Sometime in the late 1960s, I had just discovered jazz and rock and Beethoven and Bach. 1969 was the annus mirabilis in my life – at least in terms of music. That year, for the first time, I heard Beethoven’s Ninth and the Grosse Fuge, Bhimsen Joshi, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti and Goldberg Variations, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Nikhil Bannerjee, the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Ladyland, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, and discovered the music of the Yardbirds through Antonioni’ film “Blow Up”.
I was also building up a record collection, thanks to little gifts of money handed out periodically by my mother, my father and my uncles – all approached separately. I used to buy a few LPs from the local record shops in Kolkata, and quite a few more from the used LP shops in Free School Street, which were a lot cheaper, and came with snap, crackle and pop as free bonuses.
One such acquisition was an album of compilation of songs by various artists. One song was by Billie Holiday, and it was called “You’ve changed.” That grabbed my attention for a number of reasons, though it wasn’t anything like the rock stuff I was getting into at that time. It had a string orchestra, and sounded really early 1950s, which sounded pretty cheesy to me. But what got me was the voice – it was broken and hoarse, like someone who has been through really bad times, and was making one final effort of will, against the wishes of her body, to get back on shore. And there was also the understanding of what the lyrics could mean in the context of her own life. By the end of the song, I had tears in my eyes.
That sparkle in your eyes is gone
Your smile is just a careless yawn
You’re breaking my heart
Your kisses now are so blasé
You’re bored with me in every way
I can’t understand
You’ve forgotten the words, “I love you”
Each memory that we’ve shared
You ignore every star above you
I can’t realize you’ve ever cared
You’re not the angel I once knew
No need to tell me what we’re through
It’s all over now
Some years later, when I was proud to call myself a certified jazz freak and had acquired a significant library of music, with a special corner for Billie Holiday recordings, I also discovered that in her greatness, she had left out the first few lines of the first stanza, which went thus:
I’ve an awfully feeling
That this thought that’s been a stealing thru my brain
Is not to be ignored
But to really tell the truth
Though I’m not a well known sleuth
I honestly believe that you are bored
She had realized that these lines are pretty crass and jars with the way she interpreted the rest of the song, and had deliberately excised them out of her recording, and hopefully out of the consciousness of music lovers like us.
During my twenties and thirties, when I was adding to my library, I discovered a very different Billie, during her younger days, possessed of a lovely young voice, a delightful sense of humour, joie de vivre, and a sense of time, of musicality, and of space which makes her the jazz singer for me. As she grew older, her troubles with the law, failed relationships, abuse of her own body, all of these combined to take the joy out of her voice. But what she gained was experience and the sensitivity that the harder lessons of life bring.
At the end of her recording days, when she recorded “You’ve changed”, her voice had gone, but what remained was the spirit. Lester Young gave her the sobriquet “Lady Day”, and to all jazz freaks, she still remains The Lady in jazz. I still listen to “You’ve changed” a few times in the year, and I still have tears in my eyes every time.