Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dear Lady Day

New writing! So, it is Billie Holiday's birthday today. I wrote a letter to her a while back for Men of Letters and I thought today would be an appropriate day to post it. Enjoy.


Dear Lady Day,

Before I saw a picture of you, head tilted back, making your fingers snap with a half-smile, styled in a white dress, hair pinned with triple flowers, before I saw the expressive eyebrows, white teeth and a foul mouth rinsed in whiskey & creme de menthe, I heard a voice. Day one, when mum pushed a tape with her thumb into the cassette player of our old white Mazda, I heard a voice. It was jaunty and tragic, scarred and exquisite, gold leaf and gutter, cigarettes and syrup, tough as the bed of nails you slept on, transmuted into playful buoyancy, a voice afire on a black river of tape, toying with the rhythm, smoke cloying and written into sax, strings and keys, the black river of highway unfolded before my family of three. We listened.

My father told me that most pop music was sinful, so I was only allowed a small selection of tapes, but somehow you and Bob Marley (and later Ice Cube) made the cut. Was it that he couldn’t understand exactly what you were saying, your backstory, sex, drugs, on parole, the bath of mustard water you sat in to get rid of the baby, your lust for men and women, or was it something in your voice that affected him too? On every road-trip, from Queanbeyan to Queensland, we were transported into fifties nightclubs with a dusty crackle — we worked that tape to death. Why not take all of me, you said. And we did.

Dear Lady Day — the world is as large as it is close. The right type of voice, with all its jagged or whetted edges, can cut through an ocean, through a generation or three. I realised that... then. When you spoke of strange fruit in the South swinging from trees, I’d heard similar tales of similar fruit on the South Coast of New South Wales, if the yarns and whispered history of old fullas were to be believed. And those scars you had, we saw plenty of those in Canberra and Queanbeyan in the 90s, people on the nod, each bearing a brutal map of stars on the arms, pinpointing the direction to hurtful gods. And when you spoke of your man, who wasn’t true, who beat you too, when you asked “what can I do?”, I knew up close what you meant, up close, about charming, violent men, about what a poisonous addiction they can be, about the beating hearts of the beaten, trapped within flatblock cement.

They say it was your sax player, Lester Young, who you truly, truly loved, though, most likely, you were never lovers. There is footage of you singing “Fine and Mellow”, reuniting with him on stage for the last time. Black and white, the smoke drifts — you and he are both close to the end, and you both know it. At first we hear you talking — there are sad blues, there are happy blues, you just have to feel it. Halfway through the song, Lester step forward and plays the purest solo on God’s green earth. You lean towards him, some type of wonder in your eyes, look down, nod, smile strangely, and as you said, that smile wasn't a smile at all. Oh, the things that could have been.

When the white Mazda ran out of miles, the cassette era ran out too. We replaced the tape with a live CD but this one wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t one of your good days. Your words unintelligible — your voice sapped and hopeless. When my mum explained how young you had died and from what, I felt sorry for you, but nowadays, not so much. Because we all die, we all yearn. We all shine, all burn, bearing witness to each other’s rises and falls, we are unified in our pain, and that other thing it bears, beauty. You lived the way you wanted, this bright hyphen between darkness and darkness. It wasn’t about perfection, it was about feeling, but somehow, somehow, that made it… perfect.

Yours truly,
Omar

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