By Ade Gachegua
My love affair with Billie began when I was 15. I had recently returned to London from several years in boarding school in my mother country, Nigeria. On my return, I felt discombobulated. Already a socially shy child and an introvert, I felt completely out of place in my new school in North London. The popular girls were pretty and very London. I was awkward-looking, and my odd Nigerian-British twang kept me silent for fear of ridicule. School was difficult. I was bright and keen; I was just a social misfit. I bunked. A LOT.
There were a few classes I would attend more regularly, one was Sociology. Mr Phillips was enigmatic. A tall man, balding but with whatever he had left on his head tied into a ponytail at the back. The morning that I met Billie, I’d resolved to go to school just for Mr Phillips. I slunk into his class and slumped into my seat towards the back. Mr Phillips sat on the edge of his desk and brought out a tape deck (yes, a tape deck)! He urged the class to silence and pressed play. My mind was elsewhere when the haunting melody hit. I almost literally felt my brain shift as it pulled my attention to the front of the room. Then Billie rasped… ‘Southern Trees…’. I was transfixed. She sang on, and my soul fidgeted. As the final …’cro-op’ rang out, my soul seethed and filled my eyes with tears. It wasn’t just the way she transported you, musically and lyrically, to that horrifying scene - it was her. Her voice was discordant against the polished R&B, soul and jazz singers that I’d heard before. It was its own instrument. Raw, unforgiving. It was pained. She sang like she wasn’t built to just sing. She sang like she didn’t belong to the song. She sang like her soul made her do it. She sang like she was lonely. She sang like pain. She sang like a misfit.
The lesson that day was great, and one of the few times I felt my learning was relevant to me but so much more than I think Mr Phillips intended. I needed more of the woman who felt like home. Back then, the only way we got our music was through (pirate) radio and record shops. I’d recently discovered a third way though – the library. When I got home that afternoon, I rushed straight over, praying she’d be there. And she was. More than that, she was a double album! A double album?!?! 2 Volumes and something like 40 tracks. I was ecstatic. Out I went, beelined to my bedroom, grabbed my Walkman and threw the first tape in. I fell asleep that night with Billie’s hand on my brow, the impossibility of her running along my synapses and settling into my soul. She’s never left me since.
The story of Billie is oft-told – the rejection, her loves, the scandals, the adulation, and the drug and alcohol abuse that eventually killed her. But I remember the Billie that sang for and with me. The Billie that got willows to weep for us, that walked on the sunny side of the street, that was Miss Brown to you. That was the magic of Billie for me – she sang in all weathers, for all occasions – the highest highs and the lowest lows. There is no one human experience that I know of that Billie hasn’t sound tracked. I laughed with her, we cried together, we whirled, fell in love and snarled at the cruelty of life in concert.
Imagine the weight of that all. Of possessing an instrument of such power that it comes to define you. Sometimes I think that was it. How can the fragile human frame withstand it? Not only was she holding this fierce flame, but it was continually stoked and fuelled by the world around her. The demands made on her time, on her body and on her spirit, juxtaposed against the harshness of the reality of an African American woman in an age that denied her, that punished her for her very existence. And through it all, that incandescent fire. People talk of Billie’s later years, when her singing became gruffer, slurred, incoherent at times and shake their heads pityingly. I love Billie then. I love her. I love the reality of her. I love that she sang as she stood. I just rage at the machine that wrung her out, that pissed on her and made her clean it up.
About Ade Gachegua