- 21 Jun 04
The still vibrant 64-year-old on why Morrissey’s like Father Frank, why Iraq is like Vietnam, and on her meetings with Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Bono, Phil Spector and a whole Oval Office full of presidents.
Never mind the Marquee or the Roxy, the first place I ever pogoed was during Musical Exercise class at Oakhill Road Nursery School in Sevenoaks.
It was the arse end of 1966 and Miss Lewis – the rockingest septuagenarian you’ve ever met – had decided that, never mind ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ and ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, what little Stuart Clark and the rest of Junior Infants needed was an earful of ‘These Boots Were Made For Walking’.
What I didn’t realise, being not yet four, is that 1) Lyrics like “You keep playin’ where you shouldn’t be playin’/and you keep thinkin’ you’ll never get burnt/Ha! I just found me a brand new box of matches, yeah!” made it a clarion call for ‘60s feminism and 2) The person singing it was Frank Sinatra’s delectable daughter Nancy.
While her initial success was down to the family name – the Sinatras were second only to the Kennedys in the American royalty stakes – Nancy dented the US singles chart 22 times both as a solo artist and in tandem with her mentor and producer Lee Hazelwood.
With her peroxide hair and predilection for cocking a snoot while wearing the least clothes possible, in many ways she drew up the blueprint for Madonna who acknowledges that, “Nancy Sinatra was a huge influence on me. I wanted to put on my go-go boots and walk all over someone.”
Nancy’s success wasn’t confined to music, with starring roles alongside Elvis Presley in Speedway and Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels making her the top female box-office draw two years in a row.
The escalation of the Vietnam War saw Sinatra become the pin-up girl for thousands of GI’s who were known to crank out her version of ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’, Apocalypse Now-style, as they went into battle. She’s subsequently repaid the compliment by vociferously campaigning on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Indeed, for much of the ‘70s and ‘80s Memorial Day gatherings were the only time she was seen in public, Nancy deciding to put her professional career on ‘hold’ while she raised her two daughters.
That period of self-imposed exile ended in 1995 when the arrival of her One More Time album was heralded by a naked appearance in Playboy. Displaying remarkably few signs of wear and tear, she started gigging again, with Kim Gordon, Kim Deal and Morrissey all turning up backstage to pay their respects. As an added token of his esteem, Mozzer wrote Sinatra a song, ‘Let Me Kiss You’, which appears alongside contributions from Jarvis Cocker, Pete Yorn, Elvis Costello, Steve Van Zandt, Richard Hawley, Jon Spencer, Jim O’Rourke and Bono on her soon-to-be-released To Nancy, With Love album.
Bearing in mind how successful the Rick Rubin/Johnny Cash and Jack White/Loretta Lynn link-ups have proven to be, it might just signal her return to the album charts after a three-decade absence. Given the circumstances, you’d think the 64-year-old would be chomping at the bit to discuss the new record, but no, top of the Sinatra agenda is that she’s got a sore bottom.
Stuart Clark: Normally I wouldn’t ask such an indelicate question, but what’s the cause of this soreness?
(Laughs) Normally I wouldn’t answer such an indelicate question, but no, I’ve just got off a motorcycle week in Washington DC with my friends in the Rolling Thunder veterans group. What they didn’t tell me until pretty much the last minute was that George Bush had invited us to the White House, so up I roared on the back of a Harley dressed in a knee-high skirt and cowboy boots! I was in a total state of awe going into the Oval Office, which is actually a lot smaller and cosier than you’d imagine.
Is Dubya the first President you’ve had tea and biccies with?
No, I met President Kennedy, President Carter, President Reagan, the first President Bush and President Clinton, so I’ve almost the set collected!
Who was your favourite out of that lot?
I loved John F. Kennedy…and not just for political reasons! He was, first of all, tall and handsome and charming. Secondly, and more importantly, he was my President. It was the first election I was able to vote in, so I felt he belonged to me. Growing up in the mid to late-’50s was so peaceful – the Korean War was over and there was no scorecard of fatalities on television every night. There was no fear until suddenly you had Khrushchev at the United Nations banging his shoe on the desk. Things after that went downhill rapidly.
The loss of my President was enough to throw me into a terrible depression which for a while I didn’t think I was going to pull out of. As if the assassination itself wasn’t upsetting enough, you had members of the opposing Republican Party being hateful and saying, “Good, he’s gone!” The Martin Luther King murder was another terrible blow, not only to me but my father who had spent his whole life fighting prejudice. I remember him saying to me when Robert Kennedy was taken out, “Nancy, there’s a conspiracy going on. Somebody’s trying to trigger a civil war.” Which nearly happened, of course, in 1968, when the whole country seemed to be out protesting.
Did you take to the streets yourself?
I was in Chicago for the Democratic Convention when my father called and said, “Do not under any circumstances leave your hotel. There’s going to be serious trouble and I don’t want you getting caught up in it.” The total low point for me was the LA riots – seeing a city I love burning like that was dreadful.
You can’t watch the news or a current affairs programme at the moment without somebody describing Iraq as “the new Vietnam.” Bearing in mind your involvement with Rolling Thunder, do you think it’s a fair analogy?
It’s a difficult time for the Rolling Thunder people. What they’re fighting for is the rights of those who, whether now or in the past, have served their country in battle. The Agent Orange issue is still of huge concern to Vietnam vets and you’ve soldiers coming out of Iraq with other problems, physical and mental, which need to recognised now rather than in 10 years time when the damage is far more serious. I don’t know enough about war to compare the two in military terms, but the deaths and young men and women coming home minus limbs or their eyesight, is exactly the same as Vietnam.
I know it seems rather trivial by comparison, but you do have a new album coming out which includes some unlikely collaborators. How on earth did you get to be best buddies with Morrissey?
He came to my hotel room in London one day with his arms full of things to be signed thinking I wouldn’t know who he was. What he didn’t realise was that my younger daughter, Amanda, was a huge Smiths fan and had a poster of them over her bed for as many years as I can remember. You should have seen the look of surprise when I rattled off a whole list of his song titles!
Sing us a bit of your favourite Smiths track?
(Does a very passable Mancunian rock fop impression) I’m more into Morrissey’s solo stuff, so it’s ‘Bengali In Platforms’. Anyway, he wrote this song, ‘Let Me Kiss You’, which is also on his own CD that blew me away.
He’s not your average kind of guy, is he?
In many ways he reminds me of my dad. His passion for the causes he supports, his body language on stage, the magic that is created when he’s in the room, the connection with the audience… he’s like a magnet. People have to be close to him which was so similar to what was going on with my father. I would have loved them to have met and sung together – my goodness, can you imagine how magical that would’ve sounded! I don’t normally let things that are written in the paper get to me, but I was appalled by the reviewer in New York Magazine saying that his new record, You Are The Quarry, is a sell-out. Did he read the lyrics to ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ or ‘The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores’ – hey, isn’t that the truth! If anything he’s even more passionate about what he believes in now than he was then.
It must be strange when somebody half your age tells you you’ve changed their lives.
It’s like when Kim Deal came backstage at a club in New York, threw her arms around me and started to cry! Once she’d calmed down a bit, she said: “I never thought I’d meet you. You’re the reason I got into music.” When somebody comes out with those words you don’t know what to do because it’s at once humbling and shocking. Since then I’m hearing it more and more and I’m so moved by it.
If Morrissey scores 9 on the Charisma-ometer, who are the Perfect 10s?
Elvis Presley was everything you could imagine that he was – just the warmth of the man was enough to melt your heart. He’s one of only three people I’ve ever met who have this physical aura around them. One was my father, which is how I knew to recognise it elsewhere. The second was Marilyn Monroe – she was incredible! – and the third Elvis. Don’t think I’m a kook, but you could reach out inches beyond their being and feel something there. It was very odd, very strange.
One of the things that comes across in all of Elvis’ interviews is that he was impeccably polite.
Absolutely so, which was a tribute to his mother and his father who I met along with other members of his family when we were doing the movie Speedway together. They came and visited us on the set and they were all like that – very well mannered. But that didn’t get in the way of his humour. He was still a little bit outrageous and silly. Yeah, ‘silly’s the perfect word!
Is it fair to say that if things had worked out differently, you two could have been more than just good friends?
When I first met Elvis, I was so young and nervous that I didn’t handle it well. That was in 1959 and then later on, when we did the movie, I fell absolutely in love. We couldn’t do anything about it because he was married, and Priscilla was about to have Lisa Marie, but oh, my God! It was electric, and I think he probably had that effect on every woman. Maybe even some men, I don’t know!
Bono tells a wonderful story about how he was out-partied one night by your dad and his friends – I think Jack Daniel was there too! Him and The Edge then wrote a song for Frank, ‘Two Shots Of Happiness’, which he was too ill to record but you’ve included on To Nancy, With Love.
When he sent me the track I thought, “Oh, I’ll never get through this”, because he sung it with such passion and the strings and the horns just give you a chill when they reach a crescendo. Then there are the lyrics – “Under pressure, but not bent out of shape”/Surrounded, we always found an escape/Drove me to drink, but hey that’s not all bad/Two shots of happy, one of sad” – which are so my dad and therefore very emotional to sing. Anyway, I changed the lyrics slightly – “I think I’m no good” is now “He knew he was bad” because it’s me referring to my father rather than Bono speaking for him – and started performing it live. The response as we swung round the country was so overwhelming that I knew I had to include it on the record.
Have you met Bono face to face?
Just the once, which is because he’d agreed to see my daughter who absolutely worshipped him as a teenager. He said, “Meet me in the bar of my hotel in New York”, and I thought, “I’m not going to let her meet this rocker guy on her own!” I needn’t have worried because he was extremely charming and generous in giving so much time to this young girl who wanted to get started in the music business herself. I read in the tabloids that he didn’t like my version of the song and then he kindly put out a press statement that that wasn’t true.
Another fan of yours who insisted on being on the album is Miami Steve.
Steve Van Zandt loves rock ‘n’ roll and is on a quest to keep it alive with the three channels he has on satellite radio here plus his own Underground Garage show which is syndicated all over the States.
As a fully paid up member of the Rock ’N’ Roll Actors Club, I’m surprised he hasn’t got you to cameo on The Sopranos.
Actually, I was invited but it was a role that, not really being an actor, I wasn’t sure I could do. It was for the woman Junior Soprano meets when he’s in hospital. She’s had foot surgery – which ironically I underwent a few months later – and is on a walker, but I don’t know how to play anybody other than myself.
For someone who reckons they can’t act, you did extraordinarily well at the box-office during the ’60s.
It’s very kind of you to say so, but my performances were invariably a triumph of style over substance! The highlights I guess were doing Speedway with Elvis, featuring alongside my dad in Marriage On The Rocks and The Wild Angels because it involved riding around on motorcycles with Peter Fonda.
You must have been chuffed when Quentin Tarantino said that your version of ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ was the song bouncing round his head when he wrote Kill Bill.
I’m a huge Tarantino fan, so him choosing me over Sonny & Cher was very humbling. I had a similar experience when a year before Full Metal Jacket came out I got word that Stanley Kubrick wanted ‘...Boots...’ for the soundtrack. I sent him a telegram saying, “Please, please use my song in your film!” I was begging him because to be involved at any level with someone of his stature is an honour. I’ve also got a rap group sampling my version of ‘Bang Bang’. It’s a spin-off of 2 Cent – hang on, is that the right amount?
Inflation being what it is, it’s gone up to 50.
(Laughs) I need to do some brushing up on my hip-hop! My first reaction was, “If this is about cop killing maybe I should decline”, but the words could be taken in several different ways so I decided to go ahead and do it. It’s all speeded up so I sound like Minny Mouse!
What’s fantastic at the moment is that you’ve got different generations of musicians working together and sharing each others’ audience.
In your country, yes, I would say that’s true but in America it’s a battle. If you’re not 17 they won’t play you on the radio. 17 meaning the generation which is Britney, Christina and Avril who I love. She’s got that attitude which is going to stand her in good stead. I also love and adore Kasey Chambers who’s an Australian. Her ‘Barricades And Brick Walls’ is a real staple for me in my set now because again my daughter bought me her CD and there was an immediate connection.
Backtracking a bit, when was the first time you realised that yours was not perhaps the typical childhood?
I was in public schools where it wasn’t uncommon to have a daddy who was moving around, so I didn’t feel all that different to the other kids. There’d be periods – sometimes quite long ones – when he’d be the voice on the radio, but then he’d come home and we’d play ball together in the garden like a normal daughter and her father. I was never without him except for one year when as the result of a family situation I didn’t go to see him, even though he was only four or five blocks away. Looking back, I chastise myself and say, “Why did you behave that way?” I guess we all have guilts when we lose somebody.
Family members and events aside, what have been the ‘I wouldn’t swap it for anything’ moments in your life?
The music is the thread all the way through. Classical piano for 12 years and teaching 40 girls in school how to sing in four-part harmony were two of my early passions. I lost my way for a little while but after my first so-called marriage (to teen idol Tommy Sands) ended I was able to focus on singing and that’s when I had a certain amount of success.
Even though I was barely out of the womb at the time, I vividly remember hearing your first number one, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’, on the radio. Does it surprise you that 28 years later it’s still regarded as a classic?
I thought of it as a perfect song for a woman being in the position of having a guy cheat on her, you know. It grabbed your ear instantly. It still does. When you hear that bassline on the radio, you know exactly what the song is. Lee (Hazelwood) actually wrote it for himself. He didn’t write it for a woman.
Talking of you and Lee Hazelwood, have you heard the Primal Scream and Kate Moss cover of ‘Some Velvet Morning’?
Yes, I love it. I have a separate CD of covers of that song, which did you know was voted the Number One Duet of All Time? Over Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald? I was shocked!
Do your paths still cross?
Yes, Lee and I recorded an album last year which is out in Australia and New Zealand. It’s called Nancy & Lee 3 and comes 30 years after Nancy & Lee 2. He’s as cranky and cantankerous and wonderful as ever!
Another song of yours that was revived recently was ‘Something Stupid’. How do you think Robbie and Nicole rate compared to Frank and Nancy?
I loved it. It puts it in the boy/girl category instead of the father/daughter one, which is probably where it belongs! My dad and I decided to do it after hearing the version that the writer, Carson Parks, did with his sister. Carson’s the brother of Van Dyk Parks who’s been touring a lot with Brian Wilson lately. Anyway, I was happy to see the song revived and striking a chord with a whole new audience.
It’s obvious listening to the likes of Robbie, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé that your dad is still hugely influential as a singer. Tough call I know, but what would you consider to be his golden age?
The Columbia years are the most sentimental for me. My parents were together through most of that time and we were a happy, sort of normal family. The songs represent special times and feelings I hold very close. The Capitol years were definitely the most metamorphic. His life changed and so did his voice, his clothes, choice of material and arrangements. I always think of this period as the butterfly leaving the safety of the cocoon and flying for the first time. I was a teenager and one of my favourite things to do was go to his recording sessions.
A complete change of subject, but with him being an old friend and LA neighbour of yours, were you surprised by all the carry-on surrounding Phil Spector?
Yes, I was because Phil is just the sweetest person in the world. I don’t believe he would ever hurt a fly intentionally – he’s just too kind and wonderful. To have him go through that when it wasn’t him made me angry, and I feel it was a backlash from the OJ situation. They, as in the police and press, took far too many liberties with him and I’m glad it’s over.
Finally, what can we expect from your appearance at the Morrissey-curated Meltdown festival in London this month?
I can’t promise you Morrissey, but there’ll definitely be some wonderful musicians on stage with me. Song-wise, we’re going to mix the past with the present and send everybody home with a smile on their face!
Nancy Sinatra’s new album, To Nancy, With Love, is out next month