Skip to main content

Culture Music

A very good song

(Photo illustration: Krieg Barrie; Photos by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

A very good song

Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart take different stabs at Sinatra classic

If there’s such a thing as the perfect pop song, Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year” is it. The evocatively elliptical lyrics are so exactingly tailored that they’d hold up as poetry if it were possible to read them without simultaneously hearing their accompanying melody—which is also evocatively elliptical and exactingly tailored.

Frank Sinatra’s Gordon Jenkins–arranged recording from 1965 remains the definitive version, but singers still keep trying it on for size. The latest fittings can be found on Willie Nelson’s My Way (Legacy) and the deluxe edition of Rod Stewart’s Blood Red Roses (Republic/Decca), albums that extend their respective performers’ legacies in small but appreciable ways.

As its title suggests, My Way is a Sinatra tribute, one that Nelson sings his way through with his usual nonchalance as combos ranging from the subtly country small-jazz kind to the subtly country bigger-band kind swing nonchalantly around him. One reason that it seems to be over almost as soon as it has begun is that it’s only 35½ minutes long. Another is that time flies when Nelson is having fun.

But fun isn’t all that he’s having. Nelson is an old man, and that distinction gives an emphatic authority to his reading of lines such as “And if you should survive to 105 / Look at all you’ll derive out of being alive” (“Young at Heart”), “And now, the end is near / And so I face the final curtain” (the title cut), and “But now the days grow short / I’m in the autumn of the year.”

Those last two lines come from the final verse of “It Was a Very Good Year,” which in Nelson’s translucent treatment sounds like the ghost of Sinatra’s. It brings Side 1 of My Way’s vinyl edition to such a satisfactory close that turntable owners might not want to turn the LP over.

Stewart’s treatment of “It Was a Very Good Year,” one of Blood Red Roses’ deluxe edition’s three bonus cuts, echoes Sinatra’s too, at least as much as a version in which an electric guitar plays the melody linking the verses can. But it’s knocked off its emotional axis by the addition of a new penultimate verse.

The song’s central character is a man who, approaching his final days, comforts himself with wistful memories of the girls and women whom he has loved during a life of gradual social climbing. He devotes one verse apiece to his 17th, 21st, and 35th years, each marked by a corresponding and increasingly sophisticated category of romances (“small-town girls,” “city girls,” “blue-blooded girls”).

By the final verse, the implication is that he has never settled down. But in Stewart’s extra verse (“When I was 53 …”), the “very good year” becomes a “wonderful year” in which the man finds Miss Right. The twist accomplishes the unenviable hat trick of simultaneously betraying Ervin Drake’s most famous composition’s “plot,” its unifying women-as-wine conceit, and its bittersweet open-endedness.

Drake’s second-most-famous composition was “I Believe,” a sentimental expression of faith in a “Someone in the great somewhere” who “hears every prayer.” Coincidentally, in Paddy McAloon’s “Who Designed the Snowflake,” Blood Red Roses contains a bonus track cut from the very same cloth.

“I don’t know who made the snowflake,” Stewart softly sings, “So intricate, sublime / But I can spot an artist every time.”

Blood Red Roses has stronger (and weaker) cuts, cuts touching on almost every style that Stewart has ever embraced (ballads, rockers, blues, jigs, disco, pop). Coming out for Intelligent Design, however, is something new.