Friday, August 28, 2009

But Beautiful

Why did I take to jazz? I didn't hear it growing up. It's true, my father was something of a fan in his youth. But I only learned this fact in my adolescence, when I found and listened to some of his old LPs: Cannonball Adderley with Nancy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Sinatra. I grew up with country music. I loved musicals almost from birth. But I came to jazz pretty early, and it has never left me. Those singers, that music, became mine at some point. Maybe it was when I listened to my father's abandoned jazz records. The one that got me, the one I first really connected to, from the minute I dropped the needle, was "Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee," recorded in 1961, two years before I was born. This is of course the famous live recording of "Fever," among other things, including Peggy's tribute to Ray Charles. One of his songs, "Just for a Thrill," is so painfully good, sung by Miss Lee in an achingly earnest drag, the band muted, glasses clinking in the opening, one can smell the cigarette smoke in the club, and feel the lady's pain. She goes straight through the applause for this one, into "Yes Indeed," and rocks it. It is great record. The band swings. Peggy is just bubbling with sex, fast and slow, throughout the set. She is just so damned good. Peggy Lee was a revelation. I listened to that record, memorizing the songs, for a month or more. It seemed so adult, which I think meant it suggested a wonderful, utterly alien sophistication, an urbanity I knew otherwise only from old movies on the late night television. I wanted that. I wanted to be in a city, listening to cool music, smoking a cigarette, having a cocktail, wearing French cuffs -- something else I'd just decided I needed desperately to do. That record, and jazz, I think, represented the kind of kitchy, retro cool, which I was sure would suit me down to the ground, so clearly incapable was I of any other kind of cool. Peggy made me dream.

Like a lot of of the "live" recordings of that era, there's a number that is actually a studio recording grafted onto the playlist, applause added at either end. The one on this record still slays me. Peggy Lee singing "But Beautiful" is the sound for me of a starry summer night, not a breeze stirring through the window screen, my first serious crush on a man, for so the boy seemed to me then, making me moony and sad, and strangely happy, laying there naked but for headphones, staring out into the dark, dropping the needle back to that song, over and over again...

He was the friend of a friend of a friend, to get the linkage just right. He had already graduated high school before I could start, was off at college, studying art. Very glamorous, that. I met him at a New Year's Eve party, having heard about him for some time before that as an almost mythic figure from just the recent past: cute and obviously talented and openly gay. Teachers I had then still talked about him. Adults I respected respected him. Those of his friends I'd already met, all still talked about him too. I'd seen photographs of him from previous parties. He had a dazzling smile, thick brown curls, a slim figure, good hands. I'd heard story after story about his happy disposition, his charm, his wit.

There was something about that time, the sixties were long gone, it was after the Vietnam War, after Watergate, the Bicentennial, something that felt like everything interesting, everything important, had already happened, largely before I could appreciate or understand it. My generation missed everything, or so it seemed, really until AIDS. That we came to well in time, unfortunately. But we didn't really anticipate much, and certainly not that. Instead, everything seemed retrospectively more interesting than we were or could possibly grow up to be. The adults nearest to what I hoped one day to be, the mild, country radicals I'd met, the survivors of communes and acid and protests, were all of them, already nostalgic, and disillusioned. It was a little discouraging. Even those who had come up just before me, seemed, at least to me, to be so far ahead, so much less indefinite, so experienced, so knowing, even cynical, as to be tinged with whatever was left of that earlier excitement. The people I'd met that year, through the friends of my friend, were all of them still lovely and young, but never the less enviably past innocence, touched with the very adult glamour of having just made it in before the gate closed again, and everything went back to being, if not Eisenhower, then something sadly like. I suppose any high school freshman might feel this, meeting people already in college, but I could not help but feel I'd missed the only party I might ever have enjoyed.

The party where I finally met my crush was an annual affair, hosted by the aunt of my friend. A woman my mother's age, this was someone to whom I was instinctively drawn. She was tough, self sufficient, unmarried, terribly clever. She and her sister, my friend's mother, stayed up all night, watching old movies, drinking black coffee, smoking, entertaining themselves and a host of unlikely friends, some nights, bantering and laughing ruefully -- something I very much thought I ought to learn how to do. One cast horoscopes, and the other, the aunt, listened, quite closely, even to me. They were wise women in their way, almost witches, though in the best sense, who understood not just the wider world they heard about on the radio and read about in books, but, in the case of the aunt, the way the earth worked, as she lived from her garden, and the way the town worked, as it had been quite cruel to her, years before I was even born, and she'd borne it bravely and survived. Wonderful women, Pepper, my friend's mother, and Buff, her sister and perhaps my first real adult friend.

I was thrilled to be invited to her New Year's Eve party. Besides the large, and somewhat disreputable collection of relations that came every year, there were Buff's friends, nearly all of them younger, nearly all of them having somehow found their way to her warm kitchen, over the years, and to her good counsel. She had an open heart. She loved easily, forgave easily, and she enjoyed life. I learned a lot in that house, sitting in that kitchen after midnight, listening to that woman laugh, making her laugh.

Her party was about the only time one saw her in anything but old dungarees and man's old cotton shirt. Her clothes were so old and so often laundered that, like everything in that old place, from the worn floors to the weathered walls, what she wore seemed somehow to have been made from the same faded stuff as the drapes, the tablecloth, the curling smoke from her ashtray. Once a year though, she wore a ruffled pink blouse and a floor-length, red velvet skirt, wore heels and put up her long black hair. I can't say which way I found her more beautiful.

She was a marvelous hostess. The food, as I remember it, wasn't much, and the champagne was inexpensive and domestic, but everything was gloriously good that night, because she insisted it was so and I believed her. I always believed her. I think she understood, before I did myself, the effect on me of all the stories I'd heard, from her and from others, about this boy Brian. She was his friend, as she became mine, as she was a friend to my friend, her niece. I think, the night of her party, the first time I would get to meet this boy so much older and more attractive than I was, she kept an eye on me. She introduced us, in the kitchen, in a crowd of people, and I think she knew just what I would make of him, and she didn't worry about me so much as make sure I did not make too much of our meeting.

He was awfully handsome, not large or butch, but rather androgynous, very much in the style of the time; with beautiful long hair and tight clothes, and, as I remember it now, suspenders and saddle shoes? He was just as charming as I'd always heard. He smiled easily. He met my eyes at some point, though we'd barely spoken, despite my sitting as close to him as I could respectably get, and he gave me a sip of his beer. I hated beer. Still do. But that sip was ambrosial. I'd had a little champagne earlier, at midnight, from Buff's glass, and my friend and I had spent most of the night happily together, talking as we always did, with great seriousness about everything. But for me, that sip of Brian's beer was the magical, new moment.

And that was it. From that moment, I imagined myself in love. Later, it was arranged, perhaps by Buff, that I should get a ride home from one of Brian's friends. I remember scraping the ice from the inside of the windshield, as the beetle was unheated. I think something might have been said to Brian, before I left, presumably by Buff, because rather than kiss me, as he seemed to have done with everyone else as they left, he shook my hand, and squeezed my shoulder, but that was all. It didn't matter.

I took the cap from his Rolling Rock beer. I took it home and glued a safety pin to the back of it. I wore it every day for ages. I still have it.

Buff was very understanding and let me talk as if I knew her friend as well as she did, as if we had somehow become friends through her. And I did see him again, after that party. I can't say he even remembered me. Buff let me talk through other, subsequent crushes, and even a boyfriend with her. She lived to see me with my lover, and met him, as I felt she must. She approved I'm sure. And Brian? I shouldn't think my name would mean anything to him now. I never did get so much as a kiss from him. I've no idea if he's even still alive. I sincerely hope so, and I assume he is, but I don't know anything more of him now than he knew of me then. Buff is gone. My friend, her niece, left my life years ago, convinced that her lesbian feminism could not quite accommodate me and my penis.

Listening tonight to Miss Peggy Lee, singing over and over again, that great, sentimental song by Sonny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, I remember why I listen to jazz. Jazz is cool, cooler still than I ever grew to be: poetic, rhythmically timed and yet unexpectedly phrased, emotional and easy and true, calculated and still astonishingly free, never unresolved or awkward or less than adult. It's cool. It works. And this song, for me, happily, is my past. I remember every word.

"Love is tearful, or its gay,
Its a problem, or its play.
Its a heartache either way,
But beautiful..."

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