Billie Holiday

I have been saving this one for a little while.  About two weeks ago I had to go to the storage unit to look through my stuff in order to review my library to see what remains of my sci-fi section.  (I have always maintained a library but I tend to give a lot of books away.)  For personal and professional reasons I want to re-read the writings in Asimov’s Foundation Universe and the Dune series.  I did have all of the Asimov at one point but could only find the Foundation series minus book one – no Robot books.  I did find my special copy of Foundation and Earth.  It is thankfully back in print now, though it was out of print for years.  I picked up mine from my room in a hotel made famous by a former president.  They had not one, but three hardback copies on one of the four bookcases in the room. I liberated two and gave them both good homes.  I remember having four Dune books but I cannot remember them all.  I love the world of Dune and I did enjoy the first two or three books but I remember having trouble maintaining interest during God Emperor of Dune

I bought another copy of Foundation and began the re-read.  I started Foundation’s Edge last night.  I am really enjoying re-visiting this world.  Even though I know and remember and anticipate the major plot shifts, it is still a great ride.  My familiarity with the books makes the professional side of the re-read a bit easier.  I am paying attention to methods of character development, landscape descriptions, and descriptions of space travel, as well as keeping an open ear to how the broad spans of time are used, layered, and referenced.  The Dune re-read will have a similar focus.

While digging through paper bags, boxes, and suitcases full of books – I did come across a few other interesting items.  The find that beat all other finds probably ever in the history of my life – three cassette tapes.  I found more than three, but these three are special and magical.  This is really about one tape, the first tape, my first real exposure to Billie Holiday.

I cannot say for sure but I believe it was 1989 and i was 13 or 14.  I took German in high school and despite attending a gigantic school, language classes tended have smaller class sizes.  There were two German teachers and most people found one they liked and stuck with it.  I was a Frau Fredette (sp?) man and I had the same teacher and the same classmates for three years running.  One of my classmates who became one of my buddies was Jen.

I had just started my several year affair with the Beat Writers and was at that time still reading and studying On the Road.  Jen and I talked about this a little bit.  I don’t remember exactly how it came up, if it was me or her that brought it up, but we talked about the scene where Sal Paradise was driving away from his recent Mexican lover without any real goodbye or explanation and he is fantasizing about Lover Man and wishing that he could make someone feel like that someday.  Not necessarily make them feel that sadness, but feel that depth and intensity that would be the precursors for such a level of sadness.  It came up that I did not know this song, nor was I really familiar with Billie Holliday.

Some short period of time later, Jen brought me a mix tape.  Since I have it in my hand, allow me to quote the spine, “Billie Holliday – Live Recordings (Mostly)”.  This is an amazing collection of recordings.  Not only are they mostly live, they were taped from a collection of vinyl records (!) many of which were rare.  These are very raw and full of emotion (duh) but I say that to contrast to the bulk of the studio recordings that just don’t reach the same emotional level.  This set of live recordings has (to me) a really depressing (but beautiful) current.

I was instantly in love.  I would have fallen in love with Billie no matter what, no mater what I heard first, or how old I was or what I was reading.  But, I was 14 years old, in love with Kerouac, in the midst of discovering how to live the theory of excess in all things – that I of course thought I invented.  (Like most arrogant kids who read Blake, and love the Proverbs of Hell, I only had the limited wisdom to understand one interpretation of “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.)  Over the next few months and years as I added Miller into the mix, I had predictable habits.

But the tape, I loved this tape.  I listened to it driving alone or with others.  I listened to it in the rain.  I listened to it while i read Important Books and had Big Thoughts.  I listened to it while I drank wine on the roof.  I also listened to it with many, many girls.  Probably the trappings had little to do with it for anyone else, but the basement, the fire in the fireplace, and the Billie on the high fi – quite a bit of magic happened.

The tape I found is not the original tape I was given.  It is at least a second generation tape of that tape – maybe further down the train.  It is still in good shape, and luckily i kept the original case and liner notes. Compared to the polished studio stuff, the degradation of the tape itself or issues brought on my multiple dubbings only add another layer of beautiful ambience to the existing hisses and pops of the vinyl from which it was taken.

I mentioned three tapes.  The other two are also Billie Holiday and they too fill me with joy.  My parents found these for me and what a happy accident this turned out to be.  They bought me the two cassette collection “lady in autumn: the best of the verve years” and this is definitely my favorite collection of Billie’s studio recordings.  I have owned others and heard others, but I got rid of them all because they did not capture what I love about Billie.  These verve recordings have a lot of live material and while they do have some velvety smooth studio cuts – they maintain the deep despair that I love in her tone and delivery.  I have not taken the plunge yet, but I did finally find this exact set of verve recordings available for download on iTunes (I had never found the cds before) – and it is not polished, it is just the same recordings in a different format and I could not be more grateful that they left them alone.

I used to listen to the verve tapes on my walkman riding a bicycle on the macadam paths through the farms outside Stuttgart with a little wine and/or beer flowing in the veins and thoughts of loves past, loves lost, and loves yet to be.

When I put a few extra coins together I must buy that verve download, but more importantly, I must find an audiophile to turn my original mix tape into digital files.  Now that I found it again, it must be preserved!  If you will excuse me, i am going to set something on fire, drink wine from the bottle and find some ladies…just as long as there is a tape player nearby.

*** Written after sleep – apparently someone at NPR was up late thinking about Billie also.  I found this today.

I was just a little bit older than this guy
But not as old as this guy
Jen has the shortish blond hair and glasses