Intimations of Mortality
Strange bedfellows US32 and the Chairman of the Board consider twilight time…
By David McGee

Exactly when does that chill of an early fall start to creep into our consciousness? Well, history—of art, philosophy, religion, music, literature, you name it—tells us it stirs in the hearts of the young and old alike, death being, oh, so final. It appears the only person who ever had a solution for the lights going out permanently was one Jesus Christ, who raised three lucky winners from the dead and then himself. That was some neat trick. Personally, I hope the end of the line plays like Gus McRae’s (Robert Duvall) exit in the film version of Lonesome Dove, when from his deathbed he looks his trusted partner Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) in the eyes and says, “By God, Woodrow, it’s been quite a party, ain’t it?” Seems like a good way to go out.

The problem is getting to that moment, because the journey can take its toll in so many painful and poignant ways when we are reminded of how time has fled quicker than we realized. “Life’s a shabby subterfuge,” John Updike observed in his poem “Requiem,” published posthumously in his collection Endpoint, “and death is real, and dark, and huge.”

Christy and Michael Kline, US 32: May your heart be a happy home at last…

On the surface you wouldn’t think there would be much, if any, common ground shared by the debut album from husband and wife duo Michael and Christy Kline, or US 32 as they are called collectively, and the reissue of then-49-year-old Frank Sinatra’s 1965 masterpiece, September of My Years. US 32 (so named after a portion of the awesome, continental spanning Grand Army of the Republic Highway, before it was gobbled up by an extension of what is now U.S. Route 6) traffics in easygoing folk and country-rock soundscapes, with brief, atmospheric appearances (as in two) of electric guitar and keyboards amidst acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, lap and pedal steel, tin whistle, bagpipes, fiddle, bass, drums and assorted percussion, all in service to the Klines’ mostly original songs and affecting vocals, he of the smooth, whispery tenor, she the soothing, plaintive half of the duo. Sinatra’s repertoire comes from towering figures in American popular song—a couple from his most favored songwriter, Jimmy Van Heusen (in collaboration with Sammy Cahn), others from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, and not least of all, the arranger/conductor on this and many other of Sinatra’s most powerful and enduring recorded performances, Gordon Jenkins, who also contributed two songs to the album. Sinatra was 49, with his 50th birthday a little more than six months away (December 12) at the time of the sessions (April 13, 14, 22, and May 27) for September of My Years; Michael Kline was born on March 8, 1965, a month before the first session for September; Christy came along seven years later, in 1972. So we look to Michael, at 45, as the critical link connecting US 32’s Tumblin’ Home to Sinatra’s September of My Years. Something about getting within striking distance of the half-century mark gives one pause.

US 32, ‘Down In the Field’: ‘I just stood there, couldn’t say a word,’ a piece of the past irretrievably lost

There is a distinct difference, however, in the Klines’ recognition of the merciless march of time and Sinatra’s understanding of it. W.H. Auden provides the best summary of what we hear in the relevant Kline songs: “Death is like the sound of rolling thunder at a picnic”—ominous, threatening, but still at a safe remove; for Sinatra, the mood is that of one who senses something “real, and dark, and huge” on the horizon, is utterly consumed by its advance and thus eager to take stock, make amends, even ask for small favors of kindness in his 49-year-old dotage. The Klines express the first-felt tinges of creeping mortality in the sight of childhood totems—-an old ballpark, the family home—reduced to wreck and rubble, but are otherwise unconcerned with or oblivious to corporeal deterioration. Sinatra is way past all that: rather than lamenting the loss of certain physical signposts on his path to mature life, he is adding up the cost of physical degeneration—not the loss of bodily functions or diminished intellect, mind you, but the palpable heartache of recognizing the folly of his youthful indiscretions in matters of the heart, of not living more fully in the moment and outside of his own ego, and the haunting memories thus left him in the absence of something real in the way of human affection.

‘Tumblin’ Home’—The title track of US 32’s debut album opens with Michael Kline’s verbatim reading of a touching, brief letter home written January 30, 1864 by his great-great-granduncle George F. Kline, then an 18-year-old Union soldier stationed in Baltimore.

Ahead of further examination of this particular topic, a small word of clarification: Unlike Sinatra’s musical missive, the Klines’ Tumblin’ Home actually contains a few songs centered on matters other than intimations of mortality—such as the dilemma of the newly divorced dad trying to convince his son it’s all gonna work out fine in “Every Other Weekend,” a graceful, lilting country heart tugger with brush drums, moaning pedal steel and Buck Johnson’s evocative piano supporting Michael’s emotionally gripping vocal informed by equal measures uplift and anguish over the situation at hand; or the tragic inevitability limned in the title track, set in the Civil War (Harper’s Ferry, to be specific) and related by a soldier promising his return home as the drums beat out a march cadence behind him, the bass rumbling like the thunder of approaching cannon fire, and Brian Auer’s tin whistle and bagpipes sound a dirge-like coda—all this ensuing in the aftermath of Michael’s verbatim reading of a touching, brief letter home written January 30, 1864 by his great-great-granduncle George F. Kline, then an 18-year-old Union soldier stationed in Baltimore; or the strutting, dobro-fired “Credit Cards,” bluesy and swinging and equally celebrating (“I’ve got buying power in my billfold”) and cautioning against (“deeper and deeper in debt/a balance transfer and yet…”) plastic's inherent dangers. Arguably the Klines’ best moment here is the aching country ballad, “Water Under the Bridge,” steel- and fiddle-drenched, and hurting so good in Christy’s emotional, textured reading of Michael’s lyrics, which boast Rosanne Cash-like acuity in observing the telling minutiae of a failed relationship.

Because Tumblin’ Home is not a steady, relentless chronicle of the past come rushing back in vivid, unsettling flashes of reminiscence, when it dips into the heart of the matter the effect is possibly more startling than it would be otherwise. One of those songs kicks off the album on a seemingly jubilant note, a truly deceptive move. “Down In the Field” romps and stomps its way through 3:42 of energized country-rock and sings initially of a party going on at an abandoned ballpark. Everyone thinks it’s going to be a time of high spirits and fond memories, but all this exuberance ultimately gives way to a paralyzing reality check, when Christy gets word of the field having been converted into a used car lot. “I just stood there,” she sings dryly—pause—“couldn’t say a word.” Though the “down in the field/down in the field” celebratory chorus returns for a last run, “couldn’t say a word” hangs over the proceedings like a storm cloud—or better yet, like the sound of rolling thunder at a picnic. It’s as if the news of the field’s fate has rendered her mute, grasping for a piece of her past now irretrievably lost—possibly the first such shock in her life. “Down In the Field” is followed by “Mabel’s Car,” a funky, shambling workout, fiddle-rich and grooving gently behind Christy’s silky vocal, telling the story of an old, beloved automobile, now well past its prime but treasured for its “memories of her Bill and summer breezes.” These introductory songs are centered on narratives constructed around reminiscences of old loves: in the former, Christy cries, “What if I’m afraid of tomorrow/What if it hurts so bad I can’t go on?/Help me to face the sorrow/Hold me now, baby, I don’t wanna be alone,” but finally, she is; in the latter, it’s dear Bill, whispering sweet nothings in the young Mabel’s ear and holding her tight as the radio plays. Today, “Mabel’s driving slow,” being nothing more to the restless kids than another old woman puttering along, slowing traffic, while her own youth replays over in her mind like an endless loop. The desultory “Hamer House,” with its eerie soundscape dominated by a lonely banjo and shimmering, wailing lap steel, like an outtake from Daniel Lanois’s soundtrack for Sling Blade, is a touching account of a return to an abandoned childhood home, now dilapidated and engulfed by overgrowth. “No one cares” about the house now, but for the singer it’s ripe, alive with scenes from a long-gone childhood—so much so that she can feel the “ghosts in the hall.” Her final line—“that old house in Hamer, still sittin’ there/just south of ‘South of the Border,’ but no one cares”—strikes as sudden and potent a blow to the gut as “couldn’t say a word” does at the end of “Down In the Field.” These are the sounds of someone sensing a dying moment. Spare and moving (with a banjo being the only instrument on the track, Michael plunking it softly and deliberately behind his lead vocal and Christy’s soft, caressing harmonies), “Uncle Bill’s Farm,” like “Hamer House,” is an occasion for sweet, sepia-tinted memories of wandering in “woods ‘n fields ‘n farther/Mother Nature lived on Uncle Bill’s farm,” now a site where the family gathers there mostly to “say goodbye,” youthful joys transformed into teary adieus. An exquisite fingerpicked ballad, “If These Walls Could Talk,” speaks of the healing powers of a place identified only as “a broken home” but which may well be the aforementioned Hamer House, where “dreamers who have passed” will guide visitors on their way, Christy singing, twice, a gentle benediction over Michael’s music box-like picking, “May your heart be a happy home at last.” It may seem corny, but Tumblin’ Home ends on a happy, toe-tapping note in a love letter to a parent or parents, “Thanks a Million,” a spirited, mandolin-flecked litany of an authority figure’s firm, disciplined hand—“Thanks a million for driving me to school/And bustin’ my butt and the ‘Golden Rule’/Thanks a million for having too much fun/And for my daughter and my son.” In taking the measure of what’s been lost, Michael and Christy Kline emerge, through the magic of sequencing, mind you, with optimism restored after traversing some unsettling passages on their journey. Ultimately, Tumblin’ Home is about learning to accept the circumstances of change—it’s been quite an odyssey from the abrupt revelation of the beloved ballpark now flattened into a used car lot to the embrace of mom’s/dad’s values in “Thanks a Million”—en route to turning the heart into a happy home.


Beautiful girls, walk a little slower when you walk by me…this is all I ask, this is all I need…

And the winters and the springs of a lifetime, whatever happened to them all?...

Don’t mind these lines beneath my eyes/they’re well-earned souvenirs/of a thousand nights of laughter and occasional tears…

You are the summer and I am the autumn/don’t wait too long/Your song’s beginning, while mine’s nearly sung…

I’ve seen that face before, that face that I see in the mirror/I know that face, I’ve seen that face before/I knew that dopey guy/when he didn’t know how to tie his tie/he stood right there/and he had hair…galore…/the man in the looking glass/who can he be/where’s our young Romeo, the lad who used to sigh…

When you’re all alone, and all the children grown/And like starlings flown away/It gets lonely early, doesn’t it? Lonely early, doesn’t it?/Every single endless day…

Last night when we were young/Love was a star, a song unsung/Life was so new, so real, so right/Ages ago, last night…

But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the year/and now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine, old kegs/from the brim to the dregs/it poured sweet and clear/it was a very good year…

Share every precious moment with me/Don’t wait too long…

‘The Sum and Substance Of a Man’s Life’
Frank Sinatra weds ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ to ‘Young at Heart’

No one is going to mistake the Chairman of the Board for seeking to turn the heart into a happy home on September of My Years. Even in 1965, 49 was not old; but Sinatra awoke one day, realized he was approaching the half-century mark and decided it was time to take stock, in song. His first call was to a loyal musical ally, arranger-conductor-songwriter Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins had inaugurated what proved to be a long-term relationship with Sinatra in 1957 with a pair of albums released in September of that year, Where Are You? and the Chairman’s first Christmas long player, A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra. Jenkins had already fashioned a stellar career for himself by the time he joined Capitol in '57, having been successful as a songwriter, bandleader (with a million seller, "Maybe You'll Be There," in 1949), conductor and arranger; in 1949, when he was musical director (in effect, head of A&R) for Decca Records, one of his most successful and controversial signings was the unabashedly leftist folk group the Weavers, with Pete Seeger, and his fusion of the group’s pan-cultural sensibility to his own pop-based orchestral arrangements led to several popular singles, including the beloved and best-known recording of Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene." A master of elegant string arrangements, Jenkins preferred large orchestras—with “choirs” of strings, as other critics have observed—but disdained ostentatious displays; his arrangements are notable for truly breathtaking swirls of strings, ascending and descending according to the mood, now shadowing the melody line, then gracefully swooning away from it, like a ballerina collapsing delicately into her partner’s arms, before rising to a figurative shout only when Sinatra, for example, is in the throes of urgent appeal, as he is towards the end of Jenkins’s own “This Is All I Ask,” when the gathering emotion culminates in the expressive plea to “let the music play as long as there’s a song to sing!” which is immediately followed by soothing quiet, as the strings gently fade to silence at song’s end.

September of My Years is about the telling silences, the pregnant pauses, the direct, reflective, confessional singing of the artist widely regarded as the greatest pop singer of the 20th Century and a peerless cultural icon. To listen to the performances here, you would think the Chairman had some advance knowledge of his imminent demise, or at least of an immediate and steep decline in his physical and mental faculties, given the sweeping pronouncements he makes regarding his own vulnerability as he spies cracks in the once glorious façade. Would the Francis Albert of “Come Fly With Me” or “Fly Me To the Moon” have crooned the soft apologia in Jenkins’s beautiful “How Old Am I,” “Don’t mind these lines beneath my eyes/they’re well earned souvenirs/of a thousand nights of laughter and occasional tears/and I hope you won’t be jealous of the silver in my hair/it took many lovers’ quarrels to put it there”? At the end, with Jenkins’s strings beginning to swell triumphantly behind him, Sinatra adds a little soft P.S.: “As for tomorrow…turn the page.”

‘The springs and summers of a lifetime/whatever happened to them all?’—‘September of My Years,’ Take 5 of 8, May 1965

Turning the page is a big deal here, a major theme. Not as in starting fresh but as in wasting not a moment of whatever is left of life. Entering after a somber woodwinds and strings intro on Sunny Skylar’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” Sinatra offers a gentle but emphatic entreaty to underscore the urgency of right now: “You are the summer and I am the autumn/don’t wait too long/you’re song’s beginning, while mine’s nearly sung/don’t wait too long”—at which point occurs a fleeting, winsome, country-inflected piano fill—it goes by like that, but it’s there, and is repeated later by the woodwinds on their own, and further on by the strings alone—“fall is a lovely time of the year/when leaves turn to golden brown/but soon fall is ending, winter is near/and the leaves start tumblin’ down” (a swoosh of Jenkins’s strings here)/why must the moments go by in such haste?” All this metaphorical imagery of changing seasons is but a setup to announcing the reason for his visit, which is nothing less than a heartfelt plea tendered by one who realizes the endgame is near. To wit: Share every precious moment with me/Don’t wait too long…

In one of Jenkins’s most affecting arrangements, of Weill-Anderson’s well-traveled “September Song,” in which the velvety strings shadow and counter Sinatra’s vocal to the enhancement of music and vocal alike, and a lone clarinet fills the few spaces with a chilling, lonesome theme, Sinatra builds dramatically to the album’s most urgent moment, when the strings and the Chairman go for it full bore, as if the lyric cannot be read too forcefully: The days grow short when you reach September… one hasn’t got time for the waiting game/the days dwindle down, to a precious few/September! November! And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you/these precious days I’ll spend with you.”

“Share every precious moment with me”; “These few precious days, I’ll spend with you.” Each tick of the clock is like a bell tolling ceaselessly, one more minute lost, and one minute less to say to someone important, “I love you.” The high-spirited young crooner who was the idol of ‘40s bobby-soxers with his dreamy romantic ballads is a changed man as age 50 looms and suddenly he sees himself mortal. In 1955’s beauty of late-light longing, In The Wee Small Hours, he sang “Last Night When We Were Young” from the standpoint of a woozy morning after—he’s still young then, and kind of feeling the aftereffects of the rush of romance; ten years later he has the audacity to revisit the song on The September Of My Years and demonstrate, with the minute rise in his voice, the toll of his misspent youth. In the lush “I See It Now,” he even admits the thoughtlessness, the waste, of his younger days and concludes by repeating the title sentiment three times, each reading more deeply remorseful than the one preceding it, acknowledging the time having past to reclaim any of this: “Too brash and young was I/to know what time could mean/the old acacia lawn cut down/was felt but never seen/I see it now…that world I knew is lost to me…the years go racing by/I live as best I can/and all at once I know it means the making of a man/I see it now/I see it now/I see it now.”

‘This Is All I Ask’—Sinatra at Carnegie Hall, 1980. In a 1984 Carnegie Hall concert, included as a bonus track on the reissued The September of My Years, the Chairman calls this Gordon Jenkins written-arranged-conducted number Jenkins’s ‘shining hour’

In a bonus live track recorded at a 1984 Carnegie Hall concert, Sinatra introduces Jenkins’s “shining hour,” meaning “This Is All I Ask,” the arranger-conductor’s elegant wish list of “all the simple pleasures” he desires in the prime of his life (“Beautiful girls, walk a little slowww-er when you walk by me/lingering sunsets, stay a little longer with the lonely sea…”). Indeed, the studio version, included on the original album and here, may be the most perfect of all Sinatra-Jenkins matings, peaking as the soaring, swirling crescendo of strings and Sinatra’s belting voice merge at the 2:25 mark of the 3:04 track before settling back into a hopeful coda articulating the presumed end result of all these wishes coming true: “Then I will stay younger than spring.”

Of course, the march of time in one man’s life is best articulated in the grand moment of Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year.” The liner notes tell an odd story of Sinatra discovering the song in the Kingston Trio’s original version (it was released on the Trio’s 1961 Goin’ Places album) in what the liners call a “cute and quick” arrangement, demanding a major architectural overhaul by Jenkins in order to suit Sinatra’s style—in fact, Jenkins is quoted as calling it “really crummy with that two-four beat” and demanding “life changing revisions.” The source of the “really crummy” Trio version remains a mystery, because the interpretation on Goin’ Places is a soft, contemplative vocal and fingerpicked acoustic guitar rendering, atmospheric and meditative. It’s so stripped down, in fact, that you can hear what Sinatra might have heard Jenkins being able to do to raise the dramatic ante with woodwinds and strings, exactly as Jenkins did. Famous womanizer that he was, Sinatra's measuring of his years according to the women he remembers from ages 17, 21 and 35 (“blue-blooded girls of independent means”) is telling—less, perhaps, for its suggestion of ongoing sexual conquests than for the somber final verse, when “days are short,” and the singer’s perspective is from “the autumn of my years.” This is the linchpin moment, the song around which all others would orbit, and Jenkins and Sinatra knew it. For in the concluding half of the final verse, and in contrast to the mordant reflections elsewhere, Sinatra finds a balance, neither lamenting time frittered away on the frivolous pursuits of youth nor his fading vitality, but rather recognizing, at last, the worth of his days. Rising to the challenge, Jenkins subtly picks up the pace with pizzicato strings and fluttering, airy woodwinds in an instrumental evocation of the uplifted spirit we hear in the vocal, when Sinatra sings (and proudly, one should add), “Now I think of my life as vintage wine/from fine old kegs/from the brim to the dregs/it poured sweet and clear/it was a very good year.” “This Is All I Ask” was Jenkins’s “shining hour,” but “It Was A Very Good Year” was the Jenkins-Sinatra team’s shining hour. Hard to believe the single peaked at only #28 on the pop chart in 1965, so omnipresent was it on the radio, but its stature has grown over the years to where it has properly assumed a high standing in the pantheon of Sinatra’s studio performances.

Jenkins would win a Grammy for September of My Years. He reunited with Sinatra on the 1973 comeback album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, and went to the mountaintop with Sinatra again in 1981 for She Shot Me Down, the Chairman’s breathtaking sayonara as a saloon singer, rife with the same style of introspective broodings defining 1965’s September of My Years, but even more pronounced, given the Chairman’s then-65-year-old perspective.

Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still like muffled drums are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

So wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “A Psalm of Life.” Longfellow’s muffled drums beat throughout The September of My Years, but Sinatra is not interested in “beating funeral marches to the grave.” In his moving testimonies is the stuff of a life made sublime, and it’s beautiful to behold. Take heart anew.

US 32’s Tumblin’ Home is available at

Frank Sinatra’s The September of My Years is available at

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