Laurie Verchomin, in August 1980 Bill Evans played a concert in Germany: In a private home in Bad Hönningen. It turned out to be his last concert in Europe.
In 1994, someone gave me a copy of the recording of this private event. When I first heard the CD, it just broke my heart because it allowed me to go back in time. It was like getting a long lost love letter from Bill. That last tour was very difficult for him and I wanted so much to be by his side. He had called me from Norway, just a few days before his date in Bad Hönningen, to tell me that he was not sure if he would make it back to New York because he was so ill. All of this darkness is so obvious to me in this recording.
One can say it was a very special date – the concert took place exactly one month before Bill‘s death. And it was the eve of his last birthday.
When Bill came home the next day, he told me about the celebration. His host Fritz Feltens, had given him a very expensive watch as a present but unfortunately Bill left it somewhere. Apparently on the buffet table.
Maybe he didn‘t want to be reminded of time …
The funny thing is that during the tour someone else had given him another time piece, a very tiny digital alarm clock. Bill gave it to me as a present when he came home. He brought the two dollar alarm clock home safely but lost the fancy watch.
What did you do on the day of the concert?
I was in New York preparing things for Bill‘s homecoming. I had to organize some cash because financially we were in a very tight situation. Even though Bill had this great tour in Europe, I knew he would come home penniless, so with Bill’s permission I sold his Fender Rhodes piano to Cedar Walton for $650. I wanted to take Bill out to the racetrack, which was something he loved to do. However, when he got back we didn’t have much of a celebration. He was so ill, I had to take him to the hospital immediately.
By this time, Bill‘s end was clearly in sight. How did this influence your everyday life?
Well, it was a slow descent into that state. The last few months, while Bill and I had been touring in the states, it became clear to me that he was saying goodbye to his closest friends. Because of the nature of his illness (he died of drug addiction), it wasn‘t something he could even talk about. He was making his best effort to be present with the people he loved, showing them his respect. The last 30 days of his life, he became more and more internal. Unless he was getting on an airplane or playing, he was just going inside himself resting all the time, relying on me to communicate with the outside world. During this time he spent a great deal of time listening to his own music on the headphones. He had this plastic shopping bag filled with cassettes of himself playing at home and tapes of the trio from performances. When he died, I gave this collection of Bill’s personal music to his bass player Marc Johnson.
Laurie, let‘s talk about the day you and Bill met. A young girl and a fifty-year-old man, who is already at the end of his life …
Well, the first time I saw him was in Edmonton in 1979, a couple of days after my 22nd birthday. I was a member of the Railtown Jazz Society and they had asked me to waitress for the two nights the Bill Evans Trio was playing. The venue was a very strange place: a former Ukrainian church that had been turned into a discotheque and then a Chinese restaurant. It had this shiny silver disco-floor where the piano, bass and drums were set up. There was this weird vintage army plane mounted behind the stage. As soon as Bill began to play, everyone was listening in absolute silence. It was like a church. At the end of the concert, I went up to Bill and asked if he needed anything. He said no, he had everything he needed, but asked me if I would join him later, because there was something he wanted to tell me. Later on I saw him standing in the hallway, waiting for me and I did join him. He asked me if I‘d like to come with him to his hotel. At the time I had a young boyfriend who was a guitar player and a big fan of Bill‘s music. I thought my boyfriend would love to hang out with Bill, so I said to him “Do you mind if I bring my boyfriend?” He started laughing and said that this was not what he had in mind.
What did you do instead?
We went to my apartment where I had some cocaine. Not much, especially for someone like Bill. Some of the other members of the jazz society had come too, surrounding him in a semicircle, asking him questions. At the end of the night he managed to slip me his card. At the doorway, he kissed me on the cheek and I hugged him as hard as I could. He was quiet, reserved and reminded me of my father. I wondered why someone like him would pursue me. And although he was older, esteemed in the world, with so much power, I knew right in that moment that I was going to be the one to take care of him. There was something so lost and forlorn about him.
Did you fall in love with him at that point?
No, I didn’t. It was one month later when I visited Bill in NY for the first time that I fell in love with him. The morning after we made love, Bill put on the Roberta Flack album with Donny Hathaway singing “For All We Know.” It had that line “I’ll hold out my hand and my heart will be in it.” That one line became the basis for our entire relationship. He knew that his life would end soon and so he decided to give everything of himself away. So on that morning he offers me his heart in his hand and I begin to understand the nature of this kind of transparency in love. An infinite love. After that, I fell completely in love with him for the next … well for the rest of my life!
That sounds very romantic. But on the other hand your love must have been a harsh contrast to Bill‘s great agony and physical decline as a junky. Beauty and Death – did you ever figure out the link between these poles?
Bill’s life as a junkie was like watching someone playing Russian roulette. When I first saw the kind of damage he was doing to his body, I thought it was impossible for someone to survive even one day. Yet the next day, there he would be ready to do it all over again. It was like a cycle of transformation he had to go through to feel truly alive. By witnessing this, I began to realize that these self destructive things he was experiencing were connected to the creative impulses he was experiencing. An amazing cycle of beauty feeding into destruction feeding back into beauty.
What a about his professional life? Being a musician at this level demands some steadiness, doesn‘t it?
Well, as a musician he had two sides: On the one hand he was a very logical, organized, self determined person. The way he approached music was like that. But once he had that form in hand he started to experiment on top of it in order to have that free floating expression. That’s how he tried to live his life too: he created a career himself, where he was very respected, making good money. He created that whole form but on top of that, he just wanted to experiment. And he did experiment with some pretty dark things – like heroin. All those years he was winning Grammy Awards and getting articles in Time magazine, he wasn’t paying his rent or electric bills and was being evicted from his apartments, sitting on the sidewalk on his suitcase, improvising his next move.
You met Bill at a turning point in his life. Two weeks after his performance in Edmonton his brother Harry committed suicide. Did you think you took over his place as a spiritual companion?
Actually, I never thought of it that way. You may be right, given the fact that, Bill was such an intensely private person, and there weren’t many people in his inner circle. Harry may have been the biggest spiritual support for him. After he passed away, Bill was in a constant state of mourning and maybe feeling scared knowing that he could take his own life. He did consider suicide a few times, but I happened to be with him on many of those occasions so it didn‘t happen.
If death was this close all the time, did it appear in his music as well?
I think that this element is probably in his music from the very beginning. But it takes on many different forms over his career. When you listen to the Village Vanguard Sessions from the early Sixties you can hear it then – everything is very slowed down, almost hypnotic. Now at the end, oddly enough, everything speeds up. Maybe this does relate to the drugs Bill used: being a heroin addict in the sixties he might have been very relaxed, while cocaine speeds everything up. In the late seventies he knows he is close to the end. At this point he is integrating all of his experiences into his music, trying to make sense of it. You could hear the agony and the ecstasy, while he is trying to come to completion. None of this was easy for him.
It‘s funny you mention the Vanguard Sessions. These recordings took place two weeks before Scott LaFaro, Bill’s bass player at the time, died in an accident …
You know I think Bill was highly developed as an intuitive player – and maybe when you are playing this intuitively you know everything at once. Perhaps he did know, when he met Scott that it was going to be a very brief dramatic relationship that would nourish him for the rest of his days. Losing Scott LaFaro would be his first really intense experience of grief.
The last month of his life Bill was very active and played some of his best performances. You were part of the audience – what was the atmosphere like?
There was no way you could not get what he was trying to say with his music. It was a great snapshot of his soul. Everyone was sucked into this vortex, experiencing their own version of his agony. The soul is a scary place to go to on your own. You could go there with your therapist or you could go there with Bill Evans.
Do you know – by chance – the song that ended his life as a musician?
No, I don‘t remember. But – ok – I‘m going to guess. “My Romance” might have been a good closer …
Many thanks to Sebastian Pranz and the German Magazine FROH
To read more about Laurie’s book
“The Big Love: Life & Death with Bill Evans”