Whether recorded here, inspired here, or created by one of our native-born artists, The Great NJ Albums takes a fan’s perspective and reflects on some of the best and most unique records from our very own Garden State.
My maternal grandparents had a profound influence over my music-listening habits as a kid. Grandma loved Elvis Presley and set aside copies of GI Blues and Elvis’ Golden Records for me which I still enjoy. Grandpa was a little older and while he tolerated some early rock and roll, his own taste skewed toward the dinner-jacket crowd. He liked “The Blue Danube Waltz” and musical theater. He used to sit my sister and me in front of the television and put on Harry Belafonte tapes. And when he wanted to relax and perhaps loosen up his tie (which he wore all the time), Frank Sinatra came on. For perspective, I was eight years old when he died so he and I weren’t exactly drinking Manhattan’s in adjacent plastic-covered chairs. I was on the floor running his brown Florsheim’s over with my Hot Wheels and hiding Lego men in his pant cuffs. Occasionally my foot would bump the hi-fi and old Frankie would skip a word or two. Grandpa looked on adoringly, unmoved that I may have just ruined one of his LPs.
As I grew older, Sinatra maintained an incidental place in my life; something that happened as something more important was happening. That’s actually how I discovered Watertown. I was at Princeton Record Exchange shopping for music and one of the employees put it on in the store. I continued browsing until about two minutes into the fourth song, “Michael and Peter.” Of course, I knew it was Sinatra as there’s literally no mistaking that voice. But this song was different. Sure there was the requisite 25,000-piece orchestra, but there were drums. And electric guitar. And rock and roll hooks. This was not my grandfather’s Frank Sinatra. And as it turns out, Watertown wasn’t really anyone’s Frank Sinatra. But as I walked out of Princeton Record Exchange that afternoon with a new LP under my arm, I finally found my Frank Sinatra.
Born to Italian immigrant parents in Hoboken, NJ, Francis Albert Sinatra lived in tenement housing but was nicknamed “the best dressed kid in the neighborhood” as his midwife mother and bantamweight boxer father insisted he carry himself with confidence. They also owned a local tavern where a young Francis would sing along to the player piano for tips. He took a shine to the arts early on, enjoying classical music and idolizing Bing Crosby. Unless you count knowing the rudiments of ukulele (taught to him by his uncle), Sinatra never played an instrument. Still, teachers began to notice his preternatural gift for hearing notes and arranging melodies.
After a stint with Tommy Dorsey during the Big Band era, Sinatra found stardom as an academy award-winning actor (the timeless From Here to Eternity) and a member of the vaunted Rat Pack, an unofficial supergroup that also included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. He signed with Capitol records, releasing a string of big-selling, critically-acclaimed albums such as Come Fly With Me and In the Wee Small Hours. The 1950s were kind to Sinatra and he became one of the world’s biggest stars because of it. And to close out this momentous early run, Nice n Easy topped the charts…for 86 weeks. He maintained his commercial stronghold into the early 60s with a second run that included one Platinum, and six Gold-certified records! But popular tastes started changing and the people who grew up on The Chairman of the Board started having kids who were now old enough to buy records of their own. Whether it was the surf rock craze, the British Invasion, or protest music, the new sounds born in the 1960s began eating away at Frank Sinatra’s once-impenetrable chart dominance.
While the decade saw decreased sales and waning critical stock for Sinatra, a step back reveals a rewarding amount of very compelling music. 1967s “The World We Knew” with its electric 12-string bass lead is nearly psychedelic. And for my money, 1968’s Cycles is incredible, full of topical folk rock and a vital Sinatra singing his ass off like his career depended on it. Even 1969’s Shatner-esque spoken-word platter A Man Alone is at least interesting. Sinatra clearly still cares enough to try almost everything. And when he continued to flop one album after the next, The Chairman of the Board decided to try the only thing he absolutely loathed: rock and roll.
Following the failure of 1969’s Genuine Imitation Life Gazette by The Four Seasons, people weren’t exactly knocking down the door of the Bob Gaudio/Jake Holmes songwriting team. But Sinatra was from the old school and felt that Newark’s The Four Seasons bridged the gap between himself and the newest generation of music that had overtaken him so completely. Remember, Gazette was supposed to bring The Seasons back to relevancy after a commercial drop off in the late 60s. Now perhaps their fall was inevitable but Sinatra’s name still carried significant weight throughout the industry and with that, Gaudio and Holmes got to work.
The album kicks off with the plodding title track. Our main character, a separated husband pontificates about his beloved “old Watertown,” where “the only crime is killing time.” The song is adoring in its affection for small town life, “No one’s going anywhere / Living’s much too easy there.” But the sad irony reaches a peak when we hear the sound of a departing train as the song fades out.
We get more backstory on “Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” as Frank and his wife sit in a coffee shop “One still make-believing / One still telling lies.” She’s tired of the small-town life and wants out. Sinatra sings like it’s the last song he’ll ever record, his interpretation of the word “Goodbye,” echoing with true sincerity, as though he himself were sitting in that café getting rejected by someone with whom he thought he was spending the rest of his life.
“For a While” finds Sinatra distracting himself with neighborly small talk, around-the-house tasks and the general minutiae that he seemed so fond of just two songs ago, “With other lies to listen to / And some work I’ve got to do / I forget that I’m not over you / For a while.” But in loss, often it’s those tiny distractions that take us away from the larger-looming issues we’ll eventually need to face. Sinatra once again buries himself in the part, imbuing “For a While” with as sincere a performance as any in his vast and varied catalogue.
And now we get to my personal favorite on Watertown, “Michael & Peter.” Sinatra pens a letter to his estranged wife, seemingly now quite removed from the diner scene of “Goodbye.” Frank is raising the boys on his own with a little help from her mother. It’s at this point in the narrative that the singer starts penning letters of vulnerable confession to his wife. Two minutes in, Watertown puts on its Pet Sounds hat when 2-4 upstrokes, 12-string electric guitar, and bells get added to the mix. The distinct LA production style on “Michael & Peter” hits perfectly when Sinatra nails the line, “The sun will come up tomorrow,” offering up some optimism before closing out the letter, “Maybe soon the words will come my way / Tomorrow.” Lyricist Jake Holmes wrote this as a tribute to the relationship he felt co-writer Bob Gaudio had with his own children.
Sinatra opens “I Would Be in Love Anyway” with a vulnerable admission: “If I knew you that you would leave me / If I knew you wouldn’t stay / I would be in love / Anyway.” This is where things start to take a weird turn. Unlike its spiritual predecessor, Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, Watertown has websites, scholarly essays, and (perhaps inevitably) conspiracy theories around it. Even though Jake Holmes has been quoted as saying “He was the kind of guy who really lived in Watertown. She was more restless – a more contemporary woman…He was basically a good guy, but she wanted more. She abandoned her family and went for a career,” that doesn’t stop some from theorizing that the wife had died and Sinatra’s husband character is going through the various stages of grief across the album. The reason I bring this up is to perhaps help buttress the death theory. If you knew someone was going to leave you, why would you do things exactly the same? Wouldn’t you seek to change something within yourself; something that you feel might perhaps affect the outcome of the relationship in your favor? It’s an interesting thought that starts to reveal itself as Side One comes to a close.
Holmes admits having made up the name “Elizabeth” as he heard the piece of music Gaudio was composing. But finding out the wife’s name is a nice reveal to start Side Two and we find out more about the characters; they married young: “You were very new / Make believe was coming true / Elizabeth.” But reality hits, Elizabeth gets restless, Frank gets introspective, and Holmes drops the record’s most poetic stanza: “So a dream has to end / When it’s real, not pretend / Dressed in memories / You are what you used to be.”
“What a Funny Girl” channels Nick Drake’s wistful “Saturday Sun” from just a year earlier. While Gaudio and Holmes were both savvy and successful music biz vets, I think the similarities stop at pure coincidence. The song itself continues the letter-to-Elizabeth style Sinatra employs since “Michael and Peter” as he continues to justify getting involved in a failed relationship, admitting “You always looked a little out of place,” and expounding on her continual restlessness. But such stark honesty is met with affection for his ex-wife, and by the end of the song he admits “I never met a person more sincere / You’d always listen with an open ear.”
“What’s Now is Now” is nothing short of a desperate, open plea to Elizabeth. He wants the marriage back. He wants his family back to whatever semblance of “normal” he still thinks is possible. He’s aggrieved and telling her “I know you’re gonna find / Just one mistake / Is not enough to change my mind.” As a listener, I start to wonder what Elizabeth’s reaction to all this must be. She knows her husband is hurting badly, she left behind two young sons, and her mother is still at least somewhat involved in the lives of the people she left behind. But there’s no resolution.
And as we find ourselves pleading for something more than silence from Elizabeth, we seem to get it…I think. “She Says” gives us – depending on which theory you believe – a hint from the other side. Sinatra seems to be talking to his kids, conveying a message from their mother. “She says there’s lots to see / She says she hopes we’re fine.” Doubt is cast by a pair of children’s voices who rise through the mix singing, “So she says,” before Sinatra interrupts with the final line, “She says / She’s coming home.” This is the album’s penultimate song and by far its most haunting with little more than Frank’s voice and a lone acoustic guitar as the primary instrument.
“The Train” is downright optimistic – the opposite of the album opener – in its brisk, hopeful tone. Sinatra is teeming with excitement, listing off all the changes he’s made since Elizabeth left. He’s spent all this time reflecting on what he could have done to make the relationship mean more for both of them, promising to “Talk about the part of you I never understood.” But mid-song the sun gets blocked out by the clouds, its starts raining and Frank admits he never sent the letters. The rain continues to pick up as the train pulls into the station. “I swear I’d recognize your face.” That may be true, but Elizabeth isn’t on the train. She never came home.
What Makes It Great:
By 1970, Sinatra was grasping at straws, desperate to remain relevant. Unfortunately, Watertown didn’t reignite his career as he had wanted it to. It peaked at #105 on the Billboard charts and Frank Sinatra decided to retire. While he would return later in the decade with Ol Blue Eyes is Back, his career would never quite be the same. He’d only produce one album in the 80s, and a few robotic duet albums in the 90s, settling on life as a performer and being an ambassador-of-sorts for the Reagan era.
Over time, Watertown gained a critical foothold and a feverish cult audience which remains as enthusiastic as ever today. It caps off a three year run of uncharacteristically-experimental albums for Sinatra that prove his willingness to at least try to be versatile even if the trappings of production just can’t escape that golden croon. It’s as if whatever he tries, it’s going to sound a particular way just because Frank Sinatra is singing it. But this succeeds on Watertown.
Sinatra came of age during the Greatest Generation period of American history. And he was a tough-talker. What makes Watertown so great is it reveals the other side of the men of that period; the side that’s not so tough; not so afraid to admit they’ve been wrong and own up. Sinatra wallows in a type of vulnerability that’s very much at odds with the “men don’t cry” philosophy of the time. Even though he’s singing in character, Watertown remains his most personal album. Never again would he so completely let us in. And perhaps because pain and hurt and grief are timeless, Watertown now stands exactly where it belongs – as one of Frank Sinatra’s all-time greatest albums.
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