April 7, 2014
Billie Holiday was such a presence in my family household, that I suspect that she may be the first, at least in my memory, black american face I have ever seen. My dad and mom had framed portraits of certain heroes on their living room wall in San Francisco. They were Jean Cocteau, Anton Artaud, and Billie Holiday. The very first recording that I think I heard was Lotte Lenya singing from “The Three Penny Opera. ” But surely the second most played recordings were by Billie, and to this day I can’t remember what songs they were or from what album. My first impression of her is her voice, which as a kid, I found it very foreign and strange sounding. Now come to think of it, my parents had weird sounding recordings at home. I was raised on the music of Edgar Varese, Paul Bowles recordings of various Moroccan tribes, and the music of Moondog. Which all three to this day, is still perfectly weird to me. The only mainstream albums that my parents owned were classical albums, mostly the recordings of the eccentric (another weirdo) Glenn Gould and the most conservative of all, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons. ”
My father had a direct connection to Billie Holiday because he used to visit her at Jazz clubs in Central Avenue when he was a zoot-suit wearing teenager. In fact, he told me that he once purchased a glass of coke cola for her, during one of her appearances in Los Angeles. I can’t imagine what the effect was on a white jewish teenager when meeting the titian of jazz singing Billie or better known to her fans as Lady Day. I have heard many jazz singers in my life, but there was something about her that made her stand out. Now, I can appreciate her genius and her ability to express herself through song, but as a child it totally alienated me in a sense. Her misery that is expressed through her music was quite foreign to me. On the other hand, I had an instinct total understanding of music from the Walt Disney films, which by the way, I have never seen. Only from the Mickey Mouse Fan Club TV show or the Disney hour that was on every Sunday night. I didn’t really like the show, but culturally I connected to it, maybe because every kid in my world was in tuned to that world. The Sherman brothers wrote the most famous Disney songs, and that of course, sticked in my mind like glue. By instinct, and seeing how my parents were affected by Billie, I knew she was the better artist - or as they say on the street - “the real deal. ”
The way she pronounced her words while singing is one thing that took me awhile to grow into. I realized later that the best art is the one that where you have to struggle at first and then somewhere down the line you accept it. I’m that way with Van Dyke Parks’ first album “Song Cycle. ” But that’s another story! As a writer I’m intrigued by accents and how words are incorporated in the popular song. Lately I have been giving thought to Lord Buckley and his use of wording when he did his stand-up act, if it is even an act! I have a hard time telling what’s real or not real with respect to someone on a stage (or for me, on a TV show) that the border becomes hazy as I watch a performance.
Recently I watched an old video tape of the journalist Walter Winchell, who apparently was a terror and a man who many feared to cross. Also it has been reported that the J.J. Hunsecker character in the classic film “Sweet Smell of Success” was based on Winchell. Nevertheless, what impresses me is not his politics but his manner of presenting the news, either by the page, and even more impressive, his vocal style while ‘reading’ the news. He was known to come up with his own language of sorts that is called “Winchellese.” He used a lot of sexual terminology within his ‘talks.' My favorite being “trouser-crease-eraser, ” which I gather is a man with an erection. He also has some great sayings for the act of marriage: “lohengrin it, “handcuffed, ” and of course “Mendelssohn March. ”