I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation that begat Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown” record, released in 1970. I’d imagine it might have gone something like this:
“Frank, baby, I love ya, but those record sales, they just ain’t what they used to be, dig? This new one, it’s gotta have a little hey-hey or your career, it’s bombsville!”
“Don’t worry, pallie, this new one’s gonna be a gas. Got some tunes by that gofer from the Four Seasons, what’s his name? And that cat who wrote that bluesy little number those limeys Led Zeppelin ripped off – “Confused for Days”, I think it’s called – let me tell ya, pallie, this is gonna be a barn burner!”
“Oh yeah? Tell me more, Frankie!”
“Well, you see, pallie, it’s about this bunter in upstate New York. Wife goes scramsville.”
“Oh, so he gets to take up with any ol’ broad he wants! Ring-a-ding!”
“Well, pallie, it ain’t exactly like that, see…”
When people talk about “concept albums” Frank Sinatra isn’t usually the first name that comes to mind. Ol’ Blue Eyes never sang about dystopian future societies or assassins who have been brainwashed by totalitarian governments. Yet his record “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – a 1955 album of ballads about love gone wrong – was one of the first LPs to be conceived as a whole work, rather than merely a collection of songs. Thus, it has been considered by some to be the first concept album, an ancestor of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “2112”, “The Wall”, “Kilroy Was Here” and “American Idiot.”
“Wee Small Hours” was an attempt to sell Sinatra to a more mature audience as he entered his 40s. Similarly, at the end of the 1960s, Sinatra’s sales were flagging as the British Invasion and Woodstock consigned him to the past. Many erstwhile teen idols had attempted to connect with the changing times. Dion DiMucci, known for “Runaround Sue” and “Teenager In Love” sought out weightier subject matter in “Abraham, Martin and John.” Bobby Darin of “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” fame waxed introspective with “If I Were A Carpenter.” Even Elvis ventured into social comment with “In the Ghetto.” The 53-year old Chairman wisely avoided jumping on the psychedelic or protest trains or trying to squeeze out another hit single with Nancy. The direction he chose instead, however, was surprising, to say the least.
Sinatra was given a complete set of songs written by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and Jake Holmes, an eclectic songwriter who is perhaps best known for “Dazed and Confused” (as well as assorted television jingles). The story: a woman leaves her husband and sons for the big city and the poor bastard’s stuck in Small Town, USA trying to figure out what happened.
“Watertown” is not a perfect record. The pop-rock rhythm section, electric bass in particular (and I say this as an electric bassist) make the thick orchestration seem more like Phil Spector lite than the swingin’ Nelson Riddle sound beloved on the Sinatra records of yore. The chord progressions perhaps excessively rely on harmonies that are known to create melodrama (music theory geeks probably know that I’m talking specifically about the IV/iv/I cadence; for people with lives, think of it as the musical equivalent of slow motion in movies: a good effect used sparingly, but one quickly gets the point). That Sinatra overdubbed his vocals for the first time on record doesn’t hurt “Watertown” per se but listen closely enough and you’ll miss the fluidity of his earlier years. And make no mistake: this record is not easy to listen to start to finish. We’ve all heard ditties about breakups and heartache before, but trust me, midway through the second side if not sooner you will feel the weight of the cumulative effect of these songs, whether or not you’ve recently been through a split. But I’m not writing about “Watertown” because it’s perfect; if I wanted to write about perfection I’d write about “The Nightfly.” I’m writing about this record because in almost four decades of listening to music, I’ve never encountered anything like it.
The title track, “Watertown”, opens the record and establishes the slow pace of life for the narrator and his world; exactly what made his wife restless: “Not much happenin’ down on Main, ‘cept a little rain”; “Everyone knows the perfect crime is killin’ time.”
“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” describes the moment of the breakup, in a coffee shop where life goes on as usual for everyone else except the doomed narrator. The song debunks the theory that the “Watertown” story is not about a divorce but about a death: “Just as I begin to say that we should make another try/she reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says goodbye.”
“For a While” begins with a lilting waltz tempo that gives the listener a sense of hope, but ultimately it just serves to set the theme of the song: it’s easy to distract oneself with work, friends or house chores, but reality cannot be escaped.
“Michael and Peter” introduces the two sons – “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing” – and also provides a clue into the dynamic of the marriage: “You know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can…” Some critics have found this line to be awkward, but it also suggests that the narrator’s mother-in-law sympathizes with or perhaps pities him; whatever made his wife leave, it wasn’t any kind of malice on his part. Besides the sons, the narrator also focuses on details of everyday life that may seem mundane (the house needs paint; it’s been raining; the guy who mows the lawn asked after you) but are also revealing about his character: intimidated about broaching the bigger issues of his life and marriage, he tries to find meaning in little things.
“I Would Be In Love (Anyways)” starts quietly and rises to a crescendo reminiscent of “My Way” – but while that anthem has the confidence of a man looking back on a full and rewarding life, here, Sinatra has no control of his destiny except to make peace with it.
“Elizabeth” opens side 2, giving the narrator’s ex a name and also for the first time personality traits. Here, the narrator acknowledges that “you were all much too much/out of reach, out of touch/when you came to me/I found it could never be.” Perhaps she at one point really did want him but he never felt worthy, thus making the relationship a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be)” tells us more about Elizabeth and her quirky traits that endeared her to the narrator – “always some new recipe/the kitchen always looked like World War III.” The line “We’d spend each night with company/just you, the teddy bears, the dolls and me” has stirred uncomfortable feelings among some listeners who find that it suggests a father describing his daughter, but according to Sinatra expert Ed O’Brien, Jake Holmes said, “They were probably kids together. I wanted to give the sense that they had gone to school together. They had fallen in love and married quite young.” Read that way, the song appears to echo the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” – innocent young girl becomes a jaded, distant adult – but its bittersweet tone owes more to Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” (another song that was given a great performance by Sinatra; but I digress).
“What’s Now Is Now” addresses Elizabeth’s apparent infidelity: “You should have told me when it all began…” The music becomes more dissonant and rhythmically complex than what we’ve heard so far (although it’s still not exactly Stravinsky). Despite his resentment, the narrator still wants to work things out: “I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again.” As before, he clings to the past: “And if you feel at all like me/just let me know and I’ll make it like it used to be.”
“She Says” is the shortest and most musically unconventional song in the set. Sung against a static accompaniment, it has the feel of a classical recitative, serving as a prelude to “The Train.” The song appears to represents the narrator’s first communication from Elizabeth since she left, but the refrain “So she says” sung by a distant children’s chorus casts doubt, perhaps echoing the skepticism of Michael and Peter – kids are often smarter than we think.
“The Train” is the most uptempo song on the record, almost bouncing, reflecting the narrator’s optimism as he awaits Elizabeth’s return at the station. Anyone who’s counted down the minutes to a long-awaited reunion with a loved one will relate: “The crossing gate is coming down, I think I see the train…” but by now we know better. We can only stand by as the foregone conclusion plays out: “The train is slowly moving on but I can’t see you anyplace…” Earlier in the song the narrator reveals, “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer/’cause the morning mail had left some time before.” Was the conversation with his ex-wife in “She Says” then completely imagined?
A final song, “Lady Day”, was included on reissues of the record and on the CD. The focus shifts to Elizabeth, painting a portrait that may be interpreted in different ways, none of which are optimistic: “So many empty dreams/so many bitter times…” Perhaps the harsh realities of the big city made her regret leaving her family; maybe the narrator is imagining it all, still holding out hope that she will come back to the life she knew. Those who believe that the record is about a death, not a divorce, have found support for that theory in lines such as “Her morning came to fast too soon/and died before the afternoon.”
What will become of the narrator, Elizabeth, the boys, the mother-in-law and the other denizens of Watertown? No matter how one interprets the ambiguities of the latter songs, it’s hard to imagine anything too upbeat. As this article points out, “If you listened to Wee Small Hours while you were in your 20s or 30s, you may have thought, ‘This is a great account of loss, but he shall love again.’ Watertown, on the other hand, delivers the devastatingly more realistic message that life, age and class may conspire that we will never again love or dream as we once did.” Seen in that light, does the album offer the listener any kind of hope or redemption? If so, it’s in Sinatra’s ability to find dignity and meaning in the quiet ups and downs of working class life, much as Springsteen would start doing shortly after this album was released.
What drew Sinatra to this concept and what made the Reprise Records suits think it would sell? Perhaps Sinatra wanted the challenge of assuming a role different from anything he had done before: focusing inwardly, not outwardly. As for what made Reprise think they had a hit on their hands, that’s anyone’s guess. The record was a critical and commercial disappointment. Fortunately Sinatra’s prior decades of success were enough for him to be able to easily absorb this blip on the radar of his career. More to the point, especially among connoisseurs, the reputation of “Watertown” has grown in the years since. Generations of listeners have marveled at how convincingly Sinatra steps outside of his celebrity and into Everyman. “Watertown” asks questions without providing answers. It provokes the imagination. It makes the audience appreciate what they have even while mourning what they’ve lost. For the open minded listener, “Watertown” is a unique experience.