I 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.
Meanwhile, 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.