Sic transit gloria Sinatra

March 08, 1994|By Russell Baker

THE OTHER night CBS cut Frank Sinatra off for a commercial. Sic transit gloria. I wept when I heard the news.

In the old days Frank Sinatra would have cut off CBS. Frank was where the power was at. "Chairman of the Board," we called him. Can-do guys and, more importantly, will-do guys clustered around him, moth-to-the-flame style.

If Frank said, "Cut off CBS," it was "So long, CBS" until Bill Paley came over to Frank's and stood on his knees in the snow begging his pardon, kissing Frank's hand, offering to cut off as many commercials as Frank wanted cut off.

I'm talking not just old days, I'm talking good old days. In those days Paley may have owned CBS but he was just plain "Bill" on the drugstore corner.

Don't ask what a drugstore corner was. Trust me: we had them. Drugstore corners. Places where we stood around talking about Frank and calling Paley "Bill."

One reason we loved Frank was, you didn't monkey with him, didn't cut him for a commercial. You cut Dean Martin for a commercial. You even cut the president for a commercial if he was dropping in the polls. You didn't cut Frank.

When Frank wanted something, he got it. There was that time back in the really good old, old days when everybody had a big-hit Christmas song. Crosby had a Christmas song. Nat King Cole had a Christmas song. Mel Torme had a Christmas song.

One day the word came down: "Frank wants a Christmas song." Everybody stopped everything. Started writing Christmas songs for Frank. No kidding.

For weeks tunesmiths around the world stopped grinding it out about love, moonlight, breaking hearts, all that chewing gum for the brain, and wrote themselves groggy about snow, pine trees, jolly old St. Nick, Yule logs, the whole December cataclysm.

Frank chose one, recorded it, and it was a clunker. So to this day Frank doesn't have a Christmas song. It didn't make him mad though, because everybody had given it the best effort soon as the word passed: "Frank wants a Christmas song."

Not a single songwriter had behaved like a creep. That's what Frank always hated: creeps. It's sad to realize that the CBS payroller who cut off Frank for a commercial last Tuesday night is probably so young he's never even heard of creeps, so doesn't know what one is, so doesn't realize what he is himself, the creep.

The problem here is obvious. we are being overrun with people who not only don't know what a creep is but also don't know what a drugstore corner is and have no respect for the old days, the good old days or the really good old, old days.

How can people this dumb about history be expected to know that music could once be listened to by a person standing on the drugstore corner twirling a key chain? Chances are they don't even know what a key chain is, much less how to twirl one.

They certainly can't know that while listening to music and twirling a key chain on the drugstore corner, people could even whistle along with the music they were twirling to. That was because the music had a tune!

Not just a tune, but words that, while usually simple-minded, were easy to pronounce and made at least a pitiable effort to be poetry. The result: Frank never had to use Kingdom Come amplifiers to blow your brains out, thus covering for the absence of everything that constitutes song except rhythm.

Something about music makes masses of people bristle at each other across generational lines. This probably means music is at least one healthy branch of our culture.

Very few people give a hoot that insolent youth are forever kicking old painters, old playwrights, old novelists and old poets in the kidneys.

The eternal musical quarrel between generations, however, gets almost everybody's blood up.

It's usually said that we are in a visual age and the picture reigns, but the heated argument generated by music makes a case that, emotionally at least, ours is the age of the ear.

I am hopelessly, bathetically bound to a by-going age when song meant mating poetry to music, but am not surprised that this view of the matter must seem contemptible to millions for whom song now means bombardment by incoherent cries and rhythms.

And now, sensing that CBS is itching to cut me for a commercial, I must go.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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