songs recording lyrics jake holmes bob gaudio ed o'brien on radio art forum blog home

 

 

Few people on the planet know more about Frank Sinatra's music than author Ed O'Brien. His works include Sinatra 101 and Sinatra: The Man and His Music – The Recording Artistry of Francis Albert Sinatra 1939-1992. It was fitting that he was chosen to write the liner notes for the 1995 Watertown CD, released 25 years after the original LP. And because CDs are becoming more and more rare, with Ed's permission, we share these notes with you:


Watertown Redux And More
After a quarter century in exile, the most unconventional album of Frank Sinatra's career has finally been freed. Watertown is back. Though its commercial success has been elusive, over the years it has garnered a serious cult following among dedicated connoisseurs of popular American music. Watertown might appear to be a simple story of love gone awry, but a careful listening reveals it is much more than it appears on the surface.

To be fair, Watertown is not an easy album to love. It has an austerity and a bleakness that cuts right to the bone. At the time of its recording, Sinatra was certainly no stranger to musical works of heartbreak and sadness, but there had always been a strong romantic motif in his previous efforts.

In Watertown, he found, courtesy of writers Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, a marvelously stylized piece with profound subtext, nuance and color. It truly was a work ahead of its time – one that depicted the beginning of the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family without so much as blinking. In short, Watertown was a harbinger of the post-romantic movement in popular song.

In a series of soliloquies, the nameless narrator tells us his heartbreaking story of personal loss and unrealized redemption. His wife has left him and their two boys for the lure of the big city, and her absence hangs palpably in the air. While it is altogether understandable why someone would flee the stark and dreary landscape of Watertown, our empathy rests with the eloquent everyman left behind. He is a desperate man, the personification of all that is pedestrian in a small town, a solitary figure who suffers unbearable torment and despair. But, in expressing timeless sentiments to a love that is hopelessly lost, he finds salvation in the written word and an extraordinary transformation takes place. In his grief, he achieves a deeper understanding of himself, and a transcendent awareness of what he has lost and why. There is a terrible beauty in all of this.

Sinatra, whose performance is simply stunning, makes mincemeat of the stark, sparse poetry of Watertown. You will never hear him sound more vulnerable or alone, especially on such songs as "Michael & Peter," the album's tour de force. In it, a man is writing what seems to be an ordinary letter. But his emotions are out of control, teetering on the edge of hysteria. It is a tightrope that Sinatra walks with a vocal prowess the likes of which will not be heard again. Throughout this album, his interpretations possess an ineffable rightness.

To lend further cachet to the rebirth of this lost treasure, you will hear for the first time a small miracle of a song called "Lady Day." A coda that puts a definitive period at the end of the story. It was deleted from the original album. Sinatra would later rerecord it with slightly altered words, a new arrangement and a vastly different vocal interpretation.

Watertown is of more relevance today because the dramatic transfiguration of the American scene has made it so. What was once an anomalous event is now and everyday occurrence.

A closing caveat: Watertown is not for the casual listener. It is an album that demands your undivided attention. After playing it many times, you will discover it is what you don't hear that is most important.

– Ed O'Brien

Special thanks to Bob Gaudio, Jake Holmes, Al Viola and Jim Cochran.
Click on either of these books to
purchase at Amazon.com
On page 155 of "Sinatra 101," Ed O'Brien writes:
"Watertown was the only major Sinatra album not to crack the Billboard Top 100. A great work that was badly packaged, poorly promoted, and finally left for dead. Together, the individual tracks on this album tell a modern love story with a theme of a broken marriage and shattered family. The more you play it, the better it gets."