I'm not telling Frank Sinatra to quit, are you?

March 08, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Even if you didn't watch the Grammys show, you heard about it. They gave Sinatra a lifetime achievement award. And in the middle of his rambling acceptance speech, they cut to commercial, like Sinatra was Jerry Vale or somebody.

They dissed Frank.

A few years ago, Frank would have broken some knees for less. But Frank is 78 now, and he doesn't exactly evoke terror anymore.

He does occasionally evoke confusion though. Sometimes, he rambles. Sometimes, he even forgets the words to the songs he defined.

Clearly, age is catching up with him. It's age and the booze and the smokes and too much time hanging with Dean.

It's reached the point that the other night he collapsed on stage. They led the 11 o'clock news with it, and, even though it turned out to be nothing serious, it was frightening. But no more scary than his speech Grammy night.

Here was the King of Bad, as Bono had called him in a stirring introduction, stumbling around on stage, like he'd had too many cocktails, except you were pretty sure he hadn't had any. You could have one of only two reactions. You could turn your head. Or you could want to put your arms around him.

Imagine, feeling sorry for Sinatra. It's like feeling sorry for Nixon.

The word came out a day later that somebody in the Sinatra camp had asked CBS to cut away because she was afraid Frank was embarrassing himself.

I'm not sure which bothered me more -- that Sinatra was barely coherent or that the network felt that it had to protect him.

Here's the problem:

Sinatra is enjoying a mini-Renaissance. He's got a hit CD -- that phony-baloney "Duets" album. And he's huge on the road. He was doing his second sell-out show in two nights in Richmond when he collapsed his own way -- in the middle of singing "My Way."

On the other hand, he can't sing anymore. He uses a TelePrompTer. He wears a hairpiece (Frank is bald?). He ain't in the autumn of his years. It's mid-winter. This Sinatra is a faded print of the real thing. Ol' blue eyes has gone gray.

Should Frank hang 'em up? Is he embarrassing himself? Is he trampling on his memory?

Or should he stay out there as long as he wants to and as long as people still want to hear him?

This conundrum (my big word for the day) is known in the business as the Willie Mays syndrome. Mays was to center field what Sinatra was to saloon singers. He wasn't simply great. He wasn't simply graceful. He embodied the position. Look at him, he was center field.

At the end of his career, Mays was traded from the Giants to the Mets, who wanted him just as a display piece. It was like something you hung from your wall. He played center field, except he couldn't run anymore. And he couldn't hit anymore either.

It was sad. We cried when we could bear to watch him. And everyone said, including me, that he should have quit, like Joe DiMaggio did, when he was on top.

We wanted him to stop embarrassing himself, to stop embarrassing us. We wanted him to grow old and feeble in private.

Today, there are athletes who respond to every crisis in their lives by retiring. It's drummed into them that there's a set time to leave.

Now I understand that's a young man's game. It's called move out of the way and make room for me.

Now I understand, too, that the part about not trusting anyone over 30 was a typo. It should have said 80.

This new understanding is, of course, born of self-interest as some of us become more, uh, mature and may have to worry sooner than we imagined about our own peculiar futures.

It hit home for me a few years ago when the Rolling Stones toured and Paul McCartney toured and the Who got back together. There was a lot of talk about how these guys were too old to play rock and roll.

What were they supposed to be doing? Was Keith Richards supposed to take up needlepoint? If I wanted to allow Mick to please introduce himself, that's between me and him and the 50,000 other people who filled the stadium.

For Sinatra, it's a similar deal. If Mick can prance at 50, Sinatra can perform at nearly 80.

After all these years, he's earned the right to go out any way he wants to.

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