1950s jazz, bad boy, biography, book, book recommendation, book review, chet baker, deep in a dream, deep in a dream review, drug abuse, goodreads, heroin, james gavin, jazz, jazzman, music, music history, non-fiction reads, read, reading, to read, top reads, west coast jazz
For those, like me, who aren’t well schooled in music history, Chet Baker was an American jazz musician who rose to fame in the 1950s. He was almost as admired for his looks as for his trumpet playing. But like many drawn to jazz, he had a monkey on his back and heroin turned what might have been a rags to riches fairytale into a tragedy.
I must confess, I don’t read many biographies, and I know very little about music, but Baker was beautiful and damned, and the book came highly recommended.
Part of the reason I don’t read a lot of biographies, is that (in my limited experience) I’ve found many aren’t well written, as though having an intriguing subject were an excuse for sloppy sentences, confusing structure and endless repetition of facts. However, Gavin James’s writing is precise, yet engaging. His love for Baker is clear, yet he doesn’t do his subject the disservice of romanticising him—which in Baker’s case would be a very easy thing to do. Instead, Gavin seeks to present a detailed and objective portrait of Baker’s life, and the depth of his research is astounding—piecing together accounts from lovers, enemies, fellow musicians, critics and devoted fans in search of the man behind the myth.
Having a particular weakness (at least in my reading) for beautiful, broken men, I thought I would finish this book in love. I read the early chapters with a medley of Baker’s albums playing in the background, and sighed over the pictures. However, from about halfway through the contrast between the soft romance of Baker’s music and the violent, destructive man who played it, became too great. It broke my heart to listen as Gavin described Baker in ratty sandals, his feet too swollen from shooting up for covered shoes; injecting heroin beneath his fingernails; Baker unconscious in motel bathrooms, the floor and sink bloody with his attempts to find a vein not yet collapsed.
And then there was the way he treated his women. Overdosing them with dirty needles, beating them, stealing from them, bringing them to America from Europe and leaving alone them to raise his children. Apparently, all it took was one kind word, an admission that he needed them, and they’d be back in his arms.
If anything, it was these relationships that didn’t quite ring true. Yes, he was gorgeous, and charming, and broken, and I know how the kind of drama he offered appeals to some women. But so many? And they all just kept coming back? I’m not saying it didn’t happen that way, but I think it cured me of my liking for bad boys. There was nothing romantic about the way Chet treated his women, or the way they felt drawn to him.
Beginning with Baker’s funeral and then working through all the small and large acts of self-destruction that brought him to an early grave, this is a dark and haunting read. But it’s also full of moments of beauty. Gavin’s descriptions of Baker’s finer performances are almost as enchanting as the music itself. And yet it is theme glimmers of Baker’s genius and potential that ultimately make the book, and the man, so incredibly tragic.
This book left me weak and destroyed, like I’d been drained by a vampire. But I couldn’t stop. It was utterly captivating.