Bixology (an excerpt)
Author Brendan Wolfe is our resident Bixologist at jazz.com -- that is, when he isn’t running the best (and perhaps only) Bix Beiderbecke blog in the web, the stylish and always enaging The Beiderbecke Affair, or probing the dark underbelly of Davenport, Iowa. Wolfe is also writing on a book on Beiderbecke, Bixology, and he shares with us the extract below from this work-in-progress. See also Wolfe's selection of "Twelve Essential Bix Beiderbecke Performances." T.G.
by Brendan Wolfe
Here’s a prophecy.
It comes from Mezz Mezzrow, who, in his 1946 memoir Really the Blues, describes an afternoon’s adventure with Bix and Pee Wee Russell. “Bix nearly got run over by a locomotive,” Mezzrow begins, and then tells of how he and Pee Wee followed their friend onto railroad tracks in search of buried liquor. Mezzrow writes:
”Down the path we followed him, across some fields, then over a railroad track and a high fence topped with barbed wire. Sure enough, he dug out a jug, handed it to Pee Wee, and started back. But as we were hopping the fence Pee Wee got stuck on the wire and just hung there, squealing for help and hugging the jug for dear life. If he let go of that crock he could have pulled himself loose, but not Pee Wee—what’s a guy’s hide compared to a gallon of corn? By this time Bix, having staggered down to the railroad tracks, found he had a lot of sand between his toes, so he sat down on the rail and yanked his shoes off to empty them. Just then we saw a fast train coming round the bend. All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there, but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us. That train wasn’t more than a hundred feet away when he finally woke up to what was happening. Then he just rolled off the track and tumbled down the bank head first, traveling so fast he didn’t have time to snatch his shoes off the rail. Those funky Oxfords got clipped in half as neatly as if they’d been chopped with a meat-cleaver.
””That just goes to show you,’ Bix told us, “it’s dangerous for a man to take his shoes off. First time I took those things off in weeks and you see what the hell happens. It just ain’t safe to undress.’”
There is a kind of terrible poignancy to this story. “All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there”—his obliviousness has never been in sharper relief—“but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us.” The Bix Mezzrow gives us is a familiar one—drunken, obviously, but also mischievous, remote, unconcerned. His clothes, as usual, are a mess. But now these traits are beginning to turn on him. They’re dangerous. They’re putting him in harm’s way. Still, even in the lazy summer of 1926, his friends are concerned about him. That seems to be one of the points to this story, that Bix’s friends have his back, even if it’s clear that their yelling didn’t do much to alert him to the train. (He just “woke up,” that’s all.) So what, then, does one make of Mezzrow’s rhetorical question: “What’s a guy’s hide compared to a gallon of corn?” Am I a scold for thinking this a bit callous? Pee Wee Russell was an alcoholic and a notoriously unhappy man. “He drank so much for so long that he almost died,” Whitney Balliett wrote, “and when he miraculously recovered, he began drinking again.” Bix, at the end of his life, was guzzling straight alcohol flavored with lemon juice drops. We all know what happened to him.
What’s a guy’s hide worth? Not enough, perhaps.
That was Red Nichols’ perspective. In a 1937 article in Down Beat magazine, the “carrot-topped” band leader and old friend of Bix had this outburst: “Gin and weed? Hell! They didn’t kill him. MUSICIANS KILLED BIX BEIDERBECKE! Some of those same musicians living today know what I mean. Bix died of a broken heart. And it was broken by the professional jealousy of musicians who couldn’t stand to be outplayed by him so easily.”
Nichols went on to charge Bix’s friends with appreciating their boy’s greatness only after he was safely dead.
Artwork by Suzanne Cerny
“Yes, Bix was appreciated after he was dead,” he said. “But when he needed a lift, they wouldn’t give it. Many a night they got him drunk and if he slipped or didn’t play up to his best, they would pan the hell out of him.”
Nichols’ accusations are, for lack of a better word, weird. How does one kill another person with jealousy? How does one die of a broken heart? According to the Down Beat reporter, Nichols was “[s]ober as a grim-pussed judge on election day” while being interviewed—this despite his being in a club, chain smoking at the bar, a glass of beer in front of him. “He didn’t touch it,” the reporter assures us. In this case, sobriety translates to a kind of seriousness, and Nichols is quite serious about wresting Bix away from the idea that he had anything to do with his own death. The real Bix, Nichols argues, was a god so delicate he could be snuffed out by his own admirers.
Et tu, Mezzrow?
Bix’s victimhood is particularly appealing because it neatly erases what might otherwise be seen as a rather glaring character flaw—heroes are killed, they might even kill themselves, but they don’t just go and gin themselves to death—and it has stuck like a burr to the Bix myth. You certainly find it in Frederick Turner’s 2003 novel 1929, which portrays Bix, in the days before his death, as picking up the phone to find Red Nichols’ wife on the line:
|“Bix, honey, this is Bobbi. What’s bothering you? Are you in trouble? Are you sick? Want me to call a doctor? Bix?” And then on the other end she hears him gasping and saying he doesn’t need a doctor, that what he needs is a friend, for Christ’s sake, and after all the guys he’s bought drinks for and dinner, too, you’d think just one of them would be here now, with him, when he’s got to have a friend to help him out . . .|
No doubt many of his friends would have bristled at such comments. When Bix was playing the “Camel Hour” radio show in 1930, three of his bandmates took turns running by his apartment every day on their way to the studio—making sure he was up and dressed, making sure he had his horn, making sure he was in his chair and ready to play when the “On Air” light flashed red. But Bix kept at the bottle anyway, and that’s when he began making excuses for himself. In Bix: Man & Legend (1974), Richard Sudhalter and Phil Evans quote a fellow named Pat Ciricillo: “He told me that every time he tried to go off the wagon, friends came up [to his room] and visited him with gin bottles, and that tempted him.”
Is it possible that the “his friends killed him” story actually originated with Bix himself? “People came around, sure,” Sudhalter & Evans write, and what they found was Bix feeling sorry for himself:
Always the same theme, that “Life has passed me by,” and that all the musicians who came around to flatter and pay court had “stolen my stuff” for commercial gain. “What about all those guys who aren’t ever around when you really need them? They wouldn’t give me a quarter now.”
Or, “Hell, there are only two musicians I’d go across a street to hear now. That’s Louis and LaRocca.”
Louis himself told the same story. “[Bix] had a lot of admirers,” he explained to Sudhalter & Evans. “In fact that’s what mostly killed him. He wasn’t the type of lad who had his own strong mind. When he felt bad and wanted to say good night to the gang he ran with, they would always say, ‘Aw, man, stay a little longer . . . and have another drink.’ Poor Bix would force himself against his will. And so he kept this up, until the gang just didn’t believe him when he said, ‘Fellers, I don’t feel well.’ When he finally did get home, he died.”
In Mezzrow’s anecdote, Bix disregards his friends; in Louis’, he’s in their thrall, so much so that he seems to have misplaced his free will. Poor Bix! He didn’t want to drink; he just wasn’t the type “who had his own strong mind.” According to the arranger Bill Challis, “he was still a kid—naïve, not childish, but a trusting sort.” He was a mark, in other words, killed, according to Pee Wee Russell, because he “couldn’t say no to anybody.”
Bix begins to look more and more like a Christ figure—betrayed by his friends, fated to die. But he also comes across, in the hands of those around him, as a rather poorly drawn fictional character. (Mezz’s Bix is familiar enough, but does he breathe?) The stories his friends tell slickly mythologize him and, by extension, themselves. That these stories might also implicate them in his death is merely an accident; what’s important is that they absolve Bix. Never once, though, did any of his friends stand up and ask, “Could we have done better?”
Ralph Berton, whose “friendship” with Bix is routinely mocked by Bixophiles, came the closest. After one of his trademark, blistering attacks against Bix’s parents, Berton lightens up a bit. “In defense of their fumbling,” he writes in Remembering Bix (1974), “let us note that no one else ever did much better, including his best friends and loudest admirers. Not once in Bix’s lifetime would any of us offer any clear, coherent view of what our confused hero was all about, or how he was to steer a rational course toward a rational goal. As one of them sadly remarked long afterward, none of us ever really knew who Bix was—least of all, of course, himself.”
Berton’s is an indictment of his and others’ actions, sure—“we all failed him,” he writes at one point, “as he failed himself”—but it’s also an indictment of their imagination, of our imagination. If Bix were a three-dimensional human being, rather than some cardboard-cutout messiah, would we be so quick to rob him of his agency? If we knew Bix—as opposed to just admiring his music—would we not be forced to ask ourselves more pointedly and more honestly how and why he died?
Look at Hoagy Carmichael. In multiple memoirs, both published and unpublished, he described Bix as his closest friend and his greatest musical influence. His terms were never less than rhapsodic—remember how Hoagy fell off of—or onto—a davenport the first time he heard Bix play? “He had completely ruined me,” he wrote, so that when Bix died, the loss, according to Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter, was “bitter and lasting.” Hoagy’s flair for the self-dramatic was sometimes poignant: he claimed to carry in his pocket, for the rest of his life, Bix’s mouthpiece. He even named his son after Bix. But just as often his tales were sized a shade tall. Exaggeration was a function of the genre, of course, and Carmichael was driven by both his taste for sentimentality and his love for Bix. As a result, critic Benny Green was not inclined to take Hoagy’s “anecdotage” seriously. “The only time I ever met Carmichael,” Green wrote, “he had half a dozen Bix stories at his fingertips, stories I had never heard before, and I confess I found myself wondering whether Carmichael had either.”
As the years went by, Bix seemed to disappear into those stories. In fact, one of Carmichael’s recurring themes has to do with not ever knowing who his friend really was. In The Stardust Road (1947), he writes of trying to describe Bix to his oddball surrealist friend William “Monk” Moenkhaus. “I remember trying to explain Bix to Monk,” he writes. “I remember trying to put Bix together for Monk, so that he would see him and hear him and feel him the way I did. It was like the telling of a vivid dream and knowing that it wasn’t making sense.”
Green points to another passage from The Stardust Road in which Bix, near the end of his life, brings a girl to Hoagy’s apartment. “We didn’t have a drink,” Carmichael writes, “we didn’t talk music, and it soon became apparent that this girl had no idea who Bix was. And then the terrible thought struck me. I didn’t know either.” Green hoots at this last sentence, calling it “maddening.” One presumes he finds it aesthetically unnecessary, but it’s more than that. It raises a question that Hoagy refuses to address: what are the consequences of not knowing your own best friend?
In 1950, Hoagy starred with Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall in the Hollywood adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn. Baker’s novel showcased Bix in the guise of trumpeter Rick Martin and gave him an irresistibly romantic sheen. The movie went one better and upgraded Bix’s story to one with a happy ending. Its closing lines come straight from Hoagy’s lips:
|He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up. Maybe that’s why Rick went on to be a success as a human being first—and an artist second. And what an artist.|
Sudhalter makes the case that Carmichael, not the screenwriter, wrote those words, but he also ignores the heartbreaking irony. Bix did indeed destroy himself, and while Hoagy certainly felt the loss, he responded by drowning himself in parties, alcohol, and all that anecdotage. Did he feel torn and guilty about Bix’s death? Did these feelings of guilt drive him to forget his friend for the legend? Sudhalter doesn’t speculate and neither, over the years, has anyone else.
Instead, we allow Bix to suffer, we encourage it even, because it serves our mythic needs. The literary critic Sven Birkerts wrote about this in 2003 after the overdose death of writer Lucy Grealy, an outsized character who had battled disfiguring cancer all her life. “Reading Lucy’s work we realize how vigorously we cling to the myth of inwardness, the idea that personal suffering can become a source of strength,” Birkerts wrote in the Boston Globe. “When she died, we lost, along with the person, some of the consolation of that myth, though of course most of us will renew it elsewhere and in others. It is that essential.”
Birkerts then noted Grealy’s love of attention and wondered, cautiously, whether it had made her a co-conspirator in her growing legend. “It was all the more sad, then, in recent years, to catch glimpses of what was happening in her hidden life,” he wrote. “For the hopeless side of Lucy had found its way first to painkillers, then to heroin, and through heroin came the downward pull of oblivion. That her decline was as gradual as it was suggests to me that there were rallying surges of resolve, and renewals of faith in the possibility of transformation, if not outward then inward. Certainly there was the care and attention of her many friends.”
Notice how Lucy, like Bix, isn’t to blame for her addiction—the action belongs to “the hopeless side of Lucy,” an “it,” not a “she.” Notice, too, the way Birkerts imagines her pain in the feel-good terms of “resolve,” “renewal,” and “transformation.” Initially, he had seemed skeptical of fetishising other people’s suffering, but not any more.
And then there are the friends. When it first appeared, I e-mailed the Birkerts essay to a buddy of mine, a recovering alcoholic who had once met Grealy. His reply was quick and fierce:
I find it appalling that her friends aren’t angry, at her, at themselves. A “slow downward spiral into pain killers, then heroin.” Just how the f--- does that happen out of “friend’s” notice? (And I know that it does); what allows people (and those around them) the luxury of such a spiral . . . do her scars pay her fare on that particular train? Do the rest of us just have to suffer the long lines in stand-by and economy?
I’ll suggest that suicides tend to come when people view their lives as a sequence of diminished returns. They remove “the shock of possibility” from their lives, supplant real risk with drama, and in cahoots with “friends and family,” they begin to live their own fictions.
There is little evidence that Bix consciously lived his own myth, but stories have a way of looping back into our reality, controlling what they once only described or explained. His friends saw Bix as a boy genius destined to die, a hapless victim of fate, a kid without “his own strong mind.” Even Bix seemed to believe that (“Life has passed me by,” etc.), so that when he did finally die, his death was both the culmination of all the stories about him and the cause of still more. Bix himself, meanwhile, drifted farther and farther away. Who was he? Like Hoagy, we will always wonder. What seems clear is that Bix’s friends didn’t kill him. In the face of alcohol and addiction, friends are powerless. Lucy Grealy’s friend, the novelist Ann Patchett, discovered as much. “What she was suffering from was beyond me to fix,” she wrote in a 2003 essay for New York magazine, an essay that was later expanded into the memoir Truth & Beauty (2004), “so I did what I knew how to do for Lucy: I made her happy for a little while.”
It wasn’t enough.
While he was alive, Bix’s friends tried to save him. Or they didn’t try to save him. He died either way, and their gift to him, which was also a kind of apology, was Rick Martin.