Sunday, February 17, 2008

There's Only the Music

A winter’s dusk at the sixteenth century Villa of the Saracen, in Bellosguardo, Florence is an awe-inspiring experience. Writers like Henry James, who lived at the Villa as well as D. H. Lawrence who spent disturbing afternoons there wrote about its strange effect on its occupants.

Contessa Lucrezia von Remo has played all the murderous “Transcendental Studies” by Franz Liszt. No pianist can ever master the keyboard without the conquest of these almost impossible etudes.

“My hands are sore. I’ll beat you yet, you monster,” she declares, massaging her hands with extra virgin olive oil. She addresses her comments to a rare print of the composer, which hangs to the right of her grand piano – a Bosendorfer.

"You have been dead nearly a hundred years, but no other virtuoso has found studies to perfect one’s technique better than you."

She turns around in her piano stool. She has been so obsessed with Liszt, who is a taxing composer; she has not noticed darkness descending. Her children, Marco and Chinzia, are attending a birthday fest at the Castle of Montauto, a few hundred meters away from the Villa of the Saracen. They won’t be back until six or seven o’clock. Mely, their nanny is with them. Her driver and major-domo Ruffo is out on an errand. She is luxuriating in the fact that she is all alone in this section of the Villa.

Perhaps I might brew myself a cup of Lap sang Suchong tea and take a warm, ruminating bath.

Lucrezia, still entwining her fingers sensuously around each other, rises slowly to turn on the overhead lights from the Murano crystal chandelier. As she brushes against her walnut desk piled high with books, musical scores, letters and documents, her gaze is drawn to a yellow index card placed carefully on top of the tallest column of musical scores.

”Kid, wake me up at four. Come yourself. Ciao. Chet.”

It’s almost five! The clock with the golden putti (cherubs) on her desk stares back at her ominously. Lucrezia bolts across the library, indifferent to the fact that she has a long tweed skirt, which hugs her waist and hips. She tears through the Great Hall, wrenching the heavy and massive oak doors open, sprinting across the Loggia of Baccio D’Agnolo, teacher/preceptor of the young Michelangelo.

“Chet!” she yells. In the immense, vaulted ceilings of the Loggia her voice reverberates harshly.

Lucrezia is taking the steep stone steps two at a time, and her knees are in agony.

“Chet!” she yells louder with a sense of unavoidable doom. She is now dashing across the Loggia on the second floor.

“Chet! Chet!"


Lucrezia swings the massive oak door open with such force she startles Chet, who is on his knees, naked, with a needle protruding out of his groin. His face reminds her of the color of lumpy cornstarch.

"Like the painter Arcimboldo’s monsters." She shudders.

Eyes crossing and uncrossing. Foam dripping from his mouth. Body quivering, and teeth rattling.

“Orrk is the only sound out of him.

He’s trying to tell me something. Could it be overdose? Is he trying to mouth the word overdose?’ she asks herself again.

Over … gasps Chet.

Lucrezia falls on her knees beside him as he crumples towards her. She catches him in her arms, brings him to her lap and cradles him.

“Chet! Oh no! Oh God!"

What shall I do?

Lucrezia has seen people she loved die almost by her side. Uncle Rudolf‘s last desperate heaves of air, his chest, a mountain as he fought for air, his throat choked with the dissonant death rattle as his heart slowly stopped beating. She held on to his hand, while her Gran-Gran , the Matriarch Dona Esperanza stroked his other hand and recited the Pater Noster. The Our Father in Latin.

But not this horrifying death by your own injection, this Thanatos (death) wish.

A slow anger begins to possess her. She shakes him. This is a stupid way to leave this life.

“Don’t you dare die! Do you hear me?” she shouts.

He seems to be opening his mouth. She places her ear to his blue lips.

“What is it? I can’t make out what you’re saying!"

Lucrezia is in such a state of shock the thought of panicking is not even a remote possibility. Look around. Don’t be afraid. Voices seem to be guiding her.

On the Florentine cotto, (tile) next to a sixteenth century oak dresser is a syringe filled with liquid. Relying on her primal instincts, Lucrezia crawls with difficulty by moving her legs and sliding her hips towards the dresser, with Chet still collapsed on her lap.

For one so scrawny and Biafra thin, I can’t believe how heavy and leaden a dying body can be ... Let it be the right one! Please!

The syringe with the lifesaving epinephrine, to counteract the heroin!

The needle with the heroin is still stuck in Chet’s pathetically thin groin. Slivers of blood are on it and the syringe is half full. Chet is starting to convulse! She has to remove the needle, taking care that the heroin does not enter his blood stream. Liquid and blood ooze out of the puncture into her bronze colored Donegal tweed skirt.

I cannot stanch it. What if he has aids? I will have to do this with care to avoid any cuts.

One arm is still holding Chet and she is aware of it only because the numbness taking over her muscles sends out sharp punctures of pain. Never mind. It will pass.

The blood he is losing will not kill him.

“There! It’s out!”

She places the needle on the floor. It rolls under the bed. With Chet across her left arm and shoulder, Lucrezia lunges at the syringe on a table next to the dresser. She succeeds on her fourth attempt. She tries to inject the epinephrine on his upper arms, his wrists, his hips, buttocks and legs. The needle will not enter his veins; what are left of his muscles has all collapsed.

“Please, God, please!”
Chet is flailing his arms, striking her, some blows falling on her face and neck.

That’s it! I haven’t tried his neck! What if I kill him?

“I implore you, Chet! Help me. Can you hear me? I am not going to allow you to die in my Villa with my children and my pianos and books in it. You can die another time and in another place. Porco Diavolo! Filthy demon. Where shall I inject you?"

Lucrezia grabs one of his arms and places it on his neck. Chet is still convulsing and raining blows. She is determined not to feel the physical pain. The anguish of witnessing his self-destructive death is more than she can tolerate.

“Just show me, please! Show me! Bloody hell, Chet! You’ll never blow your horn again.”

A trembling claw seems to point and guide Lucrezia.

“I have to inject between the carotid and the jugular? Yes? No?” He seems unconscious.

I cannot feel if he is breathing. Oh God! I’m not doing this right. What if I kill him? You have given me very rotten choices.

She plunges the needle through resisting flesh and pushes the needle slowly and unsteadily.

“Why is it taking so long?” she asks, clasping her wrists hard in order to keep them from trembling.

At last! All the liquid is in.

Now we wait and we pray ... What beautiful music he used to play. And his voice was like velvet. Let him live! ... I’m holding his naked body but I can’t connect with him.

She sings Chet’s song quietly.

“My funny Valentine, sweet funny Valentine, you make me smile through my heart.”

“Hi.” The sound resembles a croak.

Chet opens his eyes. They are uncrossed though rimmed with blood.
Then a stronger but still tremulous “Hi, Kid."

Lucrezia enfolds him in her breasts. Thank you. Thank you. We made it. You’re out of danger. And now I am remembering the horrifying event, which has just taken place. I am going to lose my temper, I fear.

“You bastard! Damn you! You could have died! You bloody twat! Suppose I had killed you? You swore to me, to all of us, you were off the heroin. Only grass, you said. God damn it, Chet!”

“Kid, I’m a junkie, okay?” he tells her in a detached voice, still resting his head on her lap. “I lie. I’m good at it. I’m druggie trash.”

"No! That’s not true. You are first and foremost a gifted musician. A magician with the horn." She retorts angrily.

Lucrezia’s first instinct is to query him. She stops herself. Why raise questions when you already know the answers? Chet had suffered an overdose. It didn’t take an expert to make a calculated guess. The stuff was too good or too bad. Either way it could kill you. Lucrezia did not condemn, scold or preach at her friends for taking drugs. She suspended making judgments on their use and abuse of drugs.

Perhaps they are dying souls! Why? I have no answers.

“Thank God! You’re all right. Look at you. You’re a worm covered in suppurating ulcers!!! How can you live like this? What the bloody hell kind of life ...”

Chet stretches a bony arm towards her face, still lying on her lap.

“Kid. Listen. Listen, man. I ain’t got no life, there’s only the music! You know?”

“There’s only the music,” she repeats softly.

The statement bludgeons her. It grasps her soul. She feels she has a glimmer of comprehension into his ailing spirit.

“Let me help you up and into bed. I’ll light a cigarette for you.”

“It’s grass,” he replies in a mocking tone of voice.

“Light it yourself. Join me in the library as soon as you are able?”

“Sure thing. Ahm…where’s the stuff?” he asks.
“My God! You can’t be serious Chet."

He does not reply and remains motionless.

Chet needed a fix and he needed it now. Reasoning, pleading and threatening would never work. He might get withdrawal symptoms. I’d have to call a doctor. He would do his duty and report it to the police. Chet would be in jail. My options suck!“

Kid. The H, you know? It’s pure, good stuff. That’s why I OD’ed,” states Chet casually.

H as in Hell thinks Lucrezia.

Chet has festering sores on his arms and legs. His shriveled manhood-penis and testicles are a pitiful sight to behold.

I can’t refuse him the heroin. There’s more dignity in his mainlining it than being mocked by police in a cell as he shivers and trembles trying to detox alone and anguished.

“Look under the bed, Chet."

He grins; his dimples stand out on his sunken face.

"Thanks, Kid. Cool."

He shrugs before getting down on his hands and knees.

"I’ll give you some ointment for your skin ulcers."

"It don't do no good, Kid."

"Damn it, Chet. As long as you're in my house, you’ll use the ointment because I’ll bloody well put it on you myself.”

"Right, Kid. Don't wet your pants. Ok? For a lady you’re sure as hell swearin’ a lot.

"Chet. I'll see you in an hour."

Lucrezia walks slowly back to the library on the ground floor. In a delayed reaction, her hands begin to shake. She stumbles on the salmon= colored leather sofa and ponders.

Chet must have entered the library and brought the index card while I was occupied with the “Transcendental Studies”.

She catches a whiff of putrefied flesh from the sleeves of her cashmere pullover. Chet's rotting sores! She jumps up and rushes to her bedroom next to the library. Off with her orange pullover and matching turtleneck sweater. Begone beautiful bronze skirt. She strips naked. The clock by her bedside table shows 5:30 pm. An eternity has gone by in thirty minutes. Leaving her clothes in a pile on the floor, she makes up her mind to burn the orange and bronze ensemble in her fireplace later that evening when all are fast asleep. She sprints towards her orchid-filled bathroom covered from floor to ceiling with a rare yellow marble. She swiftly turns on the bronze shower handle carved in the shape of a swan. The cold water strikes her almost violently. She stands tall and trembling. She leans her torso against the gelid marble and shuts her eyes.

Pull yourself together Lucrezia. You will not faint nor will you vomit out your entrails.

She takes a series of long and deep breaths and begins to intone the Pater Noster, The Lord’s Prayer in Latin. Bit by bit, the stink of death is washed away. The death, which she had touched, held and clasped against her bosom.

The water has cleansed me. Deo Gratias. I thank the Lord.

In the paneled olive library with the Bosendorfer grand piano, a Petroff upright, and wall-to-wall books, Chet is drinking strong, black tea with a straw, both hands holding the rattling Limoges cup on his plate.

"Chet, could you mainline anywhere but in the villa?”

I know Chet will not comply. Why do I ask such useless questions? One more day to go and then he’s flying back to Amsterdam via Milan.

“I can't stand seeing you reduced to the state of a ...protozoa," she tells him.

"Yeah, but that doesn’t bother me at all," he drawls.

Then he smiles his dimpled smile. The only thing left in his ravaged body that still reminds her of the young and handsome Chet, so very long ago it seems.

The Chet, who so inflamed me with his horn and his voice together with his sexy good looks, is not the same man who now pitifully sits across me. I am gazing at a carcass. I secretly guarded an overpowering infatuation towards him for years. I confused the man with the music I have been in love with his music that will last for all eternity. I realize this in anguish as I find myself gazing at him and reflecting. I met him face to face at last at the private jazz club of Prince Pepito Pignatelli. He was playing there for ten days with his Quintet. We had both been thrilled that he would be staying at my Villa of the Saracen at Bellosguardo.

“You know the last chord you played early this morning in 'When Sunny Gets Blue'? When you change suddenly from flat to sharp, from major to minor, it's bad, Man. I love it," said Chet as casually as if nothing had happened.

It was over. There was only the music, like the man says.

"You comin' tonight, kiddo?"

"Yes, Chet."

"See ya! Hey man I gotta go practice. Ciao."


For Chet Baker, the only thing that counted was the music. He breathed it and lived for it alone. By his own terms of reference, jazz was a lifestyle outside of which he ceased to exist. Day after day, night after night, he played each solo as if it were the last. We all came because we loved his music and feared that it might be the last. More often than not, we also loved him. He reminded us that, sometimes, true creators are unreasonable, cruel, destructive and alone. They crave alone-ness. Only the music and the drugs are their constant companions. The former brings as much joy as the latter surrounds them with pain. Thus, they are irremediably alone.

All of those who fell under his spell will forever be haunted by that simple, velvet artistry that was as obvious as it was instinctive. On trumpet or with his own voice, Chet, in a long disconcerting, sexy wail, distilled the same pain we feel with a rare intuitive use of suggestion . . .things left unsaid and undone. Music was the only real world in which he moved. The rest, all the rest, was a nightmare from which he awoke. Each time he did so, he took us with him.

Chet died in Amsterdam fourteen years ago. His corpse lay crumpled and broken on the rainy street when the police arrived. They knew, as the music and jazz world did, that he was a spellbinding musician and . . . a junkie.

Did an overdose kill him at last, as he lay alone and abandoned? Perhaps unknown assailants had thrown him over the balcony of his hotel room? It is not unusual for mainlining junkies to owe big sums of money to drug dealers.

Did he jump? Did he fall off the railing while in a drugged stupor? Accidental death. Homicide. Suicide. Subconscious death wish – the Thanatos the ancient Greeks discoursed about?

It didn’t matter anymore.

"There was only the Music. There will always be the Music."


Notes from the writer.

All the events, as described, took place in the sixteen-century Villa of the Saracen, about sixteen years ago. Only the name of the narrator, Contessa Lucrezia von Remo has been changed. Readers will note that the writer’s alter ego is Lucrezia.

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