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At the end of the 1969 satirical comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the titular married couplesone laid-back and one uptightvacation in Las Vegas. In a burst of Swinging ’60s liberation, the quartet impulsively decides to have a sexual foursome. As they strip down and head for the bedroom, Ted brightly announces, “First we’ll have an orgy, and then we’ll go see Tony Bennett.”
Screenwriters Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker didn’t pick Bennett’s name out of a hat. Had they wished to establish their protagonists’ hipness, they could have chosen Frank Sinatra; alternatively, they could have used Liberace to suggest tacky squareness. In selecting Bennett, the screenwriters pinpointed their characters’ common-sense bourgeois conservatism. (“I love, I love, I love, I love Tony Bennett,” tipsy Alice swoons. “You know why? He just sings.”) After several embarrassing minutes, the couples abandon the orgy, preferring the predictable pleasures of Bennett’s crooning to the terra incognita of group coitus.
After nearly five decades of hit records and sold-out performances, Bennett remains one of the few American pop icons that hasn’t tarnished or vanished. He just keeps rolling alongcheerful, unassuming, polite, warm-hearted, and, in non-singing public utterances, paralyzingly banal. During his talk-show appearances, you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re still alive. Recently, while promoting his autobiography, The Good Life, Bennett was asked for his opinion about Madonna. He observed that she will always remain a star because she continuously reinvents herself. Ouch.
That’s the Bennett the general public knows and embracesthe unpretentious, humble, romantic, Tonight Show, tomato-sauce, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” balladeer. But there’s another, more interesting and complex Bennett lurking behind the nice guy façade: a passionate aficionado and champion of jazz artists; a dedicated, technically accomplished painter; a recovering drug abuser; and a lifelong crusader against bigotry. The two Bennetts battle for dominance in The Good Life, and, predictably, the Public Tony prevails. Yet enough of his alter ego comes through to make one anticipate a future unauthorized biography that will limn the full dimensions of its subject.
The Good Life’s opening chapters display Public Tony at his most stupefyingly bromidic. Following a dedication to his mom, he presents a chronicle of the Benedetto family’s migration from Calabria, Italy, to the United States that leaves no Ellis Island cliché unutilized. There’s a description of Manhattan’s Little Italy circa 1906”women with their hair pulled back in a bun, wearing long dresses and brightly colored shawls and clutching woven baskets as they tested the street vendors’ fruit and vegetables for that day’s meal”that the author, born 20 years later, could not possibly have witnessed. (The image is uncredited, but its likely source is The Godfather, Part II.) There are unrequired definitions of such terms as “railroad flat” and “wop,” recycled chunks of wheezy pop culture (Mayor La Guardia’s radio readings of comic strips during a Manhattan newspaper strike), and Benedetto history expressed in the most hackneyed terms (of his father’s death at 41: “My eyes welled up with tears and I wept”; of his saintly sister Mary: “a beautiful, wonderful woman whose whole life has been devoted to family”).
Most tiresome of all are the author’s instructive moral tales, such as the incident when his carelessness with matches resulted in a visit from the fire department (“Boy, did I learn my lesson! I got a whipping I’ll never forget”) and his inspirational gems (“When you’re first starting out, you do a lot of things wrong, but that’s how you learn. If you want to succeed, you’ll need a lot of courage and a lot of faith, but eventually it will happen”).
Then Bennett describes being drafted at 18 in 1944 and sent as a minimally trained replacement soldier to the German front line. Private Tony’s rage at the Army’s institutionalized bigotryhe was busted from corporal to private for inviting a black soldier to join him for Thanksgiving dinnerand his militant pacifism (“I don’t care what anybody says: no human being should have to go to war, especially an eighteen-year-old boy”) are expressed with an urgency and attention to detail hitherto absent from the book.
The same uncompromising spirit prevails when he returns home and launches his professional career. Taking a cue from his tireless seamstress mother, who proudly asserted, “I only work on quality dresses,” Bennett battled schlockmeister Columbia producer Mitch Miller to record quality music. The singer acknowledges Miller’s commercial savvy”I absolutely hated ‘Rags To Riches’ the first time I heard it in 1953. They really had to tie me down on that one”but nevertheless says he resisted performing second-rate material. He had even more trouble with Miller’s successor Clive Davis who strong-armed him into recording 1970’s Tony Sings the Great Hits of Today, which included “Little Green Apples,” “MacArthur Park,” and other deathless tunes (“I became so nauseous before the first recording session that I literally threw up”) .
However, Bennett stuck to his guns and won as many artistic clashes as he lost. Cloud 7 (1955), his first LP apart from a collection of hit singles, was an ambitious, jazz-tinged project featuring saxophonist Al Cohn and guitarist Chuck Wayne. Three albums later, despite Miller’s forebodings, Bennett cut his classic The Beat of My Heart with a battery of stellar percussionists, including Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, and Candido. (Last year’s CD reissue unearthed six previously unreleased tracks from these sessions, including several that, even today, border on the avant-garde.)
As he recalls the ups and downs of his career, Bennett devotes equal space to artists he admired and befriended. Predictably, these include Sinatra, Garland, Basie, and Ellington, about whom he shares tame but affectionate anecdotes. What’s more surprising and endearing is the deference he pays to obscure but equally gifted musiciansthe blind singer-accordionist Joe Mooney, the recently deceased singer-pianist-songwriter Charles DeForest, and saxophonists Cohn and Zoot Sims, of whom he writes “to me, they’re the most intelligent, romantic people in the whole world.”
Bennett is less forthcoming about his personal life. Two marriages fall apart with little explanation of what went wrong. His participation in Martin Luther King’s 1965 March on Selma is also glossed over, meriting little more than a page. He admits to cocaine useand being shaken by the drug-related death of jazz pianist Bill Evans, with whom Bennett made two exquisite duo albums in the mid-’70s. (Several years later, the singer’s drug habit had so damaged his vocal equipment that he was forced to talk his way through a dire Smithsonian concert I attended.) His reliance on drugs intensified following his mother’s death in 1977, but what steps he took, if any, to address his addiction are never detailed. A near-death vision in a hot bathtub appears to have turned him around.
Public Tony returns to dominate the book’s final pages, an uncharacteristically self-congratulatory litany of triumphs and awards racked up in the decade since his elder son Danny took over managing his dad’s career. The plaudits come nonstopGrammys for Perfectly Frank (a Sinatra tribute), and Here’s to the Ladies (songs made famous by female singers), the conquest of Gen X with performances at rock concerts and on MTV Unplugged (which, in CD form, was named 1994 Grammy Album of the Year), Rizzoli’s publication of a folio of Bennett’s paintings, and dinner with the Clintons at the White Housean event blighted by a ruptured hernia (the sole instance where the author offers too much, rather than too little, information).
At 72, Bennett catalogues such kudos “as a positive example of what can be achieved by someone who sticks to his guns, who doesn’t give into the naysayers.” But, sad to naysay, his recent recordings are more commercially calculated and artistically less ambitious than his earlier work. The tributes to Sinatra, Fred Astaire (Steppin’ Out), and Billie Holiday (Tony Bennett on Holiday, on which he sings a ghoulish duet with Lady Day) hitch rides on the coattails of other artists, and the MTV Unplugged album consists of perfunctory run-throughs of threadbare standards backed by Ralph Sharon’s cocktail piano trio with gratuitous guest spots by k.d. lang and Elvis Costello. Perhaps such contrived projects are necessary for a septuagenarian singer to survive in the ’90s, but Bennett’s rapture at being chatted up by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and applauded by the Cowboy Junkies is a bit hard to square with his protestations of undying commitment to musical excellence (“[T]hese were rock musicians, and they were showing me their respect. That really got to me”). The days when Bennett devoted his energies to discovering quality songwriters and showcasing virtuoso musicians and arrangers have pretty well passed.
Even by the minimal standards of celebrity biographies, The Good Life is largely a snoozer. Bennett’s collaborator, Will Friedwald, whose books about jazz singers and Sinatra’s recordings are littered with lame jokes and careless errors, appears to have been restricted to transcribing, editing, and structuring interviews with his subject. (There are no Friedwald japes, but a few of his signature touches remain: Charles DeForest’s and singer Chris Connor’s names are misspelled, and Alec Wilder’s haunting waltz is titled “While We’re Young,” not “While We Are Young.”) One of the book’s three glossy gatherings of photographs features color reproductions of Bennett’s paintings. Although his work lacks originalityhe makes no effort to disguise the influences of Seurat, Hockney, Cezanne, and MonetBennett’s voluptuous palette and apprehension of beauty echo the poetry of his finest recordings.
The Playground, Bennett’s latest CD, encouragingly suggests that nonconformist Private Tony has not been entirely consumed by his public other. At first glance, this children’s album appears to be pure commercialismobvious tunes such as “Bein’ Green” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” and duets with Elmo, Kermit the Frog, and that tone-deaf ass-kissing horror Rosie O’Donnell. But look a little closer and you’ll see that the quietly subversive hipster is still at work, slipping in golden-era standards (“Swinging on a Star,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”); esoteric cabaret favorites (“Because We’re Kids,” “Inch Worm”); tasty solos by guitarist Gray Sargent and Washington area bassist Paul Langosch; and compositions by jazz giants Bill Evans (the title song), and Oscar Brown Jr. and Bobby Timmons (“Dat Dere”). Last week, when I dropped in on friends and overheard their 4-year-old daughter bebopping, “Daddy can I have dat big elephant over dere?” in the bathtub, I felt a pang of love, love, love, love for the ageless, unreconstructed songster. CP