When asked which city I prefer, New York, where I was born and bred, or LA, where I’ve lived for the past 26 years, my answer is San Francisco.
I’ve been in love with San Francisco from the first time I visited it at age six (I even grew up to write a novel that is a love letter to the city, much as this blog post is). It started with my dad, who was equally smitten by the city by the bay, with its mix of morning fog and golden sun. The affair of the heart continued into my adult years because that’s where B. was living when we reconnected for one unforgettable week in our late 20’s after a teenage romance a decade earlier (and before we Harry-and-Sally-ed our way into another decade until we realized that we were each other’s “one”). And the city has kept a hold of my heart ever since, as we return every year to experience the look, the light, and the absolute lure of this place that is like no other.
All of these thoughts converged the other evening while we were watching a tour de force – Tony Bennett’s “One Last Time” concert at Radio City Music Hall. While suffering from Alzheimer’s, Bennett miraculously gave what could certainly be called the performance of his life, summoning the energy, the memory, and the unbelievable-at-95 voice to sing his way through his songbook of American standards with his signature style and oft-times jazzy edge.
Right by his side was Lady Gaga, his partner in song for the last several years, who provided much more than an arm to lean on. She gave Bennett a reassuring presence, an amazing voice to duet with for part of the performance, and the sensitivity, respect, and love to get through the evening – an evening that Bennett could not recall at all just days later.
While one could certainly talk about the heartbreak of that particular note – that a man whose mind unbelievably retains the lyrics and melodies of his music throughout the ravages of this memory-stealing disease but cannot remember more basic things – one can also marvel at the miracle that took place on that stage. That for a brief time Tony Bennett managed to capture all the vocal artistry and grace that has endured him to so many for so long. That, for a few moments on that enormous stage in front of a sell-out, 6000-fan audience who gave him standing ovation after standing ovation, he sang his heart out, maybe not with the same range as his younger self, but hitting notes of pure beauty along the way, leading up to his solo finale – I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the song that will forever be associated with him.
When the curtain rose for that last song, there was Bennett, standing alone at the piano. As the familiar notes filled the auditorium you could feel (even through the television screen) his love of music, his passion for living, and his courage. While he sang of leaving his heart in San Francisco, I (and I imagine everyone experiencing that moment) felt a piece of my heart break. But, even more important, I felt a piece of my heart soar at the absolute magnificence of such a feat. Bravo, Mr. Bennett, bravo.
I left my heart in San Francisco a long time ago – when I had to return home after visiting B. there in 1985 and realized even then (actually I knew it when we were 17) that he was my heart. And I leave it there each time we leave the city behind for another year. Despite the challenges San Francisco faces in these difficult days, its sun will always shine for me.
©2021 Claudia Grossman