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It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Frank Sinatra meets the Manic Street Preachers. Sort Of

I remember Frankie. I remember where and when I read that Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Voice, the Chairman of the Board, had shuffled off to practice music and mayhem on a higher planet. This is the story of the day we lost probably the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century.

1998 wasn’t a very good year, for many reasons. At the end of 1997 I took up residence in a third floor flat opposite Golders Green station, at the invitation of a struggling writer and film maker. His name was Nick Hedges, author of the forthcoming official biography of the master of mime, Lindsay Kemp. Only I was out within the year, rather unceremoniously, as, among a plethora of unsavoury episodes (such as illegally subletting to me by pretending to be the owner of the property while – oh, heaven forbid – not even paying any rent himself the entire year – I discovered the phone lines were being tapped by certain red-topped newspapers. Nick revealed himself to be the scamster behind faked ‘secret’ videotapes that had emerged in 1996, purporting to show Diana, Princess of Wales frolicking with her lover and Prince Harry’s real ‘father’ James Hewitt.

They were actually lookalikes, but Hedges was paid handsomely by The Sun, who thought they had the scoop of the century. Now Rupert Murdoch was embarrassed, nay, incandescent. Not only did he demand the handsome fee The Sun had paid the “dodgy pervert” (copyright Daily Mirror) back, but he got Hedges’ book deal with HarperCollins cancelled, including the Kemp tome I’d attempted to badger Bowie into contributing to while he was undertaking the Outside tour. The silly fraudster hadn’t realised the owner of Harpers was the very same owner of The Sun, the News of the World et al. C’est la vie.

Friday 15 May 1998 was a surprisingly warm and sunny day in London, so Hedges was out for the day, thankfully. I rarely bought newspapers, so in the pre-internet days I’d news gather from the teletext service the main TV channels would provide through the trusty old television set. Around 9:30 am I switched on the ITV teletext but something told me to come back to it so I went for a shower without scanning the headlines.

When I came back into the lounge the news was there, in plain English: “Frank Sinatra dies aged 82, Press Association says.” There was no way of knowing how long the story had been up there but from the brevity of the piece I guessed it had only just broke.

‘Damn!’ I said to myself. I’d only just started to appreciate the incredibly long and impressive career of this most deceptively complex of men in the last few months. Having heard the likes of Judy Garland warbling out from Nick’s upper floor retreat I’d decided that 1998 was the year I was over pop, bored with Bowie, and wanted to broaden my listening tastes.  

I wasn’t gaga over Garland but I was particularly taken how warm but effortless Frankie’s famously distinctive voice sounded, all legato and raw regret. The fascinating thing about Sinatra is that while his legend touched on one set of values (virility, flash, a hint of gangsterism), his work was always characterized by the opposite: gravity, understatement, and a precise calibration of emotion.

Alas, Sinatra was, and remains, a controversial figure. What ought to be his unshakeable reputation as the subtlest, most sensitive and emotionally rewarding and wide-ranging of all American singers, will forever be tainted by his late, leisure-suited, swaggering period, as well as the Mafia badass tough-guy reputation that stuck to him (not entirely of his own conniving, but not entirely not either) since he famously fell out with President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

I picked myself up and spied the Sinatra CD I’d bought for my grandmother just the day before. I was supposed to take it over to her today. It was the very same one I’d bought for myself just weeks before – 1997’s My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra, a pretty perfect introduction to his work, even if the celebrated Capitol classics were in fact slightly more bombastic Reprise re-recordings.

The view from my living room window throughout 1998, except it wasn’t a centre for religious nutters back then

When a major news thing happens I often do this slightly strange thing of surveying life outside to see if anything looks different. Of course – the death of Diana excepted, where London was suddenly so eerily quiet you good hear a pin drop – nothing has changed. The only difference was that as I looked out of my living room window and down onto the street, I saw three slightly familiar looking figures huddled outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, a grade II listed music hall right next to the bus and tube station. At the time the venue was home to the BBC Concert Orchestra, though in the past illustrious names such as Queen, Roxy Music and Sinatra’s old fling Marlene Dietrich had performed there.

If I wasn’t mistaken, the slightly forlorn looking trio I was peering at from the safety of my lounge weren’t exactly unknown either. It was the Welsh rock band, those gangly ‘generation terrorists’ the Manic Street Preachers! Turns out they’re filming a documentary for the BBC.

Double damn! Like most people who’d previously ignored them, I bought the Manics’ 1996 album Everything Music Go mainly for that devastating orchestral power-pop anthem, A Design For Life – still of the best singles of the 1990s, I’d suggest – and my left arm is actually within reaching distance of it but right now I don’t want to go anywhere because I’m loathe to leave the flat because of the developing news about FS.

For the next few hours I have one eye on the television and the other on my living room window directly behind it. I switch between the TV news bulletins of BBC1, ITV and Channels 4 and 5 and it emerges that it was a heart attack that finished off Frankie, at the famous Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It was 10.50pm on the 14th of May, LA time, and he was 82, the same age as my grandfather died of the very same thing six years previously and the same age and issue that claimed Cary Grant, my favourite actor, six years before him. Spooky.

Boy George once said of David Bowie, his on-off idol whenever it suited him: “I think he’s had it really. He’s just there, like Harrods or Frank Sinatra.” And despite the fame-hungry bitchiness of the quote, you kind of knew what he meant. These were names so ubiquitous, so ingrained in our lives that it really didn’t matter if they still had anything new to offer, they were part of the fabric of society and everybody knew who they were. Now that’s what I call impact.

Cedars-Sinai on my first visit to Los Angeles, 2014

It wasn’t a day for soundbites but Bill Clinton, then US president, who was attending the G8 summit in Birmingham, England with his toothpaste buddy, Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave one anyway: “I think every American would smile and say he did it his way.” I groaned. Loudly.

With its doomy but inescapable opening line of “And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain”, 1969’s My Way was, of course, one of Sinatra’s signature songs, a perennial plodding platter released two months before I was born. Love it or hate it, My Way is a song that celebrates individuality in such a thuddingly generic, white-bread manner that any self-important fathead can take it on as a personal anthem.

My way is a song designed to appeal to monstrous egomaniacs like the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was reported to have listened to My Way stuck on repeat while he was sitting in a Dutch jail cell in The Hague awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, and just a few miles from where I was living at the time. It is a song that celebrates being a douchebag. His daughter Tina says the legendary singer came to resent My Way as a millstone round his neck. “He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”

“I’ve had my fill, my share of losing”, the narrator decries. According to Frank’s widow Barbara, his last words were “I’m losing it.” Perhaps Clinton had a point then. To Sinatra, life was a battle. And yes, if he didn’t get his way he could be a bit of a beast. With that often over-bearing sense of self, in some strange way he reminded me of Margaret Thatcher in a toupee. It’s funny old world.

Around 5pm I noticed some stirrings across the road. Equipment was being wheeled out, and before I knew it, I could see a Manic or two slowly making their way out. That was the cue for a to-do. I grabbed the CD and ran down the steep staircase to the ground floor faster than the speed of flight. I sped out  of the building like greased lighting and as luck would have it, the green man on the zebra crossing outside my next door neighbours said go. Someone must have pressed the button on the other side of the road.

I ran so fast that I almost collided into two men who were crossing the other way. I barely even clocked they were there, but some sixth sense made me look around, and I realised that this Stevie Gonzales had run straight past the very people I’d been keeping a beady eye on all day! Without a moment’s hesitation, I did a whirling dervish of a u-turn and ran back across the crossing as the lights turned to amber. The two, one tall and one short, were Nicky Wire and Sean Moore, the Manics bassist and drummer respectively. I apologised for almost knocking them over, and as I thrust the Everything Must Go disc in their direction, I realised two thirds of the Manic Street Preachers were signing their album right outside the doorway to my flat. How rum.

Nicky, the band’s sole lyricist since the disappearance of nutter cutter Richey Edwards, looked some kind of miserable, Moore a little more affable. “Where’s James?”, I enquired? “He’s still in there.” Great, thanks, bye. And with that, I grabbed the CD back and made my way back across the zebra crossing, slightly less supersonic than before. I got chatting to the venue security guard as I waited for James to come out. Sinatra’s name certainly came up, but he seemed less bothered than me. Funny that.

James Dean Bradfield, Manic Street Preachers singer and guitarist, finally appeared, two steps behind a blonde PR with an annoying but typical uni-media accent. She didn’t need to speak but felt she had to anyway: “Hi, you’re waiting for James?”, she asked rhetorically. “Here he is,” and she actually pointed to him, just in case I was unsure what he looked like. Silly cow.

Somewhat unconventionally handsome, James turned out to be by far the most amiable of the trio, though the fact that I hadn’t charged at him at 100 miles an hour probably helped a little. The artwork of Everything Must Go was designed by the Pet Shop Boys’ long serving graphic designer Mark Farrow, and featured a typically minimalist design that could have easily passed for PSB product. The interiors featured a series of isolated body parts – hands, eyes, arms, you name it – arranged to look like rows of canvases on a powder blue wall. 

JDB’s nipple, no scribble

“Where do you want me to sign, mate?” asked the diminutive Welshman. 

“How about over a bit of your body?”, I replied as I flicked through the insert. “Here, is this your nipple?”

I showed him a page that featured the hairiest of the three nipples on display and he took a look and proceeded to burst out laughing.

“Yes,, I think it is! Give me your pen then!”

With that the frontman of the Manic Street Preachers autographed his own nipple across the road from where I lived on the day Frank Sinatra died. You really couldn’t make it up.

James was still beaming as he handed me back my bits. “Thanks for the laugh mate. What’s your name?” and shook my hand as he waited for the reply.

“Thanks Steve. All the best, mate!” 

He was still smiling as he walked over the very same zebra crossing I could have quite easily come a cropper on. It’s been a funny old life. I wish I still had that CD, mind.

Steve Pafford

Part two of this feature, The Best Is Yet To Come?, is here

Desert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California, 2016


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