After the last blog on Steve Earle, I went to my local record store – remember those? – Canterbury Records in Pasadena, a friendly, dusty, third-generation record store with quite a nice selection. While I was paying for my new Steve Earle CDs, some Frank Sinatra was playing, and I got into a discussion with a young customer and the old owner about Sinatra. The young woman was just discovering Frank's music, saying how wonderful it was, which absolutely uncorked the owner, who started raving about how Sinatra was the greatest of all time, etc. I fell into their discussion and remarked about how I saw Sinatra from the front row of Carnegie Hall. It was certainly one of the most unforgettable concerts I've ever attended.
So I thought I'd blog about two unforgettable concerts, starting with the Sinatra at Carnegie Hall.
The Tiny Goddess used to work with a woman who prided herself on her ability to get good tickets – the best tickets – for anything. This was a long time ago, before the age of Stub Hub, when you just dealt with good, old-fashioned scalpers if you wanted good seats to sold-out events. She was quite an interesting woman: a five-time Jeopardy champion, back when they used to limit your wins to five. She got the TG and I into a Stanley Cup Final game (the Habs beat the Rangers, 4-1, Game 3 in 1979), got us seats at a Springsteen concert that were next to drummer Max Weinberg's sister, and got us into the front row for Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. And she got all these tickets through barter and cleverly working the star-making machinery. A Wellesley grad: quite a character.
How good were these seats? We sat next to Betty Comden and Phyllis Newman (young people, look them up), who bantered with Frank throughout the entire concert.
Through the wonders of setlist.com, I've concluded that the concert was on September 8, 1981. I've cross-checked all the archived Sinatra setlists, and this is the only concert that includes some of the songs that I clearly remember: "Something," which he wrongly attributed to Lennon and McCartney, "Good Thing Going," which was a fairly new Sondheim song, "Little Girl Blue," which was one of my mother's favorite songs, along with some of the standards.
Here is the full setlist:
Fly Me to the Moon
Come Rain or Come Shine
When Joanna Loved Me
Strangers in the Night
The Lady Is a Tramp
Good Thing Going
A Long Night
Luck Be a Lady
Little Girl Blue
In the Still of the Night
These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)
Pennies From Heaven
I Loved Her
Theme From New York, New York
When you think about it, that's a great setlist: a combination of his signature songs and some new songs, a selection that includes many of the top songwriters (Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Arlen & Mercer, Frank Loesser, etc.), and a perfect blend of ballads and up-tempo numbers.
All these years later, I remember many details about the concert: how people – men and women – would spontaneously shout out, "We love you, Frankie!" ... how Frank twisted his body to wring out the climactic notes of "New York, New York" ... how he stuck out his tongue at Phyllis Newman ... the enormous bracelet of pearls that Betty Comden wore ... how Frank made fun of Marlon Brando, scratching his butt ... how he sold the great songs, right up to the gallery. After "Luck Be A Lady," he said, "Isn't that an exciting song?" He credited every songwriter, even if he missed on George Harrison.
Years later, in the late 90s, the TG and I took our children to see Sinatra in Las Vegas. (This was many years later.) The kids couldn't believe that we were taking them to see someone as old as their grandmother, which Sinatra was at that time. My son, Calder's Father, went promptly to sleep, but my daughter The Flower stayed awake for awhile. (The early show started at 10. After all, this was Frankie in Vegas.)
His performance wasn't bad, but it was nothing like Carnegie Hall. It was worth it though, making sure that my kids "saw" a Living Legend. And the opening act was Don Rickles, so I was glad to get him off my Bucket List.
Of course, Sinatra has a small but significant role in WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Frankie is a generational symbol for the narrator's father, and at a critical point in the plot, when a radio is turned on –
"Fairy tales can come true ... It could happen to you"
-- comes out.
On Page 415. Thank you, Carolyn Leigh.
Here's some prime Frankie.
Sinatra's first retirement concert -- 1971
Sinatra – "Voice of the Century" documentary
prime Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra – from the Hollywood Palace (and dig the old TV commercials!) – from 1965 – very rare (the white-hot Sinatra-Basie session, led by young Quincy Jones, starts at 39:28.)
Many years before, in the summer of 1970, even before the Tiny Goddess, I saw perhaps the rarest concert I ever saw: a performance by Fred Neil.
Now mostly forgotten and never very popular when he alive, Fred Neil remains one of my favorite singers. He was an important, almost mystical force in the Greenwich Village folk scene – young Bob Dylan backed him up on harmonica under the name 'Blind Boy Grunt' -- but he never achieved the commercial success he deserved. He is now best remembered as the writer of "Everybody's Talkin'" (the theme from MIDNIGHT COWBOY), "The Other Side of This Life," "The Dolphins," and a few other songs. But in his time, he was a mighty singer and performer with one of the most beautiful, richest baritone voices in popular music.
At one time the stage manager at Café Wha and a Village fixture, Neil had become a reclusive figure by the late 60s. That's why the show I saw was such a rarity: in fact it was recorded for a live album.
To set the scene, I was working as a counselor at a summer camp near Woodstock, one of the camps that inspired some of the scenes in WHAT IT WAS LIKE. (I was the fencing counselor!) And on my day off in the town of Woodstock, I saw a sign on the billboard of one of the local clubs, the Elephant: FRED NEIL.
I couldn't believe my eyes: Fred Neil – one of my favorite singers! He had already released two excellent albums: BLEECKER AND McDOUGAL and EVERYBODY'S TALKIN', but he didn't perform anywhere anymore. I didn't know then that he was extremely private and was already withdrawing from the music business. I couldn't believe my luck: live Fred Neil! Right in town.
(I shouldn't have been so surprised. Woodstock was then – and I hope still is – an arts colony and important music center, both actually and symbolically. When Bob Dylan moved there, that cemented the little town's reputation as a cultural mecca. Many musicians including Fred lived there. Famously, the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 occurred 43 miles away in the town of Bethel, but it featured the cool, hip name: 'Woodstock.' I saw some great music at the clubs in town including the John Hall Trio before he formed Orleans. And I used to see members of The Band walking around town all the time.)
On the night of the concert, the atmosphere in the small club was electric. Everyone was excited to be there. In the back of the club were David Crosby, John Sebastian, and a bunch of Woodstock music people I didn't know. What actually occurred was unforgettable.
After a boring opening act and a long delay, Fred Neil came onstage with just his 12-string guitar and another guitarist to back him up. In a few minutes, it became clear that Fred was very drunk, very high, or both. The fact that he managed to play – and play beautifully – is just one of those things that some artists can do.
As fantastic as Fred's voice was on record, it was better in person. It was a monster sound, rich and deep. Records could never do justice to its depth. And he played a huge 12-string guitar that resonated like Leadbelly's booming, orchestral 12-string. When he played and sang, there was no one like him.
They didn't get a full live album out of Fred that night. The record company had to fill out the second side of "THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS LIFE" with a couple of studio cuts and alternate versions.
What you hear on the live side is fine, rich versions of some of Fred's best songs and some nasty words from Fred himself. You hear him slur a few sentences and snap "SHUT UP, HOWARD!" to his manager. I remember that everyone in the audience was pulling for Fred, wanting a great show. Maybe he delivered in the second set. I had to get back to camp for counselor's curfew at midnight, and it was a twenty-minute drive back.
Fred Neil basically retired from the music business and spent the last twenty-five years of his life working at the Dolphin Research Project, an organization he founded that was dedicated to stopping the capture and exploitation of dolphins. Presumably, he made enough money from the royalties of "Everybody's Talkin'" so that he could effectively retire.
He made a few appearances after he "left" the music business including a live date at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975. There are some unreleased recordings, but Fred didn't have a very deep catalog. Not quite four albums of his work. But what he did release was magical.
"The Water Is Wide" – The TG loves this one.
"Blues On the Ceiling"
"That's the Bag I'm In"
It's funny to recall these two concerts: one by one of the most famous singers of all time, and one by an obscure, almost forgotten cult artist. They were both unforgettable, each in a different way.
Art comes in all sizes. Some artists appeal to a great many people, some to only a few. But the important thing is to reach out and put your art out there. If an audience comes to you, so be it.