Flipping from the MSNBC Death Marathon to a Harry Connick, Jr. interview, I started to wonder when I'd first heard Frank Sinatra sing. Of course I couldn't pinpoint it, any more than I could name the date I'd first sung "Happy Birthday." But I did recall the first time I really heard Sinatra sing. I was about fourteen, and had gone with my mother to see The Pope of Greenwich Village, in which Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, then regarded as heirs to Marlon Brando (a prophecy which came true in more ways than one) get entangled in depressing Mob activities. Maybe thirty minutes in comes a scene in which some characters play stickball or kick-the-can or some other urban movie game. There's no dialogue, just the opening vamp of "Summer Wind," and then Sinatra singing it.
It's not an overstatement to say I was shocked. The song, stripped of the vocal asides and chorus-of-thousands which clutter some Sinatra recordings, was devastating: the sound of someone doing exactly the right thing in exactly the right way. It made going to the movies with my mom on a Friday night feel even more pathetic. It cast a halo over The Pope of Greenwich Village, which is certainly a decent film but not really all that special. Above all, it made me picky. I'd sit in my room and stare at my clock radio as Casey Kasem counted down the top forty, but it wasn't the same. Even having a song dedicated to me wouldn't do it now. I wanted to be shocked like that again.
Fourteen years later I still don't know why some voices can jolt me awake while others don't. It doesn't happen with Maria Callas or Jim Morrison or, God forbid, Celine Dion. Ella Fitzgerald wakes me up, and so does Michael Stipe. So do Richard Buckner and Lori Carson and Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout, who has himself written odes to the voices of Faron Young and Marvin Gaye. The Psychedelic Furs get me every time (an old boyfriend used to ridicule me for this; is it a coincidence that I married someone who shares my taste in voices?). I got that Sinatra feeling the first time I heard the Sundays, and the first time I heard Elvis Costello; in fact, I fell in love with a boy for little reason other than that he gave me my first Costello tape.
And I have seen other people go to pieces at the sound of a voice. Once at a Christmas party, I watched a tipsy woman practically dry-hump a sofa when someone put Leonard Cohen (how festive!) on the stereo. "Who is this?" she kept saying, even after we'd told her. (I knew the feeling, having entertained impure thoughts about the guy myself.) My husband gets more rapturous about Bob Dylan's voice the worse it sounds. A friend who's a lesbian says Steven Tyler's voice is the only thing which makes her doubt her sexual orientation. (Funny, I told her, Steven Tyler makes me doubt my sexual orientation, too.)
I used to sing. It grew out of a weird child-actress phase in my history and continued through most of high school. Every week I would go to the tiny knickknack-crammed house my voice teacher shared with another man and do scales, focusing on the Franklin Mint collector's plates which lined the walls of the music room. In addition to an extremely decrepit mutt who shared my first name and who was on the verge of death for about eight years, my teacher owned a boxer who often sang scales with me (when he was not indicating that he wanted to go outside by saying "Out" in surprisingly clear English for a dog). The boxer and I would do vocal exercises for half an hour, and then I would either rehearse the music from whatever musical I was appearing in, or would wrestle with classical pieces. I wasn't half bad, but neither did I feel the slightest connection to what I was singing. If anything, I thought of my voice as a party trick, one more frantic offering I could pull out to prove I deserved my space on the earth. No matter how technically accomplished, a teenager singing love songs in phonetic German is a pretty gimmicky proposition, and I knew it, and I began to resist. I started refusing to perform on command at my parents' dinner parties (a fairly radical act for the original Desperate-to-Please Doll). I quit doing recitals. Later on I gave up the lessons entirely, and for years after that I was one of those people who mumbles through "Happy Birthday," hoping to disappear among the other singers.
I wonder sometimes if I really stopped singing because I expected too much: to feel as good, or at least as much, while singing as I did when I listened to someone else. Maybe that's only possible in the rarest of cases: there are words to remember, tricky key changes, a throat which doesn't always want to be making sounds. The voices I love convince me otherwise, make me believe the singer just started singing one fine day, with little preparation or even forethought. And there you are, the listener, sitting in traffic or hovering on the edges of a party or watching yet another overwrought Mafia movie, when suddenly this voice just happens to you. I'm sure Frank Sinatra didn't live in a permanent state of rapture at his own voice; he must have had his own favorites. But if a three-minute pop song can cast a glow over a film or a night or a whole summer, then in eighty-odd years I hope there was (there *must* have been) a time or two when he forgot who was singing and was simply shocked by what he heard.
Write "Ellavon" at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released: June 12, 1998