Tuesday, 30 October 2007
The most popular song to be played at funerals, or at least it was in those pre-Whitney/Robbie/Celine days, “My Way” has functioned as a kneejerk safety valve, celebrating the independence and fulfilment of those who spent their whole lives kneeling, embedded in numbing and often humiliating day jobs where the average cockroach crawling midway up the staff room walls had more say about its fate than they ever did. It is the expression of a wish never granted.
Most singers who think of themselves as big (or small) have essayed the song in its lifetime (though Whitney, Robbie and Celine have yet to avail us of their readings), usually with one of two results: somewhat smug and self-satisfied, or loudly defiant. Sinatra himself remained ambivalent about the song and his own delivery of it, and indeed he adds that final coda where everything trickles into quietude, rather than culminating in a triumphantly loud flourish – “Yes…it was…my way,” and the grain of his throat holds those last two words with as much suppressed despair as he ever mustered (the shattering “can know my sadness” which ends “None But The Lonely Heart” and the No One Cares album symbolises the seeping of reluctant blood from the mourning wrist, when despair can no longer be contained). The single was not an especially big hit in the States – it peaked at #27, didn’t hang around for long and in his book Dino Nick Tosches remarks how the Rat Pack boys were effectively ostracised from the pop charts by the late sixties and relegated to the cosy ghetto of the specialist Easy Listening lists. But in Britain it gained a slowly gathering newness of life – it climbed agilely to number five on our charts soon after its April 1969 debut and then refused to exit, not taking its final bow until the beginning of 1972. Its cumulative run of 122 weeks remains the only triple digit run in the singles chart, far ahead of callow pretenders like “Amazing Grace,” “Blue Monday” and “Chasing Cars,” and if a full Top 75 had been in operation at the time the 200 mark would not have been inconceivable.
There was, of course, an underlying sense of reproachment about “My Way”’s continued presence, as the sixties congealed into the seventies and the Engelbert/Valium/cooking sherry generation began to feel vindicated; see, they seemed to say, you only knew the half of our pain; this song, this man, says our lives are justified, however we live them. Do you think you’re the only one who couldn’t find their way home? And, as the seventies solidified into the eighties, we reached the other end of the spectrum; Elvis, already too careless to live, sung it from just beyond our grasp, and Sid, who as Paul Anka astutely noted seemed to turn the song from a passive reflection on passing away into an active weapon to speed up his passing.
But nobody ever sang “My Way” without meaning it, even if the contradictions of their own semi-wrecked, semi-surrendered lives told them vividly to the contrary. Least of all Dorothy Squires, who recorded what I still believe to be the most truthful and disturbing interpretation of the song. Her “My Way” appeared as a single in the summer of 1970, shortly after she had invested five thousand pounds of her own money to stage a lavish comeback performance at the London Palladium. She was then fifty-five years old, and her life had been teetering towards wreckage for some time; a considerable star in the pre-rock era – her former partner, songwriter Billy Reid, composed “I’m Walking Behind You” especially for her (Eddie Fisher’s chart-topping 1953 reading was a cover) - she married Roger Moore, a decade her junior, who left her in the early sixties for an Italian woman. She never really recovered from the latter; and it wasn’t until the end of the sixties, after many bitter battles, that she granted Moore a divorce. By then drink had taken hold and her career was in serious decline.
However, as befitting someone born in a trailer park in Wales during WWI and who grew up during the Depression, she did not yield easily; fearful of ending up where she’d started on one hand, but casually reckless with resources and emotions on the other, she booked the Palladium, coming on with immense, garish, pastel-coloured feather bows, unbowed and unapologetic. Like Judy, the voice wasn’t quite what it had been, but the determination was violently visible, her audiences ready to suffer along with her and cheer her on as required.
Thus her “My Way”; a more garish, luminous, enraged version is scarcely imaginable still. She starts low, like Shirley Bassey, rolling her rich Welsh diphthongs and refusing to drop them. But she is like a huge mansion trembling atop a volcano, as when the lava orchestra swells up for her “And there were times – and I am sure that you knew,” her voice already tearful in that second half, enunciating every individual syllable so that the listener cannot avoid receiving her message, still grieving for her lost love, but doggedly she will stand on top of that mountain regardless of any imminent eruption – “I ATE IT UP,” she proclaims, and then, after a meaningful pause, she howls demonically, “AND! I! SPIT! IT! OUT!,” with epileptic pitch control but putting all of the emotional emphasis on that “I.” The Palladium audience was already in tears at her defiance of imminent and immense ruination.
Then she descends again – “I’ve laughed” she weeps – before attempting her second ascent, not even bothering to change the gender of the “For what is a man?” section (singing directly at her Roger? “WHAT HAS HE GOT?”), and now she is in charge, reigns supreme: “I TOOK THE BLOWS – AND! I! DID! IT! MY! WAY!” That final “WAY!” sees her toppling from her precarious perch of pitching as though tumbling down the cliff to her irrevocable doom, but she greets her presumed demise with neither fear nor surprise, gracefully toppling like a newly swallowed gull. To add to her woes, the veteran tenor saxophonist Johnnie Gray provides an obbligato throughout her performance which sometimes seems to be laughing at her predicament (indeed he gets a co-credit on the label of the single) though his fleet descending bop runs at the climactic end seem also to indicate a sheer fall.
The record did well; although it only peaked at #25, it was on the chart for 23 weeks (eventually becoming one of the very few singles to earn a silver disc for 250,000 sales without ever breaking the Top 20), and its momentum helped in part to keep interest in Sinatra’s original buoyant. But the demise turned out to be less than presumed. Squires’ house burned down; underinsured, she vowed to move somewhere closer to the river, whereupon her next house was wrecked in a flood. Litigious at the touch of a button, most of her money went on fruitless High Court libel cases, all of which she lost; towards the end of her days (remarkably she soldiered on until 1998, aged eighty-three) she was rescued from destitution by a fan who put her up (and commendably, or foolishly, put up with her rages and whims) in her cottage in Yorkshire. But there is a rawness, a ghastly truth about her “My Way” which no other singer has yet approached, as though she stared right into its hollow heart and knew the lies it was telling, but embraced them anyway, because what was the alternative?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 17:12