Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #5 (Bessie Smith)

Every day, I set out with my sack lunch and a sense of serious purpose to the British Library, a safe and magnificent place, so I can learn about women behaving badly. The ones I’m attracted to are rebellious, don’t care if they shock people, are bad wives and worse mothers, control their own finances, enjoy sex, are vain and generally don’t like other women, are drawn to youth and fun, and can be seductively charming or nastily abusive depending on their mood.

And now here comes Bessie Smith, the wild and pure blues-singing diva of the 1920s who lived, loved, ate, drank and dreamed music. Bessie was six feet tall, weighed about two hundred pounds, and got into a lot of fistfights because she also had a talent for punching people. I enjoyed meeting Lola, Isabelle and Theodora, but Bessie is the uncompromisingly unapologetic bad girl I’ve been looking for.

Her voice was so loud she didn’t need to sing with a microphone, and her commitment to singing the blues was inseparable from who she was. What she loved best was to disappear for a few days, get drunk with some new friends, and then sing for them when she felt like it, when some thought crossed her mind and she had the words of a song to fit the mood. She’d lapse into a pleasant state of oblivion, take a few more sips of corn liquor or hits off a reefer, and wait for inspiration to strike again. Then in the morning, she would go to church and sing with more conviction than anyone in the choir.

Exploring Bessie gives me the opportunity to look at the issues of self-will and creativity in my own life. She was a sensitive artist, but tough. Every day, she fought to sing and be heard.

Hmm. How can I be heard? I conduct an experiment at the bar of Home House, a private club on Portman Square in Marylebone, where Kent is a member. Built as a palace of entertainment for the Countess of Home in the 18th century, it has four well-appointed drawing rooms, a grand staircase and a garden for dining al fresco, and it’s all very posh. Surely, an 18th-century Georgian countess had to have been a bit of a bad girl herself, and there are indeed loads of bedrooms upstairs for guests who stay the night.
But on the night in question, I stay at the bar to have a drink and a look around.

Ever since I left Jack, I’ve been drinking more. I don’t have to be the sober one now, which is a big relief. It’s a drag trying to balance out your partner’s crazy binges by assuming the role of a purse-lipped teetotaler when you know your body is built for moderation and you can enjoy a few drinks without turning into a chronic drunk.
The Countess of Home’s pleasure palace has turned into a stuffy club for music producers and investment bankers, a club in desperate need of a little excitement.

Hmm. What would Bessie do here? Bessie was no stranger to posh joints, where the New York swells of the Roaring Twenties would invite her to sing for their amusement. As if she was some kind of Negro freak show. Screw ‘em.

One of Bessie’s biggest fans, the music promoter Carl Van Vechten, invited her to sing in his Manhattan apartment one night, and Bessie showed up in a limousine, wearing her white ermine coat and escorted by her piano player, Porter Granger. She sang a few songs, the white folks clapped and cooed appreciatively, and all was well until Bessie started to knock back the whiskey and keep on drinking between songs.

Granger knew her drinking was cause for worry, and after playing one last song, he gently coaxed Bessie into her coat and started to steer her to the front door. They almost made it there when Van Vechten’s wife, a pretty little Russian actress named Fania Marinoff, threw her arms impulsively around Bessie’s neck and said, “Miss Smith, you’re not leaving without kissing me goodbye.”

Bessie, who was bisexual and under different circumstances might have enjoyed the little Russian’s advances, was in no mood for love. “Get the fuck away from me,” she said, pushing Marinoff flat on her ass. “I ain’t never heard of such shit.”

What would Bessie have done at Home House? Would she have talked to the bloated, middle-aged drunk sitting next to her, the drunk who looks like he still has a bit of the schoolboy in him, the drunk with the floppy blond fringe (that’s “bangs,” in American—I’ve been enriching my vocabulary here in London)?

I give him a sideways glance and he gives me one back. I turn to him.
“Hello. You’re looking quite shambolic tonight.”

“Is that a Yank accent I detect? What’s a Yank doing in Home House? Shouldn’t you be at home, planning for the next war?”

He launches into an anti-American political rant, yammering on about military buildup and the CIA, etc.—the same diatribe I’ve heard from a dozen other drunks in a dozen other pubs. I’m tired of this shit.

“Why don't you shut up before I slap you upside your head.”


“Sorry is what you’re gonna be in a minute,” I say, giving him a coy smile to make up for my harsh words.

“You’re a feisty one,” he says as his eyes light up.

He thinks I’m flirting with him. Ah, what the hell—in for a penny, in for a pound.

“You’re a naughty boy tonight, aren’t you, Clive? What’s your name, anyway? Gilbert, Chervil, Reginald? You need a proper seeing-to, don’t you, Reggie?”

“Derek, miss. May I buy you another drink?”

“May I buy you another drink, please.”

“Please, miss.”

“Yes, you may, Derek darling. And then you can...”

“Joycie, there you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

It’s Kent, thank god. I didn’t know where I was headed with this one.

“It’s time to go,” Kent says, ignoring the shambolic drunk with the floppy fringe. “We’re going to Black’s.”

“Is that some kind of racist remark?”

“No, baby, it’s a restaurant. Come on, let’s go. I’m hungry, and you need some food, too.”

The next morning, I’m disgusted with myself for having eaten a huge portion of steak and kidney pie with chips. It’s offset by my delight at having been so wicked with the drunk at the bar. Still, I realize that bad girls are women of substance who don’t just spend their time hanging around in bars. Wondering what else I might be capable of doing, I decide that my only way forward is to keep studying the bad girls. I’m not sure who will inspire me next, but I’m very curious to meet her.


potdoll said...

ah Joycey. I think I went to Blacks one eve with you and Kent and D. Twas fun. I remember chatting to a member of Boney M and a hoo-har henry who had survived the Marchioness disaster.

miss you back xxx

Joyce Hanson said...

Potdoll! Boney M??!!? Why don't I remember that? Gar. I think Boney M are still huge in South Korea. V. huge. Back at Black's, my mind must have been wandering, as it does. And now that you mention it, I do remember you being there. Might have been the night Dave fell down the stairs. Miss you back back.

PJG said...

I love this story. Bessie Smith has always been one of my heroes and I started collecting her music when I was in my teens. She lived my life slogan which is "Too much, ain't enough."

Joyce Hanson said...

Thanks, PJG. I first listened to Bessie Smith when a French friend gave me a collection of her songs--this was back in the day of tape cassettes. (The French are mad for Bessie.) I like to hear Bessie's voice when I'm cooking because it's so cheerful in my kitchen to have her there with me. She had so much pain in her life, but her voice has such positive energy.