Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Billie Holiday is an artist you either get or you don't. For some reason, I did, and count myself so lucky for it.
I grew up in an Ella Fitzgerald house; no Lena, no Sarah, no Billie. We listened to songs about love - not always working out - and walks and most of the great jazz standards, and I loved them; Ella's voice was beautiful and reassuring, and I was too young to know about segregation or heartbreak. Then when I was a lot older, someone gave my sister a Billie Holiday cd, and her name seemed familiar and someone I should know, so I nabbed it, and I fell in love. Billie was like nothing I had ever heard before. She sang songs I knew but I couldn't sing along with her; she played around with the timing and the tune and sometimes it was like she wasn't even singing; it was like she was a cloth and the words were being squeezed out of her. And songs about love; they weren't happy. They were torrid; she had been used, and abused, and if she could go back it would just be the same. She broke my heart. Every word she sang spoke of heartbreak and resignation and aloneness, and even though I was in my early teens, with no life experience, I knew she was for real, and I wanted to be part of it.
Billie's life was as her voice told it. At eleven she had dropped out of school, and was temporarily placed in care after being raped by a neighbour. She and her mother then began working for a madam, and by the time she was thirteen, Billie was working as a prostitute, for which she went to prison (not the only time she was there; she was sent again as an adult for drug possession). Her life never really got any easier. She had drug and alcohol problems, and was involved in abusive relationship after abusive relationship. Throughout, she sang, and wrote, and gave everything she had; achieving success but never really enjoying it. She died aged forty-four, with seventy cents in the bank.
Before I even knew what kind of person I was, I felt like I could relate to Billie. Her life was tragic, and most times so unhappy, yet there's an undeniable sense of acceptance and life-affirmation in her work. Her voice is her heart on her sleeve; when she sings All Of Me, there is no doubt she is giving every bit of herself. And whatever her life was like and how little control she seemed to have, the minute she started singing, something changed; my Mum bought me a dvd of her, and I've seen it. I forget right now which philosopher said it, but Billie makes me think about making your life a work of art.
Image from lastfm.com