In this week’s story, “Crazy They Call Me,” you inhabit the world of Billie Holiday, writing the story from the singer’s perspective. Can you remember when you first heard Billie Holiday’s music and what it meant to you?
I would have been very young. She was always played in my house—both my parents loved her. She was from the old world of my father, but the genetic world of my mother. And she was a singer, which at the time I wanted to be. And she was a writer. When I found out she co-wrote “Strange Fruit” and wholly composed “God Save the Child,” that consolidated her importance for me.
“Crazy They Call Me” will appear as the introduction to “Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill,” which is published in April by Thames & Hudson. The book gathers together a series of quite stunning photographs taken by Jerry Dantzic in April, 1957, when Billie Holiday was performing at Sugar Hill, a jazz club in Newark, New Jersey. The story forms a reflection on these photographs. Had you been aware of Jerry Dantzic’s work with Billie Holiday? What was your response to those photographs when you saw them?
I’d never seen them before. The piece is my direct response—I never would have written it otherwise. What I loved about Dantzic’s photos was the variety. The unexpected attitudes. Seeing an old friend from a new angle.
The pictures offer an intimate portrait of Holiday—Dantzic photographs her not only on the stage but on the street, in the dressing room, with her husband, members of her band, some close friends and their child, and, often, with her dog, Pepi. What was it like to enter into her world through these photographs? Was there anything that surprised you?
I intended to write a straight biographical introduction to the photographs. But then had a different feeling, looking at her with that baby. I always think critical writing should meet its subject in sympathy. If you write about Borges, get a little Borgesian. If you write about Bergman, write Bergmanly. And so on. The stronger the voice of the artist under consideration the more I feel this. But Billie’s voice is so distinct I couldn’t find a way to write about it from any distance at all. In the end I just looked at the pictures and felt my way in.
She’s often in company, yet at the same time Dantzic frequently captures her alone—either in the spotlight, in front of her band, or facing her dressing-room mirror, or sitting by herself in an almost empty club. In the story, you explore that disjunction, writing, “sometimes, on a Friday night, after the singing is over and the clapping dies down, there’s simply no one and nothing to be done. You fall back on yourself.”
Maybe I have a minor version of that experience from book tours or any public event. You can feel oddly desolate after being public in that way. I see it, too, with my brother, who’s a stand-up comedian, among other things. After he gets offstage he usually has to then get in a car and drive fifty miles home or whatever, and you’re kind of left with yourself, and the contrast can be quite stark, I think, between the self you are in front of an audience and the self you are alone.
Were you listening to Billie Holiday’s songs as you were writing? Were there any particular songs or performances that mirrored the emotional tenor of the story for you? You’re a singer, too. Does this help you understand the way she entered a song?
I never listen to any kind of music when writing. I listen to white noise throughout—sometimes six hours of white noise! But I was certainly thinking of “Crazy He Calls Me.” It’s such a beautiful, masochistic song. You can hear all the suffering laid out right next to the declaration of love. I’m the opposite: I don’t have a masochistic bone in my body. A long time ago, I used to sing in old people’s homes, and in bars sometimes, and I was often doing Billie impressions. You can replicate the phrasing but you can’t come anywhere near that tension between delight and pain that she had.
The story takes place two years before Holiday’s death, but gestures at the end toward the circumstances of her death—she’d been arrested for the illegal possession of narcotics and was kept under police guard in a hospital room. The guard was lifted by court order shortly before she died. She was forty-four. Why was it important to include her final days in the story?
I was a small child when I heard about what happened to Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. These were some of my first ideas of America: a country that allowed for miraculous talents like those and yet “for some reason” destroyed them. Then I got a little older and understood the reason. I can’t imagine speaking in this voice without acknowledging the malevolence that snuffed it out.