Thursday, January 19, 2012

Baby, baby, don'cha go away mad

We’ve all had it happen to us. You walk into an Italian restaurant, somewhere in America, and the place is bustling. Waiters are carrying trays of steaks, pasta, chops. Bartenders are mixing up classic drinks. Women have their bright red lipstick on. And resounding from the ceiling, good old blue eyes is crooning. You think, “now we're in for a good time, Sinatra is in the house.”

Music doesn't seem that crucial to the success of restaurants in Italy. It’s a place to eat, to talk to friends, hear one another, even. But it’s not a scene you see that often in Italy, using music to recast nostalgia as cutting edge.

But in America, restaurateurs have grown accustomed to setting up an atmosphere, making it all dreamy and stuff. And who better to co-opt than a famous Italian-American icon from the 20th century?

Look, I have no ax to grind with Frank. Much of his music was lovely; his voice was one in a million. The songs are energetic and snappy; I understand why operators like to play his music in their establishments. After the 456th time of listening to “My Way” or “New York, New York” or “That’s Life”, I’d just like to propose that we give Frank, at least some of his songs, a rest. But I know that probably isn’t going to happen.

It seems having Sinatra in charge of the ambiance has turned into code for many things. “I want the place to be cool and edgy.” “This is the kind of place people will come to because it reminds them of better times.” Or, “I’ve run out of ideas, just slap Sinatra on the CD.”

My mom tells me a story, about when she and my dad were in a nightclub in Palm Springs, my old hometown. She asked the waiter if the band would play the love theme from the Godfather. In Hollywood it was called, “Speak Softly Love.” In Sicily it's “Brucia la Terra.” (Yeah, Hollywood wins).

So the waiter comes back to my mom and tells here the band cannot play the song she requested. My mom, in her indefatigable way, replies with something like “It’s only the most popular song in the world, don’t they know how to play it?” The waiter tells her that of course they know how to play it, it’s just that they cannot play it right now. “Why in the world not?” my mom shoots back. It seems a certain Italian-American gentleman is in the club, one with blue eyes, and the band has been instructed not to play any of those kind of songs when he is in the house. I was not there, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if my mom didn’t try and go over to Sinatra’s table to work him over. She’s not afraid of anybody. My dad probably talked her out of it, wisely.

All this to say there’s a time and a place for everything. But in today’s world, nostalgia, like garlic, can be over used. And Sinatra and his music have been so utilized, propping up pasta and all kinds of alleged Italian dishes.

What would be really hip and cool would be if folks started playing some of Sinatra’s lesser-known music. It would be like finding Aglianico in abandoned fields, or gold bracelets in Etruscan caves. Something like “Don'cha Go 'way Mad,” “Tangerine,” or maybe “I will drink the wine.

Are we beginning to see the light?

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