self-indulgence in sex and alcohol and making fun of responsible adults, but tries to make the distinction that the youth in 20s pop culture at least wanted to become adults, and the rules of adulthood were still acknowledged. That's a weak argument, as "being adult" in 20s pop culture -- that is, being a sophisticated adult -- meant casualness about sex and drinking. Think of the Algonquin Round Table, Cole Porter's best and worst, and Noel Coward.

I wonder what West would make of this lyric:

What's going to happen to the children when there aren't any more grown-ups?
Thanks to plastic surgery, and grampa's abrupt demise,
Grandma Rose has fixed her nose, but doesn't appear to realize
That pleasures that once were heaven
Look silly at sixty-seven,
And youthful allure you can't procure
In terms of perms and shots . . .

It's by Noel Coward, written in the Thirties, and revised for a 1950s TV special. I like Noel, but his stock in trade was naughtiness and making fun of people who obey rules. His "I Went to a Marvelous Party" is an egregious example of this, as every punch line sneaks up on a suggestion of nudity or sex, as if those were hilarious in themselves - talk about juvenile!

Truly, so long as Ms. West is pinning her observations on show biz personalities, she's missing the bull's eye. Show biz must be novel, must be "cutting edge," must mock status quo, and its performers are always posing and begging to be liked. That's inherently immature.

I think it's less about maturity, and more a version of the classic country-mouse, city-mouse fable - or their cousins the ant and the grasshopper. Today, thanks to education and media and brand name availability, we're all city mice and grasshoppers, oriented towards consumption, novelty, and the expectation of instant gratification, and expectation that someone else will provide - because we city mice have more important things to do. Isn't that the essence of childishness?

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