AN AUTUMNAL INTERLUDE

autumnToday’s the day the world recognises the onset of autumn via the arrival of the September Equinox; at one (brief) time it also marked the start of the French Revolutionary Calendar, though that hasn’t had any relevance for over 200 years. Most of us here tend to associate the end of summer with the changing of the clocks, even if we don’t return to Greenwich Mean Time until the end of October. By then, the ‘Indian Summer’ we often enjoy at the beginning of September (and we’ve certainly experienced with record temperatures this September) is being slowly ushered away by the chilly autumnal breezes that scatter the leaves and necessitate the hibernation of the summer wardrobe.

The changing of the seasons as we approach the back-end of the year is usually greeted in Britain by ‘senior citizens’ with resigned shakes of the head and accompanying pessimistic observations uttered in a dismal, Eeyore-like tone, as though the transformation from one season to another was a newfangled innovation like decimalisation. ‘Ooh, it’s getting darker on a night now’ or ‘Ooh, I had to put the central heating on, it was so cold last night’ or the classic ‘Ooh, it’ll soon be Christmas.’ But this is always a curious juncture of the year, when the football season is well underway yet the cricket season is still active, if drawing to its conclusion; and because the clocks have yet to be put forward an hour it still has the feel of summer.

Admittedly, it does often seem as though the last three months before ‘Christmas Month’ are ones the country yearns to speed through, as if everything the year has to offer is already over and done with. In many respects, the great events that mark the calendar year generally tend to take place before September, so it’s no wonder that is the impression given. With the possible exception of February, October and November are the most overlooked of months and ones it feels like everybody views as unnecessary inconveniences they just want to get out-of-the-way. The retail sector certainly does its utmost to bypass them; bar the brief interlude of the newly-Americanised institution of Halloween, Christmas is shoved down the shopper’s throat from almost the very moment August has evaporated. We have to be constantly reminded how we’re inexorably careering towards December 25, though I can’t quite fathom why anyone over the age of ten would give a toss.

Perhaps the problem when one has lived long enough is that certain times of the year inevitably retain the associations they had when we were children; and yet they are utterly illusory now. Whenever we reach autumn, I find it hard not to anticipate its arrival as it was back then, even if virtually all of those archaic associations are long gone and redundant in 2016. Belated realisations that the pleasures derived from what once constituted autumn are pleasures I can no longer access possibly generates the aforementioned Eeyore response in those who experience a similar disheartening sensation. Autumn therefore becomes little more than an ominous prelude to the bleak winter of astronomical fuel bills and freezing water pipes – hardly something to celebrate.

There are somewhat negative connotations within cultural corners too – ‘the autumn of my years’ being a term signifying the beginning of life’s slow descent into reflection, regret, senility and death. Frank Sinatra sang of himself as being at that stage of his life in his finest late recording, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, yet he lived for another thirty years after committing it to vinyl. Few would want to volunteer for the dubious accolade of being in ‘the autumn of my years’, however; it suggests surrender, raising a white flag rather than raging against the dying of the light, a mournful, terminal train ride towards a destination with a longer stretch of track behind it than in front of it. What a depressing thought.

Jeremy Paxman’s recent spat with the OAP population of this country was portrayed as the deliberately offensive Clarkson-esque rant of a man in denial of his own advancing years, though I understood to a degree where he was coming from. As with every age group from teenagers onwards there is an assumption that ‘we all want the same thing’ and that we will adhere to the portrait of us painted by the advertising industry, which not only simplifies everything to the lowest common denominator cliché, but assumes that everybody belongs to an easily identifiable demographic. Passing 60 being summed up by images of stairlifts, walk-in baths, Werther’s Originals, slippers, cardigans and chunky sweaters is indeed appalling and unappealing. That to me was what Paxman’s rant was about, the apathetic acceptance of someone else’s ideal of maturity rather than having a go at oldies in general. With life expectancy longer than it has been in living memory, falling back on those outdated images and implying the last (potentially) thirty years of life will look just like that is enough to provoke a rush of flights to Switzerland.

Overseas autumn holidays are now quite commonplace, with October in the sun viewed as a preferable alternative to October at home. Yet, October in the sun is much the same as April in the sun or August in the sun; it’s the bloody sun. A country with a climate that doesn’t alter from one season to the next, certainly not in the dramatic manner with which it does here, just wouldn’t feel right or as rewarding to me. The bliss of one is a reward for the hardship of another. It’s almost as though the welcome gift of spring, for example, is earned as opposed to given. But maybe that’s simply due to us being on an island and we enjoy/endure the island climate.

It’s all-too easy to dwell on the downside of autumn and what it represents in purely climactic terms; and yet, I spy with my aesthetic eye the most visually rich of seasons when autumn transforms the landscape. The bruised fruit ochre shades of marmalade make a walk in the park an atmospheric excursion through the shifting carpet laid by the wind from the dry-roasted crispy cast-offs of the trees. Nature can always have the power to marvel if we raise our heads above the parapet of concerns imposed by man and machine.

© The Editor

PRACTICALLY A POLANSKI

AllenThe notorious underground filmmaker, author and disciple of Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger got there long before him (fifty-one years before, as it happens), but it seems a current Hollywood B-lister has decided the time is right to expose Tinsel Town as a hotbed of vice and debauchery, that’s if Elijah Wood’s weekend accusation is anything to go by. Perhaps he’s got a movie to plug. Mind you, someone ranking far higher in the constellation of contemporary celluloid royalty beat him to it when she decided to side with the ‘injured party’ in a marital squabble that has been revived after two decades in abeyance. Step forward Susan Sarandon, leading light of the liberal left in Hollywood, the one that was so mercilessly (not to say brilliantly) skewered in ‘Team America: World Police’.

Sarandon didn’t mind getting her tits oot for the lads in earlier cinematic outings which (probably to her embarrassment) have retained cult appeal, specifically ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘The Hunger’; but since her marriage to Tim Robbins and celebrated role in ‘Thelma and Louise’, Sarandon has been elevated to the PC Premier League in that self-important corner of California that reached an apex of patronising preaching at this year’s Oscars ceremony. What Sarandon has to do with the subject she publicly intervened in last week remains questionable; but she has taken sides, of that there is no doubt. And the side she has taken is that of a woman scorned.

Let’s be honest, fewer cases of a woman scorned come more humiliating than the scenario Mia Farrow experienced in the early 90s, when her partner of twelve years, Woody Allen, left her for her adopted daughter from a previous marriage. It’s hard to think of a harder hammer-blow an actress in her late 40s could receive than her partner abandoning her for a 21-year-old, let alone one that had kick-started her serial adoption programme. How did Mia react? Well, she immediately alleged her seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan was a victim of sexual abuse on the part of the man who had just walked out on her.

It seems a long time ago now, but the whole unedifying Farrow-Allen abuse battle was headline news for a good year or so in the early 90s, long before such things became fashionable. Farrow was quite a pioneer in devising new means of vengeance for an injured party. The director who had revived Farrow’s movie career by giving her 12 leading roles in his films was denied access to his children with her for a period, though when enough time had passed since the height of the scandal, Dylan Farrow started the abuse ball rolling again by making fresh allegations a couple of years ago. In response to these renewed claims, Farrow and Allen’s adopted son Moses retorted by claiming his mother was the abuser, albeit physical and psychological rather than sexual. He also alleged Farrow ‘coached’ her children into believing every accusation she’d flung at Allen.

Ronan Farrow is yet another of the numerous children to have filled the Farrow household during the tenure of her relationship with Woody Allen, yet his paternal parentage has bizarrely been attributed to his mother’s ex, Frank Sinatra, who was in his seventies when Ronan was born, twenty years after the end of the short-lived Sinatra/Farrow marriage. He recently added to the renaissance of the abuse allegations by endorsing his sister Dylan’s accusations in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ via a piece titled ‘My Father Woody Allen and The Danger of Questions Unasked’. He compared Allen’s ‘immunity’ from the law to the current experience of Bill Cosby, citing the advantages that the so-called powerful have over their accusers when an allegation is made as being responsible for the doubts that continue to plague his sister’s allegations. We’ve kind-of heard it all before over here (at least since 2012), though that hasn’t prevented it – as the Kids say – Going Viral.

Eavesdropping on a famous family at war is a horrible voyeuristic exercise encouraged by media outlets that thrive on such scandals, yet the unnecessary intervention of Susan Sarandon when at Cannes to appear at an event called ‘Women in Motion’ (not to be confused with the parallel Cannes event, ‘Women Stationary’) has merely added fuel to the fire. ‘I think he sexually assaulted a child and I don’t think that’s right’ was the earth-shattering observation made by Sarandon that received the most coverage last week. Sarandon said she had nothing good to say about Allen and then added ‘I don’t want to go there’. Afraid you already have, Susan. Ronan Farrow’s contribution to the ongoing scandal was perfectly timed, appearing as it did on the same day as Woody Allen’s latest movie premiered at Cannes, a red-carpet event at which (unbelievably) Susan Sarandon was present.

I confess I am a long-time fan of Woody Allen’s work, particularly the string of movies he produced from the late 60s through to the early 80s (roughly ‘Take the Money and Run’ to ‘Stardust Memories’), and whether he did or didn’t do the dirty with a little girl won’t alter that at all. But I don’t really believe we’ll ever get to the truth of events that did or didn’t occur when he was involved with Mia Farrow because the nature of the arena in which these disputed events have been played out isn’t concerned with the truth. That’s show-business, honey.

© The Editor

IT WAS A VERY GOOD CAREER

SinatraThe podgy middle-aged bloke with the silver rug glued to his head; the skinny sailor wandering around NYC and bursting into song – the two contradictory images I had of Frank Sinatra as a child; the former was the contemporary artist and the latter was the old Hollywood heart-throb courtesy of BBC2 on Saturday afternoons. Although my parents belonged to the wrong generation and consequently owned no Sinatra records, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name. The man who was born exactly one-hundred years ago today was still omnipotent, even in the 1970s.

Growing up, the impression given was of a corny old has-been, the man who inspired a thousand kitsch cabaret crooners in dickey-bows and dinner jackets, churning out cheesy Vegas-style versions of the same standards that were once the staple diet of the Jimmy Young Show on Radio 2, my grandma’s chosen playlist whenever I stopped at her house. In that relentless adolescent search for whatever was ‘cool’, Sinatra seemed the irrelevant antithesis of every recommended exponent of ‘cool’; he was a long way from The MC5 or The Stooges or The Velvet Underground; he appeared to represent that whole schmaltzy, sentimental showbiz world that rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to have swept away. John Lennon had said, ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing’, and that view still held sway in the 80s, certainly for me and my sneering teenage peers.

Once I reached my mid-20s, however, I gradually outgrew juvenile prejudices and no longer did as Melody Maker told me. I would consciously seek out anything I’d been warned to avoid; it felt like an act of rebellion to pick up a prog-era Genesis LP from a second-hand record shop, as it did to visit the local record library (libraries used to have actual vinyl records in those days) and sample Sinatra’s greatest hits. I realised the only thing that closes your ears to music of every shape and form is the cynical critic dispensing listening advice. Ignore them and you can enjoy anything, just as you did before you became aware of the divisive cancer of genres. And when I gave this Sinatra album a fair hearing, I was back where I’d been in the beginning, able to simply listen without antiquated notions of ‘cool’ getting in the way.

Although Frank Sinatra was essentially the first teen idol when he inspired pre-Beatlemania hysteria amongst American girls in the early 40s, the body of work for which he is most remembered came after he’d been written off as yesterday’s man and had been reduced to recording novelty singles with the proto-dumb blonde, Dagmar, and seemingly sacrificing whatever chances he still had of a long-term career by throwing himself into an insane affair with notorious, albeit lascivious, man-eater, Ava Gardner. At his lowest ebb – which included an alleged suicide attempt – he was rescued from the showbiz abyss by vigorously pursuing and grabbing his dream role in ‘From Here to Eternity’ (whether a horse’s head had a part to play or not) and scooped an Oscar; this in turn kick-started his musical vision. Free from the constrictions of his previous record deal, he signed to Capitol and took control of his recorded output for the first time. Now Sinatra was going to make the kind of records he wanted to make.

Not a writer himself, Sinatra nevertheless had an instinctive sense of what a made a great song and he set about revamping standards so that his interpretation of them became the definitive versions. He did this by allowing his most traumatic life experiences to infect his voice with both a mature adult swagger and an emotional vulnerability, acquiring a deeper, wider range than it had possessed in his young crooner days and delivering the song as though he had penned every word from the heart. Crucial to this transformation was his musical marriage with bandleader and arranger Nelson Riddle, who took the Big Band sound of the previous decade and made it elegant with a full orchestral facelift. Sinatra had found his most invaluable collaborator and the pair of them embarked upon a sonic journey that had few precedents in the pre-rock era.

When the phrase ‘concept album’ appears, one tends to think of the prog monoliths of the 70s, yet Sinatra effectively pioneered the idea with the series of LPs he released from 1953’s ‘Songs for Young Lovers’ onwards, finding the relatively new long-playing record the perfect vehicle for his musical rebirth. As the Sinatra/Riddle collaboration progressed, each new album tended to select a collection of songs to convey a specific mood – from the upbeat euphoria of ‘Swing Easy’ to the downbeat melancholy of ‘Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely’. The artwork on the album sleeve also reflected which Sinatra the listener was going to get. The cover of 1955’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ bears a portrait of Sinatra slouched against a wall, cigarette in hand, with a poorly-lit deserted street as the backdrop, whereas its follow-up, ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, shows a quintessential young 50s couple embracing as Sinatra’s smiling face floats above them like a benevolent Cheshire Cat midway through vanishing into the warm orange sky.

Perhaps the finest product of this purple patch on Capitol came when Sinatra’s confidence was flying so high that he replaced Riddle with Billy May and released ‘Come Fly with Me’, an LP whose memorable sleeve Sinatra apparently disliked as he felt it resembled an ad for the American airline TWA. In retrospect, it stands as the perfect visual accompaniment to the music, evoking the wonderfully enduring illusion of the Jet Set who dressed for a plane ride as though visiting the opera, travelling from one exotic location to another with the kind of nonchalant ease most hop onto the bus. The travelogue track-list takes the listener to Capri, Vermont, New York, Mandalay, London, Paris, Hawaii, Chicago and Brazil. At a time when air travel was beyond the financial reach of all but the wealthy, the album gave what is actually a pretty interminable method of getting from A to B an irresistible glamour that still maintains the allure it had sixty years ago.

Sinatra had been able to dominate the album charts during the rock ‘n’ roll era, as that was largely a singles phenomena; but by the time The Beatles showed their insatiable creativity also encompassed the LP, Frank’s days as the undisputed king of the long-player were numbered. Sinatra slowly slid into legendary status and parted company with the zeitgeist, finding the live arena more appreciative of his talents than the recording studio. The last three decades of his life saw Sinatra gradually become the kind of performer people pay to see because of the legend – ironically, the same reason people pay to see the likes of the Stones now.

If you want the gossip column Sinatra, read the plethora of books devoted to his dealings with mobsters or the self-indulgent antics of the Rat Pack or the numerous notches on his bedpost. But if you want to know what made Frank Sinatra stand head-and-shoulders above the competition and why he remains remembered whereas somebody like Vic Damone isn’t, avoid ‘My Way’ or ‘Strangers in the Night’ and listen to the cream of the Capitol crop from the early 50s to the early 60s. If you’re still not convinced, try arguably his last great recording from 1965, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’, the musical equivalent of ‘King Lear’ as an ageing man looks back on his life by remembering the loves of it. If your eyes are still dry when it ends, you haven’t got a heart.

© The Editor