With Billie

by Julia Blackburn

With Billie

Hardcover, 354 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

A portrait of singer Billie Holiday as seen through the eyes of friends, lovers, fellow musicians, critics, producers, pimps and junkies, narcotics agents, and others, from her Baltimore childhood to her rise to fame and her tragic death.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: With Billie

With Billie

ONE
The Record Sleeve
When I first heard Billie Holiday’s voice, I had just turned fourteen. I was at a party and everyone was much older than me and very drunk. Their movements seemed to have been slowed down; even the way they opened and closed their mouths was too slow.

There were two prostitutes at the party. One was a woman called Sally. She had short-cropped hair, but I can no longer find her face in my mind. She lived with a tall thin homosexual called Barry, who had huge front teeth and floppy black hair, and I can see him easily. They used to invite me over to their flat in Mayfair and they liked to show me a cupboard that was full of ropes and masks and whips. On one occasion when the three of us were having tea, a client dropped by, but Sally said she couldn’t do anything for him
because she had a guest.

She did take me out for an appointment with two American businessmen. We went to the Ritz and ate lobsters, which I had never eaten before, and I was shocked by the sound their claws made when they were cracked open. One of the men asked me how old I was and, when I told him, he panicked and ordered a taxi and sent me away with a book on sexual techniques as a present. Sally and Barry
wanted me to sell my virginity. They used to telephone me and tell me about an old gentleman they knew and how easy it would all be and how much he was prepared to pay.

I had never met the other prostitute at the party and I don’t know her name. She was plump and blonde. She had taken off all her clothes and she was dancing among the guests. Every so often she would squat down and run her hand between her legs and then lick her fingers with a loud lip-smacking noise. Everyone was laughing, and Barry, who was always competitive, took off all his clothes and did a little shimmying dance with his penis tucked tightly between his thighs. I was very impressed because he suddenly looked almost like a woman.

A man in a dark sweater was staring at me; he kept pursing his mouth into tight kisses and winking one wrinkled eye. I was frightened of him. I was frightened of every person in the room except for Sally, because she had always said she would look after me if there was trouble and I wanted to believe her.


My mother had arranged the party and invited the guests. She was laughing and drinking and having fun. The relationship between us had changed since she had separated from my father. Before, we had been allies of sorts, busy every night with an assessment of the danger and the likelihood of violence; ready to run and hide if things got too bad. But now things were different and we had become two women: one young, the other no longer young. My mother never said she would look after me if there was trouble and it
never occurred to me that she might. I was aware of her watching the man who was watching me.

I escaped to a far corner of the room and sat down on the carpet next to the new record player, its wine-red plasticsurface stamped incongruously with an imitation of the scales on a snake skin. I looked through the little pile of records that people had brought to the party and stopped at one called A Billie Holiday Memorial. There was a black-and-white photograph of a woman on the cover. She was illuminated by a stage spotlight and she was wearing a white evening dress that left her shoulders bare. She was standing very
stiff and straight, her head tilted slightly upwards towards the benediction of the light, her arms bent at the elbows, her hands clenched into fists. I couldn’t see her feet, but I could tell from her stance that she must have had them planted firmly on the ground, as though she was on the deck of a ship and was maintaining her balance in spite of the breathing swell of the ocean. She was caught in the gaze of lights and cameras in front of an audience of strangers who were gathered in the darkness to watch her, and yet she seemed to be completely alone. It was as if the act of singing filled her with such a wild joy that she was aware of nothing else for as long as the song lasted.


I lowered the needle onto the spinning black disc. The music began with the notes of a piano stepping lightly as a dancer, and then some other instruments whose names I didn’t know joined in. They were like an excited crowd of people who were all talking, laughing, telling jokes, but bound together by the sound of a regular beat.

Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a woman’s voice arrived. She flew in there among them like a bird and I realised that all the instruments had been waiting to welcome her. To my surprise she didn’t seem to care about the beat which they wove around her, and she kept pulling at it and stretching it until I thought she had lost it entirely. But just when it seemed too late, she was back again.

‘I . . .’ she sang, her voice as clear and strong as a trumpet, pulling out that one long vowel of sound. ‘I . . . cried for you, now it’s your turn to cry over me.’ She sounded so close and familiar. It was as if she was looking straight at me.

She was telling me a story about how she had once loved a man, and he was unkind to her and made her very unhappy. But then she met another man who was much nicer and she was happy again. Meanwhile, the man who had made her sad was beginning to miss her, and so the wheel had come full circle and it was his turn to cry.

She sounded as brave as a lioness and yet she also sounded as fearful as a child. Listening to her, I didn’t have the sense that she was bitter or resentful, or that she was angry with the man who had hurt her and glad to see him suffer. Her message was much simpler: she was telling me that things change, life moves on, laughter is followed by tears, and tears are followed by laughter. After you have been knocked to the floor, you rise up and get on your feet again.

The record went on playing and I listened as more and more stories were told. There was a lot of unrequited love and a lot of longing for a world in which a man and a woman could live happily ever after. But even the saddest songs were full of courage. It was as if just the fact of singing was in itself a triumph and a way of dealing with despair.

The last song on the record was called ‘For All We Know’. I had no idea how much time separated the first recordings from this one, but I could hear at once that a number of years had passed. It was clearly the same woman who was singing, but her voice had changed profoundly; it had lost that dancing, light-hearted effervescence and instead it seemed to be pulled forward by a sheer effort of will. But still she was strong and I was made strong by listening to her.

On the morning after the party, I bought myself a copy of the record. I played it over and over until I knew the words of all the songs and they had become my stories as well. It was not that I suddenly believed in eyes of blue and hearts so true, or in cottages by streams where I would just like to dream, but I did believe in Billie Holiday and the way her voice could chase out my fears.

The record has always stayed with me since then, travelling from place to place. I haven’t looked after it well; the black vinyl is warped and scratched, and only a few of the songs can struggle to be heard. But I have kept it anyway because of the memory of myself as a young girl at a party and because of the photograph of Billie Holiday on the cover and how she impressed me when I first heard her sing.

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