What becomes a legend most?
It was funny how that old ad slogan kept coming to mind while watching Frank Sinatra perform at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night. Because there was something unbecoming about the whole thing -- not just in having to watch the 78-year-old singer miss notes and muddle lyrics, but also in seeing his fans lavish praise on him as if his merely being Sinatra were reason enough for an ovation.
Everyone meant well, sure. The fans obviously thought they were paying homage to a great star, and there was no doubting the sincerity of those who shouted, "We love you, Frank." Nor, to be honest, is there any pleasure in pointing out all the mistakes made in the course of the evening, for even the most churlish critic has to feel slightly embarrassed about underscoring how much old age has taken from the singer's skills.
But let's be honest: Greatness of the kind Frank Sinatra has reached comes with responsibilities as well as perks. It hardly matters if the fans cheer at the sight of you; if you're going to present yourself as a great singer, you have to do some great singing. And that Sinatra didn't do.
It wasn't just that he missed notes in almost every song, straining on the high notes in "Witchcraft" or singing "Strangers in the Night" almost totally out of tune; what hurt was hearing him stumble through "For Once in My Life" as if he couldn't quite remember how the melody went. Worse, even with multiple teleprompters at the edge of the stage, he got lost frequently, stopping in midphrase to ask his son, conductor Frank Sinatra Jr., "Where are we?"
Even "One for My Baby," a song every Sinatra fan knows by heart, found him flummoxed, searching for words mid-verse, not once, but twice. To his credit, he had style and brass enough to turn that failing to his advantage, winning the audience over through sheer determination.
But what got lost was the song -- the thing that once was the most important element of any Sinatra performance. What makes his great recordings so resonant, remember, isn't just the quality of his vocal tone or the musicality of his phrasing, but the way he invests the songs with meaning. In his prime, no one could illuminate a lyric or touch on the emotional heart of a song the way he could. He moved his audience because he made them feel those songs as deeply as he did. There was none of that last night at Merriweather. Instead, all we got was cheap nostalgia and the sad intoxication of celebrity-worship. Frankly, it would be hard to imagine what could become a legend less.