What does it mean to speak of Frank Sinatra these days?

Merely utter the name, and a host of conflicting images crowd in, each one vying with the others to define who the man is. Is he Frankie, the skinny young crooner who drove the bobby-soxers wild? Is he Ol' Blue Eyes, the eternal saloon singer forever awaiting the wee small hours of the morning? Or is he the Chairman of the Board, the self-made music mogul and undisputed ruler of American popular song?

To the romantic, he's the essence of a love affair, a man who understands the glory of new love and the agony of heartbreak, and sings about both with a voice smooth as whiskey and just as intoxicating. To the nostalgic, he's the emblem of an era long passed, when swing was the thing, saloons were the place and nightlife was something that still belonged to grown-ups.

If you're young, he's the ultimate symbol of sophistication, an avatar of adulthood so classy it's hard to believe your parents like him, too. If you're older, he's the perfect example of what a pop star should be -- a good musician, an enduring talent, one who understands the value of subtlety over volume.

And if you're Kitty Kelley, he's none of the above -- just an arrogant, mobbed-up, misogynist windbag whose music couldn't possibly excuse his private life.

Who is he really, though? When he takes the stage on his current tour (as he will Monday at the Merriweather Post Pavilion), which of those idealized Sinatras will the audience see? Or does the mere fact of being Frank Sinatra so burden the issue with memories and preconceptions that mere flesh-and-blood reality is beside the point?

It could well be. Compare the voice heard on Sinatra's classic recordings to the one on tour today, and the differences are staggering. Over the years, the singer's voice has grown progressively darker, losing its lightness and luster as well as much of its upper register. Nor is it as supple as it once was; on recent tours, it has creaked and sputtered, faltering as the singer strained for notes that once came effortlessly.

Sinatra's image is also showing signs of decline and decay. Though there has always been a certain gruffness to the singer's demeanor -- listen to the monologue preserved in "Sinatra at the Sands," and his abrasive wit runs the gamut from Rat Pack cool to Don Rickles without the charm -- his public behavior has grown increasingly pugnacious as the years go by.

Never mind his feud with Sinead O'Connor; his gripes against rockare older than she is. In fact, he even testified against the music before Congress, saying in 1958 that rock was "sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons."

Think instead of his almost inexplicable hostility toward the press. For instance, at a Reagan-era gala in Washington, the singer was approached by a reporter; flying into a finger-stabbing rage, Sinatra spat venom, telling the shaken reporter, "You're dead! You're all dead!"

That's class?

"His Way," Kitty Kelley's exhaustive, muckraking biography, is perhaps the definitive sullying of Sinatra's reputation. From his infidelities to his mob connections, Kelley's exposure of Sinatra's sordid side was as relentless as it was convincing. One reviewer, recounting detail after dirty detail, wrote that knowing so much about Sinatra's deviltry made it all but impossible to enjoy the singer's angelic voice, and doubtless there were many who felt the same.

Put it all together -- the failing voice, the raging ego, the moral degeneracy -- and it hardly makes a pretty picture. Add in ticket prices ($50 for pavilion seats at Merriweather), which, even in the rock era, make the Sinatra tour seem extravagantly expensive, and the prospect of seeing him in concert seems less appealing than ever.

So why go?

For many fans, the answer is simple: Because we may not get another chance. Sinatra, at 75, is not a young man; most of his contemporaries are either retired or dead. Obviously, this see-him-while-you-can angle is a large part of the tour's allure, and as a ploy is tough to argue with.

Even so, that's not the reason to go see Sinatra sing, any more than his failing voice or flawed character are reasons to stay home. Seeing him merely because he's famous is,at bottom, an insult, if only because it seems to value celebrity over artistic achievement; avoiding him because he's a louse makes sense only if it's a social meeting, not a concert.

And as far as his vocal ability is concerned, forget it -- Sinatra's voice never was the real attraction, anyway.

Though it sounds like blasphemy to say so, what made Sinatra great wasn't his instrument but what he did with it. Compare his voice, even in its prime, to that of Tony Bennett, and Sinatra comes up wanting on matters of tone, range and coloration.

But a great voice, like a pretty face, is meaningless in and of itself, and what set Sinatra apart from the pack was his genius as an interpreter. It wasn't simply that he knew how to get to the heart of a lyric, illuminating its inner emotions with a few well-turned phrases; he also understood the mechanics of swing better than any singer alive, then or now.

Never mind whose rhythm section he worked with, whether the band behind him was Count Basie's, Billy May's, Nelson Riddle's or Gordon Jenkins'. Sinatra's understanding of time -- of how the right combination of pauses and emphases could push a phrase along or hold it lingeringly behind -- was so perfect that he could do the job a cappella.

It still is perfect, even if the voice isn't. On a good night, Sinatra's innate musicality is enough to overcome almost any of his physical limitations. Though it's never a sure thing, the payoff from a good Sinatra performance is so richly rewarding you'd be a fool not to take the chance.

And that's why, no matter what your personal vision of Frank Sinatra might be, it's worth trying to square it with reality.

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