Read The Song is You (2009) Online

Authors: Arthur Phillips

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The Song is You (2009)

BOOK: The Song is You (2009)
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ALSO BY ARTHUR PHILLIPS

Angelica

The Egyptologist

Prague

FOR JAN, OF COURSE

The Muses are virgins … Cupid, when sometimes asked by his mother Venus why he did not attack the Muses, used to reply that he found them so beautiful, so pure, so modest, bashful, and continually occupied … in the arrangement of music, that when he drew near them he unstrung his bow, closed his quiver, and put out his torch, since they made him shy and afraid of injuring them.

—FRANCOIS RABELAIS,
Gargantua and Pantagruel
, 3:31

PROLOGUE

WINTER

SPRING

SUMMER

FALL

JULIAN DONAHUE’S FATHER
was on a Billie Holiday record.

He loved her music, back when it was hip, not fashionable (a fan’s distinction). April of 1953, on leave from the Army, four days prior to his deployment to Korea, where—who knows?—his eighteen-pound contribution to that eternal stalemate may have been the final increment of military sacrifice necessary to balance the scales, prevent defeat, and fix the parallel, he took the train from Virginia up to New York, and he saw his idol perform at the Galaxy Theater, which is now—if you are the sort to track down historic sites—a three-story Banana Republic with a framed photo of Holiday on the butter-yellow wall of the dressing room all the way to the left.

He spent more than he should have for a third-row seat in the center, arrived early, and lived ninety of the best minutes of his life, shaking his head and sighing, smiling with half his mouth until, without thinking or hesitating, surprised by the strength of his desire, he shouted, “‘Waterfront’!” during a bustling near silence after the applause for “My Man” had receded and Billie was consulting with her band, her back to the audience, her golden calves completing the electrical circuit between the hem of her silver skirt and the straps of her black shoes. “‘I Cover the Waterfront’!”

She peered over her shoulder. “Somebody say something?” she purred, sly and sidelong, and laughter speckled the hall. She turned, stepped forward, shaded her eyes against the spotlights, and squinted down into the front rows. “Was that you?” She had addressed him directly.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Polite, too.” The audience cheered. “Handsome white soldier,” she mused, and in his retellings for years after, she now levitated slightly, and every other noise faded away as his goddess coolly examined him groveling down in the pit, eye level with her feet, less than a child—a worshipper. “Did you have a request, honey?”

“Miss Holiday, I sure would love to hear ‘I Cover the Waterfront.’”

“Would you now?” She kept her eyes on him as she turned her head, only a little, and called to her band: “Well, boys, the pretty gray GI wants ‘Waterfront,’ so let’s do that for him. Don’t want him to put us on report, now, do we?”

He later wondered, often, whether she, way up there, could feel the empress’s power she held over him. “Literally anything,” he would tell his second son (named for an alto man whose first album came out a decade before the boy’s birth, and after his wife had—for the second time, in some cases—rejected Miles, Charlie, Harry, Dizzy, Percy, Woody, Herbie, Teddy, Jimmy, Lionel, Dexter, Lester, Wynton, Wardell, Hampton, Duke, Count, Chet, Nat, Hank, Thad, Mal, Art, Max, Milt, Bix, Joao, and Illinois), “I would have done anything for her, Julian.”

Billie counted off the tune and started the pre-refrain verse, with only the piano accompanying:
“Away from the city …
,” something extra, that expendable introductory piece—most singers didn’t know it, and most instrumentalists never played it—and the soldier hoped that Holiday, having sensed that he was different from all the others, was perhaps granting him more than she allowed lesser supplicants. She hit the chorus, sang the title, and the bass and drums entered, and minor fans applauded, having only then recognized the song, and the thought intruded: he would gladly have killed for her. In the lyrics, she was waiting by the water, longing for her lover’s ship to return. She was singing the music he had ached to hear, was singing it
to
him, as if he, soon to head off by sea to war, was that lover for whom she pined, and this thought vibrated in him like a recently arrived arrow: he would murder the officer to his left for her, or the young woman to his right. He knew this was strange. He was not a violent man, but this was, as he later said, how love felt just then. Having been lofted up to this pinnacle of musical rapture, he looked down at the world of men and considered erasing it.

And the urge passed. By the second eight bars he could examine this gift and the real woman offering it to him. She sang with her eyes closed. He watched the swaying hibiscus in her sparkling hair, could almost smell it. He imagined finding a role to play somewhere in her life, the ease he would feel among her Negro friends, how effortlessly he would adapt to the role of efficient business manager and then earn the right to long and glorious nights drinking with the band, friendship with Lester Young or Jimmy Rowles, and then he and she might walk into the empty street, and he would drape her fur stole around her neck. They would lean into each other as they moved into the light of the street’s single lamp … and he whispers a joke about one of their musician friends’ resemblance to a basset hound, and her gentle laughter becomes the sound of her hands clasping around his biceps, compressing the cloth of his sleeve … Onstage, tonight, she sang the word
stally
, as if she had forgotten if it was
starlit
or
starry
and forged a hybrid instead. The soldier told himself he had flustered her.

She hit the bridge, and he wondered if he could still learn an instrument and then be able to travel with her, worried whether the rumors of her continued use of narcotics were true, and he knew, too, that the song—his song—was more than half-sung already. It was not that he hadn’t heard it—he had heard every breath, every sneeze of the hi-hat cymbal, the brushed snare, each profound thump and wood rattle as the bassist’s left hand crept up and down his instrument’s black neck like half of a hesitantly aggressive spider—but the song had not cast him into thoughtless ecstasy, only inspired all this mad musing. He imagined this song playing during a party or a wedding, thought of children and vast front yards, imagined “boys not unlike
you
,” he told Julian. He thought of growing old in New York or dying young in Korea, of learning to play jazz or distinguishing himself in battle, rescuing his platoon. She finished her chorus.

The tenor-sax man stepped forward to take sixteen bars. It was not Lester Young, “the President,” at whose side Billie had made so many classic recordings, or Paul Quinichette, his replacement in the old Basie band, called “the Vice President” for how closely he duplicated Young’s sound, but an imitator of Quinichette’s. This tenor, derivative of a derivative, had been dubbed “the Speaker of the House” by one of the jazz magazines, prompting dissenting correspondence from Julian’s father, who, rating men like Getz, Cohn, and Sims ahead of this guy, insisted he was, at best, “Secretary of Agriculture.”

Billie strode back in at the bridge and sang out the chorus, and when she finished, she opened her eyes and smiled toward the third row, winked and blew a kiss at where she recalled her fan having been, but the descending head-on spotlights blinded her, and the kiss drifted off target a little to the left.

The woman to his right turned to him—while he was still as dazzled by Holiday as Holiday was by the lights—and, as if stunned herself by the reflection of the singer off his face, she felt herself become light-headed, too. She fell the first distance into love with the man so in love with the singer. “You had,” she later told him in French-accented English, “a face of such perfect happiness, but only for an instant, and then you were so terribly sad again.” (“The sad face, oh yeah, they love the sad face,” he used to joke whenever Julian caught him sitting alone, believing himself unobserved, buckling under pain or memory.)

He spent that night with her, and the next, and the next. He gnawed on the idea of going AWOL for a week or forever but instead stepped timely onto his train, off to his war, which ended a month or so after his arrival and only a few weeks after his injury. He underwent several surgeries, first to save the leg, then to limit the amount lost to infection, then to maintain a viable remnant to support a prosthetic, and finally, necessarily, to save his life, at the definitive cost of the limb. “They took it in slices, like salami,” he liked to say. “Actually, Sam,” he’d imitate an indecisive housewife at the butcher’s, “make it a full pound. I’ve company coming.”

At the end of that final surgery, in an Army hospital in Japan, with the threat of more operations still hovering, he awoke, in early evening, to a gift. The nurses installed a record player in his room, set it to 331/3, and propped an LP’s sleeve against the wall behind it: a photo of Billie Holiday in close profile—her hand held up in a graceful gesture illustrative of some lyric, eyes closed, mouth open, head tipped back—and in gray lowercase:
lady day at the galaxy.

He was in deafening pain (as he was, on and off, throughout the rest of his life) and sometimes, for a moment or two, did not hear people speaking to him because of the concentration required to contain his own sounds of suffering. In this case, he only caught one of the nurses saying, “—from Paris.” The Frenchwoman had sent the LP to Korea, Julian’s father never having had the chance to inform her of his wound or transport, and the gift (which she had spotted in a record-shop window near her parents’ apartment on the rue des Bons Enfants, listened to once in amazement, and then wrapped in yellow paper and actual
straw
for protection) had followed the soldier around Asia as he shed bits of his leg on his travels, in a tent near the line, in Seoul, in Tokyo, in this snowy suburb.

He couldn’t stand, couldn’t yet move, so the nurses started side A: “Violets for Your Furs,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Them There Eyes,” “My Man.” “My Man” had been the song just before Billie took his request, and he lay in bed, sweating in December, his hair stuck to his head like a newborn’s, his dressing wet and yellow, his lips writhing against each other as another fever was wringing him out. “
… For whatever my man is, I’m his, forevermore …
Well, that is nice. Thank
you
.” The applause roared, and he had the urge, despite his pain, to shout out “‘Waterfront’!” as it faded. The applause ebbed away, into foam and then nothing. The tone arm bobbed over the deep black space as it skated toward the label with the two blackbirds perched on telephone lines that become a musical staff. The whispering ended, the tone arm flew home, the LP stopped turning, and he wept like a child.

He fell asleep calling desperately for the nurses to come and turn the record, more desperately than he’d called for the medic when he reclined on the soft earth with his splintered bones clawing up at him. When he woke, in morning light, from a morphine-and fever-swirled dream of the Frenchwoman, it was to “Billie’s Blues,” the number she had done after “I Cover the Waterfront.” “Good morning, soldier,” said a new nurse. “I thought you’d like some music. And, natch, it’s
always
a good time for a little happy hour,” she added as she screwed in a new bag of morphine. “Stormy Weather,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “Autumn in New York” finished side B. They had amputated his past, not just his voice, but even her singing his song. He refused to let the nurses play the record again, and he threw away the enclosed letter, with its gentle mention of “an unforgettable concert.” One nurse took the rejected vinyl home, happy to have some new music in godforsaken Japan, and she spun it enough that it eventually caught in her ear. She would hum it, now and again.

A week or two later she was on duty, he was awake, and she whistled “I Cover the Waterfront” in his room. “That’s my favorite song,” he said glumly, and the nurse shifted from whistling to singing, in mid-word,
“-terfront.”
She sang a little more, off-pitch, imitating Holiday’s inimitable warble, and he felt a flutter of something—not love, just something warm, not for her, but released by her.

She brought his record back the next day. He was awake, though facing the window, turned on his side by the nurses on a blood-circulating schedule. Unseen, she placed the tone arm at the start of side B. It hissed, and then applause coalesced, and behind him he heard his own voice: “‘Waterfront’! ‘I Cover the Waterfront’!” A spliced moment later, Holiday cleared her throat ferociously, and the piano sang its first chord. “Play it from the beginning again,” he said into the pillow and his wet arm. “It hasn’t hardly started, hon,” said the nurse. “Please,” he said. Again he heard his voice, resonant from a full body to echo through, every limb, the voice he once had. They had kept it for the record. His voice had mattered, been necessary to reproduce the experience—never to be repeated, even if minor—of sitting in the Galaxy Theater one specific April night, twenty months before, amidst men and women of that period (he explained years later to Julian, conjuring 1953 for the boy’s astigmatic 1973 imagination), and falling in love with Billie Holiday (a historical, vaguely operatic or George Washingtonian figure to the child), and, also, of standing next to your future wife without knowing it yet, three minutes and nineteen seconds (plus the time for that exchange with the singer) before you met her, before you had to part from her, before your leg was shattered and taken from you in regular slices, and your belief in joy with it, until the day you heard your voice again, in a hospital room with a view, through a dirty window and chicken wire, of dun snow and dun sky and clouds of smoke from neighboring factories.

He collected copies of the LP for years. Friends gave it to him at times of celebration and sorrow. His wife gave him two more copies. He gave extras to worthy friends, sent them to Army buddies. He played it often, on anniversaries (of the April concert, of their June wedding, of his wife’s premature death). And then it was out of print for years when jazz devolved from being pop itself into a genre for connoisseurs, and his supply of the album dwindled to two.

In later years, Julian couldn’t remember what his father had done that so angered him, couldn’t recall what lesson he thought he was teaching the old man. It had surely been for his father’s own good—Julian could remember that barbarian chant rattling his adolescent heart. He could have simply hidden the discs, or sold them to some store from which he could have—in later, wise remorse—ransomed them back. But no, it had been—for reasons he could no longer summon—crucial that his father see, from his upstairs wheelchair by the high window, both albums hit the bonfire, see the flames melt the vinyl and burst through the sleeve until, on the cover, Billie Holiday, in close profile, with head tipped back, spewed fire.

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