Saturday, April 18, 2015

All and Nothing

It's a big month for Alex Gibney and his Jigsaw Productions. The documentaries Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing At All both premiere on HBO to critical, and more importantly, my own, acclaim. I will add that my company provided archival footage for both films although realistically, our small contribution has little bearing on the quality.

My pop would have gone apeshit over the Sinatra doc. He loved the guy. When I was very young, a mutual friend brought Frank Sinatra Jr. to our house. The friend, knowing that my father's filters were often faulty, drilled him to absolutely not mention the kidnapping. For once, my dad followed instructions. He commented to Frankie Jr. that he thought that Nelson Riddle's arrangements on the most recent Sinatra albums were superior to those of Axel Stordahl. Frank Sinatra Jr. turned and left the house without saying a word. I'm not sure if it was that was offended by the suggestion that any of his father's work was less than excellent or if he was sick of people talking about nothing other than his old man.

The documentary covers the kidnapping briefly. Originally, Sinatra Jr. was thought to be complicit but the true story is a quintessential example of truth being stranger than fiction. Barry Keenan was a junior high classmate of Nancy Sinatra. He became very successful in business and real estate while in his early twenties, and was even the youngest member in the history of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. Keenan however became addicted to pain killers. His judgment grew clouded and his investments began to tank.

He created a business plan for the kidnapping, although he never referred to it as such. It was an “operation.” Along with two accomplices, Keenan snatched Sinatra Jr. from Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. Frank Sr. offered to pay a ransom of one million dollars but Keenan insisted that he wanted only $240,000. His business plan included some prospective investments and a schedule to repay Sinatra. Keenan was apprehended and sentenced to life plus 75 years, but he was released after just four years after a psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was legally insane at the time of his crime. He went on to achieve great financial success, and if indeed he had been able to invest Sinatra's $240,000 as he'd planned, the profit would have been astronomical.

There have been rumors that Sinatra's mother was an abortionist, a fact that was often evoked in the interest of disparaging Sinatra. The film confirms that Dolly Sinatra did indeed perform abortions but it is explained by Frank Jr. that she was actually a midwife who would occasionally help out girls who were in deep trouble. Gibney also verifies Sinatra's connection with organized crime and the influence, at the behest of Joseph Kennedy, he wielded in delivering union votes to JFK. Apparently though, Joe Kennedy insisted that Bobby Kennedy be appointed Attorney General. Bobby came down hard on organized crime, leaving Sinatra in an awkward position. Jack Kennedy was scheduled to visit Palm Springs and Frank had a lavish building erected on his property which he called “The Little White House.” Despite Sinatra's slavish devotion to the Kennedy campaign, JFK opted, due to Sinatra's mob connections, to stay instead with Bing Crosby, a Republican.

J. Edgar Hoover ordered a dossier on Sinatra, likely due to his support of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his early civil rights advocacy. He remained a Democrat but perhaps because of his betrayal by the Kennedy family he stumped for both Nixon and Reagan. Spiro Agnew as a particularly close friend. The film also confirms Sinatra's ceaseless womanizing although it doesn't take on Kitty Kelly's claim that Frankie once ate fried eggs off the breasts of a prostitute. Perhaps Sinatra's musical gift to the universe diminishes a bit the abhorrence of some of his personal behavior. I always knew that Sinatra wasn't the greatest guy in the world but that he was indeed a genius. Gibney's film paints Sinatra as both less great and more genius than I'd realized.

It's almost too easy to weave the events of the week together here. A few days after I watch the Sinatra doc my friend Patty and I head over to the Palladium to catch a performance by what, even those who are familiar with me only casually will know, is my favorite band, The Replacements. The Sinatra film is called All or Nothing. The two album retrospective of The Replacements is called All for Nothing, Nothing for All. Cool huh? Otherwise I guess the only, and really stretching it, comparison I can make of frontman Paul Westerberg to Old Blue Eyes is that both sing with the combo of intelligence and fragility that I'm a sucker for. When I enter Sinatra and Westerberg into the online rock music version of the Kevin Bacon game I get:
Frank Sinatra has vocals on the track "A Foggy Day".
The track "A Foggy Day" also has vocals by Willie Nelson.
Willie Nelson composed the track "Opportunity to Cry".
The track "Opportunity to Cry" was mastered by Bob Ludwig.
Bob Ludwig mastered the album "Eventually".
The album "Eventually" was produced by Paul Westerberg.
Given this I'd say I'm pretty damn lucky about the All or Nothing/All for Nothing connection.

The Replacements were broken up for over twenty years. They reunited for Riot Fest in Denver and I wrote about attending this show in honor of Joe College's 21st birthday. Months later I drive with my friend Marion (who only admitted once we were on the road that she's never heard of the band) to Tempe for another festival performance. This fortuitously resulted in Marion's conversion. Now the band is doing a regular tour. Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson are the only original members. Tommy was 14 when the band formed. In Tempe he played about a third of the show in a Teletubby costume. I notice lnow that Tommy not only looks the same now at age 50 as he did at 14, but also that he very much resembles a Teletubby.

The Palladium is as lousy now as when I saw The Replacements there in 1991. It's hot and crowded and the floor is sticky. John Doe opens but the sound is bad and I am fixated on the girl singer, sporting Exene bangs and despite the extreme steaminess of the room, a leather jacket. Some college age kids stand behind me. A girl taps my shoulder and offers me a joint and the kids are surprised when, without hesitation, I accept. They are delighted when I take an extra long drag. I know the big yuck is a “Grandma getting high” kind of thing but at least they have good taste in music. Their weed (I know not to say “pot” these days) however is mediocre. I didn't think it was possible to get bad marijuana anymore.

I notice at the two festival shows that there was a lot of genuine affection between Paul and Tommy. Apparently the split was acrimonious but the last shows had a definite “all is forgiven” vibe. Not so much at the Palladium. They are no spring chickens and have played shows in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco over the last week. Paul's voice is pretty thrashed. The delivery of what is considered (correctly) their best song Alex Chilton is lackluster. I imagine that the experience of touring again after all of these years is bittersweet and perhaps the blush is off the rose now with Paul and Tommy and they are getting sick of each other. They grumble about recording some new material but none is presented during the show except a silly bit of a song about Whole Foods. Otherwise they play what people want to hear.

Perhaps the most thrilling thing about this last show is the two new additions. Josh Freese is on drums and Dave Minehan plays guitar and offers an astonishing vocal on the T Rex song “20th Century Boy.” It seems that during the festival shows both of the newbies were still in awe of playing with such legends. Now they've settled in and are not only part of the band, they're perhaps less jaded and more joyous than the founding members.

I've spent so many hours of my life playing Replacement albums. Over and over and over to an extent that my family considers psychological torture. I am so moved by Paul's songs that I try sometimes to imagine what it's like in his head. The band never achieved what it should and could have. They made some bad business decisions, particularly in rejecting the music video medium, which catapulted other alternative bands like REM into the stratosphere. And of course there is the traditional bane of rock, drink and drugs, of which the Replacements zealously partook.

Paul has had a respectable solo career. He's composed film scores and regularly released albums. He's written some beautiful songs but nothing that ever really approximated the raw naked yearning and brilliant wordplay that characterized The Replacements at their best. He's 55 now and touring with a band he founded some 35 years ago. Maybe he's finally getting the respect he's always deserved. And perhaps he's mature enough now not to fuck it up. My friend Patty, who'd never seen the band live before was astounded by how hard they rock. Even the recent lesser performance was ebullient, raucous and fun. I'm glad they're making money. I hope there is a new album and that its brilliant. If the dumb Whole Foods Blues is an indicator of what's in store, I fear that this won't be the case. Perhaps it doesn't bother Paul at all but I worry that it hurts him to know that he never really done anything that even approaches the creative genius of his twenties. But perhaps, the best is yet to come. And babe, won't that be fine.

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