The Elder Statesmen

tonybennett.jpgI don’t know when I started paying attention to the news or mass culture; maybe around 1961 or ’62?  Not that many of the folks who populated my consciousness back then are still around today, but two of the survivors have much been in the news lately, for different reasons:  Tony Bennett and Fidel Castro.

“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” must have been coming out of every Edsel’s radio when I was a little kid; for years it was the only song of Bennett’s that I knew existed, and it was one of the first contributors to this Illinois-boy’s impression of California as a magical place.  When he sang “Those little cable cars/Go halfway to the stars,” I could see them–because they also showed up on Rice-a-Roni commercials.

Yesterday was Tony Bennett’s 80th birthday.  The New York Times’ Stephen Holden wrote a nice profile that drew the distinction between Bennett and his career-long musical parallel:

After the death of Frank Sinatra in 1998, Mr. Bennett immediately became the leading caretaker of the literate American song tradition that runs from Kern to Ellington to Rodgers. You couldn’t ask for a more reverent keeper of the flame.

Careers that last as long and have been as distinguished as Mr. Bennett’s have something to tell us about collective cultural experience over decades. It has been said that Sinatra’s journey from skinny, starry-eyed “Frankie,” strewing hearts and flowers, to the imperious, volatile Chairman of the Board roughly parallels an American loss of innocence. As Sinatra entered his noir period in the mid-1950’s, his romantic faith gave way to a soul-searching existentialism that yielded the most psychologically complex popular music ever recorded. Following a similar arc, the country grew from a nation of hungry dreamers fleeing the Depression and fighting “the good war” into an arrogant empire drunk on power and angry at the failure of the American dream to bring utopia.

Mr. Bennett is something else altogether. A native New Yorker and man of the people, he never strayed far from his working-class roots in Astoria, Queens, where he was born Anthony Benedetto. Although he came out of the same tradition of Mediterranean balladry as Sinatra, he retained the innocence and joie de vivre of his youth. Disappointment is not in his vocabulary. We don’t go to him for psychological complexity, but for refreshment and reassurance that life is good.

Believing in the power of art to ennoble ordinary lives, he sings what he feels with a rare mixture of humility and pride: humility in the face of the daunting popular-song tradition he treasures and pride that he is recognized as its custodian. Gratitude and joy, gruffness and beauty balance each other perfectly in singing that has grown more rhythmically acute with each passing year. 

Compare their Saturday Night Live parodies.  Phil Hartman’s Sinatra was belligerent, demanding and opinionated, admonishing a rapper to tone down the “blue” language, and threatening Billy Idol by saying “I got chunks of guys like you in my stool.”  Meanwhile, SNL’s faux Tony Bennett, portrayed by Alec Baldwin, hosts a talk show where he sings “I like everything that’s great!” and tells a grumpy Dick Cheney that his bleak vision of a world at war is “fantastic!”  

I recall seeing Tony Bennett throughout the sixties on TV variety shows, doing Broadway tunes and then, when the rock era began to dominate, doing pretty good versions of songs like Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life.”  His choices of late sixties “kids'” material were idiosyncratic but perfect for him:  “Come Saturday Morning,” the theme from the obscure Liza Minnelli movie “The Sterile Cuckoo,” or the Beatles’ “Something” and “The Long and Winding Road.”  But the sixties and seventies temporarily eclipsed Bennett — which then led him to team up with the jazz great Bill Evans on two gorgeous records, and to appear on the cult comedy show SCTV

Still, Tony Bennett’s best years artistically and commercially were ahead of him.  For the past 20 years since his return to prominence (via MTV of all places), he has been an icon not just for his generation but for every generation. He’s still doing concerts.  It feels like he’ll never be gone, and that’s a blessing of our times.

castro-young.jpgMeanwhile, 90 miles south of Florida, the other elder of the Cold War generation lies in a hospital bed, or perhaps a morgue, waiting to return to power, or perhaps waiting for his funeral. 

Fidel Castro was the first non-imaginary bogeyman of my youth. From my five-year-old’s point of view, it was Castro who wanted to blow up the United States with a nuclear bomb.  I didn’t understand his client relationship with the Soviet Union.  All I knew was, there’s this man, his country is next to ours, he’s got a big beard and a cigar, and he hates us, and he has a nuclear bomb, and he’s going to shoot it toward us. Duck and cover!

I’m sure JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton all envisioned they would leave office with Fidel out of power. I’m sure that was true, too, of Krushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Tito, Franco, De Gaulle, Trudeau, and every other world leader of the past four decades who Castro has outlasted and, in many cases, outlived.  

In life, Fidel’s Cuba stopped being much of a threat to us, really, years ago — certainly after the fall of the USSR, which threw his country deeper into poverty and curtailed his global revolutionary ambitions.  But he hung on, for 17 more years so far, and maybe longer.  And now, he’s much more threatening to peace in death.  Not that I want him to stay in power — I think his regime is evil, murderous and corrupt and has held his people back.  If I were the son of a Cuban refugee in Florida, I’m sure I’d be joining the festivities around his pending demise. 

But, like Saddam Hussein’s, Fidel Castro’s life and seemingly endless regime put the history of his country on “pause.” His continuation brought a kind of stability.  His death will bring instability as competing forces push for position, with Bush-Cheney presiding over it. I’m uneasy. Will the people of Cuba get freedom, or will they get endless insurgency, or will they get a combination of the two, as in Iraq. Are we competent enough to manage our role effectively? Will the politics of South Florida be the tail wagging the dog?

At my age, you get used to letting go.  You get used to understanding you can’t rely on anything to stay the same.  I’d like to think Tony Bennett will keep putting out great CDs, and that I might see him again in concert. I don’t like to think Castro will run Cuba forever, but I don’t trust the future after Castro to be peaceful or orderly, so I’m not in a hurry to see him go.  Replacing an evil dictatorship with “democracy” once the dictator is toppled doesn’t seem quite as obvious or simple as it used to, in theory, appear.  

As long as these two icons are still around, I still feel like I live in the world of my childhood, with its familiar terrors and familiar pleasures.  New pleasures surely await us, but also new terrors that we’d rather not think about.       

4 thoughts on “The Elder Statesmen

  1. Piscopo was the first, you’re right. But Phil Hartman did Sinatra for SNL about a few years later. Piscopo looked the part better, sang better, and had the NJ thing going for him. But they wrote some funny stuff for Hartman — the bit I’m quoting from was a parody of The McLaughlin Group called The Sinatra Group.

    Hartman was always one of my favorites, partly b/c I remember seeing him at the Groundlings back in the 80s, when he was clearly the most talented member.

  2. Tony Bennett and Fidel Castro…that’s an inspired combination!

    Tony Bennett seems to sound better with time, not just his more recent recordings but going back to listen to the prime years. I heard a great interview with him on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air last week, also timed for his 80th birthday (the interview may have been older, don’t know). He sounds like a genuinely “glass half full” person, so you can see where the spirit comes from in his music. Gross played a recording of him doing “Solitude” that just knocked me out; I’ve been trying to track it down. I guess his trademark is that he can really make you believe every word of the lyrics. Seems like Bennett meets that standard so highly that every singer should look up to him: but his secret is that he is genuine. No fake schmaltz, even with schmaltzy songs. It’s the real thing. So, happy birthday, Tony Bennett!

    Castro, on the other hand, reminds me of another Fresh Air interview with an author, who wrote about some writing retreat he went on with the Beat Generation authors. He said that after having all this excitement about spending time listening to their wisdom about writing and life, he was brought down to the hard truth that all these aging fellers wanted to talk about were their irritable bowel movements and other aches and pains! The details of being old are not chic.

    Anyway, I don’t know if “Bush – Cheney” is really going to be the monster or gang that can’t shoot straight that you sort of make them out to be. I think they’re awfully busy right now. The role may fall to Hugo Chavez, who either by design or by breathless ambition is looking to become the new power behind the Castro throne. It would be great if Cubans could just figure out what to do. People were stripped of their land and property when Castro took over, but that was a long time ago now. It would be great if America could come up with some reconciliation effort — head that up. But, you could be right that our policy is stuck in an ideological tar pit…and our foreign policy dictated by election-year Florida considerations.
    Seems like for the communist, socialist, revolutionary chic left there’s too much at stake to “lose” Cuba. Plus, who knows, Russia itself may come back into the picture, or maybe China. With other irons in the fire, the US has no choice but to manage the eventualities magnanimously, from a geopolitical perspective, and help the Cubans themselves sort it out.
    Sorry for the long comment!

  3. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… » Blog Archive » Bob Barker’s Weird Place in the Pantheon

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