BOOK REVIEW / Lady Night, Lady Day: 'Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday' - Donald Clarke: Secker, 20 pounds

I'M SQUEAMISH about drugs. Like one of Billie Holiday's friends, the drummer Roy Harte, I could faint at the sight of a needle; and Wishing on the Moon is a bit tough in places for 'those of a nervous disposition'. That's not the only reason I approached the book with trepidation: Donald Clarke, who claims much greater accuracy than in earlier books about Lady Day, previously edited The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and if that book is as inaccurate throughout as in the bits that I know something about it should be taken with a very great deal of salt.

I needn't have worried. Between 1970 and 1972, Linda Lipnack Kuehl interviewed more than 150 people who knew Billie Holiday and have since died; Clarke has been able to use this material and publish it for the first time. The result is a marvellous book, from which emerges a picture of a woman with whose music you will want to become better acquainted (wherever you're starting from) and who was loved by everyone - except, of course, by her 'lovers'.

For this is a book of contradictions. William Dufty, ghost-writer of her 'autobiography', said she was the funniest woman he had ever known, and there are many examples of her jazz-musician humour throughout; she shared it with her soul- mate, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her a dog called Bessie Mae Moocho, after the then current hit song 'Besame Mucho'. But the other side was horror; there was another dog, Mister, said to be a junkie because it amused Holiday and her friends to inject him with heroin.

Witnesses queue to tell us how much they loved Holiday - and how readily they forgave her selfishness, vindictiveness and bullying. She 'was conscious of being a great artist', renowned for her assured 'presence'; but she herself 'really didn't think she was a good singer' and she was often terrified of making public appearances. She manipulated her men, but the last of them, Louis McKay, 'finally married her so that she couldn't testify against him'.

And what a bunch they were] One of the important ones was called John Levy, and to differentiate him from John Levy the bassist he isn't referred to as 'John Levy the manager', or 'John Levy the boyfriend', but as 'John Levy the pimp'. When he died, Billie's accompanist and friend Bobby Tucker complained 'he didn't even have the courtesy to let somebody shoot him'.

Of course, the contradictions are standard junkie stuff: the more you get high, the lower you go. And the book itself becomes somewhat contradictory. Clarke is keen to replace the received image of Lady as a tragic icon of pain and suffering with a picture of a life that was in truth 'far richer'. But he seems confused: on one hand he repeatedly says (and so does she) that she chose all this herself, she'd never have been happy 'on the right side of the fence', she ran from good men and wanted only those who would beat her; on the other, he wants us to blame those men, and the 'self-righteous law of the puritans', for driving her into their clutches. Is a masochist a victim? Another accompanist, Memry Midgett, tried really hard to help her to leave McKay and get a decent manager, but at the last minute Billie's nerve failed.

Everyone in the entertainment business has at least one story of corporate nose-cutting to facilitate face-spiting. Clarke describes as 'heartbreaking' the example of Lady's being unable to record with Count Basie's orchestra, with which she sang for almost a year, because they were under contract to different companies. John Hammond, her record producer at the time, does not come out of this story - or indeed the whole book - particularly well; I couldn't but wonder if this was quite fair, as if Clarke's judgement is based on more information than he's imparting.

But he writes wonderfully about the records, from the first session in 1933 with Benny Goodman to the sad and bitter end, at which point, some said, they shouldn't still have been recording her. But as he recounts her decline with great sympathy - and passion, too, when it comes to the narcotics laws and their inhumane application to Lady in her last days - Clarke insists that we need every record she made.

And in the end it's the recordings that we have to remember her by. For that reason I'd have liked a discography, and a bibliography, too - and the index isn't perfect. But when I got to the end of the book, and to the end of Billie Holiday's story, I cried. The singer and dancer Marie Bryant said of Lady Day and Lester Young: 'They . . . couldn't make it on the terms of the world . . . God had given them this pure way of expressing themselves, but they'd be appalled, if they were here now, by the crassness . . . Today they'd be gone even faster.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor