JUNE/JULY 2006
RICH COHEN

THE SINATRA DOCTRINE

WRITTEN FOR SINATRA’S RETIREMENT, BORROWED BY ELVIS AT THE PEAK OF HIS DECLINE, AND ASSASSINATED BY SID VICIOUS BEFORE HE OD’D, PAUL ANKA’S “MY WAY” CAPTURES THE FUNDAMENTAL ANGER, DEFIANCE, AND SELF-SATISFACTION OF THE AMERICAN CHARACTER.

DISCUSSED: “White Christmas,” Ventriloquism, Las Vegas, Buying Melodies, Vietnam’s Longhaired Crazies, Preemptive Strikes, Senator Jacob Javits, Train Rides, Lincoln’s Funeral Procession, E. E. Cummings, Pop-Star Disease, Prophetic Opening Lines, Parting the Red Sea, Dialectics, Mikhail Gorbachev, The National Anthem

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.

  1. Amelia, Anthea, Alicia, Amanda, Alexandra.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Rich Cohen is the author of Tough Jews, The Record Men, and Sweet and Low: A Family Story. He lives in New York.


STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.