Lost Fugue for Chet
Chet Baker, Amsterdam, 1988 A single spot slides the trumpet’s flare then stops at that face, the extraordinary ruins thumb-marked with the hollows of heroin, the rest chiaroscuroed. Amsterdam, the final gig, canals & countless stone bridges arc, glimmered in lamps. Later this week his Badlands face, handsome in a print from thirty years ago, will follow me from the obituary page insistent as windblown papers by the black cathedral of St. Nicholas standing closed today: pigeon shit & feathers, posters swathing tarnished doors, a litter of syringes. Junkies cloud the gutted railway station blocks & dealers from doorways call coca, heroina, some throaty foaming harmony. A measured inhalation, again the sweet embouchure, metallic, wet stem. Ghostly, the horn’s improvisations purl & murmur the narrow strasses of Rosse Buurt, the district rife with purse-snatchers, women alluring, desolate, poised in blue windows, Michelangelo boys, hair spilling fluent running chords, mares’ tails in the sky green & violet. So easy to get lost, these cavernous brown cafés. Amsterdam, & its spectral fogs, its bars & softly shifting tugboats. He builds once more the dense harmonic structure, the gabled houses. Let’s get lost. Why court the brink & then step back? After surviving, what arrives? So what’s the point when there are so many women, creamy callas with single furled petals turning in & upon themselves like variation, nights when the horn’s coming genius riffs, metal & spit, that rich consuming rush of good dope, a brief languor burnishing the groin, better than any sex. Fuck Death. In the audience, there’s always this gaunt man, cigarette in hand, black Maserati at the curb, waiting, the fast ride through mountain passes, descending with no rails between asphalt & precipice. Inside, magnetic whispering take me there, take me. April, the lindens & horse chestnuts flowering, cold white blossoms on the canal. He’s lost as he hears those inner voicings, a slurred veneer of chords, molten, fingering articulate. His glance below Dutch headlines, the fall "accidental" from a hotel sill. Too loaded. What do you do at the brink? Stepping back in time, I can only imagine the last hit, lilies insinuating themselves up your arms, leaves around your face, one hand vanishing sabled to shadow. The newsprint photo & I’m trying to recall names, songs, the sinuous figures, but facts don’t matter, what counts is out of pained dissonance, the sick vivid green of backstage bathrooms, out of broken rhythms—and I’ve never forgotten, never— this is the tied-off vein, this is 3 a.m. terror thrumming, this is the carnation of blood clouding the syringe, you shaped summer rains across the quays of Paris, flame suffusing jade against a girl’s dark ear. From the trumpet, pawned, redeemed, pawned again you formed one wrenching blue arrangement, a phrase endlessly complicated as that twilit dive through smoke, applause, the pale hunted rooms. Cold chestnuts flowering April & you’re falling from heaven in a shower of eighth notes to the cobbled street below & foaming dappled horses plunge beneath the still green waters of the Grand Canal.
Copyright © 2006 by Lynda Hull. Reprinted from Star Ledger with the permission of the University of Iowa Press.