Letters I’ve Written, Never Meeting Descend (Frank Gets Moody)

NOTE: The following story is a work of fiction.

Autumn in Hollywood, 1979. You knew the season had changed ’cause the sun bailed early after hanging all day, pouring OJ over the tinsel. Frank Sinatra wasn’t exactly where he wanted to be, but at least it was a place he found agreeable.

Frank was making a record. A monster, his first in years. Long enough for a whole generation of young people — those mile-tressed jackanapes who scorned him as Establishment passe, a weathered memory of ancient Camelot cool — to blob into blase adulthood, their Utopian passion dimmed by the mundane demands of reality. Shit, they may as well have matured into their image of him. Except Frank wasn’t that; Frank was still Frank, for the 64th year in a row, all lights and camera and action. “It” had been passed like a scepter from one pretender to the next during Ol’ Blue Eyes’ involuntary exile, but nobody came back like Frank.

“Good take, good take,” he nodded to the room as the music dispelled. The room was visibly relieved. All that remained was the anticipation of the Chairman’s next request. A full orchestra sat out the seconds; the ostensible directors, controllers, and engineers (titles, shmitles — Frank outranked ’em all) sat behind glass and quietly counted the dimes as they tumbled off the ledger. Reprise’s dime. Frank’s dime, really, in a funny kind of way, since Reprise had once been his.

But then everything around Frank belonged to Frank: his time, his pipes — even the physical space they occupied now. Every inch of United Western Recorders was possible because of his financial generosity. If he and Bing hadn’t ponied up, old Bill Putnam would’ve been recording brass sections in his bathroom. Everyone benefited. Bill got his own place, and so did Frank. Whenever he got a golden-throated itch, this was where he came.

No one could recall who came up with the idea. The label yokels were always pitching the Chairman something, just to have an audience with him. They were obsessed with the concept of “now,” some revolutionary eureka that was actually a parasite clinging to older ideas, then spit-shone for a new batch of unwashed masses. This baby would be one of those mondo-numbers that bent your wallet and snapped your spine. If it went platinum there’d be a million happy hunchbacks.

The idea was pretty heavy too: a three-cylinder exploration of Sinatra’s whole career — the whole enchilada, all the way to marble and dirt, and all those years that he, you, and I would never, ever see, when kids landed spaceships on Neptune to neck to the Sinatra oeuvre. Sensational.

Now. Everybody jabbered that word. Excitement was always palpable in label conference rooms. Must be the tight space. “This is very now!” someone exclaimed, and for some reason, no one laughed him back to squaresville. Frank hated that word, cringed in its presence. He couldn’t swing. It was too…too — what’s the word…fluid? Fluctuating? Tenuous? Whatever. It was never faithful for long.

“Now” was a Sammy word. Sammy was always a little too conscious of the argot. That was his bag: “groovy,” “outtasite,” straining to ingratiate himself with the kids who couldn’t give a shit if he’d copped their language. He’d even bought the Cocoanut Grove, that wonderful nightclub smacked to the ass of the Ambassador Hotel, and tried to update its image. He squeezed out all the Tinseltown history and went disco-corndog, turning it into the “Now Grove,” a painfully hip embarrassment.

Frank remembered the words he’d taken to heart years before. “You know what ‘now’ is, kid?” some fuddy-duddy posited to a younger Ol’ Blue Eyes. “Tomorrow’s used-to-be.” And here “now” was again, fattened with hokey urgency by the adult children of the bobbysoxers who once melted in Sinatra’s presence. Don’t tell ME about now. I’ve seen so many come and go.

But everyone was thrilled with the project, a real label hard-on. Frank was interpreting contemporary material, a perfunctory nod to the kids, then hooking the grandmas with new jaunts down their shared hit parade (that fab nostalgia buck), then rocketing into the beyond on an ambitious trip for the professional chin-scratchers with access to typewriters and nationwide eyeballs.

It was an audacious swing for the fences that made Frank sound as if he sat at his hi-fi in his spare time, collecting songs and taking notes. Billy Joel was hot, with that great tune about being yourself. Frank in his prime would’ve made it a showstopper, the kind appreciative true-blues would cut off with applause before he reached the end of the first verse.

George Harrison was another cat who appreciated a cuddle number. He was a little older and from a slightly different era, but that was OK. George was a Beatle, beloved beyond belief. In Sinatra’s hands, “Something” could only be improved, its new master slipping into its awestruck gaze like a custom-tailored suit. Other ideas were floated, but everyone knew they meant nothing unless the Chairman was engaged.

Frank took all suggestions under advisement but resolved, as the Paul Anka (nice kid) anthem went, to do it his way. Which meant he would populate the project with his people. None of those knob-twisting weirdos the labels were always foisting on older artists. Frank didn’t need some excitable virgin shoveling funny dust up his nose and layering this on top of that with a slice of this other thing back here like he’s building the world’s most complicated shit sandwich. This was a job for Sonny Burke. Sonny was the genius who kissed greatness into September of My Years and too many other productions to count. (Trilogy would be his last.)

For the three sides, Frank called upon his most trusted arrangers. Billy May, who made every timeless crescendo sound as if dropped from Heaven, was a natural for “Past.” That was obvious, given their history together. For the “Present,” Sinatra grabbed Don Costa, the go-cat who loosened up pop for the new kids back in the ’50s. He made Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” swing, Paul Anka’s (nice kid) “Lonely Boy” swoon, then guided Ol’ Blue Eyes through his early-’60s glory. “Future” went to Gordon Jenkins for the ultimate gas: marathon orchestrations, to put the dimestore jivesters and punklings on notice: You don’t fuck with forever. Record any scemo noodle you want — people dig classical pop, and that will never change.

Frank often fantasized about faceless critics — the ones he had yet to berate by phone or belt in person — wailing in terror when the youth-pandering electronics they were likely expecting were instead a wallop of their pops’ 78s, more vibrant than ever before. Go ahead and rail against the dinosaurs, pal. The last voice you hear will be mine.

“Why don’t we try this one, fellas,” Frank announced to the room. Pages dutifully shifted to the composition in question: Justin Hayward’s “Nights in White Satin,” a dangerously sneaky surge from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed (1967). Frank enjoyed the album title’s pun and irony, and thought the song itself was gorgeous as hell, if a little overblown. He happened to catch it on a morning drive one day, when the song was enjoying something of a second wind, reaching #2 in 1972, some five years after its initial release. He felt the instrumentation (the aggressive thrust of Peter Knight and the London Festival Orchestra) was a little too powerful, but it made his whole being shudder nonetheless. Imagine what he and a little experienced sonic restraint could do with it.

Now he was about to find out.

He adjusted his reading glasses and awaited his entrance.

Nights in white satin
Never reaching the end
Letters I’ve written
Never meaning to send

He closed his eyes. Saw a beach. He felt the sand give beneath his feet and form walls between his toes. He carried his sandals in his left hand. In his right hand was her. She was young. Vibrantly young. Defiantly young. Brushing the strands of raven hair from a face the light ocean wind had the audacity to obscure. Her exotic features became even more so when she smiled, as she did right now, so long ago. He’d touched that smile so many times, pushed past it with his own, yet he was driven to it always.

Beauty I’d always missed

The strings arrived as commanded, and Frank shivered with them.

With these eyes before

Those eyes.

Just what the truth is

This was truth.

I can’t say anymore

There was so much left to say.

Frank felt an alien stirring in his heart, something that demanded to be summoned, released. It rattled from the deepest reservoir and shook his whole body.

‘Cause I love you

He’d sung that sentiment so many times, coaxed untold thousands to their radios to sigh over how much he cared. Now his declaration was the ultimate in personal, directed at one person: the girl in his fantasy, which was once his truth. He sang in a voice that was no longer his. The weight of his words thundered through everything in him that felt longing and pain.

Yes, I love you

The gathered began to notice a glow forming around the crooner. The players played through the distraction, possessed, trapped in perhaps the greatest love song ever committed to tape. They were startled by the change in Frank’s voice, which was still a formidable instrument even in this, his twilight. Not only were the years stripped away to expose a rip-roar delivery, it had an almost inhuman range that not even the younger Sinatra at his absolute zenith could reach. He seemed to be grabbing it from somewhere else.

Oh, how I love you

As the choir soothed its leader’s proclamation, the glow began to expand, until it caressed the entire studio in insistent red. One of the engineers thought he saw a flicker of movement in a space beyond his periphery, then an assistant tapped his shoulder and pointed at the ceiling. A little boy smiled from wall to wall. The startling vision cut abruptly to the next scene, this one of a waterfront, its waves crashing in a silent distance, as if watched from the safety of a pier. Italian faces filed past. Handshakes. Women. Lips. Flowers. Houses. Anonymous gazes lost in ecstasy, stretching down a darkened hall.

They were watching Frank’s memories. Sinatra, his orbs fused shut in rapture, was oblivious. The boy kept returning, waving at a gathering he couldn’t have seen, as he hailed from an America three generations back. Other couples strolled past overhead, stopped to watch, shook their heads, and pressed on.

Some try to tell me
Thoughts they cannot defend
Just what you want to be
You won’t be in the end

This time the girl materialized. Forceful, gorgeous. Everyone in the studio recognized the fiery screen beauty. They also knew of her tumultuous history with the man before them now. But she was smiling with that famous smile that sent many boys happily to dreamland, the only place she would ever be theirs. She brought a certain comfort to the room and to Sinatra, who continued to perform with a near-lethal vigor. She watched as if listening only to him.

And I love you
Yes, I love you
Oh, how I love you

Her smile covered the width of their little world. If they reached out, they could touch it. The ocean wind continued to pull her hair across her face, obscuring her features. She made no effort to stop it, which only added to the mystery and glamour of her once-endless youth.

As the music finally settled, so did the room. When it died, she was gone. And Sinatra opened his eyes as if for the very first time.

The main engineer collected what was left of him and punched into the room. “Playback?” he asked.

“N-no,” Sinatra stammered, visibly shaken. “I never want to hear that again.”

Slated for inclusion on the Trilogy set, “Nights in White Satin” was deemed unreleasable. It was replaced on the “Present” disc by the more straightforward “That’s What God Looks Like to Me,” recorded without incident. It seems even the Man Upstairs lacked the power of She. “Satin” remains in the vaults — deep within, locked away, a still-beating heart.


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