15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 40

Something less than Frank

Philip Hensher

ALL THE WAY: A BIOGRAPHY OF FRANK SINATRA by Michael Freedland Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 438 Whoever it was who remarked that music journalism is largely produced by people who can't write for the benefit of people who can't read had, it is tempting to remark on reading this bizarrely hopeless volume, a point. There's an interesting story here, and a wonderful subject. Frank Sinatra is, surely, the one crooner- actor-whatever of his era whose name will live beyond his lifetime, and ours. But the failures of the celebrity biography are so perfectly embodied on every page of Michael Freedland's effort that one soon loses interest in what he is writing about, and starts to gaze, in fascinated horror, at his superlative inability to form a sentence, the incomparable uselessness made con- crete on the page. It is, by a very long way, the worst written book I have ever seen between hard covers, and for that reason can be heartily recommended to anyone with the faintest taint of cynicism.

Astonishingly, this is something like Michael Freedland's 30th book. I cannot say if it is a worthy successor to his previ- ous show business biographies, which include Dino: The Dean Martin Story, Sophie: The Story of Sophie Tucker, Dustin: A Biography of Dustin Hoffman, as well as Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery, Liza With a Z, and, if the Also By list is to be believed, two books entitled Shirley Maclaine. If they are all of the dimensions of this shocker, he has set something like three million words on paper. And still he cannot write a sen- tence which does not make the reader's eyes roll backwards in his head, like some- thing from the last reel of The Exorcist.

Freedland's principal trademark is the lack of an ability to pay attention to what he is saying. There is a constant sense, here, as in so much writing these days, that what the words mean, or used to mean, hardly matters. A writer who can refer to 'virulent flak' has lost the sense of what either word means. But that's a minor offence, comparable, perhaps, to tone-deafness, when one considers some things which Freedland doesn't mind setting down on paper:

When he flew in a shiny silver Dakota air- craft with the words 'The Voice' painted in huge script on the nose, it could hardly have been anything but a gift from heaven.

' "The Voice" . . . the nose, flew . . . from heaven'; the whole effect is tragically distracting. The cack-handed manner is constantly there.

The perfect Freedland sentence, per- haps, is one which seems to be doing all right until the final clause, when it becomes apparent that its author has not been pay- ing attention and has allowed his mind to wander. When Sinatra gives a speech to a school against racial intolerance:

What Frank didn't know when he accepted the invitation was that the school was in the forefront of an equality move which, for its time and its location, was nothing less than remarkable. Fifty years later, the very idea of the source of the trouble being considered a reasonable cause of dissent would be almost laughable if it weren't in many ways a land- mark.

This truly astonishing terrible sentence is doing all right in conveying some sort of a meaning until the final word, when Freed- land's idea — I suppose this is his idea, since the sentence conveys no sort of meaning at all — that protest against Sina- tra's speech was almost laughable and that Sinatra's speech itself was in some sense a significant stance combines woozily to sug- gest that it was the protest that was the landmark.

That wandering off the mark is an extremely interesting way in which prose fails. Freedland often starts a sentence by making one point, and ends by making another which, in truth, has nothing to do with the first. The final effect is of a drunk- ard's rambling, shooting off in all direc- tions.

On the other hand, there was plenty of reason to think that Sinatra was as big a star as ever. Hoboken certainly said it thought so, when it decided publicly to make up for all the problems that had existed between itself and its favourite son. In 1947 the city announced the time had come to pay an official tribute to the man who had put their town on the map — an event so important in the history of the waterfront community that pictures of the occasion still adorn City Hall and are adored in the personal archives of those who think they have a duty to preserve the vital events of the past.

God knows what the last clause is doing here; it turns a reasonably respectable paragraph into the most perfect gibberish, making one wonder whether Freedland is hinting at the existence of some lunatic Sinatra cult.

In a great deal of Freedland's writing there are two quite different sorts of incompetence. There is the celeb-biog vocabulary, which one puts up with, and there is a very special sort of meaningless- ness, which constantly sends one backwards and forwards, attempting to extract some kind of meaning from the rambling non- sense.

Phil Silvers, a second-banana funny man with hair in movies like Cover Girl, who was yet to hit world stardom in his own right — and without hair — in the immensely successful Bilko TV series. He penned the lyrics for Sinatra in a wonderfully ambiguous way.

A lot of this would make some kind of sense in the usual celebrity idiolect; I have no idea what 'second-banana' means, but one puts up with it. The point about the hair, however, quite escapes me, as does the idea of 'penning' anything in 'a wonder- fully ambiguous way'; I can only suppose that Freedland is trying to say that Silvers wrote something ambiguous, but that isn't what he has said.

In a strange way, this is a horribly fasci- nating volume. I wouldn't mind reading something about Sinatra; he is certainly one of the most enchanting singers of his genre. And he is really the only singer who made a smooth transition to film in such classically hypnotic performances as those in On. the Town and The Manchurian Candidate, the only one, too, who lived long enough to see himself immortalised in fictional guise in such period dramas as The Hudsucker Proxy. It would be interest- ing to read a serious account of the vexed question of Sinatra's involvement, if any, with the Mafia; it is hard to know what to make of references to Sinatra's 'powerful' mother, or his links with the Hoboken Sicilian Cultural League. But this is cer- tainly not the place to look for anything resembling rational discussion.

Does it matter? I mean, who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Why not throw an absurd book in the bin? Why bother being rude? Why not give way to one's feelings of Pity for someone who has so mistaken his vocation in life as to suppose that his enthusiasm for show business is matched by his ability to place verbs and nouns together to make some kind of sense, and simply remain silent?

Style, I fear, is intelligence. We are always justified in assaulting people who cannot write, because people who cannot write cannot think. The vulgarity of style here, the inability to keep the mind's eye on the syntactic ball would hardly matter if it were not a symptom of an inability to think clearly about a subject, to say some- thing honest and truthful. We will only start to think that the appearance of a badly written book no longer matters when we stop caring about anything it might be trying to say. Sinatra certainly matters; music matters; and sentences matter. It is almost immoral to write as badly as this, it is a sin against intelligence and the scrupu- lousness which any author owes to his own work. And, it must be added, the wretched man is asking for 20 quid of your money.