Chameleon With a Toupee

Bobby Darin was so determined to be somebody that he tried to be everybody
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Bobby Darin, the changeling prince of American popular music, has been an object of fascination, suspicion, adulation, and ridicule since the height of his popularity, in the early 1960s. His hit records in myriad styles—including, among others, the early rockers "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop," the swinging standards "Mack the Knife" and "Beyond the Sea," and the folk ballad "If I Were a Carpenter"—endure all over the radio dial, and much of his recording catalogue still sells on CD. Since his death, from heart disease, at age thirty-seven, Darin has been the subject of several books; most notable is this new examination of the singer's life and work by David Evanier, a former senior editor of The Paris Review and the author of a good biography of the Mafia's favorite tenor, Jimmy Roselli. Like Bobby Darin: A Life, by Michael Seth Starr, Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin was published in time to ride the coattails of Beyond the Sea, a film about the entertainer directed by and starring the lifelong Darin fan Kevin Spacey, which opened in December.

Evanier's portrait, true to its title, is one of a bright talent that soared quickly and erupted in a flash of glory. The facts of Darin's life certainly tempt cliché and hyperbole. Born Walden Robert Cassotto, to an impoverished single mother and a father who skipped away without even learning of the pregnancy, Darin was raised in the tenements and housing projects of Harlem and New York's Lower East Side by his maternal grandmother, a would-be singer turned morphine addict whose husband, a two-bit hood called Big Sam Curly, died in prison while serving time for petty larceny. Darin grew up thinking that his mother was his sister (late in his life, when he was considering a run for political office, she decided to tell him the truth before reporters looked up his birth records). Having been stricken with rheumatic fever as a child, he suffered from a weak heart that precluded horseplay, alienated him from his peers on the street, drew him inward, and threatened to cut short his life. His family doctor expected him to live no more than sixteen years—perhaps twenty-one, with luck.

Endowed with a high IQ as well as a knack for music, Darin was admitted to the elite Bronx High School of Science, where he joined a swing combo as the drummer (using a borrowed kit). He entered Hunter College on a scholarship but quit after one term, impatient to move on to the next thing—thereupon setting the pattern for his career. In 1958, when Darin was twenty-two, "Splish Splash," which he had written in thirty-five minutes, became a Top 10 hit and made him a star of the young music for young people: rock-and-roll. The next year he shook off rock to sing Tin Pan Alley numbers with a swing band and had a far bigger hit with "Mack the Knife." Quickly established as a major attraction on the jet-set nightclub circuit, he soon shifted styles again and wrote a couple of country-and-western hits ("Things" and "You're the Reason I'm Living," both of which became country standards); then he decided to record some folk music. He signed a multi-picture deal to act on screen and got an Oscar nomination for his performance as a cocksure World War II pilot in Captain Newman, M.D. (1964). After recording one album of Broadway hits, one geared for children (the songs from Dr. Dolittle), and a few others, Darin decided to abandon traditional show business altogether. He gave away most of his possessions and moved into a trailer in Big Sur, where he spent his time chopping wood and reading at the public library. He stopped wearing his usual toupee, grew a moustache and long sideburns, and started writing and singing bleak protest songs under the Dylanesque name of Bob Darin. By the early 1970s he had given that up to make money again, and he was back in a tux and under a toup, snapping his fingers to "Mack the Knife" in his own TV variety series. On December 20, 1973, he died after unsuccessful open-heart surgery.

Evanier makes a commendable effort to explicate this made-for-movie-treatment life story, although he falls short in his analysis of the music that ultimately raises Darin above gossip fodder, and he fails to come fully to terms with Darin's absorption with the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Frustrated and enraged by his childhood poverty, confounded by an inchoate sense of wrongness at home, Darin set out to use his intelligence and creative talent to prove his worth to himself and the world. "Bobby was the unloved orphan, at least in his own mind, dispossessed and homeless," Evanier writes. "There was always a fierce cynical calculation in Bobby's moves …" Without doubt, the careering in Darin's mode of careerism often seemed conspicuously tactical if not desperate—the quixotic strategy of a man so determined to prove he was somebody that he tried to become everybody.

Too bookish and fragile for the projects, too rough around the edges for the New York intelligentsia to whom the Bronx High School of Science introduced him, Darin felt lost in his youth and carried a quality of lonesomeness to the end of his life. "I didn't belong, at school or anywhere else," he told the jazz writer Gene Lees. You can see it in the glossy pictures taken for his record jackets and movie posters: there's a distance in his eyes, and when he smiles, his brow scrunches in a quizzical way, as if his face were surprised to be called on to be happy. You can't miss it in the video clips of him performing, especially in the last footage of Darin in concert, taped for television in 1972 and recently issued in a CD-DVD packaged titled Aces Back to Back. He would often sing with his eyes closed or nearly so, even on up-tempo numbers, and he had a habit of gazing off to the side when he spoke, like a schoolboy whose mind is elsewhere. Above all you can hear it in his music, especially in ballads such as "Black Coffee," "The Gal That Got Away," and the high point of Aces Back to Back, "Alone Again (Naturally)," an insipid, bubble-gummy tune that Darin transforms into a wrenching capitulation to despair.

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