Demeaning popular culture: the crime of the non-book


Publishers are forever bemoaning the sorry state of the industry, the precarious fate of the mid-list book, the disappearance of readers. Let this warning then issue forth: Editors, don't underestimate your audience, even if it is comprised of septuagenarian nostalgia buffs.

Books should inform and delight, entertain and edify. A book should stand back, survey its subject from some new perspective. A book should illuminate the nooks and cranies even of the familiar, and the popular culture is no less worthy of penetration than the moral implications of cyberspace. Books should offer not more than we need or want to know, but give meaning to the void. As Jonathan Swift put it, a blade of grass should grow where one did not grow before.

Yet even as publishers wail about the cost of paper, they continue to produce endless examples of the non-book, from celebrity hype to regurgitated advice on how not to grow old. It almost seems as if many prefer the non-book which, after all, being empty of perspective, will offend no one. Of course, these books don't offend because few bother to read them.

A recent egregious example of the species "non-book" is Will Friedwald's "Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art" (Scribner. 557 pages. $30), a boring compilation of trivia, of interest, perhaps, to 350 die-hards who might care that "Only The Lonely" miraculously "lays out in a form diagrammable as A A'A A'B A A' in a single devastating chorus." Sinatra has been the quintessential pop singer of the century. Wouldn't we do better to listen to him sing?

It is said that about 50,000 books are published in the United States each year. This includes textbooks and crosswords. It is still a staggering figure given the few that will be advertised, reviewed and stocked in bookstores, let alone read. Do they all need to be published? Are they all really books? Have publishers lost sight of what a book actually is?

That superb teacher of writing Dashiell Hammett, one, by the way, of Mr. Friedwald's heroes, once told thenfledgling novelist Eliot Asinof that anyone can describe the "what." It's the "why," Eliot, the why that makes good writing, Hammett said. Fifty years later, Asinof, author of "Eight Men Out," remembered Hammett's words.

In "Sinatra!" events just happen. Mr. Friedwald, a non-writer (his previous books are about jazz singing and Warner Brothers cartoons), never once bothers to examine the causes of his character's behavior, not even his famous shift from liberal Roosevelt Democrat to Reagan Republican. His book can be said to be taking up valuable space that might be deserved for an author willing to do the legwork.

"Sinatra! The Song Is You" is the quintessential non-book, full of detail, yet about nothing. Trees might have been saved, paper better left for books that have something to say. In place of a book, we have a fanzine orgy, dragged over 516 pages, of the glories of Frank Sinatra - as a singer. Clots of detail describe his arrangers, producers, record companies. We are told of each rendition of a song: when he takes a breath and when he doesn't, when he changes keys and when he doesn't, E-flats and D-flats.

Throughout, Mr. Friedwald gushes over Sinatra, whom he admits "doesn't fully read music" (well, either he does or he doesn't), calling him "The Voice," "Ol' Blue Eyes," "The Chairman." Of point of view all we have is Mr. Friedwald's assertion: "no popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra." Mr. Friedwald does reveal the complex artistry that went into every rendition, but a magazine article might have established that.

While it may be argued that there remain "Sinatraphiles" who will lap up any and all information about their hero, even they might have liked to see him up close. Of Sinatra the man, in Mr. Friedwald's book there is little. We don't see him at home; we don't see him married to Nancy, Ava, Mia or Barbara; we learn nothing about the role of his singing art in his life as a whole. Of his motivations, there is less than zero.

A promising note

Mr. Friedwald knows that in his 500 some odd pages he must at least acknowledge Sinatra's Mafia connections; we've all seen "The Godfather," after all. Mr. Friedwald swiftly brushes the evidence aside. Preposterously he tells us that "one is finally left with the impression that Sinatra's persistence in being photographed with hoodlums like Sam Giancana and Spiro Agnew had only held him back." What?

In passing, we learn that Billy May "had the chutzpah to address Sinatra as 'Mafia,'" a promising note left unattended. On his last page, as if aware that this would go down with no one, Mr. Friedwald drops in another reference to Sinatra's association with "some say, the underworld," only to add: "Well, perhaps 'the big terrible things' he has done will be canceled out by 'the big, wonderful things' he has also done." The writer has investigated none of it. Of Sinatra's purported associations with the Mafia and their role in his career, consult: "His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra," by Kitty Kelley, or "Citizen Cohn: The Life and Times of Roy Cohn," by Nicholas von Hoffman, or "Mafia Princess: Growing Up in Sam Giancana's Family," by Antoinette Giancana, or "Mafia!" by Fred Cook, or "Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and The Mob," by Dan E. Moldea. . . . The list seems to be spiraling into infinity.

Biographical portraits, even one like this, limited to how Sinatra created his sound, demand distance, perspective, nuance, no less than an exploration of how the popular culture (Sinatra in 1943 was astonished to be confronted by screaming bobby-soxers at the Paramount) is linked to the historical and economic strains of the day. We want to know what made Sinatra the man he was, the fabulous success who was unable to complete more than 47 days of high school.

Instead we are bombarded by endorsements from old-timers, musicians and hangers-on of the music industry, always, not surprisingly, coming to praise Ol' Blue Eyes. The eyes glaze over. The book is also embarrassingly inflated by inappropriate references: the headnote to Chapter 4 is a quotation from Che Guevara: "The true revolutionary is guided by love." Chapter 10 opens with a letter from George Sand to Flaubert on the passing of youth. At one point Sinatra is "about to be redeemed, as T. S. Eliot wrote in "'Four Quartets,' 'from fire, by fire.'" Nothing belongs, anything goes, because this flea market of a book lacks a center of its own anyway.

As a non-book, "Sinatra! The Song Is You" has, not surprisingly, been hastily written. A non-editor must have shepherded it through the publishing process. "Actually" appears twice in one sentence; film historian Donald Bogle is "Vogle." Some of the errors are laughable. My favorites: Keats being described as the author of "Ode To A Nightmare" and "in the words of Dorothy Parker, there's no there there." (It was Gertrude Stein speaking of her native Oakland.) The problem is, there is no there here!

Sometimes Mr. Friedwald makes no sense at all. One album, "A Man Alone," is called "a total epistemological clambake," whatever that means. There are also downright illiterate sentences: "Sinatra's rise entailed the new supremacy of the pop singer as the dominant genre of mass market music." We see what he means, but oy!

Pop bottle and the Bay of Pigs

Moreover, an obnoxious tone often creeps in, as with: "'There Used To Be A Ballpark' has an air of mystery and mystique that speaks to millions who never so much as threw a pop bottle at an umpire." The author presumably has done this. "I know kids who go to see the JFK movie who have no idea what the Bay of Pigs was," Mr. Friedwald states.

So? When he tries for generalizations about art and commerce, the nature of popular culture, he really babbles. The issue, he tells us, involves "popular artists gradually wresting control of their work and at the same time trying to convince the public that the word 'artist' is as relevant to them as 'popular.'" Come again?

Sinatra lives on in his music, as women now nearing 80, like my own mother, Norma, continue to feel as if he is singing every song directly to them, and right from the heart too. "Sinatra! The Song Is You" will have scant impact on

the many who still discover great pleasure in hearing him sing

(one Philadelphia radio station plays a morning of Sinatra every Sunday).

The popular culture is demeaned by being so trivialized in such a book, a true paradox if ever there were one. Now let's calm ourselves with any Sinatra recording of "One For My Baby" or "It Was A Very Good Year" or "You Make Me Feel So Young," or . . .

* Joan Mellen has written of the popular culture in seven books about movies. Her "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography, which will be published in May by HarperCollins, is her 13th book. She is a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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