The Dominion of Canada celebrates its 155th birthday this coming week. I expect it will be the usual damp squib of aboriginal land acknowledgments punctuated by the occasional statue-toppling that it has degenerated into under Jolson Trudeau, the totalitarian mammy singer. Nevertheless, I thought we'd have a Canadian song, mainly because someone asked me about this one on "Stump the Steyn" at GB News last week - and I was just talking with Joe Piscopo on Sundays with Sinatra. So to round out the day we salute an Ottawa boy so Canadian that Sinatra affectionately called him "the little Arab":
We owe "My Way" to a Frenchman born in Egypt whose parents were forced to flee when Nasser seized the Suez Canal, plus a Syrian-Lebanese family whose patriarch took it upon himself to hang an unpunished child rapist and then emigrated to Canada where the immigration official mistook the anecdote for the family name and registered them now and forever as "Anka" ("noose"). And if you think that's an unlikely combination of sources for Frank Sinatra's signature song, well, it could have been wackier still: Between the Egyptian Frenchman and the Lebanese Canadian came a young South Londoner called David Bowie.
It didn't work out for Bowie, but it did for Frank. As he told the audience at Madison Square Garden almost half-a-century ago, "We will now do the national anthem. But you needn't rise":
The end is near
And so I face
The final curtain...
If you're one of those people who need a reason to loathe Sinatra, then the swaggering braggadocio of "My Way" is the express check-in. It's loved by all the wrong people: Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic used to play it in his cell while on trial for war crimes at The Hague. But even wimpy social-democrat pantywaists dig it: It was the tune Gerhard Schröder asked the German military band to play as he departed his official office following his election defeat by Angela Merkel. It's one of the biggest karaoke songs on the planet - even though a karaoke version of "My Way" ought to be a contradiction in terms. One in seven Britons request it for their funerals - even though all it says is "I can't even pick out funeral music my way". And then there are all those (possibly apocryphal) tales from upcountry Philippines watering holes where insecure barflies supposedly pump bullets into each other over insufficiently macho renditions of the song.
But, if you dislike all that attitudinal bellowing, in fairness to the song, it didn't start out that way:
I should confess at this point that I have always preferred the original lyric, "Comme d'habitude". It has more notes than the English version, and even more syllables, and its theme is very French:
Je me lève
Et je te bouscule
Tu n'te réveilles pas
Je remonte le drap
J'ai peur que tu aies froid
Caresse tes cheveux
Presque malgré moi
Tu me tournes le dos
Which means more or less:
And I give you a nudge
But you don't react
I drape the sheet
I'm afraid you're cold
Caresses your hair
Almost in spite of myself
You turn your back
What a way to wake up! And the poor guy hasn't even had his first cup of coffee. And the day goes downhill from there...
"Comme d'habitude" dates from 1967. The words are (mostly) by Gilles Thibaud, the music by Jacques Revaux - or "Jocques Strappe", as Sinatra once credited him, at Carnegie Hall of all places. It's a rangier tune than you think, which is why so many of those Filipino karaoke lads come a cropper. The first part of "Comme d'habitude" is a series of brusque phrases with the title of the song at the end and at the low end of the range. And then the middle is a genuine release, a great howl, way up at the other end, and with the title moved to the front of each phrase:
Comme d'habitude toute la journée
Je vais jouer à faire semblant
Comme d'habitude je vais sourire
Comme d'habitude je vais même rire
Comme d'habitude enfin je vais vivre...
As Usual all day long
I'll pretend to play
As Usual I will smile
As Usual I'll even laugh
As Usual in the end I'll live...
Revaux and Thibaud showed the song to Claude François, at that time France's Number Two male pop singer, after Johnny Hallyday. Which in the Anglo-American world makes him a more than faintly risible figure. Still, he made a very nice living doing francophone covers of anglophone hits, and his backing vocalists, the Clodettes, were quite something. That's "Clo-dettes", by the way, not "Clod-ettes": M François was known as CloClo. I remember being told as an impressionable teen by a French friend that CloClo had "pleasured" 10,000 women. Or perhaps it was only 1,000. Or maybe 100,000. At any rate, it was a lot. I assumed my chum was talking about sex since it seemed implausible that that many women would have derived much pleasure from CloClo's records. I recall finding it an awe-inspiring number, something to aim for, although I seem to have fallen a little behind.
M François liked the song, made a few changes here and there, and added his name to the credits. Despite the claims of my pal as to his prodigious appetite, he was said to be upset by his breakup with France Gall, one of the loveliest of France's yé-yé singers - although, after her performance in the Eurovision Song Contest, CloClo called her up backstage and yelled down the phone, "You were terrible!"
But that was all de l'eau sous le pont by 1967. "Comme d'habitude" was a hit for François, and the song's publisher started thinking there'd be a lot of money in an English lyric. So he called up a friend in Denmark Street, London's Tin Pan Alley, who farmed it out to a jobbing songwriter who was hanging round the office - a young chap called David Bowie. And so David Bowie wound up writing the first English lyric for "My Way". Even weirder, he wrote it for an entertainer he greatly admired, one of Britain's biggest stars of the time - Anthony Newley. Newley was boundlessly talented but overly partial to a somewhat maudlin sub-Pagliacci tears-of-a-clown persona, so that's what David Bowie wrote for:
There was a time
The laughing time
I took my heart
To ev'ry party
They'd point my way
'How are you today?
Will you make us laugh?
Chase our blues away?'
Their funny man
Won't let them down
No, he'd dance and prance
And be their clown
That laughing time
That Even A Fool Learns To Love...
Lest you doubt this, there's a reel-to-reel tape of Bowie singing the above, very earnestly, as the Claude François record plays in the background:
Back at the French publishing office, they listened to "Even A Fool Learns To Love" and then rejected it as complete merde. Notice, however, that David Bowie's lyric does contain the words that would eventually become the English title:
They'd point my way...
So now it's 1968 and they still don't have an English lyric on the song. And that's when Paul Anka entered the picture. The Ottawa teen idol who'd hit it big with "Diana" and "Lonely Boy" and "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" was now a worldly 27-year-old and a sought-after composer who'd written the theme for Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show". He was holidaying on the Riviera, and chanced to hear "Comme d'habitude" on the radio. He spoke French, so he knew what it was saying. "The original lyric was about a husband and wife, bad marriage - 'We get up in the morning and as usual, I look at your armpit ... ' Very French, you know," as he put it.
And yet, and yet... "It was a sh*t song but I felt there was something different in it."
The tune kept, as Anka described it, "gnawing at me." He knew one of the publishers, and so after a couple of days asked him for the rights, and flew back to America. He had an acquaintance with Frank through Don Costa, now a Sinatra arranger but previously the guy who'd discovered Paul Anka: That's Costa conducting on "Diana" and those other early Anka hits, before he became Frank's go-to guy and graduated to Sinatra and Strings. So Paul finds himself playing in Florida, where Sinatra's filming Tony Rome. And one night they have dinner, and Frank's in a sour mood. "'I'm doing one more album," he told Anka. "Then I'm quitting the business. I'm sick of it. I'm getting the hell out."
The younger man left thinking that, if he was ever going to write something for Frank, this would be his only shot. So he got out the Claude François single of "Comme d'habitude", listened carefully, and then started playing the piano. There was a driving rainstorm outside, and maybe, because of all that lashing at the windows, in the transposition from CloClo's warbling to Anka's tinkling, a few notes and somewhat more syllables fell by the wayside, and "Comme d'habitude" started to turn into a different song. "I thought, 'What would Frank say if he was writing this?'" And then it came to him:
The end is near
And so I face
The final curtain...
Is that really what Frank would say? According to Paul Anka, yes: "I used words I would never use: 'I ate it up and spit it out' – but that's the way he talked. The Rat Pack guys, they liked to talk like mob guys." He worked through the night, and at five in the morning called Sinatra on the west coast and told him he had a song for him. Then he flew to Vegas to sing it to him. "My Way" is a long way from waking up staring at your armpit:
Paul Anka finished his demo and looked at Frank. Frank gave a slow wink, and said not a word. Three months later, he and Don Costa called Paul from the studio, put the phone to the speakers, and Anka heard Sinatra's two-take "My Way" for the very first time. "I started to cry," he told Performing Songwriter. "I'd never had a creative moment like that."
A lot of us have wanted to cry at "My Way":
I've had a few
But then again
Too few to mention
What I had to do
And saw it through
"Mention"/"Exemption"? Of all the relatively few false rhymes in the Sinatra oeuvre, I regard that one as the absolute worst, without exemption. Yet Anka's lyric drives on over Revaux's tune with a ruthless singlemindedness. The endless reprises of the French title - "Comme d'habitude" - reinforce in their grim, remorseless routine the singer's defeat by life's vicissitudes; the comparatively limited reprises of the English title represent the singer's triumph over them:
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it My Way!
Paul Anka says he wrote it in Sinatra's voice, and perhaps he did. And to be sure, it has a not so thinly disguised autobiographical narrative: yes, there were times, we all knew, when he bit off more than he could chew (Ava) but the record shows he took the blows (from Mitch Miller) and did it his way. Yet it's not in Sinatra's singing voice, and in 1969 it was a most unSinatra song. For thirty years, the Voice had sung ballads of great beauty and great pain and up-tempo swingers of breezy fizzing life-affirming joy. In "I'm A Fool To Want You" and "The Gal That Got Away" and "The End Of A Love Affair" and a thousand others, he introduced to male pop vocals such previously unknown qualities as vulnerability and despair. He was a winner who sang about being a loser. And, when he sang about winning, it was generally a love song to someone else. In the Rat Pack, love songs to oneself were the province of Sammy Davis Jr:
Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I Gotta Be Me!
I Gotta Be Me!
What else can I be
But what I am?
"My Way" is "I Gotta Be Me" on steroids, as if Frank looked at Sam and said: "But enough about how you gotta be you. I gotta be you doing 'I Gotta Be Me', only more so." According to those closest to him, Sinatra was a genuinely modest man - or at least as modest as you can be when everyone's treated you like a superstar since 1942. He was certainly humble around great musicians, songwriters and others he admired. But "My Way" made it easier to cement one caricature: Sinatra the braggart, Sinatra the loudmouth, Sinatra the blowhard. For who else would sing a song like that?
It wasn't a smash chart-topper like "Somethin' Stupid" or "Strangers In The Night". It was such a slow-burn hit that, in fact, Dorothy Squires, the Welsh songstress and former Mrs Roger Moore, also snuck a version into the UK Top Ten, which is in some ways weirder than the subsequent Elvis and Sid Vicious versions
But Frank's "My Way" grew and grew, and never went away: the Sinatra version was on the British singles chart for two-and-a-half years, which nobody has ever done before or since. In commercial terms, it was a rare bright spot as the Sixties turned to the Seventies and the record company founded by the greatest popular singer of his time marked its tenth anniversary: His album A Man Alone sold 63,500 copies; its successor, Watertown, sold 35,000 copies - and became the first Sinatra LP not to crack the Top 100. Frank kept his promise to Paul Anka, and retired.
When he came back, the records were incidental. He was a touring performer now, playing the same kind of vast soulless barns and airport hangars on the edge of town as the biggest rock acts. And "My Way" was the song that filled those spaces, the one you could bellow out and thrill the patrons way up in the restricted-view nosebleed seats, thwacking it over the far wall to Parking Lot ZZ9, Sinatra eating up the lyric and spitting it out:
For what is a man???
What has he got?????
If not himself
Then he has naught!!!!!!!!
Frank had, to put it mildly, mixed feelings about "My Way". On stage in Chicago, 1975:
I've been doing the song for seven years! I've had it up to here! I've had it up to here!
Caesars Palace, 1978:
I hate this song, oh I hate this song. Hey, you sing it for eight years, you would hate it too!
Los Angeles, 1979:
And of course, the time comes now for the torturous moment...
This is either getting better or I am getting used to it.
"Every time I get up to sing that song," Sinatra told Ervin Drake (composer of "It Was A Very Good Year"), "I grit my teeth, because no matter what the image may seem to be, I hate boastfulness in others. I hate immodesty, and that's how I feel every time I sing the song." My sense - which I vaguely think has its roots in something Sammy Cahn or Billy May or some such said to me way back when - is that Sinatra never disliked "My Way" as much as he disliked "Strangers In The Night". But he knew that in almost any audience there were far more people who wanted to hear "My Way" than "I've Got You Under My Skin", never mind "Lonely Town" or the Soliloquy from Carousel. And it bothered him.
His final wife, Barbara, called "My Way" one of those songs that "did absolutely nothing for him. He always said the words were not subtle enough, too 'on the nose'." I heard him use that phrase with reference to another song, and it sounds right to me: "It Was A Very Good Year" and "That's Life" and other Sinatra staples have a certain autobiographical power without being so "on the nose". Vincent Falcone, Frank's pianist and conductor in the late Seventies and early Eighties, told me that one of the reasons they were so glad "New York, New York" took off is that it gave Sinatra a bona fide showstopping finale that enabled them to ease "My Way" out of high rotation. If you have to sing it every night, an anthem to yourself quickly becomes as boring as waking up and staring at your cold-hearted wife's armpit comme d'habitude. And, if you saw Frank on stage in the Eighties and Nineties, you'll know that "My Way" became generally reserved for overseas appearances.
Still and all, Paul Anka's lyric is sufficiently memorable to have passed into the language. My old editor at The Independent, when his secretary would leave invitations for first nights and gallery openings each morning, would go through them and scrawl on the turndowns: "Regrets, I've had a few." At the time of Bill Clinton's testimony to the Grand Jury, I recycled most of the text for a columnar précis of the Monica business: "the words of one who kneels" (Monica), but "the record shows he took the blows" (Bill), etc.
Claude François never had the same problem with "Comme d'habitude" that Frank had with "My Way". In 1978 he was in his bathtub and decided to change a light bulb. He was instantly electrocuted, aged 39: The end was nearer than he thought.
David Bowie, meanwhile, wasn't happy at having "Even A Fool Learns To Love" rejected by the publishers. He was even less happy when he switched on the radio one day and heard Frank Sinatra singing something about doing it his way to a tune that Bowie had once done his way. And he supposedly wrote "Life on Mars" as a sardonic commentary on Paul Anka's usurpation of the song. Which is as good an explanation of the somewhat impenetrable text of "Life on Mars" as anything else:
But the film is a saddening bore
'Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It's about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall...
An allusion to Frank's Oscar-winning role in From Here To Eternity?
It was left to Bowie's fellow rocker, Bono, to argue that "My Way" is more than mere tub-thumping. He was in a Dublin pub at New Year's:
There's a voice on the speakers that wakes everyone out of the moment: it's Frank Sinatra singing "My Way." His ode to defiance is four decades old this year and everyone sings along for a lifetime of reasons. I am struck by the one quality his voice lacks: Sentimentality.
Is this knotted fist of a voice a clue to the next year? In the mist of uncertainty in your business life, your love life, your life life, why is Sinatra's voice such a foghorn — such confidence in nervous times allowing you romance but knocking your rose-tinted glasses off your nose, if you get too carried away.
A call to believability.
A voice that says, "Don't lie to me now."
That says, "Baby, if there's someone else, tell me now."
Fabulous, not fabulist. Honesty to hang your hat on.
Indeed. But with a caveat:
If, like Frank, you sing it like you'll never sing it again. If, like Frank, you sing it like you never have before.
The Sinatra who first sang "My Way" was a swingin' 53. The final curtain was three decades away, and, in the Nineties, as it hovered more imminently, the song changed. By March 1994, the end was so near that Sinatra blacked out on stage during a performance of "My Way". Bono on that first version from 1969:
In this reading, the song is a boast — more kiss-off than send-off — embodying all the machismo a man can muster about the mistakes he's made on the way from here to everywhere.
In the later recording, Frank is 78. The Don Costa arrangement is the same, the words and melody are exactly the same, but this time the song has become a heart-stopping, heartbreaking song of defeat. The singer's hubris is out the door. (This singer, i.e. me, is in a puddle.) The song has become an apology.
To what end? Duality, complexity. I was lucky to duet with a man who understood duality, who had the talent to hear two opposing ideas in a single song, and the wisdom to know which side to reveal at which moment.
How about that? There are two ways to do "My Way", and they're both Frank's way - or, to be more accurate, a Lebanese-Canadian's version of Frank's way: the final curtain, courtesy of a boy named "Noose":
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