I've got the world on a string today, as I can finally tuck a rarefied, finely plumed feather into my cap -- or, if you prefer a more current reference, scratch a prominent item off my bucket list. Because last Friday, I saw Tony Bennett live.
Stop a moment and read that name again. Tony Bennett. The Tony Bennett.
You can't write a piece on Tony Bennett or review his show without dropping the adjective "legendary" more than a thesaurus would like. There may be other words with similar meaning, but none truly epitomize the man and the voice. Dear gods, that voice, projected from an 87-year-old body with none of its power diminished by time. My grandmother died when she was 86, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to feed herself. A year her senior, Tony Bennett can stand on a bare stage with a quartet of backing musicians and blow a few thousand jaded audience members out of their padded seats. From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come? If only the man could bottle it and sell it, he'd be far richer than he already is. But what is physically impossible to package, instead he shares, and how lucky are we to be the recipients of his generosity.
Tony Bennett is our last nostalgic link to the era of Frank and Ella and Bing, when men and women took their natural talent, refined it through years of vocal training, hard living and humiliating gigs and polished it into a perfect instrument that could be applied to some of the most elegant pieces of musical poetry ever composed. Songs that were universal because they weren't about bling or the thug life or some fantasized notion of puppy love auto-tuned within an inch of sheer roboticness. These were songs written by people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen -- scribes who understood the purity and transcendence of feelings found in simple moments, like noticing the way your love looks tonight. That beautiful perception in songwriting, which Tony Bennett's ongoing career continues to celebrate, has seemingly become an archaic notion. For heaven's sake, it took 11 people to write "Jenny From the Block" and they couldn't even make the lyrics rhyme. A song can't be simple anymore, it has to be big, broad, even histrionic to get anyone's attention. However, Tony Bennett understands the lasting value of these old songs. He's been singing them so long he knows them inside out, back to front, syllable to syllable, note to note. He knows how they were meant to be performed -- in fact, he's defined how they're meant to be performed -- and as he's said himself, he treats them as classical music. And they're still playing Mozart 400 years on, why shouldn't Gershwin receive the same accord? Bennett always acknowledges the writer of a song when he performs it. As terrific as he obviously is, he never sees himself as better than the notes and the words he's delivering, and recognizes that he'd be nothing without the hard work of others. Genuine humility just endears him to us even more. The greatest ones always see themselves as eternal apprentices -- the man who believes he has nothing left to learn is the man who needs to learn the most.
Last Friday, for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, and accompanied only by piano, guitar, standup bass and drums, Bennett led the audience on a guided tour of his most famous songs -- standards like "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "That Old Black Magic," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "The Way You Look Tonight," "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" and more -- tunes you've heard a thousand times on radio, record, tape, CD, iPod, but managed to sound brand new and at the same time, for lack of a better word, classical. He is traditionally economical in his delivery -- no unneeded notes, no elongated frills or scats or anything other than the sheet music asks for -- just the ineffable meaning that an old, weathered soul can provide. His stage patter was likewise minimal, the only real anecdote a touching story about a letter he received from the composer of "Smile," thanking him for making the song popular again -- signed, Charlie Chaplin. While one would love to have dinner with the man and listen to his stories, when he's on stage you just want him to sing. And sing he does. Bennett achieves the impossible feat of bringing so much of himself to the performance yet somehow staying out-of-the-way of the music, letting it and not his impeccably tailored self take center stage. He is keen to divert the spotlight away from himself to the ones who back him up -- the appropriately named Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and "Count Basie's favorite drummer" Harold Jones. And as much as his repertoire might be rooted in the past, he does not shy from the bright lights of the future, promising a forthcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga (though we can safely assume it will be firmly on his turf, not hers).
To hear Tony Bennett sing in person is to be transported; to be connected with a golden era of music that dances ever further from reach with each passing year. They don't write songs like that anymore, and they don't make folks like Tony Bennett to sing them, either. We shall not see his like again, but, given the energy and vitality obviously still coursing through those 87-year-old veins, Bennett is determined to sing, you sinners, until they pry the microphone from his cold, dead fingers. Ironically, my wife and I had talked a mere handful of weeks ago about ensuring that no matter what it took or what the cost, we would make it out to see him one day -- and soon. Serendipity delivered us Bennett tickets shortly thereafter. And we sat together in the darkened auditorium, hands clasped, listening to the man whose music accompanied our wedding six years ago and makes us to this day reach for each other and share a slow dance in the kitchen whenever he comes on. To hear that stuff is to be reminded of the depth of love two people can share, to strive to say it and show it to each other much more often. And so we thank Tony Bennett and say, that's how you keep the music playing.