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Elevator to the gallows

Friday 6/28/19

Billie Holiday's final recordings--from late April 1959--were made in Boston, six airshots from a club called Storyville, which was located at different times in three different places in Boston. She died in July of that year, and I wrote a 1700 piece this morning called "Billie in Boston," which looks at her relationship with this city, that club, and our times in 2019. I am composing at a high level.

At times on this final airshot, Holiday is gamine-like, a sprite in the night, as when her enunciation of the word “stars” in “I Only Have Eyes for You” makes it sound like she has a mouthful of crepuscular light. Her voice is not lithe, but nor is it bogged down, falling under the music like a mooring device. When she wants to skip across the beat, she does it. The excellent Mal Waldron is on piano, and Holiday pitches some of her notes towards at his bop-stride chords, a duet of musical mimetics, as though this love letter of a song was going back and forth between the two principles of the relationship, despite the male lover remaining off-stage. Holiday was a dialogic singer until the last.

On “Billie’s Blues,” she sings in a higher register, flirting with warbling in certain moments. The singer details how her man treats her like a dog—literally—but she digs it. This is a theme in Holiday’s work, despite her recent posterization of a feminist icon. But there is something more complex going on here: a streak of individuality carved out with extremes.

Holiday’s output is a variant of social realism, but with a dose of hyperbole. In other songs, she’ll sing that it’s no business of yours if her man wallops her. This can be shocking to 2019 ears, especially from someone like this, whom people who don’t listen to her almost always summarize inconclusively and inaccurately. The salient, if not salubrious, point is that the singer of these songs is the decider of her own directions. That’s why Holiday is empowering. The vulnerability is plain—she often even elects for an extreme denuding. But all choices are owned. Thus, the life is owned. If scabrous points have to be made to show just how important that is, then so be it. You might even say that late-period Holiday was the very sound of so be it.

I need to exercise now.


Walked three miles, climbed the Monument five times. Inside the Monument, someone guessed that I was twenty-years-old. True, they probably had the cataracts, but that's still a good showing. After, as I was walking back down the hill, a guy, let us say, twenty-eight, asks me if I became as sweaty as I did from walking up the Monument (I had on a gray Beanpot tournament shirt, which, as you would expect, was completely soaked through). Whenever I ask myself, "How stupid can a person be?" I know that I should not be asking myself that because there is no limit on how stupid a person can be. I say no. With the truly brainless, you are never really done until you walk away. You just have to walk away, as I was attempting to do when this master of the mind asks me, with his follow-up question, if there's an elevator. So they're both stupid and lazy. The thing is, you control, to a large extent, how dumb you're going to be in this life. If you are dumb, you can work at becoming less dumb. The mind is like a muscle you can train. This person's mind, clearly, just sits on its version of the couch and freebases donuts. So I tell him, yeah, there's an elevator, it's nice and roomy, it's pretty sweet, actually, and he says, "Cool, do you need a ticket?"


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