Now's the Time: Part 4-5

Sean Murphy By

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The life and times of a minor jazz legend are recounted through his narrated memories. In this fictional treatment of jazz music in the mid-to-late 20th century, issues of race, creativity, addiction and, ultimately, redemption, are explored. With a title taken from the immortal Charlie Parker tune, "Now's The Time" is an extended meditation on the artistic life.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

He was clean for almost three years, and in that time made some of his best music. He had seen and done so much, so fast, he no longer felt that rush of brazen fulfillment. He felt older. Nevertheless, life was good: He had been able to put most of the hurt behind him. Of course every time he stood close to the mirror to shave he saw that scar on his forehead and was reminded of that night, and all that had gone down. So quick, so crazy. But after a while even the scar didn't upset him as much; in fact, he tended to regard it as an emblem of the hard knocks—both good times and bad—that had gotten him to where he was. Most people had scars on the inside, in their souls, and you couldn't see them, except in their eyes. But his scar, his soul, was right there where he (and everyone else) could look at it. And he wasn't afraid of it.

And then he met his woman, his baby. She was everything he'd been looking for, but had never found. She was attractive, but she was beautiful to him in a way that no other woman, including his first wife, had ever been: she knew about music, she knew about the world, she understood herself. And she understood him.

When she died, abruptly, senselessly, when the taxi driver who was taking her across town tried to beat a yellow light (a stale potato they used to call them) and broadsided another cab, an accident in which both drivers lived while both passengers died, all while he was away on a gig he lost—for what he thought was the irretrievable time—his faith in God, his fellow man, and himself. No way he could be expected to tolerate that blow. Not this time, no way.

He hadn't attended the funeral, something for which he'd never forgiven himself.

It was, in fact, his behavior in the immediate aftermath of his wife's death that burned the final bridges still linking his current life to the more fruitful and pleasant past. The monkey, which he'd kept off his back for over three years, came back, only good. He didn't care: he sank into the cycle of abuse with an indifference that surpassed the fastidiousness with which he'd cleaned up his act. Although those six or seven days were accessible to his memory mostly as a blur, he definitely remembered this was the time, more so than any other bout of self-destruction, when he utterly lost his will to live.

He'd awakened in his underwear, clasping an album to his chest, as though he'd caressed an infant while it slept. Looking down with disjointed vision, he recognized his own face glaring back at him. It was his record, it was him. He flipped the sleeve over, and there on the back was the band. His band. The band that included his best friend, the band with which he'd made his most popular music. The band that history, if it remembered him at all, would associate him with. He looked down at his band, himself, and knew that it was over. He was alone, and there was nothing more to live for. His best days, their short-lived spell of happiness, were well behind him, and these records—all of them—would only serve to remind him how far he'd sunk, and how much empty, dead time lay ahead of him.

At first, when he heard the familiar chorus of voices and felt the cold blast from the industrial fan by his head, he figured he was in jail. It took him several moments to figure out it wasn't jail, or even a hospital. Not exactly.

Someone had seen the smoke pouring out of his windows and called the police, who showed up, along with a line of fire trucks. When no one responded, they'd been obliged to kick down the front door and that was where they found him, hunched over in his chair, before the pile of records he'd sprinkled lighter fluid over before dropping a match on. At first, they thought he had passed out from smoke inhalation, but then they found the needle dangling from his thigh, and rushed him to the emergency room.

If he'd wanted to go free, they assuredly would have jailed him for possession of heroin, as well as reckless destruction of property. But because of—or in spite of—his lethargy, they took mercy upon him and gave him a mandatory vacation in the state facility. The farm, as they called it then. The loony bin. The place they sent you to protect you from yourself. Once he got past the indignity of being shipped off to the farm, he was able to acknowledge that if his own escapade had not been thwarted, or if they had given him the jail time his stupidity warranted, he would not have made it.

Breaking himself of the habit was not as harrowing this time around, as he had the assistance—if not the coercion—of a trained medical staff. He would not have to endure the sweating, the shakes, and the drastic loss of weight (fifteen pounds in three days the last time) alone. But in all other regards, he was on his own. No one came to see him. Not a single visitor. No cards, no calls. He had been deserted, and he realized he'd been left for dead, like a shriveled up carcass on the side of the road. He'd gone as far as he could go, taken it to the limit one time too many, and he had nothing. It was over.

For the second time, he learned that his predictions were impulsive. He still had plenty of living to do. But he never relapsed on the narcotics, and that was good. Of course, he still had his extended bout with the bottle to contend with, but that was a ways down the road.

Eventually, of course, the voices started talking to him again, and he was able to listen to his music with as much, if not more passion than ever. It was with a renewed perspective that he regarded the history he'd had his own small part in making. It was music, and it was life. And there were ebbs and flows in any artist's life. At least the musician could continue to hone and perfect his craft, working on his delivery, or his compositional approach. An athlete, on the other hand, had a prime, and then after a relatively brief duration, could never play at the level they accessed so effortlessly in their youth. The business of playing music was inextricable from the art of living: it was incumbent upon the individual to find new ways to compensate for the obstructions and come around the mountain bigger and better, and badder, each time.

And it was okay to celebrate the past, to look at those records and remember the good times, and the accomplishments. Those albums were the trophies, the spoils of the war that never really ended. Monuments built of sound, and soul. His albums: those were his photo albums, his children, his lovers, and his accomplishments. They were everything—they were him.

That face: an album, a picture. Forever enshrined. That is how whoever cared to remember him would know him, that is the face they'd see. He'd written no books. Why did everyone have to write a book these days? His work was his book, his life his story: his music was autobiographical. All anyone needed to know (or all they should know) had already been told, long ago, in those records. The ones with that young, pretty face.

I know I look different now.

Older, sure. Bigger. Fat? Okay.

There's a word you didn't throw around when you thought about famous jazz cats. Legends. But look at Yardbird though. And Monk, and Rahsaan Kirk, God love them. And Mingus, of course. Those cats were never thin (even when they weren't big); they needed that real estate to hold all the feeling together. Yeah. Big hearts, big souls. Besides, why fool yourself?

It's all you can do to break even (if that) in this gig. And you didn't take none of it with you after it's over anyhow. Just your mind. And all that matters is if you tended to business like you should have. If you know what you're all about. You know about your soul.

Better Git It In Your Soul...

The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long...

So what to make of Jimi Hendrix, who did with a guitar what Bird did with an alto sax twenty years before? Reinventing the sound. They broke the rules, and in the process, created the new rules. What to make of the untimely, even incomprehensible loss of a Parker or Hendrix? They served all of us much better than they served themselves. Certainly they had more to offer, a longer lifetime of unparalleled achievement? Or was their colossal output possible because of that frenzied, almost reckless creativity? If they had halted their screeching spirits, would they have, in effect, been closing their minds' eyes to the voices that spoke to them like the sun's sheen on a sheet of ice? Or was it simply not possible to suppress that tremendous expression inside the inadequate confines of a human body?

But what of the others? The ones that did survive?

He had made it.

He often said himself: all that separated him from those others was dumb luck. He had almost died; indeed he had wished to be dead more than once. So it had little to do with that nonsense about the will to live.

He had lived amongst them, played and partied with them. Outlived them. And that was the most difficult part. Moving on, alone. Without the men he had grown and changed with. That's why you need to be best friends with yourself.

He had stopped playing altogether for almost ten years.

I just put the axe in its case and left it under my bed. I wasn't hearing any music. The voices weren't talking to me.

And so he went from celebrated Bohemian and confrere of the Bebop avant-garde, to a twice-married, burned out and washed-up has-been. Worse than a failure, a cliché. Then he struggled for ten years to live a normal life.

The money, slowly, slipped away. Where did it go? Where had it gone? Who knew? Some here, some there. Much of it, of course, had disappeared as a result of his habit, which, although he'd finally broken it, had left him strung out and exhausted. Those three days when he walled himself up in that shithole—the loft in New York City, staring wrathfully at the ceiling, not eating, drinking, talking or sleeping—had enabled him to save himself, but had also left him with the nagging feeling of deprivation. He had displaced his desire for his fix into the need for sleep, but those three days he kept himself awake, alone and unassisted in his bedroom, had left him with a relentless craving for the slumber he had missed.

Alone, at last, in New York City; the city of dreams, unfulfilled dreams, and broken dreams. He ended up doing the two things his father had done, which he had sworn he would never emulate: he took a job as a janitor, and he discovered the petulant panacea of alcohol. That was his life for six years: sleeping the days away, working the night shift (the graveyard shift, as it was morbidly, if accurately dubbed), never without his flask. His bourbon. The sour mash. That's what they always called it, back in the day. The difference being, back then, on a good night, they'd drink it until they fell asleep. Now, he drank it in order to fall asleep. How many times had he awoken, the light seeping through the shades (because, of course, the middle of the night for him now was what most people knew as the middle of the day), shaking and sweating? The warm pull of the sour mash was too much, so he would rush to the refrigerator and swill down a can of beer, in the hopes that it would either help him vomit, or calm his nerves—and his craving—enough to allow him to get back to sleep.

This was the bad time. The dark years. The same exact day, spinning itself out, impossibly, over six years.

And it still didn't kill him. His body was bloated, his spirit was sloshed, but it wouldn't kill him. He didn't get better so much as finally run out of options. He just got so tired he eventually couldn't sleep anymore. He couldn't run anymore. And when he finally gave up, he either was ready to live or die, and at that time he didn't really care to live. But he couldn't die, so he just, finally, got back to the business of living.

It was not too late to learn something else, he knew. To do something. Be someone else. Have a normal job. Maybe have a family. All that picket fence, apple pie, happy kind of shit. He just never got around to it, never found a way (or a reason) to make it happen.

Of course, he eventually discovered that such a cultivated condition was not possible, and could not exist for him.

Continue to Part 5.

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