Let's be Frank, it's corny but if the end is near I'll still want to do my funeral song my way
If anyone plays Frank Sinatra's My Way at my funeral, I'll be mortified in more senses than one - the embarrassment of anyone finding out that secretly I rather loved this mawkish, self-pitying and self-justifying song, composed just 50 years ago. It's shamefully bombastic as it boasts and brags of the ego's achievements in "planning each chartered course", sometimes biting off "more than I could chew"; but always standing tall and doing it "my way". It's been called "shamelessly self-mythologising" and "lamentable" by music critics. And yet, I have to admit, it gets to me every time.
In this, I am not alone. It is now the most popular choice of funeral song in Britain, according to a survey done by the Co-Op Funeralcare last year. Imagine replacing Newman's Abide With Me with this ditty. But they do. And they're not embarrassed to do so.
Neither were President and Mrs Trump embarrassed to take to the floor to My Way at their inaugural ball for the new administration - even though the song's composer, Paul Anka, had pulled out of performing the number for them, to be replaced by the jazz singer Erin Boheme. (By way of comment, Nancy Sinatra tweeted: "Just remember the first line of the song: 'And now, the end is near'.")
Yes, it was in 1967 that the lyric writer Paul Anka, sleepless in New York, began tinkering with the words of a French chanson called Comme d'habitude ('As Usual'), written by Jacques Revaux and the singer Claude Francois, to which he had purchased the English-language rights.
Anka had a conversation with Sinatra, who, aged 51, was at a low ebb in his career. His marriage to Mia Farrow was breaking up, he was getting into brawls, and he hated with a passion the new wave of pop music then sweeping the youth market. He loathed The Beatles, just as he detested Elvis Presley. In his politics, Sinatra was a right-wing reactionary - although on the subject of race, he was always a liberal.
Paul Anka, a practised songwriter even at the age of 25 (he had a great hit with a number called Diana), somehow picked up on Sinatra's mood.
"I suddenly sensed myself becoming Frank, tuning into his sense of foreboding," he said, according to the music journalist Helen Brown. "That's how I got the first line - 'And now, the end is near'. I thought of him leaving the stage, the lights going out, and I started typing like a madman."
It was 5am when he phoned Sinatra, who was in Las Vegas, and played it to him. Anka recalled that Frank said: "That's kooky, kid. We're going in." Sinatra remembered it differently, according to an interview he did with Stephen Holden in 1983: he said he "hated it at first" because it was "too much on the nose". And yet he admitted in 1980 that "the song has probably done more for my career than any other song". It hasn't done too badly for the Canadian-American Paul Anka either - who staked his claim by calling his own autobiography My Way.
The original French version sung by Claude Francois (who electrocuted himself in 1978 when fixing a bathroom light) is pleasing enough, though the words are no less banal: it's a bit of a self-pitying moan about unrequited love - "You turn your back on me, as usual".
Rejection in love is a classic, but the narrative of Comme d'habitude goes nowhere, whereas My Way looks back on life and, in effect, faces death with defiance:
"I did what I had to do". Yet the meaning is also open to personal interpretation. While it seems egotistical and self-justifying, it can be understood as reviewing a life in all its faults and failures, realising that, as you look towards the end, there's not a lot you can do about past regrets: just accept what has been.
And sometimes, truthfully, you do look back on life saying, "To think I did all that!" - either in surprise, or in horror.
Sinatra sang it thousands of times, and it became the signature tune of his last years. He once announced it as "a national anthem", adding "but you needn't rise". And because he was Sinatra, he could impart many different inflections for different occasions and performances. Stephen Holden, the American music critic, describes a 1983 performance (when Sinatra was 68) as "understated, almost ironically humble".
Many other artistes have covered it, from Elvis to Sid Vicious to David Bowie and even Vera Lynn (still with us - aged 100). But two Yale academics who compiled a study of Sinatra's life and music, Steven Petkov and Leonard Mustazza, conclude that it remained quintessentially Sinatra. "This decidedly mawkish song does not arouse the listener's desire to hear the other versions… It is Frank's song, and despite his manipulative use of the tune, his performance still rings with enough authenticity to suck in the most cynical members of his audience."
When Anka was writing the lyrics, he seems indeed to have 'channelled' Frank Sinatra's mood and personality with a sincerity that sticks. And maybe that is why it still speaks - or sings - to people today, especially at their funerals. (And let's not forget the karaoke!)
Many disparage My Way as deplorably corny and mediocre, but it will always endure, if only to attest to the truth of Noel Coward's famous line: "Strange how potent cheap music is."