I want to know what happened to Chet Baker.
Have you seen Chet Baker’s face, I mean
the one that it became in time? His skin was shriveling up
in the pictures I myself have come by, shrinking back
as if it would rather not have been attached to his
particular body. And those eyes were definitely not
the eyes of someone sober. I want to know what
happened to Chet Baker not because I think he
was the greatest singer or trumpeter that ever lived. I
don’t. But I want to know what happened to him
because, nevertheless, he was It once, the man to beat
once. Why, James Dean himself was only an emulation
of this man. James and Chet both died young it seems,
but Chet stayed standing somehow. I reckon it was only
with the help of many walls. And when he finally got his
teeth kicked out over one of his many heroin debts, he
learned to play his horn just fine and plain, through his
new fake set, like he always had. And like every other
icon, we remember the prime of him, the fine of him,
the clean, the white, the young. But what do we forget?
Take a long look at the pictures on the albums I know
you must still own. What makes a man’s eyes go sappy
like he’s begging for change all his life? What makes
a man beg for chump change all his life instead of
planting his gifts? What makes a man take his own life
after 40, 50, 60 years of survival? How is that cans of soup
and bottles of liquor accomplish these things? What is it
that newspapers really say that we who remain haven’t
heard yet? Or is it the rolling papers, are they the ones
who speak? How about the railway stations? Or
the highways, the county lines, the home stretches?
I know for certain that all the young faces in all the little
landlocked towns Chet Baker blew through flew back
to him all at once, the stages, the gymnasiums and granges,
the ways he used to say, “Yes!” at the start of the night,
to say, “Hear my horn? Hear my voice? See my face on
this stage? Do you feel what I feel? Is it still sweet?”
Have you seen the later traces Chet Baker left behind?
Were they sweet? I reckon one morning he woke up
and looked at himself, he thought of all the ballads
he knew by heart and he remembered what they meant.
He stood up and he looked at himself in the mirror
and he stared as if he had never gotten to know his own
face. Alone in his reflection, he wished he were king again,
like back in the days he didn’t stand alone in mirrors,
when he knew for sure he was himself a mirror people
wanted to reflect themselves in, and when they would not
ever, ever have mistaken him for a goddamn bum.
He stood up and saw the clock ticking forever and
thought of his high school sweetheart. He saw his own
face in the mantelpiece pictures of his father and
wondered how long ago he himself had passed on too.
He wanted to ask out loud, in the middle of the silence
and the darkness, if everyone dies young who has lived
on a stage enough, who has laid down next to their lover
and wondered when it would end enough, this constant
searching, and singing, and hoping for applause, this
forever waiting for the best high yet to last the whole
night through. He stood up and saw the needle hanging
from his arm, his limp dick, his soaking dentures. And
Chet Baker finally realized everyone does die young
one way or another. He knew we could only long for
him once he was gone. He knew we’d long to know what
happened, why he was gone before he left. We would be
left with only his voice and his solos on acetate, be left
with little lives of our own we were trying not to squander,
be left with these terribly stifling questions about how
truth comes out in music even through a person’s
plastic teeth.

Adam Gottschalk, 46, spent 25 years or more as a spoken word artist and poet. His spoken word tends toward a slam poetry-type feel. He speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently, and has a number of other scattered specialties. He’s had MS for 16 years.

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