Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chet Baker

About a year ago, my friend Rob and I had a great arrangement in which we would make bi-weekly pilgrimages to Hillsboro Village, for-to grab a couple drinks and a movie down at the Belcourt. While this sounds like a good idea at the outset, it's often difficult to get through, say Point Blank or The Long Goodbye (last year the Noir film fest was American, this year it was British and French...they do some killer lineups) in forty year old, busted out theater seating with three IPAs under your belt. Fidgeting was not the word. At one point, I was pretty much churning the nubbed orange upholstery, panicked with the idea that I couldn't get out of the aisle without trampling on the feet of several well heeled fellow patrons, and that I would miss a crucial scene, and that I wouldn't be able to find my place again when I returned to the darkened screening. However! We did catch some of the better stuff they played last spring. One of the highlights of this period was a movie we ended up seeing after watching the trailer, oh, ten, fifteen times during the noir festival:

Elvis Costello wrote "Almost Blue" with Chet Baker's version of "The Thrill is Gone" in mind...then got him to record the vocals on it (after he did a career boosting trumpet track on "Shipbuilding"). Between EC's literate, razor sharp sense of lyric and sound, and Chet Baker's dissipated singing voice, but spot-on phrasing, I was humming it for MONTHS after. Also, this is one of the best trailers for a film I think I've ever seen.

So. Chet Baker in Let's Get Lost (1989). The film was directed by Bruce Weber, the man that brought us the look of Abercrombie and Fitch and that Chris Isaak video on the beach-- part documentary and part expressionistic, black and white biographical pastiche, the film follows Baker interviews with rebuttals and recriminations from those who love/hate him best (it seems to be about the same emotion for most). The photography was thrillingly beautiful...like a moving coffeetable book collection of the most gorgeous photos. The movie leaves you with just a cake icing glimpse of what his life was like-- but the icing is so delicious, it doesn't really matter that you never get to the cake.

I've always been curious to see what kind of a person some of the cooler icons of the 1950's stack up in "real life" to the image culture projects on them. Sometimes the real person falls so short of the schoolgirl crush you get on that image, that it's jarring to try and understand how rotten people can be, amazingly talented or no. Baker and Brando are the highest on my list of celebrity biography let downs-- some stars I read about are just boring, some pretty saucy, some interesting-in-a-non-film-related-way. These two, however, just seemed to be irredeemably bad-in-a-boring-way in their free time. Brando, in that his biography was a long, long list of the type of girls he used to nail in various exotic locales (he manages only passing, vague mentions of his life outside of sex, his acting, his movies, or Hollywood in general) and his nasty divorces-- not nearly even as entertaining as that Larry King interview he did in the early 90s.

Baker, for his part, had all the sex there was to have for a cool, glamorous looking white boy playing California jazz trumpet in the 50's, while simultaneously doing all the heroin there was to do in the state of California in the 1950's, 60's, 70's, and 80's. The emptiness of it-- how every person interviewed for the book couldn't find anything to say about him outside of drugs, women, and his horn (in that order)-- is discouraging. The intimation is not that he's somehow elusive and romantic, but that he simply lived his life as a cipher, a void, where the records and the music are all you can really take from it.

Drugs became a driving/destructive force throughout the last thirty years of his life-- he pawned his trumpet for it, he served jail time in Italy and the United States, he was more than once deported from Europe. He died, very haggard, very old-beyond-his-years, but still somehow very talented, from a fall out of a second story window in Amsterdam while Weber was still in the process of cutting his documentary.

The same disbelief I felt while watching the Maysles' Grey Gardens is an issue with CB-- you look at that washed out, hollowed out face and think, there's no way he was ever young, much less possessed of a great beauty. The gothic nature of finding out, at some point in the narrative, that this was indeed the case, and more, is both thrilling and disconcerting. Do we really get that old, that fast? Could that really happen to someone with so much in their favor?

What's crushing in reading the end-of-the-book-first, as you end up doing with a lot of celebrity life stories, is to know he once HAD IT.

His recording Chet Baker Sings came out of a time where usually mute jazz soloists were taking to the microphone as crooners as well as musicians-- see the Louis Armstrong singing series in the mid sixties. Despite a silvertone voice, musicians in one biography recalled how many hundreds of takes and splicing it took to get those final tracks-- I say whatever means brought us this record were justified, as "smooth" doesn't begin to describe it. PERFECT, lullaby sweet renditions of standards. Twenty-four years old, same age as me.

Compare that first video to the second. Granted, he's missing a tooth in "Time After Time", but what, at final count, is he missing in the first video?

Soyez sage, mes enfants.

Watch "Let's Get Lost" on Youtube (and don't feel guilty, bc I don't think it's yet released on dvd)

First track on Chet Baker Sings, also via Youtube.

Chet Baker tribute site

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