We Can Choose Heroes,
Then Change Our Minds
BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION -- It occurs to me that precious few things are incontrovertibly in our control in perpetuity. Our heroes are one of those precious few.

No one can make you idolize someone. No one can force you not to make someone your hero. It's all internal and no person, no government, no agency can get in there. You choose and your decisions are yours alone.

The thought hit me this week when word came that Pete Hamill, the noted journalist and middling novelist, passed away at 85. Friends who have known me forever were quick to send links to the news and inquire after my opinion. Because once upon a time, Hamill was one of my heroes.

But if we can choose heroes, to paraphrase David Bowie, we can also choose them for just one day--or one week or one Scaramucci or one year or one lifetime.

I hadn't thought of Hamill for a very long time. Never read any of his novels or his later journalism. I've never read what is arguably his most famous work, a slim volume called Why Sinatra Matters. And on hearing of his death, I had no angle, as we word peddlers like to say. When Sinatra died, I had an angle--and a column that mimicked Hamill. When Brooklyn, from whence Pete and I originated, finally got a hotel, I had an angle--and a column that mimicked Hamill.

But Hamill, not so much. I read the obits, nodded and moved on. Once upon a time, though ...

What appears below, in nearly 3,000 words of gruesome self-importance, is once upon a time.

Fair warning: I have no excuse for what appears below. None at all. I don't know now what I was thinking then. I don't even understand most of it now.

My only explanation, feeble as it is, is that it was written in 1976 when I was 23. Twenty-three, as a TV character recently said, is such a stupid age: Too young to die and too old to eat off the kids' menu.

I'm nearly three times 23 now. With almost two more 23-year chunks of life lived, I'm a little smarter. Not a lot, but a little. I certainly have chosen better heroes. I have more perspective and balance, too. Less hair, of course, but whattaya gonna do?

Still, not everything I scribbled in 1976 is worthless.

More than 20 years before Hamill wrote a book about Sinatra, I recognized that they were inextricably intertwined. None of the Hamill obits this week mentioned his mediocre work in the late 1970s when he was stubbornly rhapsodizing about a white ethnic New York while the city was transitioning to a more inclusive and more diverse metropolis. To his credit, he did eventually realize that there was no single New York story. And I heard him wisely say later in life that anyone who thinks they "know" New York is probably a tourist.

I still unabashedly love the bejeezus out of Come Blow Your Horn and I'm not the only one who swoons over the film's iconic apartment. And damned if I wasn't right about the Westchester Premier Theatre, an ignoble place that was all mobbed up.

Mostly, though, I was right about Sinatra. The arc of his post-retirement career--live, nationally televised concert at Madison Square Garden in 1974, sold-out Broadway engagement in 1975, bitter man doing a moldy oldies act at a suburban dinner theater in 1976--wasn't pretty. And I defy you to point to anything he did after 1976 that is the equal of his pre-retirement body of work.

Pro tip: If you check out now without reading further, I'm fine with your decision. I submit this mawkish mess only for the historical record. I plead guilty to criminal youth, premeditated bathos and recklessly dangerous navel-gazing.

December 19, 1976.
Fat kids, you may be interested to know, grow up bizarre, even if they temporarily manage to lose most of the weight somewhere along the way.

Fat kids, you may also be interested to know, always seem to grow up into fat adults, even if the scale says otherwise,

You have heard, I assume, the old axiom that says, "Inside every fat kid is a skinny kid screaming to get out." True, but let me tell you something no one ever bothered to axiomize: Inside every skinny adult who used to be a fat kid, the skinny kid is still screaming to get out.

Fat kids learn quickly that there is no benefit in having feelings. Feelings are best forgotten in a world dominated by skinny kids who grew into skinny adults. And fat kids learn, too, that it's best not to do things your way, not to try to be anything more unique than the fat has already made you.

But if a fat kid ever becomes, even for a little while, a skinny adult, he goes looking for heroes. Heroes who he thinks can teach him feelings or a sense of style or how to do things his own way. Perhaps heroes like Frank Sinatra or Pete Hamill.

He is almost always disappointed

I guess it was Hamill who taught me how to feel and I know it was Hamill who taught me how to write with feeling. His columns would run three days a week in the New York Post and I'd turn to him and marvel at so many things: his ability to connect a seemingly unrelated verb to a subject and a predicate, make it all sound logical, and, in fact, more emotional than the expected verb; at his ability to tell a story simply by telling the story; and how, without ever blatantly expressing what he felt, tell you exactly how he felt. Mostly, I'd marvel at his ability to go into the streets and superbly reproduce the exquisite rage or the unbounded joy of the New Yorkers I thought the greatest creatures on the earth.

Late in high school and throughout college, it was Hamill who introduced me to the neat technique of freezing a few moments in time and then writing about them in totality and make them a stinging, gut-wrenching emotional commentary. I ripped him off unabashedly, even cultivated the image of a cut-rate Hamill, because, well, it seemed to be better than the image I had at the time.

His collection of columns, Irrational Ravings, was my writing Bible. I can't be sure, of course, but I don't think I was the only columnist-wanna-be who thought that way.

In 1971, when I started writing about pop culture, I needed an angle. So I began to use the frozen-moment-in-time technique. I'd set up meetings in bars, knowing in advance what type of story I could get, knowing that if they'd say what I expected, I'd be able to whip up a pseudo-Hamill piece in a matter of minutes. If absolutely nothing else, I was a talented mimic.

I even used Pete Hamill's technique--generally plagiarized all of his stylistic devices, actually--when I finally got to do a column of my own in a real-life newspaper in 1974, Well, it was a New Jersey paper of absolutely no repute. but, hell, it was a newspaper and my picture was at the top of the column.

Two weeks later, I quit the place, never got to write another column with my picture at the top and have somehow slowly become uncomfortable with the Hamill style.

My disenchantment with Hamill's style also grew into a disenchantment with Hamill. Coincidentally, he'd left the Post two days after I escaped New Jersey and I never quite forgave him for leaving me in the lurch like that. After he departed, and certainly in retrospect, I became unhappy with his material. I began to find fault with all the Hamill pieces I once cherished. His stuff suddenly seemed awfully lush, stupidly showy and frivolous. Pieces I once thought brilliantly subtle now struck me as pointless and self-serving.

It didn't help, either, when Hamill came back to New York last year and began writing for the Village Voice again just when I started with the magazine. We never actually crossed paths because he was PETE HAMILL and I was just the new wordslinger who'd go wherever editor Judy Daniels pointed. But here I was, just out of my Hamill stage, churning out cover stories on demand, and Hamill was still freezing moments in time, but now with much less success. When he ventured out of his familiar style and tried to recapture his reporting days, he was so out of touch with the city that he was embarrassing himself and the Voice.

I will never forget his recent piece on Flatbush, a bad, sloppy story that degraded the neighborhood for not being sleazy in the same way it had been when he grew up there. He came in, after a year or two in Hollywood, and pronounced Flatbush dead, when, in fact, the neighborhood had finally bottomed out and begun a long, arduous--and as yet unresolved--battle for survival.

There was more than a whiff of racism about his attitude, too. Pete Hamill's Flatbush--indeed, Pete Hamill's Brooklyn and Pete Hamill's New York City--always seemed to be Irish or Italian or Jewish types. Unless they were athletes or entertainers, black people never seemed to exist in Hamill's Brooklyn. And certainly there was no place for the strange new Caribbean interlopers in Hamill's Flatbush.

I was already having a hard enough time adjusting to the fact that I could no longer write like Pete Hamill and hadn't found my own style, so his crap-out on Flatbush, and later the rest of the city, was especially difficult to bear.

My writing hero, the man I had spent countless hours copying and imitating, had gone down the tubes--and I wondered how far behind him I was. Jeez, I thought, here's Hamill not able to write like Hamill, and here's Brancatelli not able to write like Hamill. What, indeed, was happening?

It was, I think, the time I finally decided that writing with feeling was a lot less important than actually having feelings. When I collapsed, possibly because hero Hamill and his style was collapsing, too, I discovered I'd been living my life through images based on Hamill's writing mystique--and through Sinatra--and there was no real Joe Brancatelli.

While my disinclination to idolize Pete Hamill was a slow process fueled by a growing, months-long disenchantment with what had gone before, Sinatra's fall from grace was a one-night job that was all the more painful because I was banking on him to make everything right again.

My earliest recollections of Sinatra go back to maybe 1964, when his songs were played regularly on WNEW-FM, then simply a rebroadcast of the famous WNEW-AM. My father would sit in front of his new Fisher hi-fi set and adjust the tuning and the bass and the treble so the Sinatra music would play perfectly during Sunday dinner. I would be enraged because I couldn't watch the Yankee game on television. It wasn't that I liked the Yankees, you understand--I was a Cleveland Indians fan like my father--but watching televised games was the quickest way to get out-of-town scores and news of Rocky Colavito, the Bronx Italian-American kid who always seemed to have two bats at the ready. On top of everything else, I remember telling my father that Sinatra sounded the same as Tony Bennett or Vic Damone and why the hell couldn't any of them sing as high as The Four Seasons?

Sinatra the singer eventually passed through my father's consciousness and thus my own some months of Sunday dinners later. He went on to other goombah luminaries such as Sergio Franchi or Jerry Vale or Jimmy Roselli. I picked up on The Beach Boys, The Four Tops and finally WINS, the new "all news all the time" radio station that immediately fired my cub-reporter imagination.

Yet Sinatra suddenly loomed large as a movie star and general, all-around model-to-live-by. Some of you may remember something called the Schaefer Award Theatre, a strange late-night weekend melding of beer branding, ostentatious programming ("only four commercial interruptions") and very-much-better than-just-old movies. It was there, one Saturday night in the mid-1960s, that I found Come Blow Your Horn.

Come Blow Your Horn featured Sinatra as a man-about-Manhattan rogue, powerful stuff for a fat just-about-teenager growing up in Brooklyn. I was overwhelmed by how Sinatra's character lived, how he played, how he entertained and how he looked at life. His apartment in the movie, late-50s-futuristic-meets-kitschy-modern, still has a bizarre hold on me to this day. But mostly, it was Sinatra, doing what he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it, on his own terms and exuding the elusive quality Hamill years later in a column called "flinty integrity."

Tony Bill (seated) playing Sinatra's young, impressionable brother in a smashing Manhattan apartment.

For years I thought Come Blow Your Horn was how everyone in Manhattan lived. And for years it was how I wanted to live. Sinatra was surrounded by all the creature comforts, but he used and acquired them to suit himself and it was clear he owned them and not the other way around. He coddled and coached us all, too. If we couldn't yet be Sinatra, at least we could at least be Tony Bill, the eager, open-faced fellow who played Sinatra's yearning-to-be-hip younger brother in Come Blow Your Horn. Sinatra wanted for no women and while he ignored the woman who was the stuff that dreams are made of until it was almost too late, that, too, was part of the charm.

Classy, you know what I mean?

Much has been written, much of it written by Hamill, about this Sinatra of the late 1950s and pre-Beatles 1960s and how he taught so many Americans how to act. But even Hamill could not explain exactly how much influence Sinatra could have on a fat, red-headed Italian kid with glasses. Only fat, red-headed Italian kids with glasses could explain. We wanted to be Sinatra because, well, Sinatra was classy. He had that apartment and all the cool stuff and the hot girls. Come Blow Your Horn was the fat, red-headed Italian kid's guide to a better life.

Sinatra never really popped back into my consciousness as a saloon-song singer and keeper of the dark truths of night until 1973, when he came out of an ill-advised, short-lived retirement. Egged on and guided by Larry Brill and Les Waldstein, two talented art directors who graciously and happily functioned as musical mentors. I began learning about jazz and the blues--and especially about Sinatra. The songs I hated a decade before when they interrupted the flow of news about Rocky Colavito and his two bats suddenly became magic.

All of a sudden, I knew Sinatra had been doing with song what Hamill had been doing in print. In fact, Hamill almost surely stole a lot of the style I stole from him directly from Sinatra. Words and music intermingle and it was a pretty straight transfer from Sinatra to Hamill to me.

Here was Sinatra kicking my guts out with "Wee Small Hours" and "What's New" and I was feeling rotten, the same kind of wonderful rotten I felt whenever Pete Hamill crashed bars and wrote about a doomed love affair or froze a particularly painful moment in time. Frank Sinatra became the music I played for sanity right alongside Neil Young's After the Gold Rush and Time Fades Away. Not too long afterward, I also found the "swinging" Sinatra. It surely deepened the image of Sinatra as renaissance New Yorker that I had been carefully building ever since the first time I saw Come Blow Your Horn.

Underlying it all, perhaps fusing all the Sinatras together into one monument, was the one time I'd seen him in concert. Ensconced at the Uris Theater in 1975 with Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald as opening acts, Sinatra had been everything I'd hoped for and more.

Even though some of his voice was gone, his musical maneuvers around the notes he could no longer negotiate were stunningly creative. They oozed with the confidence and "flinty integrity" of a singer who had been there and came back on his own terms. His fans oohed and aahed when he ignored a famous high-note riff in "Wave" (a brilliant Jobim composition) and instead took the audience all the way down the scale to seemingly uncharted depths. That everyone knew Sinatra went the other way because he couldn't hit the high notes was classy; that he took the low road and made it better than the classic series of high notes was "flinty integrity" and the third miracle needed for sainthood.

But the most stunning triumph was Sinatra himself, the saloon singer who survived, sitting on a stool, all by himself on a dark stage, stinging "Send in the Clowns." It was all there: the dark foreboding; the doomed and shattered present; the happy pasts; and, above all, Sinatra above it all, his "flinty integrity" getting him through.

"No matter what he did elsewhere," Hamill once wrote in a Sinatra column, "he never cheated on the songs."

When the crunch came on October 1, 1976, when Sinatra fell from grace from the stage of the Westchester Premier Theatre, I took it ignominiously. After all, he was not, like Hamill before him, just some clown I had read and copied and never saw. He was Sinatra and I had seen his "flinty integrity" at work.

But the crunch came, hard, in front of a devoted, packed house of what my friend Freddy insisted were "Sinatra's real people." But they couldn't be, I thought. These weren't people who had seen the bottom of a bottle and these weren't people who had seen Come Blow Your Horn.

These people were suburbanites, minor Mafia types, bad people, people I reflexively disliked because they took their money and ran to Hauppauge or Harrison or Cos Cob instead of staying in New York City where they belonged. These people were idiot, vindictive, petty Italians, the kind of Italians my parents warned me not to become. Worst of all, these people were guineas. They seemed proud of it--and proud of the Sinatra who stood before them as a bitter, old man who had fought his demons in the dark once too often.

The Sinatra on stage that night was almost a parody of everything he had been. It was as if he had come out in a leisure suit, fat and stupid with red hair and glasses, and sung "My Way" in Peter Lemongello's tempo.

Freddy said he expected no less when Sinatra made crude, ugly jokes that made you sympathize with Rona Barrett. His wife said she expected no less when Sinatra sung every song badly because she knew he was never any good anyway. My friend Ginny was hurt, I think. She put her head down and slumped in her chair a lot when Sinatra made nasty, sexist remarks. I felt as if I had had taken a friend to a porno show. It was all so sad and dirty. But even Ginny, in the end, said Sinatra had been the one who sung her to sleep in high school and yes, she said, she'd be able to listen to him again.

It was over for me, though. Sinatra's facade had been forever shattered. The "flinty integrity" I stumbled on in the sixties and Hamill named in the early seventies was gone, too. Again and again Sinatra ended for me, strangely, wrongly, on a platform stage in Tarrytown, New York. No one's hero should die by his own hand in Tarrytown, New York.

And that's when I started wondering about Rocky Colavito and about his two baseball bats and about his kind of "flinty integrity."

This story originally appeared in a private publication. It is edited only for grammar and to obscure the names of a few people who would taunt me a second time if I used them again. Relevant links are added because, otherwise, how the hell would you know who Peter Lemongello was?