Glad to be Unhappy

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If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday

Unrequited love’s a bore
And I’ve got it pretty bad

But for someone you adore
It’s a pleasure to be sad.

Lyrics from the Rodgers and Hart song, “Glad to be Unhappy,” sung most evocatively by Billie Holiday on her last, masterpiece album, “Lady in Satin.”

RECENTLY, over drinks with my friend writer/director Charles Casillo, we got into a margarita-drenched discussion of great female singers — this was shortly after the passing of Doris Day, whom we both agreed was under-appreciated, in all ways.

My friend and I ruminated over the sounds of Ella, Peggy, Judy, Morgana King, Dakota Staton, Etta James, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Piaf, Aretha, Barbra, Lena, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney, k.d. lang, Keely Smith, Anita O’ Day — we ran a tequila-fueled gamut.

Finally, Charles asked me if I had to make a choice to take just one album with me to a desert island, what would it be?  Unhesitatingly I said “Lady in Satin.”

I know, I know.  You’d think on a desert island I’d want something a bit more upbeat than an album that features songs such as “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”   But, as Miss Holiday sings: “For someone you adore, it’s a pleasure to be sad.”

Time and time again, I said I’d leave you … but then would come the time when I would need you.

Truth be told, if I was being banished to that island, I’d insist on ALL my Holiday recordings.  Her voice moves me consistently, in all its permutations — light and seemingly unscarred by life, harsh and even more evocative as her narrow range narrows even more, and she brilliantly uses all she’s got to make every word, every syllable, every shade of emotion … count.

While her life and death was indeed tragic — although we mustn’t forget that Billie knew how to have a good time! —her music does not make me sad.  Even “Lady in Satin” which critics tell you is Billie’s voice in ruin, uplifts me.  The album is an education in life.  If you don’t understand “Lady in Satin,” or much of what came before it (everything on the Verve label, for example), then you really don’t know what love is.

My introduction to Billie Holiday — the real Billie Holiday — came a few years after I thought I’d experienced something extraordinary with the release of Diana Ross’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” My knowledge of Holiday was nil, this was Ross’s first film — tremendous anticipation right there! — she performed some of Billie’s greatest songs in a style slightly modified (so I’d read) to coincide with Holiday’s unique phrasing, and the movie itself presented Miss Ross either decked out to the nines, raving in a straight jacket, or drugged up and collapsing mid-performances (a staple scene in all tortured-lady-singer bio-pics.) It seemed like great acting. I loved the vinyl album, wore it out! So, that was Billie Holiday, I assumed.

Well loved, worn out, but never played again after hearing the real deal!

A couple of years passed and one day I found myself down in Greenwich Village at the old Footlights Record Store (now sadly gone) which specialized in vinyl.  I was looking for another copy Judy Garland’s magnificent Capitol album, “Alone.”  I found it. But glancing up at the wall, mounted in a frame was Holiday’s “Lady in Satin.”

There was Billie, in a dramatic three-quarter shot, hair snatched back elegantly, shoulders bare.  On the spot I fell in love with the photograph.  I had to have that record!  I bought it, took it home, put it on my turntable and played it and played it and played it.

I never listened to the movie soundtrack of “Lady Sings the Blues” again.  And I have come to find the film unbearable. (Still, my great memory of the movie — a memory I’ll always treasure — was seeing it at a midnight showing on Broadway.  The audience was almost entirely African-American, and the response to Ross was thrilling.  One rarely experienced that sort of thing — vocal, visceral, adoring — in a movie house.  It seemed all but certain that Ross would become a major movie star. This did not happen, thanks in large part to the overbearing influence of mentor Berry Gordy, but in that moment, in 1972, the future was plump with promise for Miss Ross.)

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972).

As time went on, I collected more and more Holiday.  As much as I admired, appreciated, was moved by others (I’m looking right at you, Miss Garland) it was Billie’s voice that, well — informed my life, if you will. The soundtrack of my experiences.

Once, many years ago, I thought I’d lost a great love.  And what played in my head as I tried to forget, partying with ruthless gaiety?  Billie singing the Duke Ellington/Irving Mills/Mitchell Parish ballad “Sophisticated Lady” —

Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant/ Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant
Is that all you really want? No, sophisticated lady
I know, you miss the love you lost long ago
And when nobody is nigh … you cry.

I had no diamonds. I didn’t smoke. I wasn’t very nonchalant.  I was most assuredly not sophisticated! But when nobody was nigh, I cried.  And I felt Miss Holiday understood.  Thank you, Lady Day.

Oh, I didn’t lose that love, as it turned out.

ENDTHOUGHT:  Because I became deeply engrossed in Umberto Eco’s 1980 book, “The Name of the Rose,” and appreciated the 1986 movie version, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, I approached the recent limited TV series adaptation of Eco’s massive tale of murder among monks with some anticipation.  Unfortunately, I found it a big mess.

I recalled that the feature film version was dark, baroque and grimly twisty, plot wise  — how could it not be, given the 500-plus pages of Eco’s book? — but the long-robed Connery/Slater hi-jinks were confined to a reasonable length.

Sean Connery and Christian Slater in “The Name of the Rose.”

By the time the 8th episode of the TV version ended, I’d forgotten what exactly had transpired to bring Franciscan Friar William of Baskerville (John Turturro) and his novice Adso (Damian Hardung) to a Benedictine monastery in the first place. Everybody, with the exception of young Mr. Hardung, performed their bizarre, conflicted characters in extremis, playing to a balcony in … China!

Not only that, rarely could I understand what anybody was saying; guttural mumbling and incomprehensible accents galore.  I was frustrated enough to turn on the Closed Caption function, which I’ve never done before.  It helped. I’ve watched a lot of foreign and silent films and have had no issue with subtitles.

John Turturro and Damian Hardung in the TV version.

But here’s what I learned about subtitles in the 21st century. It’s not just the dialogue, which is all I need. After all, the actors are acting and generally you know what’s happening by simply watching the action or the faces.

Not enough, these days. (And after I watched “Name of The Rose” I CC-ed a lot of other films.)  This is a partial list of what you get besides the dialogue, written out onscreen: “Indistinct chatter…jewelry clanking…faint buzzing…ominous music…happy music…music continues…beeps…sighs…smirks…scoffs…long inhale…guitar instrumental…dogs bark in distance…wind blowing…water running…” and on and on and on.  None of this is necessary. And in fact, if I had a problem with my hearing and needed the captions, I think the extra “commentary” provided would drive me crazy.

Just the other day I watched a brilliant 1962 French film, “Cleo From 5 to 7” directed and written by the late, great Agnes Varda.  Dialogue subtitles only.  No need for beeps, buzzes, indistinct chatter or a written indication if the characters scoff, smirk, or sigh.  As audiences have we become incapable of paying attention, recognizing emotion? Does everything have to be done for us?  Ah, well. Old person rant over!

Oh, back to “The Name of the Rose.” It is, in any form, an inevitably heady, heavy piece of work, and 2019’s version was something of a labor of love for John Turturro. He insisted that the director Giacomo Battiato and the producers, honor Eco’s original novel — which is perhaps why we got eight episodes!

20-year-old Damian Hardung steals the show.

I’ve never been much of a Turturro fan, so I can’t judge his intense and mannered performance fairly. I think those who admire his work — and many do! — probably loved him, if not the series.  (Rupert Everett was also on hand as the infamous papal inquisitor Bernardo Gui, having something of a hoot being so evil.)

I was however, much taken by 20-year-old Damian Hardung, who played Adso.  He is fairly well-known in Germany and “Rose” was, to my knowledge, his first non-German production.  He speaks perfect English with a slight accent that could be anything from a little bit British to a little French or Italian.

I don’t know if this boy has aspirations for recognition outside of his homeland, but everything about him screams, “Attention must be paid!”

I know I did.

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