Billie Holiday - Lady in Satin
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I will begin this personally. Don’t worry, I won’t remain there long. Early in life I found myself more or less uninterested in the female voice. I liked bands, male vocalists—mainly rappers, really—and found most women singers rather tiresome. Then I began to listen to jazz. On a Columbia (I think) compilation of vocalists, I first heard Ella (meh) and Billie (yeah!)—specifically, the latter’s version of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” It remains one of my favorite songs and favorite performances to this day: resigned, defiant, the very essence of a colossal “fuck you” to a lover given, or giving—it’s beautifully uncertain—the pink slip. It sold me instantly, and began an unceasing love affair with artists who shredded my bias against lady singers.
People hem and haw and beat around the bush about it, but I’ll come out and say it: Billie Holiday is the single most important female artist of the 20th century. I would take it a step further and say she’s the most important artist of our time, period, but this is a piece about one album and I don’t have eight paragraphs to state my case. Why was she so goddamn important? Because she did what no one else—certainly no man—could ever do: she fused the personality and emotion of the blues with the technical ecstasy of jazz. Whether it was the heroin, her ragged home life, or her past as a prostitute and abandoned child that enabled her to defy any and every convention placed in her way is irrelevant. When other dynamic performers of the era allowed themselves to be turned aside, Eleanora Fagan Gough simply kept on going. At the top of her game, nothing, no one could touch her for pure untrammeled emotion.
Lady in Satin has long occupied an undeserved place in the canon of classic jazz recordings. It remains controversial, or at least AMG says so. You have only to listen to it with untainted ears to see why: it’s a mess. It’s a shambolic, unsettling combination of the century’s finest voices drained of its substance paired with one of the most overbearing bandleaders in jazz. Perhaps Billie, on a cushion of junk and straight gin, felt that the schmaltzy string-drenched backdrops of Roy Ellis were a fit match for her weathered ennui. Perhaps it was merely a case of a challenging artist feeling the need to embrace a popular and accessible arranger in order to push her career in a different direction. However you slice it, it’s an album of disgustingly cheesy instrumentals bereft of soul, helmed by a singer whose best days are long past. “You’ve Changed” is essential: the wack accompaniment underscores the scorched-earth sentiment of the lyric, giving extra weight to Billie’s tortured, lived-through vocal, but do we need a whole album of it?
Taken in its (virtually unnavigable) entirety, Lady in Satin reeks of death to its hollow core, baring a soul naked and scorned with nothing uplifting to soften the blow, yet you could still play it in a coffee shop without exciting much comment. “Oh it’s Billie Holiday, honey. Wasn’t she great?” Yes, she was. Is it emotionally affecting in its poverty of warmth and finesse? Absolutely. Does it make one feel as though the grave were yawning open at ones feet? Oh, no doubt. Is this how we want to celebrate life? Is this how we care to remember one of the greats? For fuck’s sake, no. Lady in Satin is an abortion, a bad idea recorded at a bad time and eulogized for all the wrong reasons. You don’t have to look far for a modern equivalent, just witness the critical tongue-bathing currently being applied to the latest posthumous Johnny Cash album. It’s a dreary, plodding affair bereft of inspiration or magic but with the lipstick of death’s kiss all over its collar. If this endears it to critics, well, it’s because we’re a pathetic lot who tend to want the last gasps of our heroes to be their most meaningful ones.
But as in life, the final periods of an artist’s work are disparate and undignified by a coherent set of rules. And most especially in the case of those who’ve lived and loved just a bit too hard, the last days are far from the best ones. Let’s not place too great a burden on their already well-laden shoulders in expecting them to deliver jewels in their final hours. Let us instead bless them, thank them, and remember them filled with vitality and grace, full-lunged and fleet of foot. It does none of us any good to make an icon of death, and it will give us no comfort when our own time is nigh. He is far too savvy to let that stay his hand.