Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Extract from "Radio Man"

Its SRO tonight : every table's taken. Latecomers are standing at the back and in the aisles. Uptown meets downtown in the ringside seats. Hoodlums, hustlers, hucksters and hoods hangin' with teenage thugbrats acting like clowns in daddy's hand me downs. Wanna be wise guys hangin' mean with a pale facsimile of a gangsta lean. Diggin' the scene like a photo shoot for a lifestyle magazine. The band's getting ready to go to work.

Warm-up man Sammy T's up on stage applying a little heat to the crowd right now. Sturdy frame, easy laugh, Sam used to open for Tony Bennett on Broadway but now he's Frank's right hand man. He's still got that Big Apple bite though, walkin' the walk, talkin' that street talk:

Nice to see so many Chicago cats on vacation gathered round our little watering hole down here in the desert. Who you got mindin' the shop boys? Or did you just leave the keys with the next door neighbour? Did I say vacation? Who am I kiddin? These Windy City boys are always workin'. They've always got an angle. Must think there's moolah in these sand dunes. Sorry to break it to you boys but they're ain't nothin down here but us camels. Still what do I know? I grew up riding the subway, running with people, up in Harlem, down on Broadway. They used to call me the heart and soul of New York City. Now I'm surfin' on that Reno vibe. I'm in a Nevada State of mind.

Sam's inviting Frank up on stage. The crowd are on their feet.

And now, ladies and gentlemen please welcome to the stage "Mr. Variety" himself, Fraaaank Sinaaatraa.

Anticipation courses through the auditorium.

Flash forward a few years and Basie's workin' the room into a frenzy at The Sands and the band's just struck up Sinatra's signature tune but, for now, a band of session musos and a crowd of wannabe wiseguys will work just fine.

Frank knows the value of this moment. He teases the crowd for a delicious minute, maybe more. Makin' like he's not gonna bother to show up on stage tonight. He knows they're gonna shoot their load when they see that curtain ripple so he decides to hold them right there on the edge for a while. That place where expectation of imminent gratification merges slowly but seamlessly into panic . He lights up a Lucky backstage and slowly inhales the heady mixture of nicotine and hysteria. This audience ain't goin' nowhere, the band's locked tight into an imperial overture. It's his room and he calls the shots.

The first time Frank got up there, under these lights, in front of a crowd, he froze. He sprayed a few one-liners around the room quickfire, finished with a couple of verses of Fly Me To The Moon and got the f*** outta there. He sure as hell wasn't going to stick around to examine the wreckage. Now it's easy.

At last he strolls up on stage and the applause is all over him like Vesuvius over Pompeii. A sly smile, a conspiratorial wink, a slow, cool drag on the cancer stick and he's off.

Frank takes aim and fires:

I guess you folks didn't bargain on a profound thinker but here he comes, movin' to the beat, speakin' in tongues. We're talkin' crease-resistant human art, buddy. Tainted and forever breathing.

The snare drum cracks and echoes like a bullet flying around an oil drum, merging into the epileptic artillery fire of a few hundred hands clapping. He's already got them eating out of the palm of his hand like monkees at the zoo. He throws them another couple of peanuts:

My sweetheart don't care much for postmodernism. She's got love on her mind. My baby likes to get physical all the time. I tell ya doc, it's livin' hell being married to a woman with no capacity for abstract thought.

A faint tickle of ivory, a sharp rim shot and a casual segue from philosophical to political. Patriotic and topical, he's got all the bases covered but he can't stop hittin' home runs:

They're rapping for Jesus now. Straight outta Utah. Preachas with Attitude. Educated brothers with sharp suits. From the moral precipice they're here to stop you fallin'. Kickin' knowledge for dollar bills is their callin'. So give it up smooth. A few more dead presidents and they'll break into a dance groove. Spreadin' the Word sure turned out to be a good career move.

Frank's workin' these suckers like a hooker works a lovesick john. He teases them, insults them, leads them on a little but never lets them get too close, never shows them too much. When it's over he'll wish them goodnight and count the money. He knows they'll be back next week for more. Frank's strictly business.

Hey Frank, give us a song!, one of the johns cries with delight.

What's your hurry, Joe? Your girlfriend got school in the morning?

But Frank's just teasing and he's gonna get there soon enough. And when, at last, he sings, the sultan of swing starts nice and soft like a shy sophomore's kiss. Soon he'll step up the intensity but for now he shows a gossamer touch and the room is hushed. Frank's gently vibrating vocal chords barely disturb the air. Sweet sound couriered on butterfly wings direct to your table.

But inexplicably the parcels of delight are delayed in transit and for a wonderful, mysteriously elongated moment we're in a silent movie. Extras frozen in position. Redundant, eviscerated. Awaiting the rejuvenating alchemy of the soundwave. Cigarette smoke spiralling hypnotically around the slash of light exposing Frank. Frank prowling the stage like a panther, all stealth and preternaturally silent. Pure control with an edge of black cat. He's almost primeval but they like him like that

Someone flips on the sound and the room comes to life. Frank's voice tender like two-day lobster-red Rio sunburn :

Some folks like to get away, Take a holiday from the neighbourhood, Catch a flight to Miami Beach or to Hollywood, But I'm hopping a jumbo jet, The very first one I can find, I'm in a Nevada state of mind.

And then Frank walks right off stage like he's not coming back.

Ewan McNaught

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