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Blue Eyes in Watertown

March 14, 2013 | by

61lxyA2cN6L._SY300_No one under the age of fifty really listens to Frank Sinatra anymore. Like anything else, there may be exceptions to this fact, but overall it’s true. Frank Sinatra is a legendary artist whose work will always be enjoyed and referred to. However, his era of direct relevancy is obviously long gone, and his era of anecdotal relevancy is starting to fade.

We associate Frank Sinatra with a bygone era of America, a time of guys and dolls, a time when people would swing and dance and when the lounge singer was king. Sinatra’s unique talent was maintaining this vision even as it eroded away over time—to make you feel old-fashioned feelings in a modern era. Sinatra’s heyday was from the late forties to the late fifties, yet he recorded “New York, New York” in 1977.  And “My Way” makes you feel like a proud man looking over the skyline of post–World War II Manhattan, even in 2013.

Still, Sinatra’s most overlooked achievement is perhaps the one album he made that did not feel as though it was evoking the era he loved or knew the most. In 1969, the same year that Frank Sinatra recorded “My Way,” he released an album called Watertown. Chances are, even some of the biggest Sinatra fans—like my grandparents and great aunts and uncles—have forgotten about Watertown. But Watertown is Frank Sinatra’s best album and his most enduring contribution to American culture.

If you listen to enough music and read enough music criticism, you will often find album reviews that liken a song to a short story or an album to a novel. We want our music to take on serious importance, to assume the stature of the highest literature. I’ve listened to a lot of albums, and besides Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Frank Sinatra’s Watertown is the only record I can honestly say feels like literature on record.

The album is ostensibly about a man who lives in Watertown, which is supposed to be Anytown, U.S.A.; a place where “nothing happens down on Main / ’cept a little rain.” This man has lost a woman, a woman who we presume to be his wife. He may have lost her due to a painful divorce, or she may have died—we don’t know.

That’s it, though. That’s the concept of the entire album. Along the way, we have ruminations about the protagonist’s children and which parent they look like; the fact that he won’t get over his significant other for a while; and that no matter what, if he knew then what he knows now, he’d still be in love anyway. Finally, the album ends with the protagonist waiting for a train to pull into Watertown that is supposed to be carrying his significant other back into his life—whether this is imagined or not is unclear. While the protagonist waits, he explains to his significant other all of the changes that have happened while she’s been away and how much there is to say to her; how they will walk down the street and look very much in love on their way to getting the kids from school. Yet, when the train comes, he doesn’t see his significant other anywhere.

That’s the album; that’s what Watertown is “about.” The story is ambiguous, but it is constructed very much in the tradition of any realist or, hell, even modernist literature. We listen as the protagonist narrates the smallest details of his life, his daily routines, his smallest epiphanies, all in an effort at getting over his wife who is either dead or has left him. Watertown is made of the same stuff as Flaubert, Woolf, Hemingway, Joyce, Faulkner, and Tolstoy. All those writers who drove so deeply into reality that they could do nothing but heighten it.

Now, take a step back and remember one thing: we’re talking about Frank Sinatra. A Frank Sinatra record made at the edge of the 1970s. Since Watertown is an album and not a book, and since Frank Sinatra is a singer and not a writer, we clearly have to discuss the music itself.

When you think of Frank Sinatra’s music, you probably think of swelling string arrangements, brassy horn sections and tinkling, out-of-reach piano notes. And, of course, there is the voice, that irrepressible instrument of confidence and composure. It is the kind of music that is married to cocktails and tastefully lit dining rooms and bars; it is the music that any American born after 1950 has had naturally embedded somewhere in their blood and consciousness.

But that’s not the Sinatra on Watertown. There are still string arrangements all over the album and little bits of brass where things get triumphant, though triumph on this album is nothing more than the sound of complete and open longing, those moments when you remember some previously forgotten walk under the tress on your college campus on a beautiful day and realize that you can never recapture the vibrancy of even a forgettable moment of youth. But overall, it is very much a Sinatra you have never heard before. There is electric bass directly from the brains of McCartney or Wilson; melodies that seems oddly Hendrixian; and pianos and melodies that you can even imagine early Bowie singing.

The album opens with the ominous, round bass notes of the title track. Sinatra enters the mix and he sings in a tone of not so much insecurity, but the tone of a man who seems defeated—or at least resigned to the fate that he’s been given. It’s a jarring tone, but as a listener, it intrigues you and draws you in for the ups and downs of the rest of the album.

And it would be easy for me to discuss each song at length; I could tell you why “Elizabeth” is a lost song from Pet Sounds; how “Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” might be the saddest song of all time; and how Jimi Hendrix, had he lived, would have one day covered “What’s Now is Now” in his inevitable “mellow” phase that would have began in 1973 and ended once he heard Marquee Moon. However, that would just be exhaustive.

There is one stretch of songs I do want to discuss, though. In my opinion, the heart of Watertown lies in the songs “For a While,” “Michael & Peter,” and “I Would Be in Love Anyway,” the third, fourth, and fifth songs of the album. Over the course of those three songs, you experience the gamut of emotions that the entire album covers, but in just the right doses.

“For a While” is a fluid ballad filled with plucked guitars, rattling marimbas, nimble bass, and the requisite Sinatra wood and string sections. To me, it is the sound of the month of April. (And I recommend listening to “For a While” some spring morning on your way to work and dare you to disagree.) But at the heart of this song is a tremendous sense of loss. A lyrical example:

People say to me
You need company
When you have some time to spend
Drop around and meet a friend
They forget, that I’m not over you
For a while.

Those lyrics, cowritten by Jake Holmes (who wrote the original version of “Dazed and Confused”) and Bob Gaudio (former member of the Four Seasons) are concise and perfect. They need no extrapolation.

Going from the third song to the fifth song, “I Would Be in Love” is the best example of the album’s “doing” triumph. The song opens with nearly-chiming guitars, piping woodwinds, and Motown piano as Sinatra sings:

If I knew that you would leave me
If I knew you wouldn’t stay
I would be in love anyway

Sometimes I think, I think about before
Sometimes I think

Then, the music soars all together and Frank belts it out in his biggest “My Way” voice:

If I knew then, what I know now
I don’t believe I’d ever change somehow

Again, you don’t need someone to explain those lyrics to you. The music feels triumphant and it carries you, but the actual “triumph” is just a tiny epiphany, one man’s realization that he’d never change—no matter what.

Finally, skipping back up to track number four, there is “Michael & Peter,” which is one of the lost masterpieces of sixties pop. This song covers nearly every complex tone and emotion you can imagine. It begins with lilting, almost Spanish guitar, as the protagonist sings about whose faces each of his kids have and how his son Peter looks like him, “except when he smiles.” Then, the track switches after about a minute to a slightly haunting but driving piano melody where the protagonist explains how much rain the town has gotten and other day-to-day minutiae, such as the house needing a new coat of paint.

And after about another minute, the tempo goes up a gear and an Ennio Morricone guitar and a xylophone come in. The protagonist sings about working "for Sante Fe" and how he has never skipped a single day and the entire songs feels extremely inspiring. When you finally reach what I suppose is the actual chorus, there are sweeping strings and staccato horns and the protagonist is singing, “as far as anyone can tell, the sun will rise tomorrow.” The whole thing repeats again and then fades out as the protagonist repeats, “you’ll never believe how much they’re growing.” I don’t need to say anything.

People still enjoy the music of Beethoven and Mozart, but their immediacy has long since faded. The same thing will happen for the majority of Frank Sinatra’s music as we move on through the twenty-first century and into the twenty-second. “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” those songs will all be recognized as great and important, but we won’t feel them as much in our daily lives, feel their relevance. They won’t matter as anything more than distant documents of where our culture was at one point in the twentieth century.

The Beatles and Bob Dylan will forever be relevant because they were able to link our heads and our hearts in the strangest ways; and the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin will remain inescapable simply for what they do to our guts and how they make our blood and muscles feel with just the smallest guitar riff. However, a lot will fall by the wayside. I don’t mean to simply wave the flag of  classic rock, but the conversation has to be reigned in.

Though the more I listen to Watertown, the more I think it is Frank Sinatra’s one chance to be truly felt by listeners hundreds of years from now. To me, the album sounds out of time. When you listen to Watertown, you don’t picture Manhattan in its heyday after America’s triumph in World War II; you picture a guy walking aimlessly around his house in a town that could be in America or Ireland or rural France; you picture a man looking at old photos and watching the dust drift above his carpet in the fading, orange light of a Sunday afternoon. And even if the music iteself doesn’t pass your test of timelessness, the lyrics and the story do. Divorce, death, loneliness, and growing older never go out of style. Those underlying elements of everyday life and the epiphanies that come along with them have been relevant from Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Joyce to Louis C.K. Watertown was the one time Frank Sinatra wasn’t singing about emotions that seemed as though they could be bought in a box. It was the moment that the man who sang “My Way” realized that pride and love and pain all come in subtler forms and shades.

Matt Domino loves the NBA and writes fiction in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in various places and he runs a blog called Puddles of Myself

 

31 COMMENTS

30 Comments

  1. Juan-Paolo Perre | March 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Very nice Matt. Thank you for that.

  2. Michael | March 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    The Train Tracks drawings from Bob Dylan’s Drawn Blank series are reminiscent of that cover art.

  3. Matt Domino | March 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks so much, Juan-Paolo. I appreciate you reading it.

    Also, Michael, kind of reminds me of Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” cover.

  4. Raymond Kimmelman-DeVries | March 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    What a treat this essay has been in the middle of my day.

    Thankfully I am one of the exceptions to the under-50 crowd who still thrills along to Sinatra’s swing and swagger.

    I must admit that I, like many others, consider his body of work on Capitol and during the early years on Reprise to be Frank’s greatest period.

    And I will also admit that I hadn’t actually heard of this record before but will be picking it up shortly and with your insight, I’m sure to be in awe yet again of the genius that is Sinatra.

    Though I think, at least from the way Watertown is described here, Only the Lonely might be another album of Frank’s to come close to transcending a particular period in time and space because we have all lost lovers and we have all sat at the proverbial bar at 3am crying in our gin and tonic to Joe the Bartender.

  5. Lou De Luca | March 14, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    Read your blog on Watertown. It was fantastic. I heard the albumn a number
    of years back which was played by Jonathan Schwartz who praised it at the
    time. As an old Sinatra fan from 1939
    through the 40′s, I love the fact that
    he is being remembered in the year 2013. Thank you Matt. With much love
    Uncle Lou

  6. Lou De Luca | March 14, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Read your piece in the Paris Review.
    It was fantastic. I heard the albumn
    a number of years ago which was played
    on the radio by Jonathan Schwartz. At
    that time he raved about it. As an old
    Sinatra fan form 1939 through the 40′s,
    it’s wonderful that in the year 2013, he is still being praised.
    with much love.
    Uncle Lou

  7. Kat Newman | March 14, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Matt, I am overwhelmed with pride after reading this review. Connection has become the favorite word in the English language for me in recent years, and this has just solidified it for me. You have so much of the love of music and words that comes from your family lineage, combined with all your fresh talent and perspective… I WILL listen to Watertown since it was grandma who introduced me to Frank Sinatra, love of words and theater and now YOU, her grandson has inspired me to listen to this album … tell me that isnt a connection!
    All my love,
    Aunt Kitty

  8. Marylou | March 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Beautifully written Matt, with wonderful sentiment and description. Thank you.

  9. Irene | March 15, 2013 at 7:56 am

    But really: “significant other?”

  10. ivoryhobo | March 15, 2013 at 9:15 am

    I agree that the notion of likening an album to literature is overdone in music reviews, but it’s an appealing thing when those qualities actually do come across in an album, and I’m excited to check out Watertown in this regard. I would submit that Springsteen’s Nebraska and The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas also achieve this effect—at least to this listener. Anyway, thanks for the tip!

  11. Michael | March 15, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    You’re 100% right, Matt. I listened to WATERTOWN over & over again, many years ago; always wondering why it wasn’t recognized as a great “concept album” and much more. The whole narrative is compelling (much like your essay), and it is most definitely a novel in the form of an album. Great stuff!

  12. IA | March 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    This is a wonderfully evocative piece–the highest compliment I can give is that it makes me want to rush out and buy a copy of “Watertown” right now.

    But I think a sentence like “The Beatles and Bob Dylan will forever be relevant” is awfully cocksure. Great as they are, The Beatles and Dylan will remain tied to the 60s, and “One For My Baby” is every bit as relevant to current, everyday life as “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

    Very few people in the 1940s and early 1950s thought that a new form of music would come along and sweep most of what came before it into history. Who knows what will come down the line a few decades from now?

  13. John Brown | March 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I was so moved by Watertown, first in 1970 when it was released and right up to today, so moved, I created an entire website just to study it. http://www.watertownology.com. Reading this new review, which is exquisitely written, makes me feel my work is not in vain. Discover more about Watertown at the site, but above all, enjoy the album when you have some quiet time.

  14. growler | March 20, 2013 at 2:42 am

    I call BS. I am in my mid 40s, and I love Frank’s music. The night he died I went to an Italian restaurant and sat at the bar and chatted up the bartender, and he told me about the days when Frank came in, and he told me his feelings on Frank. Granted, I came to his music in my 30s, and had nothing to think about his music before then, but grew to realize his genius. And I know many others around my age who feel the same.

    That said, you are right about WATERTOWN. Very nice post about a criminally underknown album.

  15. Sam Torode | March 24, 2013 at 10:25 am

    My theory is that the music you’re listening to when you hit puberty gets seared into your soul for life. For me, that was Sinatra (though I’m 36.) His was the first music I really loved as a teenager, and the first big concert I attended was Sinatra (in 1994, his final year of touring)– and he is still absolutely relevant to my life today, more than ever. Bob Dylan and the Beatles mean absolutely nothing to me (except for the two Beatles songs covered by Sinatra– “Something” and “Yesterday”).

    Very much enjoyed this article. Unfortunately, I think Watertown suffered from poor production quality–Frank overdubbed his vocals to pre-recorded backing tracks, unlike his greatest albums which were recorded live with the band. And his voice underwent a harsh decline in 1969, which pushed him into a brief retirement. Compare his voice in the 1969 recordings with, say, “September of My Years” or “Moonlight Sinatra” just a few years earlier. Heck, the Voice sounds much better on 1979s “Trilogy” than it did in 1969.

    Watertown does improve on each listen, and the lyrics have grown on me. I LOVE “Elizabeth.” So for me, it’s a near-miss masterpiece… perhaps with some reworked arrangements, and if it had been recored live with the band, it would have REALLY been something.

  16. Sam Torode | March 24, 2013 at 10:30 am

    PS– Watertownology (www.watertownology.com), mentioned above, is amazing. By far the best resource on this album. Thank you John Brown!

  17. George Karaoulis | March 25, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Excellent article. It proves that true value and beauty , may not be recognized the instant they are born, but in the end they will triumph over all mighty Time.

  18. Mike | May 8, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Hi,

    Yeah Watertown, what an album,such a rich, rewarding LP… Some people call it Sinatra’s Berlin. The more I think about it, the more I believe Berlin was Lou Reed’s own twisted ‘dysfunctional’ take on Watertown. What do you say?
    Of course Reed’s character is poor and hateful whereas Sinatra’s is meek and reasonably affluent. But then both men are pictures as helpless and desperate and, well, sinking.
    Both LPs tell of a doomed marriage and both have a song called Lady Day though in Sinatra’s case, Lady Day was left out of the original LP (‘too gloomy’)and came out as an edulcorated single a few weeks later -only with the CD re-issue did Lady Day got re-installed as Watertown’s epilogue.
    But then you can find way more connections between the two albums. Children cry in The Kids. Children sneer at their dad in Sinatra’s She Says. The opening notes of Caroline Says II are basically the ones in Sinatra’s Michael & Peter. And when Caroline complains Jim’s just a toy and that she wants a real man not a boy, it could just be Elizabeth adressing Sinatra’s character… In 1976, Sinatra’s recorded a version of Like a Sad Song. Call me naive or imaginative, but as much as Frankie loathed ‘druggie rock’, I’ve always wondered if Like a Sad Song was maybe a discreet nod to Reed’s Berlin…

  19. Brian | June 10, 2013 at 7:30 am

    This is my favorite Sinatra album. Finding your review of its under appreciated (and critically panned at the time) genius warmed my heart.

    In fact, the critical response to the album was what caused Sinatra to “retire” in 1970 (before unretiring 3 years later).

    Thanks so much.

  20. Keith Coleman | August 27, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I have just discovered Watertown, and maybe it actually reached out and found me in some timely, eerie fashion, coming out of the ether, as I drift into my late 40′s. Perhaps such major works of art sometimes just call on you when you’re ready for them?

  21. Paul M. Mock | September 2, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Very well done, Matt. As a longtime Sinatraphile, I can share with you that I bought this LP when it was released and I was at the tender age of 16 in the middle of the rock revolution. I can still recall the heartbreak I felt when Mr. S sang those final words:

    “The passengers for Allentown are gone the train is moving on,
    But I can’t see you any place and I know for sure I’d recognize your face.
    And I know for sure I’d recognize your face…”

    It brought tears to my eyes as a teenager and I still get teary-eyed when I play that record after a lifetime of listening to Mr. S and His music.

    When discussions are held regarding the finest Sinatra albums in the catalog, this album truly deserves it’s place among them.

  22. Dwain Zsadanyi | October 9, 2013 at 2:40 am

    One of the very albums I’ve had to buy twice; bought it new (in what 1970?, 71?) and when it was worn out, bought again. Thought I was the only person that had ever listened to it. Thank you for the beautiful review of a beautiful album.

  23. Eduardo | December 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Watertown and A Man Alone. Yes. The two GREAT albums. The two undarrated masterpieces…

  24. Pierre | February 5, 2014 at 9:29 am

    “Songs of Leonard Cohen” surely feels like literature as well. “Amour Anarchie” does too for most francophones who know Léo Ferré. And that’s off the top of my head, I’m sure there are many more. “In The Wee Small Hours” by Sinatra actually is in that category of records I reckon.

  25. Arthur | June 15, 2014 at 12:03 am

    I first listened to this album when I was young. – 12 or 13 – with my grandfather who was a big band drummer. To keep this comment short, I will only say that Sinatra and others criticized that he was not in the best of voice, but to carry the story of an Everyman and to sound “in voice” the album wouldn’t mean what it does. Imagine Frankie valli doing this (as originally intended). No one would even know it existed. Only franks voice that has lived and hurt could translate those lyrics properly

  26. kevin frost | July 5, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Great piece of writing. Must listen to the album again!

  27. Mike | July 10, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    I discovered Sinatra as a 14-year-old in 1989 and was lucky enough to see him live once on his “diamond jubilee” tour.

    Interestingly, none of the tracks from “Watertown” were included on the 4-disc “Reprise Collection” from 1990.

    I knew of the album, knew it was a concept album with very mixed reviews, but didn’t know it was considered a classic by many — and had not heard it until this week. Good stuff.

    I disagree that years from now the Beatles, Stones or Zepplin will be any more relevant than anything else from the era. Everything is a product of its time, and eventually, that time passes.

    But I know I will listen to Frank Sinatra as long as I am able.

  28. david maeda | July 16, 2014 at 8:49 am

    absolutely love this album… ‘I would be in love’ breaks my heart even after the hundredth time I’ve listened to it… your article captures the brilliance of the music very articulately…

  29. MHW | July 16, 2014 at 8:56 am

    Wonderful essay on the underrated album, Watertown. I never understood why some saw this as such a radical departure, but I did not discover Watertown until the early 90s. The concept is powerful and successful. While I believe Only the Lonely is Sinatra’s greatest record, Watertown is a must-hear for those seeking storytelling of a very high caliber.

    While there are several Dylan albums that “feel like literature on record,” I appreciate the keen insights on Watertown. Well done.

  30. Daniel | July 16, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    I very much appreciate the commentary, however I don’t see how anyone could not “feel” (whatever that means) a song like “The Way You Look Tonight”. In fact, I would argue that a considerable number of jazz standards are much better songs than many of the songs from the rock era. Those standards are actual pieces of composed music written by men who had studied the craft, not just teenagers who knew four chords on a guitar. This is not the case for the Beatles who wrote songs of startling complexity sometimes, but I think that centuries from now we will actually revere the songs of the jazz era much more highly than most rock songs. I am also twenty nine years old, for what it’s worth.

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