My Way

Simone_MyWayA brilliance similar to her version of ‘Suzanne‘ can be found in Simone’s reading of ‘My Way’, a song associated with Frank Sinatra. It is worth noting Simone’s and Sinatra’s mutual admiration for each other’s work and the small but significant group of songs that both recorded. Interestingly, each has recorded what might be considered the key signature song of the other. Simone is still widely remembered – outside of her more dedicated fanbase – for ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that she first recorded in the late 1950s and which has been a notable hit in at least three different eras. Sinatra included a version of the song on his 1969 album Strangers in the Night. ‘My Way’ became Sinatra’s signature song in the later stages of his career and a version by Simone was released in 1971. Other shared repertoire includes Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, recorded in French by Simone and in Rod McKuen’s translation as ‘If You Go Away’ by Sinatra. A special group of songs written especially for Sinatra  – ‘For A While’, ‘The Single Man’, ‘Lonesome Cities’, ‘Love’s Been Good To Me’ featured prominently in the later stages of Simone’s career.

Francois‘My Way’ originated as a French chanson entitled ‘Comme d’habitude’ (‘As Usual’). It was first recorded by Claude François, a popular French singer who co-wrote the song with Gilles Thibaut and Jacques Revaux and included it on his self-titled album (1967). Paul Anka “translated” the lyric into English specifically for Sinatra, changing the main sense of the song’s lyrics and its overall message but retaining the melody. Despite numerous other versions, the song became indelibly associated with Sinatra during the 1970s following his return from “retirement”. In a concert recorded for the 1974 album The Main Event, he introduces the song by saying, “We will now do the national anthem but you needn’t rise”. The song is mentioned a number of times in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song is You. Early in the book he writes:

No popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra … The results come through especially clearly in an overtly autobiographical text like ‘My Way.’ Sung by any other interpreter, including the teenage idol Paul Anka (who translated it from the original French), that 1969 hit would sound like an obnoxious joke. In fact it’s a deliberate gag in the messy mitts of Sid Vicious and an unintentional one in the trembling tremolos of Elvis Presley, both of whom recorded it.

Readers of Friedwald’s book will quickly realise that the author has very little time for contemporary (post rock ‘n’ roll) popular music, aligning him, to a certain extent, with Sinatra himself, who made a number of disparaging comments in his time about rock, despite recording a number of rock songs. It may be that Friedwald needs to denigrate other song forms, singers and even nations so that he can build up Sinatra’s role in author(iz)ing the song:

Musically, it’s an underwhelming composition that contains nearly five identical stanzas, each consisting of a string of very monotonous four-note phrases … Yet the way [Sinatra] transforms this unpromising source material takes him beyond alchemy and into the realm of sheer magic. Musically, it has no more content than most rock and roll, yet Sinatra pumps it up with the grandeur of an operatic aria, a five-minute exercise in self-indulgence that starts quietly, even intimately, and ends enormously.

This is a reasonably convincing account of the song but it rather ignores a number of salient points. Firstly, Friedwald considers this a “translation” of the original French song. However, while the melody has been kept, Anka’s words are new ones. To be fair to Friedwald, he does seem to be more interested in the melody and what Sinatra does with it but, as is clear in his references to the “autobiographical” nature of the song, he also realises that the words play a crucial role: this really is Sinatra looking back on his life, a message from him to us. Given the centrality of the words, it seems clear that we cannot make a comparison to the French version without taking account of what the latter is saying. It is a song about routine, about mundanity, in which every negative thing repeats itself “as usual”. This is a radically different message to that of ‘My Way’, a song about escaping the usual and being an individual. Furthermore, there is the issue of agency. ‘Comme d’habitude’ presents us with a narrator completely at the mercy of fate and the will of the other, while ‘My Way’ provides a battler against fate’s whims, someone whom fate has made stronger and who is able to “stand tall” and face society. In this sense, ‘Comme d’habitude’ can be connected to the chanson tradition and to other fatalistic song forms such as fado and country.

FrankSinatraA comparison of the songs leads us to the representation of mastery and submission. While the narrator of ‘Comme d’habitude’ “plays at pretending” and submits to the domination of the other (“I will wait for you”, he sings), the narrator of ‘My Way’ dominates, looking down on the kind of man “who kneels”. Gender is crucial here. “What is a man?” Sinatra asks. Clearly one who can claim all the acts and the agency that ‘My Way’ boasts, one who can master himself, others and fate itself. For Friedwald, this mastery extends to Sinatra himself, the only man who can take such paltry (feminine?) material and conjure “sheer magic” from it with his massive voice phallus, shatter its “intimacy” with his “enormity”. François, meanwhile, is left whining and weeping into his coffee, not man enough to take control of his life or his woman. We do not know from Friedwald’s account whether he is familiar with the French lyrics but it does not  require too much speculation, given what he does say about “French songs” and “kiddie-pop”, to interpret his account of ‘My Way’ as a masculine response to a feminine problem.

The droning rhythm and repetition of the melody – which Friedwald finds typical of “French songs” – seems entirely suited to the lyrical preoccupations of ‘Comme d’habitude’, and François’s version highlights this by introducing difference at the climax of the song, perhaps signifying anger finally boiling over, an escape from submission, a warning note, the hint of violence (perhaps, in this light, Sinatra merely finishes what François has initiated). What Friedwald does not ask is why Paul Anka kept the melody of the French song and lost the words. Is it possible that Anka wished to transfer the “monotony” of the melody to his account of the winner who rises above the mundane, setting in motion a dialectic between word and melody? In this sense, the song can be read as an escape from d’habitude and the habitus from which it draws its sense of itself and its self-difference: in other words, it comes to be about creativity.

This is the manner in which Nina Simone approaches ‘My Way’, the closing track of Here Comes the Sun.  Her version allows us to play Friedwald at his own game, as Mike Butler seems to do when he offers the following summary of the performance:

Is this the definitive My Way? Nina Simone, an individualist if ever there was one, is free from the self-deception that disqualifies most of the field. Which leaves Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. The present version generates excitement from the off: bongos double the tempo as Nina takes her first note; strings swell in rising excitement; harpsichord and harp rip along, adding period charm. Nina is exultant as she swoops and dives over the hypnotic Latin beat. Frank sounds doleful in comparison, as if he can’t wait for the final curtain, and Sid is just plain silly. There’s no competition, really. (Liner notes to Here Comes the Sun CD)

A number of questions immediately arise from this. What does it mean to give a definitive version? What does it mean to say that someone really gets to what the song was about? How might this differ with songs thought of as songs (the products of songwriters) rather than as original performances? In pop, the songwriter and the original performer are sometimes the same: in rock, almost invariably. To say someone has found something fundamental in the song as song is to say they gave a proper interpretation to the piece; to say someone gets to the fundamental in a song that was already a supposedly definitive performance seems less straightforward. This does not, of course, stop music fans – including critics and other musicians – from doing so.

Mike Butler’s question as to whether Nina Simone’s version of ‘My Way’ is the definitive one might seem absurd unless viewed through the fantasy of authenticity. How can a song about doing it my way have a definitive version? And is a “definitive” version the same as an “authoritative” version? These are different words with different meanings and yet they are often used synonymously in qualitative accounts of culture. While a dictionary may list many definitions of a word, we are unlikely to hear someone say that a version of a song is a definitive version (among others); it is invariably the definitive version, making it synonymous with the authoritative version. But isn’t ‘My Way’ precisely about not taking part in something that can be defined, essentialized or authorized? Isn’t it, rather, about individualism and individual perspective? Does ‘My Way’ actually gesture towards a nascent identity politics? We certainly witness such a possibility in the versions by Nina Simone and Sid Vicious. They sing it their way and their way is entirely fitting for them. Only the illusion created by the fantasy of authenticity allows one of them to be definitive. We are talking, then, of an ideological battle for authenticity, authorship and authority rather than a cool judgement on aesthetics and style. And while this may seem to lead us into the quagmire of relativism, the fantasy of authentication tends to stop us long before we sink too far, allowing us, perhaps, to declare a “victor”.

The conversation Nina Simone has with ‘My Way’ is, as Butler intimates, a fascinating one, with the artist in complete control of her material. In addition to the features Butler mentions – harp, harpsichord, “Latin” beat – it is hard not to be surprised by the transition from one stanza to the next. Where Sinatra’s version had finished each section on a decisive note, Simone’s immediately completes the final line (each “my way”) with twelve quick keyboard stabs which work both to emphasize the line and to give a sense of climax to each verse. As a sense of ambiguity descends – will the song end here? – Simone’s right hand picks a bright ascending figure out of each “final” chord and leads us into the next verse. Each verse brings more with it musically – extra percussion, electric bass, strings – leading to a situation where, at each demise and resurrection, there is an overwhelming sense of excess. Indeed, for a song already so steeped in excess in Sinatra’s versions – especially his live performances – it seems as if Simone is trying to deliberately exceed The Voice himself.

Simone makes few changes to the lyric – “shy way” becomes “sly way”, “friend” is changed to “friends”, “spit” corrected to “spat” – and none to the sequence of the song. This is in marked contrast to her version of Dylan’s ‘Just like a Woman’ from the same album, where she places a chorus before the first verse, misses one whole verse out and, crucially, plays around with the problematic personal pronouns of the song. She does, however, add melisma and occasional interjections to the words, giving a sense of control over the material and the groove of the song (a groove her version invents, of course: who could have thought of this as a groovy song before? Certainly not “monotonous” Claude François, nor Sinatra/Friedwald). At the start of the second verse a stretched “ye-es” (0:46-0:47) provides a vocal accompaniment to the keyboard’s lead-in, providing both musical and linguistic transition (“yes, regrets…”: of course I’ve had them but that’s not what’s important now). At the very end of the last verse, the point where Sinatra’s version would be building to its climax (“The record shows/I took the blows/And did it/My/Way”), Simone adds melisma to the final “way”, stretching it to four syllables, then lets it fade into the rising strings which now take over from the vocal – there is no repetition (reassertion) of the final line. We are only 3:26 into the song when Simone’s vocal dies away. But she and the other musicians are not finished; fully aware she has set up an irresistible groove (Butler says “hypnotic”: “infectious” seems nearer the mark ), she lets the orchestra ride the song out for another minute and a half. Strings soar, swoop, hover, dive; a cymbal taps out a jazzy rhythm to add to the melange; Simone indulges herself on the piano as if she has deserved it; the strings grow in crescendo; “soulful” backing vocals join in; and it all fades out far too soon. It is a spectacular way to close an album and it seems no coincidence that it is placed at the end of Here Comes the Sun, just as Sinatra would come to place the song at the climax of his live shows. Indeed, one could argue that Simone has discovered and disseminated the evental possibilities of ‘My Way’ long before we get to hear them on The Main Event. What is the “main event” referred to in the title of that album? Is it to Frank Sinatra as the headline act? In which case, is his finale of ‘My Way’ the main event of this main event? If so, it seems that Nina Simone has beaten him at his own game.

2 Responses to “My Way”

  1. […] [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6] [7] [8] […]

  2. Please keep posting! This blog is brilliant.

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