ICYMI Album Spotlight: Watertown

Don’t worry, Retro Tech Spotlight isn’t going anywhere; it’s just moving to the middle of the month. The ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Album Spotlight is where we’ll look at an album that didn’t get its just due at its time of release. To kick things off, we’ll look at Ol’ Blue Eyes’ penultimate album before his first retirement, 1970’s Watertown.

Watertown – Frank Sinatra (Reprise, 1970)

In 1969, Frank Sinatra was at a crossroads. At 53, his light baritone, warmed by age, was beginning to show its first cracks. His sales had begun to slip after years of chart success as a new generation of music consumers found Ol’ Blue Eyes increasingly unhip. Attempts at recording covers of popular songs of the day were met largely with indifference.

It was on the heels of another commercial flop, A Man Alone – a collection of Rod McKuen poems set to music that peaked at #30 on the Billboard Top Album chart – that Sinatra rolled the dice on a pop concept album written by one of the Four Seasons and the guy who wrote “Dazed and Confused” two years before Jimmy Page did. Watertown wouldn’t even crack the top 100 on the Billboard chart upon its March 1970 release, and by June of the following year, Sinatra was retiring … for the first time, anyway.

All of which is prologue to this: Watertown is a flat-out brilliant album. It captures Sinatra at his most vulnerable, playing the part of a broken man trying to gamely carry on in the face of personal loss. And it works because in this moment, Sinatra IS vulnerable. His career is stalling, and his voice – his instrument – is starting to lost its luster. And he’s placing himself in the hands of these relative kids, Bob Gaudio (the aforementioned Season) and Jake Holmes (the other one; more on him later), to craft these songs, and he’s singing to pre-recorded tracks, which he’s never done. And it all … just … works.

It’s just me, Frank, working on the railroad.

Watertown tells the story of a Santa Fe railman with a wife, Elizabeth, and two boys, Michael and Peter, who works and lives in the titular city, where “no one’s goin’ anywhere / Livin’s much too easy there” (the titular opening track). But there’s trouble ahead, as “just as I begin to say / That we should make another try / She reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says good-bye” (“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)”).

What follows are what we can surmise are letters our unnamed protagonist is writing to his estranged wife, who has left both him and their boys. He goes on about how he can go “For A While” without missing her, but always returns ultimately to that emptiness. “Michael and Peter” finds Frank musing that “if you look at them both for a while / You can see they are you, they are me” and that “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing.” In “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” Frank says he would do it all again despite her leaving, yet concedes, “If I knew then what I know now / I don’t believe I’d ever change / Somehow.”

By side two, disbelief has given way to despair. In “Elizabeth,” our hero seems to recognize that his love was for an idealized version of his wife, not one rooted in reality – “Dressed in dreams for me / You were what I wished to see.” This theme extends into “What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be),” as he recounts light-hearted moments in their marriage and how “You always found a smile / Where smiles could not be found.”

And then reality come crashing down in “What’s Now Is Now,” where we find out what drove his wife to leave town – an affair. Frank is willing to forgive – “What’s now is now / And I’ll forget what happened then / I know it all / And we can still begin again.” And there seems to be some hope of a reconciliation in “She Says,” where a letter arrives from Elizabeth announcing her impending return. The boys are skeptical. “So she says,” they sing in tandem. “So she says.” But Frank will not be deterred. “The pri-ice is high,” he warbles, his instrument unsteady, “High as the sky / And she says / She says / She’s coming home.”

And so the day arrives to meet “The Train.” Frank is standing in the rain and running through all the things he wants to say and all the things they’ll talk about, because, as it turns out, “I wrote so many times and more / But the letters still are lying in my drawer.” But they never do talk, because “The train is slowly moving on / But I can’t see you any place / And I know for sure I’d recognize your face / And I know for sure I’d recognize your face.”

Bob Gaudio (left, seen here with Frankie Valli) co-wrote Watertown as a side project.

And that’s Watertown. Originally, there were plans to produce a television special to coincide with the release of the album. The album, despite receiving positive reviews, petered out at #101 on the Billboard Top Album chart and all such plans were scrapped. Watertown was destined to be remembered as little more than a footnote in Sinatra’s career, but then a critical reevaluation of the album years later led to it developing a bit of a cult following that spawned blogposts, podcasts and even a (now-defunct) website dedicated specifically to Watertown.

Why?

Well, for starters, it IS brilliant. It’s also an anomaly in the Sinatra canon. Frank had done concept albums and song cycles before (In The Wee Small Hours immediately comes to mind), and he’d taken tentative stabs at ’60s pop, but this amalgam of the two was his sole attempt at trying both simultaneously.

Secondly, there’s the previously mentioned vulnerability. This isn’t to say that Sinatra couldn’t convey vulnerability before this. He literally made his bones breaking the hearts of Hoboken girls. This, however, was a different kind of vulnerability, one which Sinatra’s fans were unaccustomed to – that of a man beaten down by life and fighting to persevere, but whose voice now betrays that underlying frailty. And if you say, well, that sounds like “My Way,” congratulations, because he first released “My Way” a year earlier. It too stalled on the charts.

Lastly, there’s the songwriting of Gaudio and Holmes, who penned a really wonderful song cycle worthy of Sinatra’s talents. Gaudio was already well known as keyboardist, backing vocalist and primary songwriter (often in tandem with producer Bob Crewe) of the Four Seasons. Holmes, on the other hand, was a lesser-known quantity. He’d recorded two albums for Tower Records, the first of which, “The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes (1967), contained a folk-rock tune titled “Dazed and Confused.”

Jimmy Page didn’t just steal from old bluesmen.

Holmes performed the tune live at a Greenwich Village gig that summer while opening for the Yardbirds. From there, the Yardbirds (which included guitarist Jimmy Page) soon began incorporating their own version of the tune into their act, until ultimately, the Yardbirds morphed into Led Zeppelin and Page included his version of “Dazed and Confused” on the band’s debut album without attribution to Holmes. After many years of legal wrangling, the Zeppelin song now includes an “Inspired by Jake Holmes” credit.

But it was another song on “The Above Ground Sound” that caught Gaudio’s attention: “Genuine Imitation Life.” He asked Holmes to work with him in crafting songs for the next Four Seasons album, which would end up featuring the Holmes track as its anchor. The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette was released in January 1969, and was by far the most ambitious album the Newark natives ever attempted, foregoing their usual love songs for tunes with socially conscious lyrics that addressed hot topics of the day such as the Vietnam War, divorce and racism. Critically acclaimed, the album flopped, topping out at #85 on the Billboard Top Album chart.

It did, however, catch the attention of another Jersey boy, and the rest is history.