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A surprisingly good read, in many ways . . .
on December 17, 2001
There's a Bennett anecdote I remember hearing reported on local (San Francisco) radio back in the early '60s: A local woman, gardening in her backyard one Saturday afternoon, was listening to Bennett's then-new "I Left My Heart In San Francisco;" suddenly, she realized, the singing had become somehow stereophonic. Looking up, she found Tony Bennett grinning at her over her backyard fence. In town for an appearance at the Fairmont Hotel, Bennett had been out for a walk; hearing her phonograph, he'd been unable to resist . . .
This is the Tony Bennett you get to meet in the pages of "The Good Life." If you're a fan, nothing in this book will change your mind. If you're not, well then, despite the fact that there does appear a certain sense of "glossiness" in his account of his life, loves, marriages, etc., you may well find yourself coming to nonetheless admire the man.
A word about that "glossiness": It may well arise from nothing more than a yearning towards fairness (and not only to himself). He discusses failed marriage, for example, as well as his work-induced absences as a parent, taking responsibility for his actions without -- on the one hand -- pointing out that it "takes two to tangle," or -- on the other -- seeking to overly justify his absences as the price of building a successful career. He also talks of his marijuana use (as first disclosed by his exwife, years after they'd split) in an explanatory tone, with regret, and without seeking to justify that use. Again, there is a sense of fairness about him, even as he talks of a fairly prevalent drug use among musicians of the era. In his desire to explain the musician's life and its pressures and demands, there is what some may (wrongfully)interpret as an impulse to self-expiate. This is wrong, as evidenced, not only by his own mea culpa approach, but by his account of a conversation with longtime friend -- and onetime collaborator -- Bill Evans, shortly before the latter's death.
This fairness carries over in his account of his early disputes with then-Columbia Records A&R head, Mitch Miller (best remembered today, probably, for his subsequent "Sing Along With Mitch" records and TV series of the late '50s). By all accounts, Miller was -- to say the least -- dictatorial and patriarchial in his belief that he knew what was best for the artists under his control. Bennett could have savaged the man in this account (and justifiably); after all, Miller's long gone from the scene, others have already reminisced about his iron-handed control; so what stops Bennett . . . save for a humanistic impulse toward fairness?
For me, one of the most telling portions of this autobiography occur in Bennett's recounting of his World War II experiences as a G.I. in the European theatre. Without self-aggrandizement, he talks -- movingly so -- of what he saw, and how those horrors turned him against war for all time; strikingly, it is this same absence of 'been-there-done-that' self-absorption that colors (and which underplays) the reminiscences of his considerable involvement in the early-60s civil rights movement down in Mississipi-Alabama. If he avoids the urge to expiate himself, he likewise eschews the temptation towards self-canonization.
From his August 3, 1926 birth (one day too late, by the way, to be my twenty-years-older "birthday twin"), through the intervening years including his "renaissance" for yet future generations via MTV, Bennett presents himself in this autobiography as a man who caught more than his share of lucky breaks (and who, inferentially, made a few more of his own, although you won't get him to admit it, at least in this book) on his way to (as in the title of one his best-known songs) "The Good Life."