Thursday, February 16, 2006


With Billie, Julia Blackburn, Pantheon Books, 2005, 334 pp

Wow, what an intense and wonderful biography. In the 1970s, a woman named Linda Kuehl began to research the life of Billie Holiday by interviewing anyone she could find who had known the singer. Ms Kuehl never completed her book and in fact, committed suicide. All of her research was eventually sold by her family to a private collector. At some point Julia Blackburn picked up the project, studied all that Linda Kuehl had done and wrote this book.

She calls it a documentary of Billie's life and most all of the book is transcripts of those interviews. It was actually an unhappy experience to read the book. Billie Holiday's life was one of racial discrimination, parental neglect and poverty in her early years. She grew up in the slums of Baltimore. By the time she reached her teens she was sexually active, sometimes making money as a prostitute, and already hooked on alcohol and experienced with drugs. Music, sex and alcohol were the magic ingredients which made life bearable.

This is the story of a black woman with a great gift of talent. Without that talent, her life would have been just another miserable statistic and the same goes for the many musicians she played music with throughout the years. The racial discrimination never ended for these folks, even when they were famous and in demand by white audiences. Billie in particular was singled out and harassed at every turn, the "reason" being her drug use, but Blackburn cites evidence that she was used in a drug bust program exactly because she was so high profile.

I was struck once again by how here on earth the great artists live in another universe. The rules and patterns of everyday life are not theirs. They may interact with and even try to imitate the lives of regular people, but for them life is different. There may be money, even riches at times, as well as fame and awards and recognition, but it is a life with really no safety, no predictability and almost always there are drugs, criminality, promiscuous sex, brushes with the law and failed relationships. So, so strange. In my view, artists are the gods among mortals and should be honored and treasured. Could it be that fame, riches and honor are not what an artist seeks, but only freedom to practice her art?

I learned that Lady Sings The Blues was Billie's ghostwritten autobiography, was full of falsehoods, and made her last husband look like her savior when in fact he brought about her downfall. Billie was looking for love and a good man yet these things were the most elusive part of her life. She had no experience or knowledge of how to be a good woman to a man or how to give the love she wanted in return. She was a loving person according to almost every person interviewed for the book, but with a fatal flaw that made her seek men who would harm her. Love, happiness, pride; those things came in short bursts and lasted about as long as an evening singing, sometimes artificially prolonged by substance abuse, until she died. So sad but for the music she left for us.

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