Low Down, An Excerpt

A. J. Albany

melody man

I often thought my father was born of music—some wayward melody that took the form of a man. He heard music everywhere, in the squeaking of rusted bedsprings and the buzzing of flies. Dripping faucets were filled with rhythms to him, as was the irregular flashing of the busted neon outside our window. Some shook their heads and thought he was a nut, but I never believed that. He’d play recordings of Art Tatum, Arthur Rubenstein, and others, and exclaim with flashing eyes, “What a gas—beauteous!” Sometimes we’d listen to records all night. When legit gigs weren’t available, Dad did short stints in hotel bars, where his exquisite playing was often underappreciated, to say the least. It was always the same type who caused trouble—an out-of-town drunk with a tin ear, usually in the company of some flabby lounge whore. They’d stumble over to the piano, leaning on the keys, and say something like, “How about using that soft pedal, pal?” or “Do you know this one?” and proceed to whistle some corny number, spitting smelly off-tune whistles in Dad’s ear. He’d take it on the chin every time, never uttering a word, but I, who knew him, would see his spirit wilt just behind the eyes. When I sensed his hurt, I’d imagine that I was the Abominable Dr. Phibes, devising fiendish deaths for these bar stool critics, or I’d transform into Rodan, grabbing my victims by their fat red necks with razor talons. I’d fly them to an underground vault where I, now the masked executioner, waited, ready to end the lives of fools and hecklers everywhere who didn’t know beauty when they heard it.

soft downy dreams

The day that Gram gave birth to her eleven-pound, colicky son Joe, January 24, 1924, was the beginning of a sad voyage for them both. At the age of seventeen, Gram was a lover of life. She loved dancing and was a founder of the As You Like It club, a group of South Philly girls who shared a passion for literature. Unlike today’s book clubs, where women get together and usually read a lot of slop, Gram and her friends got together and read truly great books: Dostoyevsky, Balzac, the Brontës, all the Romantic poets.

At the age of eighteen, she met August Albani. So flattered was she by the overtures of “Gus” the traveling citrus salesman that she ran off and married him, much to the dismay of her parents. Being a virgin of the purest order, she was shocked to discover that a man’s member was not covered in soft downy fur, as she had thought. Though sex is usually a letdown when compared to the fantasies available to one’s imagination, Gram was devastated to find the experience so utterly unpleasurable.

I have no kind words for my grandfather, though it could be argued that his fierce determination served to help his children excel musically, producing two fine pianists and an opera singer. Himself a frustrated tenor of limited ability, Grandpop would settle for nothing short of perfection from his kids, driving them to practice their instruments for hours on end.

As a young man, he allowed a local wealthy pervert to shit in his mouth, for a price. Perhaps this incident was why a lot of foul things came out of his mouth. He would beat Gram, and my father too, whenever he dared to intervene. Dad contended that Grandpop had uprooted the family from their New Jersey home and moved to L.A. in 1941 for the sole purpose of separating Dad from his high school sweetheart, Joyce. Joyce was a Jewish girl, which was more than my grandpop’s bigoted heart could bear. One day, a few years later, when Dad brought Charlie Parker home for supper, Grandpop turned to Dad and said, “Get this nigger out of my house.” After such woeful beginnings, life offered my father talent as a consolation prize, but it was like giving tap shoes to an amputee. He had immense talent but lacked the ability to enjoy it.

After arriving in L.A., Dad attended Hollywood High School for six months before growing sick of it and dropping out. He’d already decided on a career in music, and in the summer of ’42 he headed back to Atlantic City to begin pursuing it. While there, he played for a while at a place called the Paddock Club, where the headlining act was a female snake charmer named Zorita. Hearing that L.A.’s Central Avenue had blossomed into a hotbed of jazz, he bused back to Hollywood in 1944. It was then that he met his first wife, B.J., who Grandpop referred to only as “that painted she-devil.” Their brief marriage was a casualty of impetuous youth. In 1945 two pivotal events happened to Dad that would dictate the course of his life. The first was his meeting and playing with Charlie Parker, and the second was his introduction to heroin. From that point on, his music and his addictions would battle endlessly to see which would prevail.

escaping camarillo

At the age of twenty-two, Dad underwent a psychiatric evaluation while serving time on drug charges. He was diagnosed with hebephrenia, a form of schizophrenia that manifests itself in puberty and is characterized by unprovoked laughter, foolish mannerisms, and delusions. Grandpop signed the commitment papers, and Dad was sent to Camarillo State Hospital.

Doctors, being somewhat in the dark back then about the treatment of drug addicts, prescribed endless mugs of hot chocolate and warm baths, which did little to soothe his troubled psyche. Not considered dangerous, he was placed with patients suffering from epilepsy and was expected to help out hospital staff in the event of any seizures that might occur.

By odd coincidence, Charlie Parker had been committed to Camarillo a short time earlier, after being found wandering around naked in a Los Angeles hotel corridor. Parker spotted Dad standing in an upper window as he walked in the yard below. He waved to him and sent a guy up with some chocolate Sucrets, cigarettes, and a note saying, “Joe—see you when you get into population—Bird.” Dad, however, had already determined not to hang around. He had a girlfriend on the outside, and figured in his usual paranoid manner that she was up to no good. While standing naked in line for a medical exam that was required before one could be released into “population,” he made his move. He broke out of line, headed straight out the door with his clothes in his hands, and jumped over the barbed-wire fence. Unfortunately, Camarillo would not be his last visit to a nuthouse, and future visits would see his treatments graduate from hot cocoa to shock therapy.

Aside from being eccentric and supersensitive, I don’t think there was anything wrong with Dad. Society was of the mind that one “had to be crazy” if they chose to take drugs, and doctors were probably under a certain amount of pressure to back this sentiment up with medical evidence, readily labeling addicts as mental cases. The diagnosis of hebephrenia would always haunt my father. Known for doodling on everything in sight, he would write hebephrenic over and over on scraps of paper, sheet music, and matchbook covers for the rest of his life.
A. J. Albany lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children, Charlie and Dylan.