Paul Anka was born on July 30, 1941, in Ottawa, Canada, a son of Lebanese immigrants. When he was fourteen, he cut his first record at a local studio. The song was called “I Confess.” When he was fifteen, he went to Los Angeles, tried to make it in the recording business, flopped, went home. When he was sixteen, he went to New York, tried to make it in the recording business, succeeded, and became known as the writer and performer of “Diana,” which, within a few years, had sold twenty million copies. (This was 1957, three years after Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right.”) “Diana” was, for many years, the second-best-selling single ever released, outsold only by “White Christmas.” It had been written for Anka’s babysitter Diana Ayoub, whom he loved but who did not love him back. When he was seventeen, he went on tour with the Caravan of Stars, a showcase that included Bobby Darin, Fabian, Buddy Holly, and Annette Funicello. Chuck Berry was also on the Caravan of Stars but refused to ride the bus, instead following in his pink Cadillac. In these months, Anka fell in love again, this time with Funicello, for whom he wrote “It’s Really Love.” Years later, stripped of lyrics, this became the theme of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, a turn that, all by itself, brought Anka $800,000 a year in residuals.
Anka has written more than nine hundred songs, including three No. 1s: “Diana,” “Lonely Boy,” and “You’re Having My Baby.” He had five songs in the top twenty before he turned eighteen. These include “Put your Head on my Shoulder,” “You Are My Destiny,” and “Puppy Love.” He has also had hits in French, Spanish, and Italian. His score for the movie The Longest Day, in which he also acted, was nominated for an Academy Award. He has five children, all girls whose names begin with the letter A,1 one of whom married the sitcom warhorse Jason Bateman, which makes Paul Anka Jason Bateman’s father-in-law. He owns the Ottawa Senators of the NHL but has become a naturalized U.S. citizen. In his living room, he has, according to Cigar Aficionado magazine, a wall with four TV sets, an echo of the basement room in Graceland where Elvis watched three TV sets, showing Westerns, usually, simultaneously. According to a guide at Graceland, Elvis borrowed this habit from LBJ, who used to watch all three network newscasts simultaneously. A pillow on the couch in Anka’s living room is embossed with the words Be Reasonable. Do It My Way.
Paul Anka is, in other words, one of the most successful songwriters of all time, having had hits before the Beatles and after Nirvana, having survived the British invasion, disco, metal, hip-hop, grunge. And yet he has no public identity. His aura is everywhere, his personality nowhere. Try to imagine his face: you can’t, can you? Because he’s a ventriloquist, a cipher. His career has been about giving the audience whatever it wants, about locating the mood of the moment, then expressing that mood in song. Inhabiting the psyche of other artists, finding words of self-expression they could never find themselves—that’s his talent. It’s the lost voodoo of the Brill Building, where chain-smoking songsmiths turned out tunes the way other, happier people turned out costumes for Broadway. (It’s a world that was largely destroyed when Bob Dylan began performing his own material.) In the 1950s, Anka wrote “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Buddy Holly, but his greatest work was done in the late 1960s, when he wrote “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, a song that would come to represent a whole style of manhood.
By the mid-1960s Anka and the rest of the Caravan of Stars had been pushed out of the spotlight by the various turns in popular music. Anka was making his living in the casino showrooms of Vegas. It was in this way that he first came to know Frank Sinatra. This was the Sinatra of the middle years, miraculously back from oblivion, having nearly been destroyed by his affair with Ava Gardner, throat polyps, surgery, miscues, and flops, including a duet he recorded with a howling dog.2 He had been made large by experience, by his entourage, by his association with mobsters, by the violence, real or threatened, that surrounded him. His voice had deepened, and his eyes were as blue as a stinger, a favorite drink of the Rat Pack. He was still handsome, but had been knocked off his game by the tremendous success of rock and roll. This Frank wanted to be respected, but feared he wasn’t, or not always, or not by everyone. This Frank tried to stay current by recording songs by the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. Depending on whom you ask, this Frank and his entourage either owned Vegas or were owned by the gangsters who actually ran the town.3
Frank took special notice of Anka in these years. He looked at him as a millionaire rancher might look at an especially lush piece of grassland.
One night, after Anka had performed at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Frank and members of the Rat Pack stopped by his dressing room to pay their respects. You cannot overemphasize what it meant to get such a visit from Sinatra. It was like an audience with the King, if the King could sing and drink and ace a screen test. Sinatra said he was planning to retire. This was 1969. The hippies had taken over. An entertainer in a fedora faced certain obstacles. It was time to leave the stage, but Frank wanted to do it his own way, with a big show, and one last hit that would sum up the entire journey. Could Anka write such a song? It was like the Pope asking you to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel and tell again the story of God’s sojourn on Earth. But Anka had to be careful. “He kept teasing me about writing something,” Anka said. “Well, I wasn’t going to give him ‘Puppy Love’ or ‘Lonely Boy.’ He’d have tossed me out the window.”
Anka turned the problem over in his head, then remembered a rock and roll song he had heard on TV in Paris called “Pour Mois” by Jacques Reveaux. Later reworked by Claude François and Gilles Thibault, it was released as “Comme D’Habitude.” Anka did not love the words of this song (“The lyrics were very French,” he told Cigar Aficionado. “‘I get up in the morning, I drink coffee, your armpit smells, I love you’”) but was intrigued by the melody. When he called to inquire about the publishing rights, the man at the company said, You want it, take it.
“As simple as that,” Anka said. “I mean, we weren’t buying the pyramids here.”
He ran the melody through his mind as he meditated on Frank, the meaning of Frank, the essence of Frank, playing with words and phrases. “I was back in New York, it was after midnight, it was raining,” he said later. “I started thinking about this French song and playing it on the piano, and making it less rock and roll, and the whole time thinking about Sinatra, about how great it would be to write a song for Sinatra. That was one of the eighteen times he was going to retire, so I’m thinking about this and I walk to the typewriter and I type: ‘And now, the end is near.’ When I started getting to ‘Eat it up and spit it out,’ I knew I had it. It wrote itself. I finished it at five in the morning.”
Anka called Sinatra’s musical director and said, “Don, I think I’ve got something.”
A few days later, he flew to Vegas where Sinatra was performing (for free?) at Caesar’s Palace. Sinatra read the song between sets. “In those days, if Frank said kooky, that meant he was really excited,”4 said Anka. “Well, he was crazy for it.”
A month later, Anka got a call from Sinatra’s agent. He first heard Frank’s version of “My Way” over the phone. It showcases the deep, expressive voice Frank came into—as some people come into money—in his middle years, after the heartbreak and string of failures. It seemed to contain all the experience of an eventful life. “It was Ava [Gardner] who taught him how to sing a torch song,” Nelson Riddle, who arranged some of Sinatra’s best songs, said later. “That’s how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life, and he lost her.” As Anka listened to his lyrics filled with Frank’s life he “started crying,” he later said. “It was the turning point of my career.”
Sinatra first sang the song publicly on June 13, 1971, at the Los Angeles Music Center in what, he announced, would be his last show.5 The audience included Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Spiro Agnew. Taken together, the songs Frank performed that night were meant to tell the story of his life—it was a musical autobiography. He opened with “All of Me,” the big hit from his early years with Tommy Dorsey, then sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Nancy,” co-written by Sinatra for his first wife, “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “Ol’ Man River,” on which he changed the line “Darkies all work on the Mississippi” to “Here we all work on the Mississippi.” He closed with “My Way.” By the time he reached the last stanza, the arena was filled with sobbing power-brokers who believed Frank had just told their story.
Here are the words:
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than
I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say—not in a shy way,
No, oh no not me,
I did it my way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way!
Of course, the irony is that this song, meant to tell the story of Sinatra, set him above the trends, and make him timeless, rooted him more firmly in time: the great man who has seen his greatness flicker, who has entered his decline in a moment of social upheaval. To me, it sounds less like a fight song than like the complaint of a wounded animal, the old man making his case on the edge of the abyss. It mirrored the protest songs then dominating the charts, the rants of all those angry young men, fake Dylans who wanted to tear down the system. “My Way” is the protest of an angry old man, or a man of any age who knows he’s on his way out. Meant to be a credo, it nonetheless says less about how you should live than about how you should die. The choice of this material, even if meant ironically, should be taken as a danger sign.
It’s no coincidence that the singers who define “My Way” (Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious) almost never wrote their own material. All these men were actors, investing someone else’s words less with authenticity than with attitude, a pose, a way of dressing, a way of living, a way of dying. “My Way” is just a script—it comes to life only when inhabited by someone like Frank,6 the guy who follows you outside, threatens you, or asks his bodyguard, the Crusher, to crack you because you made Frankie feel bad. “My Way” plugged into Sinatra’s boundless sense of self-satisfaction and self-pity.
What’s more, it plugged into the self-satisfaction and resentment of that entire generation, which is why it was such a hit. This was 1971, Vietnam had already gone wrong, and the streets were filled with longhaired crazies. “My Way” was blowback, a counterattack in a generational war. It was a big fuck-you from the boss. A song of former glory or imagined glory. It might seem strange that Sid Vicious had a hit with this song, but it’s natural. “My Way” is driven by the same defiance that drives punk and hip hop, which is why there have been both punk and hip-hop versions7—it’s the anthem of the powerful man who has seen, with fear, the arrival of an ignorant new generation. In 1974, Marion Javits, whose husband Jacob, a child of poverty who went on to become one of the most powerful senators in the history of New York, told a reporter from the New York Times, “[Jacob] just loves it when Frank Sinatra sings, ‘(I Did It) My Way.’ Every time he hears it, he cries.”
In 1953, Elvis was the sort of gawky teenager that other teenagers avoid in the high school hallway. In 1955, Elvis was the world’s first true rock star, singing those nigra songs and playing that nigra music, dressing like a pimp, shaking his hips, and wearing eyeliner. In 1958, Elvis was stationed in West Germany, his hair shorn, a foot soldier in America’s army of occupation. At times, he wondered if anyone would remember him. In 1960, soon after he got back home, he boarded a train for Miami, where, in his first public performance in more than two years, he would sing on a TV special called “Frank Sinatra’s Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley.”
In other words, it was time for “a little hey hey.”
The arrangements had been worked out by Colonel Tom Parker, the former circus advance man who had taken over Presley’s career before he went into the army. Elvis would be paid $125,000 to sing two songs, the most ever paid for a TV appearance, which was especially impressive considering Sinatra’s earlier position on Elvis. In 1955, when Elvis was breaking big, Frank, as if spotting the approach of a Comanche war party, fired off a preemptive barrage. “Rock ’n’ Roll smells phony and false,” he wrote in a music magazine. “It is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics… it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.”
I suppose it was decent of Sinatra not to name names, but everyone knew who it was he had in mind.8 This article offered a perfect example of an older generation reacting to its successor. Elvis would respond in the same freaked-out way to the Beatles a few years later. (If Elvis was having a bad day, he would say, “My mouth feels like Bob Dylan’s been sleeping in it.”) But Sinatra had misread the situation. Elvis did not want to overthrow Frank. He wanted to become Frank. They all wanted to become Frank, and still do. That’s how cool Frank was when Frank was cool.9 Sinatra quickly realized he could not hold back the wave, so he decided to ride it, hosting the TV party for Elvis, because Elvis meant ratings.
Elvis was traveling south by train, accompanied by a few musicians, most notably Scottie Moore, whose Chet Atkins–like guitar solos haunted those early records. At each stop, crowds stood along the tracks. This had been arranged by the Colonel, the advance man, who had gone up and down the line, spreading the word: elvis is coming. It must’ve been like flashing through a tunnel of eyes. “It was unreal,” Scottie Moore later said. “The only thing I can relate it to was reading about Lincoln’s body going back to Springfield or seeing movies of Roosevelt—his body coming out of Georgia after he died. Every little crossroads, every little town; you just can’t imagine—they were lined with people.”
It’s perfect that Scottie Moore compared the trip that Elvis took to Miami after he returned from the army to the most famous funeral processions in American history. Because it was a funeral procession: the Elvis that lit up the country in 1955 was already gone. The story of that trip is the story of the decline retold in symbols. It’s the story of how the androgynous cracker turned into Frank Sinatra. Think of a train leaving a tiny country station at first light, the engine starting to fire, the towns wandering by, Elvis in back in a flame-red suit, music drifting in from the joints, Sonny Boy Williamson singing “Bring It on Home,” the harmonica imitating the clack of the iron tracks, Elvis ducking out, drinking in the afternoon, mobbed by girls, his picture plastered to every post in every town, and the sky clouds over, and it rains money, and in the fields beyond the last house an old carnie gets on, and he has a coat full of fliers, and he says, “Call me the Colonel,” and then it’s night, and Elvis has been awake for years, and the train is moving so fast the towns just blur by, and there is no music, just the sound of the engine steaming into a big nameless city where Elvis is on stage with Frank.
It makes me think of the E. E. Cummings poem about Buffalo Bill:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Here are some ways Elvis came to resemble Frank:
Like Frank, he spent more and more time in Las Vegas, moving mostly by night, surrounded by his entourage. Like Frank, the most important woman in his life was his mom. Like Frank, his voice deepened and body thickened. (Unlike Frank, this increase did not convey the authority of experience—Elvis just got fat.) Like Frank, he collected houses, women, and cars. On a visit to Graceland, you see Cadillacs, motorcycles, dune buggies. But one car does not fit: a steely European roadster that is sophisticated in a different way from that of the others. If you ask the guide, she will tell you, “That’s because it was special made for Frank Sinatra. Elvis saw it and liked it so much he bought it before it could be delivered.” Like Frank, Elvis had affairs with Natalie Wood and Juliet Prowse. At the time Elvis was filming G. I. Blues with Prowse, the actress was said to be Frank’s unofficial fiancée. Between scenes, Prowse and Elvis would hole up in a trailer until the PA shouted, “Here comes Frank!”
It therefore makes perfect sense that, in 1976, when he was drugged out and almost done, Elvis decided to record “My Way.” He had taken Frank’s car and Frank’s girl; he would now take his world-weary tone. Elvis had not earned this tone, but, then again, neither had Frank. It was a con. But Elvis was too naïve to understand that.10 His interest in “My Way” should’ve been taken as a danger sign. It was like blood on the handkerchief, or the elevated white-cell count that warns of trouble. It was a symptom of that deadly pop-star disease, Fame. Frank could handle it; Elvis could not.
The arrangement on Presley’s “My Way” is almost identical to the arrangement on Sinatra’s. The song opens, builds, crashes, and rebuilds in the same epic fashion. Only the voice is different. It’s as if Elvis had slipped inside Sinatra. In fact, the whole performance feels like karaoke. “That’s All Right” was Elvis’s first single; “My Way” was among his last. He sang it at every show on his final tour. Perhaps he cut it just so he could sing it, and tell himself again each night that he was his own man, that he took the blows, that he ate it up and that he spit it out, not that every steak had been cut into small, manageable pieces by the Colonel. Elvis deteriorated visibly in the course of that tour, but no one seemed to care. Not his fans, not the Colonel. The drummer on the tour said Elvis seemed asleep much of the time. “An eerie silence filled the hall when he sang, ‘And now, the end is near,’ the opening line to the Frank Sinatra favorite ‘My Way,’” a reporter from Long Beach, California, wrote at the time. “It was like witnessing a chilling prophecy.” One of these performances was captured on film and later included in the movie This Is Elvis. “In a scene whose irony is both too broad and too enormous for this film to contain,” Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times in 1981, “the pitifully deteriorated Elvis sings ‘My Way,’ barely remembering the words.”
On August 16, 1977, Elvis was found dead in Graceland—on the toilet was how I first heard it, the King on his Throne—but in fact he was on the floor of the bathroom, his gold pajama bottoms down around his ankles, his face in a pool of vomit. In the hours before his death, he had taken Seconal, Valmid, and Demerol. As Springsteen later sang, “They found him slumped up against his drain, a whole lotta trouble, hey, running through his veins.” Elvis liked to read in the bathroom, and on this last trip he had taken a book about the Shroud of Turin.11 Within hours, news of his death had spread around the world. If you are old enough, you probably remember where you were when you heard he was gone. I was at Camp Menominee in Eagle River, Wisconsin, on the strip of grass between cabins 15 and 16, watching the swimmers come up the hill from the waterfront.
Punk rock, which turned up in dive bars in London and Manhattan around this time, was a protest against the direction of rock and roll or, to put a face on it, against what had happened to Elvis—how he had been declawed and tamed and fattened, and turned into Frank.
In the spring of 1977, Sid Vicious, nineteen, was drinking at the 100 Punk Club in London, heckling the band because they were not the Sex Pistols. Because they were still not the Sex Pistols, he threw a bottle at the singer, which missed but shattered on a wall. A piece of glass lodged in the eye of a girl near the stage. She lost the vision in that eye, and Sid was taken to jail. By the time he returned to the club a few nights later, he was a legend, the pure punk, the kid who would do anything.12 Malcolm McLaren, the guru of the scene—he dreamed up and recruited the Sex Pistols—then asked Sid to join the band. He wanted to capitalize on Sid’s reputation but also on his looks: until the end, when his teeth started to rot, Sid was handsome in a picturesque waifish way that never goes out of style. His favorite book was Helter Skelter. Quoting Charles Manson, he often said, “Everything is nothing, nothing is everything.”13
Sid’s first performance as a Sex Pistol came on April 3, 1977, at the Green Cinema in London. He had taken over for Glenn Matlock, the band’s original bass player, who held a grudge for years. Here’s the joke: Sid could not play bass or any other musical instrument. On records, someone else played his part. At shows, they let him stomp around but turned off his amp.14 But he had the perfect face for the mission, which was to return rock and roll to its original spirit, to make it again, as Sinatra had said, “the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth”—that is, to get its Elvis back. Sid was a train wreck in concert and would do anything, so the people lined up. And you must know that music! Each song was a revolution that lasted two minutes. “God Save the Queen,” released in 1978, hit No. 1 in the U.K. As it was considered offensive, the name was omitted from the charts, so, in Billboard, a blank space appeared next to the number.
The Sex Pistols burned, then were gone. Members of the band blamed the breakup on Sid’s girlfriend Nancy—“Sid came to hate everything but heroin and Nancy,” their road manager said—but there was no way the band could’ve sustained that level of energy for long. Nor did they need to. The Pistols were engaged less in a war than in a commando raid or a suicide mission. They recorded their video—We are the Sex Pistols, we do this because we want Elvis back—then, in essence, blew themselves up. The final break came on January 14, 1978, during a concert at the Winterland in San Francisco, when Johnny Rotten, the front man, walked offstage in the middle of the show. And that was it. In the ensuing weeks, Sid collapsed into a haze of drug abuse and self-pity. Seeming to prepare himself for death, he was actually preparing himself to record “My Way.”
Sid and Nancy moved to Paris in 1978. They lived in a succession of hotels, staying until they were kicked out for shooting up in the hallway, puking in the lobby. In one room, they smashed all the mirrors.15 Malcolm McLaren was pushing Sid to make a solo record. His French label wanted him to cover Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” but Sid hated the song. He recorded “My Way” instead. The session ran two nights, April 3 and 4, 1978. At Nancy’s suggestion, Sid rewrote the lyrics to reflect his own journey. Some of the new phrases include: “I shot it up,” “I ducked the blows,” “I killed a cat,” “I ain’t no queer.” It’s been described as a punk rock assassination.16
Sid’s “My Way” was released in 1978. It climbed the charts. It reached the Billboard Top Ten in Britain. By that time, Sid and Nancy had moved to New York and were living in room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel. Mostly they walked around, went to shows, scored drugs, took drugs, and fought. Sid was an icon in the East Village. He had become Elvis, who had become Frank. A friend of Sid and Nancy’s said, “I remember going out on the corner to watch them, and everyone parted like the Red Sea as they walked by.”
On October 12, 1978, Nancy was found dead in a bathroom in the Chelsea Hotel. She had been stabbed. Sid was charged with the murder, which he did not deny committing because he couldn’t remember one way or the other. A few weeks before, in one of his last performances, he, like Elvis, forgot the words to “My Way.” That winter, while staying at his girlfriend’s house on Bank Street, he took an overdose of heroin scored by his mom, who had come to New York to take care of him. She was in the apartment when he shot up. Later, when she looked in, she said his body was glowing. He was dead by morning. And so the story of “My Way” comes full circle: Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Or, as the dialecticians would say: Thesis (Frank), Antithesis (Elvis), Synthesis (Sid).
For a song that presents itself as a personal anthem, and was written as such for Sinatra, then recorded as such by Elvis and again by Sid, “My Way” has been covered by a surprising number of artists. On April 12, 2004, to celebrate its thirty-fifth anniversary, 35,000 radio stations played the song simultaneously. The list of recommended covers included versions by Tom Jones, Nina Simone, Shane McGowan, the Gipsy Kings, Kanye West, Robbie Williams, and Julio Iglesias. In other words, the song that started inside the French armpit has grown into an institution. In 1989, as the Soviet Union was coming apart, the Kremlin announced new rules whereby the Warsaw Pact countries would be left, for the first time in decades, to go their own way. Mikhail Gorbachev’s spokesman called this policy “The Sinatra Doctrine.”
In a performance at Madison Square Garden, Sinatra introduced the song by saying, “We will now
do the national anthem, though you needn’t rise.” It was a joke, I guess, but the song does capture something fundamental about the American character, the anger and defiance, the propensity for self-importance and self-satisfaction. It plugs into the self-pity people can feel when they are on the other side of something big. Sinatra, Presley, Vicious—each artist recorded it near the end of his public life, and in each case it became associated with the artist’s decline. It’s as if this song were a highly contagious virus, or else the virus is some invisible pop star disease and the song is a symptom of a terminal illness.
With the death of Sinatra in 1998, “My Way” returned to Anka, who performs it about 150 times a year.18 Most telling are the shows done at corporate getaways—these pay around $300,000 a pop. It’s amid the shrimp cocktails and Cobb salads and PowerPoint presentations that the song really does become the national anthem. After running through his catalogue, Anka, launching into the song, jumps offstage, wanders past the peons and nobodies, drops to one knee before the CEO, spreads his arms and sings, “The record shows you took the blows, and did it your way!”