Chameleon With a Toupee

Bobby Darin was so determined to be somebody that he tried to be everybody

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.

Evanier, echoing a theme of previous books about Darin, portrays the singer's outsize ambition as a side-effect of his illness. He quotes Harriet Wasser, Darin's onetime publicist:

"He was consumed with his mortality … He was going to show that if he was not going to live long, he was going to give everything he had. Because he wanted people to remember him."

As Darin once explained to Connie Francis, his girlfriend and female counterpart in teen idoldom, he wanted "to establish myself as a legend by the time I'm 25." In the same vein he told the New York Post in 1959, "I want to do everything that anybody's ever done, but better." The following year he told Life magazine, "I want to make it faster than anyone has ever made it before … I want to be in the upper echelon of show business to such an extent it's ridiculous." Bobby Darin's ambition was more frightful than ridiculous. Still, when seen as a strategy for combat with the Grim Reaper, it begins to make sense; in fact, it takes on a dark poignancy.

Although Evanier gives due attention to Darin's preoccupation with death, he does not do justice to the artist's extraordinary treatment of the subject in several of his best-known songs. In his one-page analysis of "Mack the Knife," Evanier points out that the Brecht-Weill composition was originally titled "Moritat" ("Murder Ballad") and traditionally performed as a dirge. He calls Darin's radical upending of the piece "joyous," "celebratory," and "warm-hearted." But how could someone with a life-threatening heart ailment find such joy and cause for celebration in death? Rather, Darin seems to be mocking death with the extravagant zeal of his "Mack the Knife"; the record is a masterstroke of satire, a punitive swipe at the singer's ever-present antagonist. He does the same thing in "Clementine," a hard-swinging twist on the old American lament to a young woman who falls from a bridge and drowns, and in "Artificial Flowers," an even harder-swinging take on the story of an orphaned child who freezes to death in her tenement room. The three records are as unnerving as they are exhilarating.

Children of the rock era have always been quick to ridicule Darin for his frequent metamorphoses. Neil Young told an interviewer in Rolling Stone, "I used to be pissed off at Bobby Darin because he changed styles so much." (Young went on to say that he later came to see Darin as "a fucking genius.") At the same time, no music has been more susceptible to mutation than rock, and many of its most revered figures have long histories of reinvention. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, David Bowie, Madonna, and even Neil Young all changed styles—and appearances and, in some instances, attitudes—repeatedly without alienating many fans for long. It seems to me that Darin's sin was not really that he took up different sorts of music but that he played to different audiences—moreover, to different generations. In his switch from rock-and-roll to swing he left the Boomers for their parents, an unforgivable transgression in a culture where age is the dominant class system. When Darin attempted to return to the rock generation with his folk-protest work, he was no longer welcome.

Evanier is rough on Darin's venture into gritty, topical music. "He not only removed the tuxedo, he removed the essence of his voice—his whole soul—in the folk period," he writes.

When Bobby muted his voice, put on his leather cowboy hat, moustache, and sideburns and sang mournfully of dusty roads and buried bodies of convicts in the Arkansas dirt, he did a reasonable impersonation of Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo and Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. But why? An artist's obligation is to probe his own soul, not to impersonate the soul of others.

Actually, Darin sounds much less like Dylan, Van Ronk, and those others on his folk-oriented records than he sounds like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Johnny Mercer on his swing albums. (Evanier himself mistakes Mercer's voice for Darin's and attributes to the latter a line that the former sings on their album of duets, Two of a Kind.) His singing on "If I Were a Carpenter," "In Memoriam" (an homage to his friend and idol Robert F. Kennedy, whose assassination devastated him), "Song for a Dollar" (a scathing critique of his own nightclub years), and other tunes of their ilk is intimate, unaffected, and deeply emotive. Darin sounds very much as if he is probing his soul musically, perhaps for the first time. "Years ago I had the choice between ethnic and plastic, and I chose plastic," he explained late in his life. "And twelve or thirteen years later, it dawned on me that I'd chosen the wrong one." According to Walter Raim, an old friend of Darin's who arranged and conducted his first folk albums, "Bobby saw in folk music a sophistication of some kind … a higher calling. He had in his mind that he was doing something more important than singing Las Vegas standards. He was attracted to the realness, the down-to-earth thing." It is startling to read this and to think of Darin as a paragon of authenticity.

Ultimately, "If I Were a Carpenter" is surely Darin's truest moment as an artist. His theme, for once, is the illusory nature of his own identity. Would you still love me, he asks, if I were not what I seem—if I were someone much simpler? Evanier is scarcely the only Darin fan inclined to answer no.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.