Lush Life Lost: Toxic Jazz Mythologies

I’d been wanting to see the movie Let’s Get Lost (a film about Chet Baker) for many years. I heard about it when it first came out, but had a hard time finding it on video. I stumbled across it on YouTube, and watched the entire film (in 12 parts). At the same time, a friend sent me a new website from Laurie Verchomin, who was Bill Evans’ lover in the last 18 months of his life. The beginning of their relationship is precious: Evans was 50, she was a 22-year-old waitress and he tried to get her to come up to his room within minutes of meeting her. This is the start of “The Big Love”–a quickly deteriorating middle-aged addict and famous jazz pianist is trying to get a starry-eyed young woman from the plains of Alberta to go to bed with him. Delightful. Spiritual. Big Love.

I don’t want to say too much about Verchomin’s book, but I have to point out some glaring issues. It appears to be self-published, and if the website is any indication, it’s barely literate. Here’s an excerpt from her site:

“This is Bill’s room. I share the king. He is on my left; I am on his right.”

From this we learn that:

i) Laurie is in Bill’s room,

ii) she is sharing the king-size bed (rather than sharing Elvis), and

iii) neither she nor he is upside down.

And this splendid endorsement from “inspirational humorist/author” David Roche:

“The ultimate coming of age memoir The Big Love chronicles Laurie’s journey into the gritty underworld of the New York jazz scene.

Muse, lover [sic] and confident [sic] to the legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans during his most prolific creative period, and witness to his final process of soul retrieval, [sic]

Laurie has given us a universal story that simultaneously witness’s [sic] her own awakening into love, sex, drugs, spiritual enlightenment, death and jazz, while [sic] she records the incendiary ascension of one of the worlds [sic] most beloved musicians.

Written in a style, [sic] that could be described as both “spare” [sic] and “emotionally charged” [sic] Laurie has given us a universal story, that of the witness ~ the one who watchs [sic].

An exotic erotic memoir.”

(Apparently The Big Love can’t afford a “Small Editor” with a high school diploma. Self-publishing 101?)

Beyond the poor punctuation, the ridiculously bad grammar, and the shoddy sentence structure, the claims in this endorsement are absurd. This book is the ultimate “coming of age memoir”? And these last few months of Evans’ life were his “most prolific creative period”? How about the “final process of soul retrieval”? (What the hell does that even mean?) And the clincher: “an exotic erotic memoir.” What is “exotic” about this particularly prolonged and tragic suicide? Or does “exotic” just conveniently rhyme with “erotic”? Or maybe this is just an entirely new genre, previously undiscovered–let’s call it “jazz death porn.”

There’s a large element of voyeurism in both of these specimens that appears to be the lifeblood of this kind of sentimentalist mythmaking. For example, the only excerpt from the book features the juicy description of Evans’ last moments, and in another interview she describes his shattered body in great detail. She claims that the sex was “beautiful” and that Evans had “vigor” while at the same time “tracks from his earlier heroin addiction had healed over, and his skin was in a kind of petrified state. He apparently only had an eighth of a liver.” Yup, nothing says “sexy” like petrified skin and fractional livers. The interviewer asks “How did Evans view you?”

“He was in love with me. He saw me as a source of inspiration. He also didn’t want to be alone while he was dying.”

(There are other comments that are similarly odd, especially in the fifth part of this interview, but they are, frankly, so bizarre that I don’t want to quote them here.)

A similar scene is played out in Let’s Get Lost. Here we are treated to the final play-by-play of the artist in terminal decline, breath-fully singing his last sad, cliché ridden torch songs in the studio while his breathless entourage looks on adoringly as if Michelangelo is nearing the completion of the Sistine Chapel. In other scenes, the cragged, crenellated Baker is being driven around in a convertible with young women who fawn over him endlessly; Baker looks happy and carefree, while his three children are broke and fatherless. Delightful. Spiritual. Big Love.

~~~~~~~~~

The tale of two great musicians at the tail end of self-destruction is not a pretty thing to see, even from a distance. Junkies are not doing anything “for the world” or “for their art”–they’re living for their next fix. Evans and Baker were both inveterate addicts who selfishly abused family and friends and squandered enormous amounts of money to feed their miserable habits; for that they should be criticized and pitied, not lionized.

Yes, there’s some great music here, but that has nothing to do with the drugs. If anything, we’ve lost a lot of great music because both of these artists died younger than they would have and were likely not as productive as they could have been had they not been spending all of their time and money on finding another bag of white powder and a clean needle. What we see surrounding both is the typical crew of enablers and accident watchers who haplessly endorse and encourage the addict by continuing to support them while they kill themselves. This tawdry stew of brutal realism, vacuous (and self-promoting) romanticism, and empty bromides stolen from the self-help section at Barnes and Noble is not spiritual, nor is it love, big or otherwise.

About FraKathustra

http://www.kurtellenberger.com

3 Responses to “Lush Life Lost: Toxic Jazz Mythologies”

  1. “All is Love,” Laurie?

    Wow, given that response, it looks like Frak must have got the book about right. There’s a storied tradition of enablers, and perhaps worse, opportunists, that tag along and make it all possible for the junkie. The former is simply sad or pathetic; the latter is simply wrong. Neither is love–you are mistaken about that.

    Evans had better days . . . I think I’ll focus on those instead.

  2. There are few things more annoying than non musician music fans reducing art down to something they can understand.
    With all due respect Ms. Verchomin, Bill Evans was a remarkable musician. Anyone who was at all interested in music as art would not see drugs as an integral part of the process but only a destructive force in an otherwise incredible person. Anyone really interested in Evans would be talking about some real basic things like his voicings, especially given the time period. And maybe talk about how his legacy (in music) has shaped the voice of jazz in a profound way.
    Sorry honey, nothing special about a jazz musician banging a waitress after a gig, no matter how dark and sultry it was.

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