I was looking for Tanya Donelly , remembering the CD Beautysleep I gave to a friend when I cleaned out all eleventy-hundred of myCDs. Why did I have that purge? I had decided that music was as illusionary and delusionary as everything else, and that I should make an effort not to be attached to it. A passing phase, as is evident, but the thought still carries some truth. Anyway, I came across Billie instead of Tanya, and thought I would just share these two. I know what the lyrics say, okay? First one sad, second one slightly more upbeat. Okay. Heartbreaking. Definitely human.
My interest in her probably stems from when I was 18 or 19 and I saw Absolute Beginners which made me then read the books, written by Colin MacInnes. I have the series, somewhere. They are not the greatest books, but they definitely have style. There was a lot about Billie Holiday in them. Swinging 60s in London, not that she was there.
My dad was always quite interested in jazz, too, though we didn't have a great lot of it in the house. I also remember about this time seeing a late at night repeat of Lady Sings the Blues , Diana Ross' version of Billie. It has gone on to be thoroughly panned, though you wouldn't think it from the Wikipedia entry. I was also a kid who read books about dramatic youngish stars who died tragic deaths, and Billie was one of them. I probably knew more about Rudolph Valentino than any 15 year old should (about the time I started reading such things) - not because of the death factor, but Valentino? Come on.
One hot Sunday afternoon, I took the at least an hour and a half journey (depending on the availability of the blink and they're gone buses) from our hills house to the city. Perth on a Sunday in the 80s was an absolute ghost town. But 78s used to stay open. I don't know what kind of permission they were granted. I was a curly headed goth wanna-be, so much so, that nobody could probably distinguish me from my very bogan roots . But hell, I loved the Smiths, the stuff coming underground from the UK, Oz and NZ. It was just that a weekend in the suburb I grew up in was usually not replete without some house booming out TNT while everyone washed their cars. And even though Bon Scott scared the hell out of me (reminded me of one of the boys at primary school who would fight the teachers) the people in 78s scared me too. Surely it was obvious that I wasn't wearing enough black, I was likely to poke my eye out with the mandatory black eyeliner, curly hair just doesn't like geometric stylings goddamn, and aren't ugg boots grafted to the soles of those brought up in suburbs like mine and Pamela Anderson's? I presumed a lot.
It was the mid-80s, so CDs and CD players weren't everywhere yet, and you have to take into account that everything comes to Perth a bit later than other places. We didn't get our first MacDonalds until the 80s, and that is the truth. And though MacDonald's is not the epitome of taste and distinction, it is ubiquitous. Perth, the city so boring that even MacDonald's couldn't be bothered. That is unfair to Perth, of course, but from my suburban perch I would just feel this heavy, drawn-out, pressing forgotteness which always seems somehow compounded in the incessant heat of the long summers. The reason I was in the city that day was that I just had to go to a bigger place to tell myself it existed and to prove to myself that it was possible to physically leave the hills. Tell myself I wasn't trapped there forever. I did that a lot in those days. It wasn't my intention to buy Billie Holiday, or to even go to 78s, but wandering down the empty streets led me there, and it was there where I riffled through the vinyls and found Lady Sings the Blues. My copy was a spin-off from the movie but it was definitely Lady Day singing the tunes, and only had 13 tracks or so, unlike Ross' 35 track number.
I loved that vinyl, and it is one of about ten vinyls that I have actually kept along with a George Michael Faith picture disc (how seriously do you take me now? huh?). It was fully scratchity and uncrisp, and it has versions of Billie songs that I haven't heard on the numerous compilations that group everything of hers together. Too much so.
I loved her voice. I loved the lyrics, though they were sad and helpless, yes indeed. I thought everyone of that era was light and floaty and bees and honey, even though I knew the social history to be different. I didn't see much different in the female vocalists of my generation, either. I wasn't too opened up musically at the time, but I was damn hungry and she was a true find for me.
I saw a series which had a soundbite from Wynton Marsalis. I can't remember the documentary, but he stated how Billie sang as if she were truly an instrument of jazz, blending and melding, dipping in and out, and how much he would have loved to have played with her (I think it was him, and not Branford). This is documented by others. And I can take or leave Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne - my list is definitely exhaustive. But Billie doesn't exhaust me. Not this particular vinyl, anyway. A friend said of my indifference to Ella that, "She's not sad enough for you, is she?" A perceptive observation, and probably not a good reflection of my personality, but he was right. Billie was clever, too, though, or wilful. Imagine singing Strange Fruit in those times. 1939 is when she first sang it. She must have been an incredibly brave woman , or maybe just driven. She was definitely a tortured and lost soul. Maybe there was no other way to be - given the times, given her background. By the way, that song wasn't on the vinyl I bought that day, I found it later.
Because in many periods of history it is not prudent to write of hardship, or it is not encouraged, the generations to come after can think that the generations before them were all Doris Day and Rock Hudson (who had their own stories behind the facades, too, of course). When I read a poem that is centuries old, yet it reads like modern verse and I can digest it easily, I am surprised. When I get the wit and criticism evident in books such as Gulliver's Travels I am stupidly left thinking, Wow, they thought about that kind of stuff then? And they put it in print? As if discernment only came with my generation, and of course the generation after me, and possibly the one before me, will think this is not the case at all.
So people across the ages will always think and feel. Not all of the people, all of the time, but some of the time is better than none of the time. And this will manifest itself in words and songs and art and speeches, and day to day conversation. Even for a girl trapped in the outer suburbs, or maybe especially so, digging deep, and then digging a little more.
– I would go out tonight
1 year ago