It's quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So set em up Joe
I got a little story, you oughtta know...
Around 1947, Frank Sinatra first performed his doleful wonder "One for My Baby", a 28-line, one-way conversation between a man and his bartender when everyone else has left the bar.
This brief interaction in the nether-hour of Closing Time is not simply a setup for a well-crafted song; it is an archetypal American scene. It is a motif that has persisted over a century of our cultural history — appearing as a central image in important works of fiction, music, and film, and serving as a touchstone for a variety of artistic movements spanning from the Lost Generation to beyond the Beats through torch songs, film noir, jazz, the Rat Pack, and rock 'n' roll. Over the next five days, I will take a tour through Closing Time and explore why I think it has persisted as such an intriguing psychological way station. But let's start with this: Closing time is interesting because, by definition, it is a brief window of time that only occurs when everyone else has gone.
As the opening lines quoted above suggest, the song's protagonist has waited for the place to empty because he's got a little story that we oughtta know. In the course of the song, we don't learn much more about this story other than that it's "the end of a brief episode"; but that's as much as we need to know. We can all fill in the particulars: the bliss of discovery, the sense of pre-destined compatibility, the immemorial tingle of the first touch, the shared fantasies of foreign travel, the first tangle, an exchange of words, perhaps an indiscretion... Whatever the details, they've dealt enough of a blow to our hero that he needs to "talk them away" — and, if only instinctively, he knows that talking away his problems would not have been possible three hours earlier when the world was in full swing.
At quarter to 12, this bar was filled with the buoyant and unhesitant sounds of "nightlife." In the air were 50 conversations, the clinking of glasses, music, the commotion of comings and goings, maybe even a fistfight or two. But worse, that hour presented our protagonist with the much more fundamental distraction of other people's happiness highlighted incessantly through laughter, effortless conversation, and the excited innuendo of a budding romance. How could anyone possibly be expected to make sense of what's gone wrong in one's life with all of that clamor in the background?
Instead, the jilted soul must wait for the rosy-eyed rabble to clear out. He must outlast them. He must bide his time, waiting for that hour when the few who remain share a weightier view of the world and can offer a muted sympathy informed by disappointments of their own.
With this in mind, it is no wonder that Frank Sinatra is the man who made "One for My Baby" famous. The song was actually originally performed by Fred Astaire in the musical comedy Sky's the Limit (1943). In his prime, Astaire successfully launched many of Cole Porter's greatest numbers, which in retrospect makes a lot of sense. Because Porter and Astaire shared a certain blend of style, wit, erudition, and optimism. But Fred Astaire had no business singing "One for My Baby". Listening to his performance with its perky styling and zinging delivery, you almost wonder if Astaire understands what the song is even about. But there's no question that Sinatra understands the song. Almost from the first, you could tell that life would deal Sinatra his fair share of setbacks. That was part of his mystique — and the reason why so many men and women could relate to him. His persona suggested no aura of privilege, no aristocratic remove, no lofty presumption of success. In looking at Sinatra we sense that he knows through personal experience that money, art, and romance are hard to obtain and harder to keep — a fact that makes him seem an everyman, even at the peak of his fame. When in "One for My Baby" Sinatra asks for a sad song to be played on the jukebox, orders a drink, and begins to tell his mournful tale, we feel like we're seated just a few stools down the bar.
You'd never know it but buddy I'm a kind of poet
And I've got a lot of things to say
And when I'm gloomy, you simply got to listen to me
Till it's all talked away...
By eavesdropping on Frank in the course of this song, we learn two important aspects of the Closing Time ethos, which help set the hour apart from the rest of the day. The first is that when a man has waited out the crowd because he has got a lot of things to say, then the bartender has simply got to listen to him. Well the bartender knows that at the height of the evening, nobody in full sail wants to hear another man's sobs stories. So even though Joe is "getting pretty anxious to close", when Sinatra asks for another round, Joe doesn't throw him out. He pours him the drink, wipes down the bar, occasionally nods his head, and listens — providing our hero his first and only chance during the day to seek relief through the sharing of his trials.
The second aspect of the Closing Time ethos crystallized in the song is right there in the refrain: "Make it one for my baby / And one more for the road." Another man faced with the collapse of a heady romance might leave the bar at 12 to go banging drunkenly on an apartment door, or wait in the shadows outside a cinema in the hopes of knocking a rival flat. Alternatively, he could have turned his charms on the woman at the next table and convinced her to go dancing while the night is still young, hoping to obliterate the loss of one romance with the attainment of another. But the sort of man you find at Closing Time will not pursue either of these remedies. For, however brief his connection had been, however painful its end, he would never degrade it or cast away its memory lightly. He is intent on living for a moment longer under its weight; and as he finishes sharing his grief, out of the utmost respect, our hero will have one for his baby, before he has one for the road.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, I find there is something a little Shakespearean about all this — a touch of Hamlet and King Lear. Because our Closing Time hero is situated somewhere in between the will to fight and the willingness to be cavalier. He is occupying a lonelier, more rueful spot where loss will be grappled with and relived, regrets and second thoughts will be processed, and the spirit will slowly build up the strength to step into the future where another disappointment presumably lays in wait.
Tomorrow, please join me for a look at Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place."
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Note: All lyrics quoted above are from "One for My Baby" (1943) — music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Performances by Sinatra date back to the late 1940s, but the best recording (and the one which most closely emulates the sound of a bar at closing time) is the 1958 piano rehearsal version found on Sinatra: The Capitol Years. The Fred Astaire performance can be found on the compilation Somewhere Over the Rainbow: The Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals. For the curious, there is an interesting version of the song performed by Marlene Dietrich in 1959 on her album Live in Rio with musical director Burt Bacharach.