He played one-handed throughout a week’s booking at the Vanguard, having numbed his right arm with a heroin needle. With his left hand and some virtuoso pedaling, he was able to maintain harmonic interest in support of treble lines. (Peter Pettinger)
In ‘63 Bill’s in trouble. He’s a gentleman about debts, but even so. Turfed out of a flat on 106th, he never did get that piano back. But it wasn’t the kind of thing he resented. That was the year he and his girlfriend Ellaine would take off south, get clean for a while. She’ll wait tables in a fried chicken place and Bill will play Bach at his parents’ house. For now he has to play the Village, even though his hand won’t work. He needs the money.
In morbid fascination, pianists dropped by to witness the phenomenon.
Harmonic interest. What is that? And how do you justify the decision to head down to the Village to see Bill’s dead hand? That was the year of When I Fall In Love, a recording to make a stone weep: little singing crystals of notes, chords with God’s own sun shining through them. Can you reconcile the Vanguard show with the terrifying lyricism of the Spartacus Love Theme, enough to break the heart of some ass who had not previously known that hearts existed, a song that no one else ever thought of playing, that in his hands turned flesh to ice and stopped breath and you saw the glowing knife edge of all things ahead in gorgeous finality?
“He would dangle the dead hand over the keyboard and drop his forefinger on the keys, using the weight of the hand to depress them. Everything was played with the left hand, and if you looked away you couldn’t tell anything was wrong.” (Bill Crow)
In Pettinger’s book Ellaine has no last name. She lived with him, shared drugs and pets, for 12 years, and when he met someone else in 1973 he just told her. Like that. Someone said, in a masterful understatement, that the overwhelmingly gifted in one area may know nothing in another. The women don’t stay long after that, a few years, a few months, and it’s hard to say how he took their dispatches and dismissals. He kept playing and playing. He does write them their own songs, between fixes and gigs. But he doesn’t eat.
Bill’s liver is nothing. You turn the pages of the biographies, expecting the end, but he does another week at Keystone Korner, accepts a booking for Fat Tuesdays, after Barcelona, Portland, or Bad Hönningen, before projected trips to Russia or Japan. He looks ghastly. His hands are swollen. It’s 1980. Really, how does this go on? What does it mean to play Turn Out the Stars so many times? What was Bill Evans without his damned hands?
We do not know about Ellaine’s hands, whether they were swollen or paralyzed on the day, soon after he left, when she threw herself under a New York subway train.
The lower the head fell the better Evans played.
Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra
I thought I heard them.
Evans, fall down. Fall down, Evans.
If I turned my head to the room I might see them.
But I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t want to be.
I kept my head down, or turned left, to the rhythm section.
In certain clubs it was worse than others.
I could never tell where I’d hear it.
Evans, fall down.
And I would think about how there are really only two ways with a melody.
You can get on top of it and make it over into something of yours.
Or you can let it get on top of you.
Neither way is easy.
Although those Moodsville guys who did the first
probably had longer lives than the rest of us.
And really, where was I? A third way?
That’s just the coward’s answer. Neither and both.
And too scared to look out into the darkness at where they waited for me to fall.
God help me.
The orchestral sessions brought the voices in clearer than usual.
For the first time it was a studio where I heard the taunts, the hisses.
It couldn’t be the audience. There was none.
Still there was Faure. And Scriabin. And all those classically-trained cats
who thought they were slumming.
I went to the same schools. I knew my Scarlatti from my Strayhorn.
But I couldn’t look at them straight.
Saw the bows moving in the reflection of the control room glass.
In the lid of the piano.
But I knew I had to keep their eyes from me.
Evans. Fall. Down.
I wouldn’t fall down, not then, not in front of the cellists.
The Airport Lounge
in the Thirteenth Terrace of the Purgatorio
Why not imagine him here? The waiting, the extremity of it. But this is as nothing for a man with hands bonded directly to a mind prickling with loss. A man with sharp stones under the soles of his thin-skinned being. I am lost here only for a few hours. He is lost for good.
Look Bill, I call across the concourse. Look at this child, so small, feeding pudding to herself and watching a plane we know will never take off. Look Bill, I say, my eyes on a paper fluttering loose on the runway. Is that a score of yours?
The little girl is Beatrice enough for me and I latch onto her. Now she is calm and still in her mother’s arms. I imagine the difference in you at five and fifty. They say you took tempi faster and faster toward the end. That’s one of the elements I can’t work out. It’s not what I would do. I stop breathing. It seems easier. You stop breathing. It’s all you can do.