Amy-Joe Albany: Low Down, Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood

Samedi 5 Septembre 2015

Interview with Amy-Joe Albany on her book Low Down: Junk, Jazz, and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, her recollection of life with her father, the great jazz pianist Joe Albany.

Your book is not a linear story but a series of anecdotes. Why did you chose to tell your story that way?

It felt like the most honest way to honor memory - you recall your life (or at least I do) as a series of images - like a drawer full of snapshots. I also get bored easily, so it was the best form to hold my attention.

I have read a lot of stories on what is called the "Bohemian life" but it is hard to imagine that your father, and many other famous jazzmen, had such a miserable life. They played concerts, make records. Where did the money go?

I think my dad would have told you that in the moments when he was playing and creating, he felt like the happiest, luckiest guy in the world, and I believe that was the case for most of the musicians he knew. 

Misery-that's its own beast. I don't think we can fathom why it chooses to nest in any individual being. For myself, I feel its is born out of a self loathing or at the least, a doubting, that is born from any number of things.

As for money - if my dad had a buck in his hand, you couldn't count to10 before it was gone - he liked spending it-on nice clothes, music, meals, books, the latest gadgets, wallet required, just straight from his hand to the shop, lady, whatever. He was also a very generous person, and gave money to anyone who was having a tough go. And drugs of course ain't cheap. Honestly, he never made that much money. Jazz musicians (unless you are a member of the Marsalis family or something) don't make shit, compared to what they give - which is their art and soul, through their music.

Drug is at the heart of this story. Do you think it was the cause or the consequence of this miserable life?

I don't feel that drugs is at the heart of the story - its at the heart of the movie maybe, but not the book. I like to think that love is at the heart of the book. Anyway, the initial cause of my dad's misery was his bastard, abusive father. The drugs were a consequence of the scene he was in, and maybe they helped mask his depression and self doubting.  He was manic depressive for sure, as I am, but nobody knew what the hell was going on with that back then - I still don't think they do, doping you up with shitty medication that makes you feel disconnected from whoever you are. And finally, he enjoyed getting high.

Europe seems to have a positive effect on your father's lifestyle. Why did he succeed in Europe and not in the US?

I don't know. America has an uncanny knack for creating really significant art forms, and then discarding them - like leaving a baby on a doorstep.  I guess jazz got left on Europe's doorstep. He loved it there - I'm sorry he came back. The desire to succeed in his country of origin was great.

You lived together with your father and you seemed to be a very mature child, almost playing the role of a mother for you father. Was it the case or is it just a distorsion of the reality because you wrote the story after growing up?

No, it was totally like that. I worried about him, had to change him for bed half the time, tried to size up who was the worst riff raft amongst his so called friends. It was good practice for when I had my own children. It would really piss me off sometimes- I'd think: "Where the hell is my protector? Who's checking to see if I need to eat?" But you have to let it go. It serves no purpose to drag that into your adult life, like an albatross made from ten tons of shit.

I was surprised by the incredible number of nuts and perverts in your book. Were you always surrounded by this kind of people or did you choose to focus on them?

I was always amazed myself at who many pervs and wacky doodles were lurking around that milieu of Hollywood. Maybe I told one creepy man story too many. But if you have those experiences, its hard not to write about them.

you give a very dark view of America. What was the feedback of your readers about that?

Wow, this is the first time I've heard that. My whole focus was on the confines of my Los Angeles neighborhood, which was Hollywood. And I love it there, unabashedly, totally. Perhaps it could be argued that the 70's was a dark time - we had droughts, gas shortages, stuff like that. But it was also a very great time, and I wouldn't trade 20 years worth of wrinkles and road wear, if it meant I'd miss living through that decade, especially as a teenager, because the youth of Los Angeles sort of ruled the roost back then. The adults were mostly drunk, holed up in their air conditioned appartements.

When did you realise that you did not live a normal life?

It always seemed fairly normal to me. At school, most of the kids I knew had varying degrees of challenging home lives. I'd see the Brady Bunch on TV and think: "Who the fuck are those  weirdos? Are they Mormons or something?" Normal is relative.

How did you survive a childhood and a teenagehood like the one you had? And what are the negative or positive effects?

I didn't really think about  surviving - I just did it  instinctively-like a  ferile cat.

On the up side, it has made me a strong person, in as much as I don't sweat the little things, and it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. I also hope it has made me a compassionate, empathetic, and non  judgmental person. And most importantly it has made me want to be a caring, loving parent.
On the down side, I have zero self confidence, and am paranoid and mistrusting. I also have a bias against rich people, and in my one exception to the non  judgmental part - I tend to judge parents extremely harshly - like I could take people who I consider lousy parents and throw them in the Iron Maiden without batting an eye lash. So overall I guess I'm pretty fucked up by the whole thing, ha. But aren't we all then?

Was it a difficult experience to write this book? And does it have a cathartic effect?

No, it was not difficult at all, because it was the right time to do it for me - and I would hear the sentences fully formed in my head before writing them down. It was a walk in the park, to be honest. 

It was not cathartic. I had worked my way through childhood's thorny quagmire years before I wrote the book. The book was an extended love letter to my dad and his music, and gram and Hollywood, and voiceless, struggling kids everywhere.

What do you think of the movie based on the book?

I admire the beautiful craft of it and the fine performances and I tip my hat to the lovely folks involved, but it is a movie that has nothing much to do with my book.

The best thing that came out of it are a couple of friendships that mean the world to me, and that's saying something, because a paranoid nut like myself doesn't acquire friends easily.

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Boris Plantier