Bird Saved My Life

I bought a house. In Kitsilano no less. Home of the rich, famous, and newly unhip. I’ve proven time and again that desperation can accomplish anything. (Wait till I tell you about the time I built a jazz club with no money in nine days.) Janice and I had been evicted from our basement suite and found an incredible house in Burnaby. It was huge (had been a convent previously) and relatively cheap. There was just one problem. It was in Burnaby. When I woke up the first morning in that house and looked outside and realized where we were I felt truly that I had entered the dark suburban night of my soul. Ugly modern houses in every direction. Except ours and the one next door – equally funky older places. The two funky houses on the block. That gave me hope. The tenants must by all the laws of funkiness be existentialists. I wandered over to meet my neighbour, out cutting the grass or some unfunky thing. Within ten minutes he explained they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and hoped to save us. I rushed back home and had a nap, even though it wasn’t yet even noon.

The landlord was cool, though, even if a straight, conservative type in appearance. The night I looked at the place he told me that on first sight he would never rent to someone like me but after talking with me he decided I was a nice guy, so he chose me above all the other Burnaby-type family-value Christians who wanted to rent that place. How open-minded is that? His wife was a different story, however. After we moved in the two dropped by unannounced on a regular basis with some excuse or other. She was the witch from Burnaby Mountain. She hated us and made it plain every chance she got. When she saw my dog she freaked. A dog? A dog? You have a dog? I said, listen lady, you can take this fucking house and shove it up your cold witch’s ass. Not even there a month and I gave “notice”. Every morning after that I got up, had my coffee, and drove downtown to get as far away from Burnaby as possible. I have to say at this point that as far as Janice was concerned I was an utter asshole. Most days I took off and left her there. It’s small wonder she soon left me. Hey, Janice, if by some miracle you read this then let me finally admit to you in writing that I totally deserved to be dumped – even if it now looks like I was the best guy you ever met, which I’m sure I don’t.

So, two nasty landlord experiences in a row, in under two or three months, was enough to put my brain in high gear. When that happens I can decide anything and do anything, reality be damned. I had no money, but I was going to buy a house.

Don’t ask how I did it but I bought a great little place in Kitsilano. Wasn’t that little, actually, but it was a very cool place. By the time I got to move in Janice was gone. She was just gone. Have you ever been dumped? No, really, it happens. I was devastated. Half my brain had just up and died. I was miserable beyond human comprehension. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I moved through the days and nights in a stupor. The usual. And through all this I had to move into a new, big empty house.

Three weeks later I’d barely unpacked. I sat around this dismal house surrounded by piles of unopened cartons. No food — what little I ate I had to eat out. I’d go see the few friends who hadn’t sickened of me yet, just to get away from this place. I was sick sick sick.

Every time I’ve moved before, first thing I always unpack is the record player. Music to baptize a new place, music to ease the unpacking, the fixing up, etc. So after these weeks of self-pity and despair I thought, I gotta snap out of this. I gotta do something because another minute of this and it will become permanent. So I unpacked the stereo. Next day I opened some boxes of records. Then I sat around some more, went out, came home, slept, or tried to sleep. Then one day I’m sitting in the living room. I look over and there on top of a pile of records, Charlie Parker is smiling at me. I think that record got up on its own and put itself right in front of the pile because that was Bird smiling exactly at me — a great big happy smile. I looked at that picture and I was communing with Bird, a man who knew more about every kind of pain than I’d know in ten lifetimes and, despite it, produced the greatest, most beautiful music on earth or in heaven. He cheered me up, he made me a happy man that very moment. He laughed his head off. Oh, man, he said, you poor fucked-up miserable sonofabitch. The chick dumped you? Hah! Ain’t life a bitch? Ha ha ha! Let’s go!

I took the album cover up to this shop around the corned that produced huge posters from regular sized pictures and had them make me a two foot by three foot copy of that photograph and I put it in a frame that size that I got from a junk sale and hung it right there on my living room wall and for the rest of my life Bird’s been there laughing at me and cheering me right on.

Twenty years later I ran into Joe Leung — a major collector of jazz records — in A&B Sound. “Hey, you’ll never guess who I met!” he says. “I was in a record store and overheard these guys talking and one of them turned out to be Burt Goldblatt. So I introduced myself and we got to talking and went and had coffee together and hung out. Great guy.”

Burt Goldblatt was the photographer who took that great photo of Bird. “Did you get his address? I’ve got to write him a letter!” I got the address and wrote Goldblatt a letter. I told him the whole story of the house and the chick and the misery and Bird saving my life. I apologized for making the copy, and asked if he remembered anything of the circumstances of that photo.

He sent back a card with a U.S. Post Office Charlie Parker stamp on it which said:

My contact with Bird was very brief – a moment here or a brief meeting in a club – to grab a photo – it was a very long time ago.

When I lived in NYC I would bump into his first wife Doris – who was a waitress occasionally – she’s still around – this is all I remember – except that Bird smiled very seldomly.


Photo of Charlie Parker by Burt Goldblatt

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2 Responses to “Bird Saved My Life”

  1. Wilmer Fawcett

    Oh what a great story!

  2. Peter Rogine

    I saw the album cover in a used record shop and immediately noticed the Goldblatt photograph. What an inspiration! I want to get a copy and hang it up also. Thanks for the great story.

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