Recently on PBS , I watched a recorded concert of Frank Sinatra singing at Carnegie Hall when he was old. I don’t know exactly how old, but it was definitely at the tail end of his career.
It was a sorry spectacle, difficult to watch.
A “way past his prime” troubadour, casually toupeed and stuffed into a tuxedo, belting out tunes he couldn’t belt anymore. Sinatra was an excruciating shadow of his former greatness.
The wavering tempo and the quavering voice, the high notes shredding on delivery. And he couldn’t remember the words, despite the fact that there was a teleprompter containing the lyrics mounted directly in front of him. I guess, he couldn’t remember to look at the teleprompter either.
In top form, Sinatra was the Number One song interpreter of all time. Other singers tried to copy his delivery, but they couldn’t. The style was uniquely his – the impressive vocal range and breath control (which I read he built up by swimming under water), the unexpected stretching of certain words, the off-tempo but always “right for the moment” phrasing. You can’t learn from genius. You just appreciate the brilliance, and tip your hat.
The problem with longtime entertainers – am I mean pretty much all of them – is that they don’t know when to get off. They simply can’t quit. Performing is in their blood. They cannot imagine life without it.
Unable to stop, these over-the-hill entertainers continue to perform as long as there are people willing to buy tickets, which, surprisingly, considering the performance they’re likely to encounter, there are. Audiences are magnanimously forgiving of icons performing at considerably less than top form. They just go to the shows, and remember being young.
It was therefore with heartfelt trepidation that I accompanied Dr. M and her friend, Wanda, to the Greek Theater one Friday night, to see Willie Nelson.
I love Willie Nelson. I love his story. In the early sixties, Willie wrote songs for the biggest country stars of the day – “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, “Crazy” for Patsy Cline – but no record company would let him sing. They said his voice sounded funny.
But Willie prevailed. Now his voice is as recognizable as Sinatra’s.
That’s a good story.
The problem is that, according to Wikipedia, Willie Nelson is 77. That’s old. Maybe older than Sinatra was, when he performed so agonizingly at Carnegie Hall.
How would Willie Nelson hold up?
I’ll skip the suspense. The man’s still got it. Not all of it, but way more than enough.
How did he pull it off at 77? By strategically, yet skillfully, altering his approach.
That was the message of the evening:
Gracefully let go of what you had, and take total advantage of what you’ve still got.
That’s what Willie did.
Vocal range – definitely not what it was. It was there sometimes, when he needed it. Finding no way of ducking the high notes, he would go for them, hitting them square and true. But more often, Willie mined melodic “alternate routes”, the vocal soaring of yore replaced by gravelly intonations that were rain-barrel deep.
The songs sounded different than on the records. But they weren’t crazy different, Bob Dylan torturing his melodies into tuneless unrecogizability. You sensed a clarity in these adjustments. You knew what he was doing.
And more importantly, you knew he knew.
Willie’s guitar playing remains nimble and sideman proficient. His back-up band, which includes Willie’s “baby sister”, also in her seventies, ignited the proceedings with energizing support.
He played all our favorites: “Whisky River”, “On The Road Again”, “You Were Always On My Mind.” The entire “Willie Oeuvre” beautifully rendered by an artist, not denying what time had taken away, but making the optimal most of what was left.
Unlike earlier concerts I’d attended, where he did it all himself, that night, Willie, now and then, enlisted our assistance.
He’d go, “Mama….
And point, and we’d sing,
“Don’t let your babies grow up the be cowboys…”
“Whisky for my me-en….”
“Beer for my horses.”
It felt good filling the gaps. Give an old man a breather.
Finally, there’s the charisma. That doesn’t go away. Though Willie Nelson’s charisma is, and always was, of a special variety. It isn’t “prance around the stage” Mick Jagger charisma, which after you get past the fact that he can still do it, feels calendarially inappropriate.
Willie just stands there, his charisma stemming from his Rushmorian stillness. This is a centered entertainer – not self-centered – centered. Maybe it’s meditation. Maybe it’s what they smoke on the bus. But whatever its source, time hasn’t laid a glove on it. The stillness remains powerful, manly, and, in the contrasting turmoil of our lives, deliriously welcome.
I went home happy.
I had witnessed a geezer kick ass.