ANKA'S BACK, BABY!
He’s brought his swingin’ style to grunge and revived his career. He’s even made peace with Canada, writes JONATHON GATEHOUSE.
PAUL ANKA IS RICH. Monied enough to dress casually in handmade shirts and designer jeans, sport a tan the hue of Rez wood stain, and generally look sleeker and more youthful than any 63-year-old should. Sufficiently wealthy to work where and when he wants, which is about 125 nights a year. So flush that he flatly refuses to talk about just how well-off he actually is, because it could only turn off the “downtown people.”
This explains, in part, why the Canadian government’s generous offer of a Y-class airline ticket and taxi fare is not of particular interest to him. On this June evening, the pre-
ferred method of travel is a chartered Citation X, the world’s fastest business jet. His gigantic black SUV pulls up beside the plane on the runway, the co-pilot herself loads our luggage, we taxi and take off. The trip from the bright lights of Manhattan to his hometown of Ottawa takes just 50 minutes. The ride is barely long enough for us to settle into the La-Z-Boy-wide, fully automated seats. No one makes use of the bathroom with the 24-karat gold-plated fixtures and leatherwrapped toilet. The complimentary fruit tray is only pecked at. There are more massive black SUVs waiting on touchdown, and Canadian customs clears us by phone with-
and France long ago made him a chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. He wrote the lyrics to My Way, for God’s sake.
It has always been, therefore, something of a sore spot that the one place where Mr. Paul Anka didn’t feel the love was back home in Canada. As a 16-year-old sensation, topping the charts down south, he got booed off the stage at what was supposed to be his triumphant Ottawa return. Through the years, record critics here always seemed harsher, the press less complimentary, the audiences standoffish. After one particularly scathing concert review, he just stopped coming back. A 20-some-year personal Cold
‘WHEN NOBODY BELIEVES IN YOU, AND YOU HAVE FIRE IN YOUR GUT, YOU GET AGGRESSIVE’
out even bothering to come out to the plane to check our passports. Paul Anka doesn’t fly coach, not even for the Order of Canada. This prodigal son comes home in style.
Anka can afford to wing from place to place this way because he is a success. Fortyseven years in show business, 127 albums, more than 60 million records sold, the only artist, he will remind you proudly and frequently, to have hit Billboard’s Top 50 charts for five—perhaps soon to be six—consecutive decades. In the U.S. alone, he’s had three Number Vs—Diana, Lonely Boy and Having My Baby. His theme for The Longest Day was nominated for an Oscar. He composed The Tonight Show theme, although Johnny Carson extorted half the credit and royalties. He penned hits for Buddy Holly, Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand and Donny Osmond. He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame,
War that, to add insult to injury, most Canadians didn’t even know about. “When I get ticked off, I get ticked off,” he says as we skim through the clouds. “As a young person, it made a huge impact on me because I was travelling all over the world as a Canadian, being accepted as an artist, and I’d come home and it would be so radically different. I didn’t understand it.”
The détente started in 2002, with a charity benefit concert in Ottawa (he was paid $100,000). A year later, he played at the Liberal party tribute to Jean Chrétien, crooning a special version of My Way for the retiring prime minister. The casino in Niagara Falls, Ont., is back on his tour itinerary. The feeling is different now, he says—the crowds more appreciative, the press kinder, the public more respectful. He has accepted a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, after
years of spurning the honour. He became an officer of the Order of Canada on June 10. His new album, Rock Swings— a quirky reworking of’80s and ’90s hits by groups like REM, Van Halen and Oasis in a fat, bigband style—is being distributed worldwide by a Canadian label. It debuted at No. 16 on the pop charts (No. 2 on the jazz charts) here, and has sold 17,000 copies in just two weeks stateside. The evidence is mounting. Paul Anka is back, baby. And this time, he might even be cool.
THERE'S A WELL-EQUIPPED phalanx of media waiting outside the 53 rd Street stage door to David Letterman’s Late Show studio. The bus-sized GMC Yukon with the tinted windows (limos are passé, and Anka despises them) comes to a halt, the cameras flash, and the correspondent from Extra begins shrieking “Russell, Russell—over here, over here,” in a voice that would make a banshee cringe. This welcome wagon is for Letterman’s other scheduled guest—Russell Crowe. It will be the actor’s first public appearance since the NYPD led him away in handcuffs for chucking a malfunctioning house phone at the head of a hotel desk
clerk. Anka makes everyone else leave the SUV. Then he bursts out of the door and rushes the wall of cameras brandishing his cell. “I’m Russell Crowe, I’m Russell Crowe,” he shouts. “Let me throw my phone at you!” Inside, it’s all business. Anka and his 15-piece band take the stage of the surprisingly small Ed Sullivan Theater for a sound
check. Letterman likes his studio meatlocker cold, and even though it’s sweltering outside, the crew are wearing heavy jackets. One camerawoman has a parka. Standing in the spotlight, hands stuffed in his jean pockets, Anka bops his head and taps his Cuban-heeled boots as the brass section tunes up. “Oh, I feel my nipples,” he complains. “I didn’t even know I had nipples.”
Anka wanted to do his hard-swinging, full-throated version of Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life, a song that he and his band really cook on. But the producers have overruled him, opting instead for Nirvana’s SmelbLike Teen Spirit. He and the band run through it three times, but it still sputters a bit at the beginning. Anka doesn’t know it that well and needs cue cards. He’s game, the voice sounds great, but the stupidity of the lyrics—“A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”— is hard to camouflage when they’re sung instead of screamed. He looks embarrassed.
Rock Swings is a bit hot and cold that way. Some tunes, such as It’s My Life and Van Halen’s Jump, seamlessly slide into the genre, and frankly, sound a hell of a lot better than the originals. Others, like Wonderwall by Oasis and Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel, are more insidious, washing away more of your aural memory with each play. Then there are the grunge tracks like Teen Spirit and Soundgarden’s Blackhole Sun. Some things you never get used to.
Anka is emphatic about one thing, though. The album might be kitschy, but it’s not a joke. “This isn’t Pat Boone doing heavy metal—this isn’t a novelty,” he says in a voice dripping with disdain for his former teen idol competition. Anka knows swing, having recorded a couple of albums of standards early on in his career, when he was making the transition from pop to nightclubs. He headlined at the Copa and in Vegas, palling around with the Rat Pack (a retro-cool connection that he is shamelessly shilling as he promotes the new disc).
Put aside the fact that the idea for a swing album came from a group of German investors—mostly doctors and lawyers—looking to lose some money. (The German government apparently offers an attractive tax credit for film and recording projects.) Anka was the one who decided to mine the ’80s and the ’90s instead of the American songbook. He pored over the charts, selected the tunes, and roughed out the treatments in the studio attached to his L.A. home. Then he assembled a team of old-time arrangers and top-flight jazz musicians to refine and record them. Some songs didn’t make the final cut. U2’s One was “too monotonous,” and Anka couldn’t sing Billie Jean without laughing. But those that remained, he says, J have “integrity,” a watchword of his.
His instincts are being rewarded. There’s !
a buzz about the project. On this day, the New York Times has run a flattering piece. A morning interview with Howard Stern went on for 45 minutes, and people have been calling his cell all day long to rave about it. “He got right down to the size of my penis and how big Frank Sinatra was—it was so low,” he tells me. “It was the best interview.” Letterman’s people have taken notice, upgrading him from just a performance to some couch time. Now, as he waits for the Late Show taping to begin, various record company reps are crammed into his tiny sixth-floor dressing room vigorously blowing smoke up his posterior. The reaction is “incredible,” he’s told. The exposure—being on the same show where Crowe will make a contrite apology for his bad-boy behaviour—is “golden.” Anka is back in a comfortable place. He played the old Sullivan show dozens of times. The “whole atmosphere, the whole vibe” is the same, he says. Sitting beneath framed photos of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Chubby Checker, he pushes the tips of his fingers together, smiles and gives us the wisdom from the mount. “I always said that if anyone has any musical intelligence, they’ll get this. And people are getting it.”
THERE’S A SCENE in Lonely Boy, the National Film Board’s classic black-and-white documentary, in which the camera follows Anka from his backstage dressing room to the stage of New York’s famed Copacabana. Passing through the kitchen, the then 19-yearold spies Jules Podell, the club’s tough guy manager/mob front man talking on the phone. Anka sidles up, greets “Uncle Julie” with a hug and friendly kiss, and then, as Podell reaches for a fresh cigarette, the young singer whips a lighter from his pocket to do the honours. The moment is perfect in its unctuousness. (Even more so when you know that Anka has never, ever smoked.) And it encapsulates everything that the Canadian press and public found so easy to hate about the budding superstar.
“Although any Canadian can be excused for shuddering at the thought, our bestknown countryman abroad is indisputably a squat, bowlegged rock ’n’ roll singer named Paul Anka,” Maclean’s huffed in a 1962 cover story. It gets no better as the writer, Shirley Mair, starts painting “the world’s reigning juvenile” as some sort of teen pop despot. “Like any dictator, Anka is arrogant and consumed by his own self-confidence,” she
proclaims. Though one positive note about his onstage performance is allowed. “Unlike most rock ’n’ roll singers he doesn’t use epileptic hip movements.”
Ambition has always been viewed with a certain suspicion in this country. Especially the kind of obsessive, almost pathological drive that fuelled Anka’s quest for stardom. As a 13and 14-year-old in Ottawa, he would steal the family car and sneak across the river to Hull, Que., to perform in talent contests, or he’d buttonhole singers like Tony Bennett backstage for advice on how to make the big time. Just after his 15th birthday, he used his summer job savings to buy an airline ticket to L.A. to pitch his first composition to record companies. He worked his way through the phone book until someone agreed to let him cut a demo. The song,
Blauwildesbestfontein, flopped. Undeterred, he returned home for school in the fall, began building up another war chest and kept writing. That spring— April 1957—he flew to New York and finagled an appointment with a producer at ABC-Paramount records. He plunked out four tunes on the piano, and they signed him on the spot. The next day, he was
in the studio cutting Diana, a song of unrequited love inspired by another, slightly older member of Ottawa’s Lebanese community. It went to No. 1. In September, little more than a month after his 16th birthday, he was singing it on Ed Sullivan.
For most artists, that’s probably where the story would end. But Anka never saw himself as a one-hit wonder. He was always strictly big time, even at the points in his career where few others shared his opinion. “When nobody believes in you, and you’ve got that fire in your gut, you get aggressive,” he says. “I found my own ways to keep my character in the forefront.” So, the pudgy, adenoidal kid slimmed down, got a nose job, wrote more hits and transformed himself into a teen idol. When the public, and his record company, tired of that act, he bought the rights to his old songs (the wisest $250,000 he ever spent) and quick-changed into a swinging nightclub performer.
It’s been like that for decades now. Whenever there’s a slump, he finds a way to reinvent himself. In the mid-’70s it was with Having My Baby, a saccharin ode to paternity that somehow raised the ire of the feminist movement. It routinely surfaces on people’s worst-ever songs lists—but made Anka a whopping big pile of money. In the late 1990s, it was with Amigos, a platinum-
selling album of Spanish duets with bigname Hispanic artists. Then came its English-language follow-up, A Body of Work, in which he reworked his classics with stars like Celine Dion, Tom Jones and an alreadybeyond-the-grave Frank Sinatra. “I got into that survival mode years ago,” Anka says. “I don’t write for a pseudo-intellectual following. I’m a people’s writer.”
Even when his name wasn’t on the charts, it has frequently been in the news. There was the Ottawa Senators fiasco, when a deal to make him the big-name investor in the the NHL expansion franchise collapsed, spawning a headline-grabbing court case and further poisoning the hometown waters. In 1996, he sued his dentist for malpractice after a crown came loose and flew into the audience during a performance at Bally’s Las Vegas, forcing him to stop the show.
There was also one story that should have made a big splash, but didn’t—his 2001 divorce from Anne, his wife of 37 years. In an age where every split is tabloid fodder, Anka was determined to keep his private life just that. “We were in the same office where Tom Cruise was going through his divorce,” he says. “That was a war. And I just said, ‘That ain’t us.’ We had one lawyer.” He gave her the art collection and the wine cellar. “None of this down-the-middle stuff.” Anka has a new companion now, Karen Moore, a pleasant, thirtysomething blond who used to be his employee. She’s travelling with him as he promotes the album, caring for their new chow puppy, Coco—as in Chanel.
Anka says the divorce wasn’t really a factor in this latest reinvention and his quest to hit the Top 50 charts again. “Art has no time,” Anka says passionately when asked why someone so rich and successful is still so hungry for a hit. “I know what I’m doing at this point in my life. Twenty years ago
‘I DONT WRITE FOR A PSEUDOINTELLECTUAL FOLLOWING. I’M A PEOPLE’S WRITER.’
could I have done it? Would I have had the balls? Probably not.” If the guys who review Rock Swings, or play it on the radio, think it’s a giggle, all the better. “People have chuckled at me all throughout my career.” And more often than not it’s Anka who’s had the last laugh. All the way to the bank.
AN HOUR AND a half under the TV lights, 15 songs efficiently and charismatically committed to tape for an upcoming Bravo! special, one happy audience dispersed to their homes, and Paul Anka is obsessing about two words. Somewhere in the middle of ripping the roof off the network’s downtown Toronto’s studio, he left them out of It’s My Life. No one else noticed, but that doesn’t make it okay. He’s already figuring out how to rearrange tomorrow’s packed schedule so he can nip back and dub them
in. “You can’t piss on the basics. Ever.” That’s a bit of a mantra for Anka. There’s only one way to do things—the right way. His way. The audience gets what it came for. On the East Coast, he tailors the show to the local demographic and sings some songs in Italian. Out west, he includes the hits that were big in Asia. And that’s why he starts the Bravo! special (airing on July 12) the same way he does most every show, with Diana, his first and biggest hit. “That first 10 minutes when you walk in the room are crucial— you set the tone,” he says. “You can’t slough it off. You can’t take the paycheque and run. I learned that a long time ago.” He smiles warmly, shakes hands and touches people as he walks and sings. Between the tunes— a mix of the new album and the classics— there’s some slightly blue Vegas patter. Jokes about Clinton’s infidelities. A reference to his five daughters. “I know what PMS stands for: Paul Must Suffer.” When the band strikes up Put Your Head on My Shoulder, he pulls a
middle-aged woman out of the first row and has her do just that, crooning as they dance.
That sort of attention to detail is one reason Anka has lasted so long. It’s also why he has a reputation for sometimes being a pain in the ass. He can be hard, occasionally cruel, to those who work for him. There’s an infamous recording of him that’s making the rounds on the Internet. The expletive-laced tirade—following a less-than-stellar gig a dozen or so years ago—goes on for more than 10 minutes. Anka goes up one side of his band and down the other, screaming about missed cues, sloppy dress, bad attitudes. “I’m warning you, I’m the only important one on stage,” he shouts at one point. “You guys are on thin ice. And when I f-king move, I f-king slice like a hammer.”
But that’s not a side of Anka his fans are likely to encounter. The Lonely Boy documentary is filled with footage of him chatting amiably with his public, bestowing chaste kisses, appearing to genuinely enjoy the adulation. Almost 50 years later, it’s still the same. Wherever he goes, his personal assistant is always at the ready with a bag filled with photos and CDs to give away and Sharpies with which to sign them. At a meetand-greet session in a record store near New York’s Lincoln Center, I watch as he spends IV2 hours posing for photos and signing everything that’s thrust in front of him. Many of the fans remind him of the times they have met before, in Atlantic City, Vegas, Florida. He nods, smiles, and pretends to remember. One woman, with streaks of grey running through her long, dark hair, is shaking and near tears. “I’m been waiting since I was 13 to meet him,” says Belia Aguirre, now 58. Put Your Head on My Shoulder was her
favourite song growing up in Guatemala. Raising two kids alone in New York, holding down two jobs, she never had the time or the money to go to an Anka show. Tonight she’s booked off sick to fulfill a dream. “His music makes me so happy,” she says.
Later that evening, on the private jet winging toward Ottawa, Anka waxes philosophical about where he’s been, and where he might still be going. There’s already chatter about a Rock Swings 2, but he’s worried that might be taking the fans—new and old—for granted. And while he’s thrilled with the New York accolades, as the conversation
ON THE WEB See photos of Anka at Canada’s Walk of Fame and listen to highlights from the new album, www.macleans.ca/anka
unfolds it becomes clear that the next morning’s ceremony at Rideau Hall is a much bigger deal. Anka made a point of mentioning it as he chatted with Letterman after his song, then lay awake in his bed half the night worrying that he got the date wrong. This rush of recognition, the sudden uptick in respect, has been a long time coming. “Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe I’ve run that race that they want you to run. Okay, longevity, now you deserve our support,” he says with a laugh. “Whatever it is, everybody is embracing each other.” What do you get for the guy who has everything? A little bit of the love, it seems. Just in time for Canada Day. lifl