Laurie Verchomin – The Big Love: Life and Death with Bill Evans
(see laurieverchomin.com; https://www.facebook.com/BillEvansLegacyOrganization. Book Review by Chris Parker)
Although the ostensible subject of this book – and the reason it is being reviewed on this site – is contained in its subtitle (‘Life and Death with Bill Evans’), ‘The Big Love’ (described in Laurie Verchomin’s Foreword as ‘this mind-blowing, transforming experience’) in all its manifestations, sexual, companionable, spiritual, is its actual subject.
Verchomin was in her early twenties, and ‘very inspired by the diaries of Anaïs Nin’ when she first encountered Bill Evans in her Canadian hometown, Edmonton, but the first few scenes of this artfully episodic book take us back to her troubled adolescence in Alberta’s capital, describing in spare but skilful prose her ‘inability to negotiate the sexual revolution of the 1970’s’, which ‘combined with the reaction of my freeze-dried parents from the 1950’s, culminated in the cover up of multiple pregnancies and the subsequent abortions in high school’.
The Big Love consequently has more in common with the confessional, often painfully self-exploratory writings of Elizabeth Smart or Sylvia Plath (or – courtesy of its unblinking examination of the male ego – earlier writers such as Nin or even Elizabeth von Arnim) than with the work of, say, Laurie Pepper, whose sole concern (in her contribution to Art Pepper’s Straight Life) was the personal and professional rehabilitation of her husband.
Verchomin’s purpose, by contrast, is more autobiographical: she uses a series of judiciously selected scenes (summarised as the discovery of ‘rock and roll, the Rolling Stones, acid tripping, the 60’s, Tom and Sally [influential friends], Taj Mahal, Dennis Hopper, Lou Adler, Jazz and free love’) to describe her emotional state in 1979 when she first met Evans, then, via another series of often lyrical, even poetic but unflinchingly frank scenes, she anatomises her reactions to the turbulent, frequently painful world in which Evans immerses her (‘Bill’s battlefield of ancient syringes, rotting flesh and romantic notions of sex and love’): ‘I guess that I am the melody, but he has all the voicings covered, and I am the refrain he plays over and over again – exploring me.’
This quotation sums up the often fascinating power of the book: Evans’s art is perceptively described by Verchomin not simply as something he practises, something he does, but rather as something that defines him, something he is. As John McLaughlin states in a touching Introduction: ‘Bill possessed a number of “keys” … embodied in his gigantic talent and in his soul. These keys were able to unlock the depths of his listeners’ hearts, and in doing so, allowed the listener to enter a world of transcendental beauty, of overpowering poignancy, and enable them to discover their own soul.’
Jazz-oriented readers will, of course, find themselves irresistibly drawn to the details of Evans’s last eighteen months of life – the clear-eyed descriptions of his drug use and its ravaging effects on his body; the pen portraits of such celebrated characters as the Village Vanguard’s Max Gordon and Evans’s agent Helen Keane, not to mention his bandmates Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera; his listening and composing habits etc. – but the overall impression left by this intense, deeply felt literary work is succinctly summarised by author/motivational speaker David Roche: ‘The Big Love is an exotic erotic memoir, but is so charged with the full range of human experience that it is universal.’