Celebrity scumbags

Adam Gopnik has an interesting bit on a new biography of Sinatra that seems to confirm that, yes, Sinatra was a musical genious, and yes, he was also a thuggish, mob associating asshole.

I have to pause and tell the great Sinatra joke told by Shecky Green. “Frank Sinatra saved my life once. He said, “Okay, boys. That’s enough.”

Anyhoo, Gopnik does some interesting wresting with how to appreciate a musician’s artistic legacy while still staying aware of the brutality they engaged in.

Shouldn’t this push aside the malicious gossip? Why does the other crap matter at all? It matters because if art and the lower reaches of journalism and biography converge on a single point of common purpose, it is in being truthful about human beings as they really are and not as we would have them be. History is what we have to struggle to remember even when legend is more pleasing. It would be nice if Sinatra had been a good guy with a few regrettable friendships rooted in Jersey simpatico—it was a lot worse than that. It would be nice if J.F.K. were a family man with a sometimes-wandering eye—the truth there, too, is more ravenous and complicated. None of this need diminish our admiration or even our love for them. Humanism is made from a faith in humans, as they actually are, flawed and real, screaming devilish threats at casino managers and then singing “Angel Eyes.”

And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again, and though this is obviously partly a response to the oscillating commercial demands for dance music on the one hand and make-out music on the other, it isn’t just or mainly that. No one else even attempted it quite this relentlessly. We have “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “Only the Lonely” because Sinatra was a desperately driven man with a melancholic depth. This doesn’t make up for other people’s fractures and stitches, not remotely. But there the albums are, and there he is, a whole man, made up of broken parts, like everyone else.

I pause to think of my own reaction to these sorts of conundrums. I can still certainly enjoy Sinatra’s singing (especially when backed with Nelson Riddle’s fantastic arrangements) but the nature of who Sinatra was is never far from from mind. And these days, when I hear the music of the Beatles, it’s never far from my mind that John Lennon beat a guy almost to death (for implying that the Beatle was a homosexual.) When I hear the music of the Foo Fighters it’s never far from my mind that the entire band distributed AIDS denialism. When I hear Eric Clapton it’s never far from my mind that he once went on a racist tirade onstage.

That said, I still enjoy their music, at least when it’s enjoyable. (Some of the Foo Fighters stuff is pretty mediocre.) I think what bothers me more is not the various crimes these artists committed but the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Had they not had the power of celebrity and iconic status they would have been imprisoned or at least reviled. But most people don’t seem to be even aware of these crimes (it’s only recently I heard of Lennon’s behavior.) It’s the double standard tolerated by society that bugs me.

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