OL' BLUE EYES AND ZIMMY: LATE BLOOMERS?
Ten years ago, if anyone told you that Bob Dylan's next three albums would all hit the Top Ten and inspire some of the most fawning reviews of his career, you'd have laughed and told him to go listen to Under The Red Sky, right? I mean, who ever heard of having an artistic and commercial resurgence when you're in your 60s, after a good 20 years of total irrelevance? Classical composers or jazz musicians, maybe. But a rocker?
I tried to think of anyone in pop music history who did what Dylan has done over the last few years. Brian Wilson? A lot of people love Smile, but the vast majority of it was written when he was in his 20s. Paul McCartney? Two words for you -- Driving Rain. (That's one of his recent crappy records, in case you'd already forgotten it.) Neil Young? Don't count him out yet, but bold experiments like Greendale or Living With War don't quite hit the mark. David Bowie? Give him an "A" for effort, but most of us don't listen to much of his post-1983 work. The Stones and the Who? Glorified oldies acts, although the Stones' latest, A Bigger Bang, was probably their best since Some Girls. Still, given what they put out in the '80s and '90s, that's not saying a lot.
In the end, the only guy I could think of who came close to doing what Dylan's been doing at such an advanced age is Frank Sinatra. Ol' Blue Eyes' career had been spotty since the mid '60s, when he would record great collaborations with the likes of Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim in between failed stabs at Top 40 acceptance. After briefly retiring in the early '70s, he came back with Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, an overblown soft-rock album, followed by one of the worst records of his career, Some Nice Things I've Missed, in which he does horrible covers of hits like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Sweet Caroline." For the rest of the '70s, Sinatra seemed lost. Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow songs started popping up in his concerts. One of his only studio sessions in the late '70s produced a disco version of "Night And Day" backed with a lame Paul Anka tune.
So it was, to say the least, a shock when the triple album Trilogy was unleashed in 1980, and even more of a shock when it became his best selling album in 15 years, going gold and even spinning off a Top 40 hit with "New York, New York." It's not only one of his most popular songs, but a career-defining performance. The technical skill is still all there, and the bravado and swagger of the vocal is still a thrill to hear even after thousands of Yankees games. Although I could live without hearing drunken Yankees fans singing it off-key while staggering to the subway.
Trilogy wasn't all brilliant. It had its share of rotten M.O.R. covers ("Song Sung Blue," anyone?), and the disc-long suite written and conducted by Gordon Jenkins is without a doubt the most bizarre thing Sinatra ever recorded, and one of the most unlistenable. But what made people buy the record was the disc of standards featuring new arrangements by Billy May and featuring a big, swinging band. It was the first time Sinatra had gone back to the Great American Songbook in over a decade, and while his pipes were a little shaky at times, he used it to his advantage, as on a heartbreaking version of "My Shining Hour." And on the swingers, like "Street Of Dreams" and a ferocious "The Song Is You," he sounds positively defiant, as if he's beating back time and infirmity on sheer will. Going back to what he knew best breathed new life into Sinatra as a performer, and that first album of Trilogy makes the whole megillah worthwhile.
The album's followup, 1981's She Shot Me Down, was a lot darker -- Sinatra's version of Time Out Of Mind, if you want to make comparisons -- and it didn't sell nearly as well as Trilogy. But to my ears, it's one of the greatest albums of his career. Harkening back to the "saloon song" albums like In The Wee Small Hours and Only The Lonely, it's all lovelorn ballads, with dark, string-heavy arrangements by Gordon Jenkins. Rather than going with standards, Sinatra chose to record mostly new compositions, and for the most part he chose well. The standout is "A Long Night," in which he outdoes even his classic ballads of the '50s by taking all the age and wisdom and experience he's stored up over the years and putting it into his vocal. It's positively chilling.
You don't hear much about these records anymore. Trilogy, even though its three LPs have been condensed into two CDs, still sports a prohibitive $30 list price. She Shot Me Down has been out of print for years and now fetches $50-100 on Amazon and eBay, when you can find it. But they're proof that age doesn't always equal irrelevance and declining powers. Just ask Bob Dylan.