In this book, heroin, as it takes over one musician after another, one scene, one city, one country (Gavin quotes the pianist René Urtreger estimating “that by the midfifties, 95 percent of the modern jazz players in France — himself included — were hooked”), is more than a plague, more than an endless horror movie, the reels running over and over, out of order, back to front (“It was like the Night of the Living Dead,” one fan tells Gavin of a Baker show in Paris in 1955. “Dark suits, gray faced, stoned out of their minds. Everything seemed strange to me, unhealthy. They were playing the music of the dead”). By the end — “Baker filled the syringe, then held it up. ‘Bob, you could kill a bunch of cows with this,’ he said. He plunged the needle into his scrotum” — “The man was a walking corpse,” the Rotterdam jazz hanger-on Bob Holland told Gavin. “He was living only for the stuff. Music was the last resort to get it” — it’s as if heroin itself has agency, and seeks out bodies to inhabit, colonize, and use up, not a substance but a parasitic form of life whose mission is to destroy its host, knowing that it can always leap to another. But the essential humanity of the host — his or her actual reality as someone who planted a foot on the planet before he or she left it, to be forgotten along with almost everyone else — is, in these pages, never reduced, whether it is that of Baker, or any of the musicians, friends, wives, or lovers trailing in his wake, those he knew and those he didn’t (from one dealer’s client list: “Bobby Darin, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Lenny Bruce, and the rock star Dion”), by 1981 “a growing trail of corpses.”
In this book, like Baker’s fans, listening to a radio broadcast from Hannover, Germany, on April 29, 1988, where Baker was to recreate his 1954 album Chet Baker with Strings, only days before playing in the street in Rome for drug money, they are somehow all present in the audience as Baker played. “With every defense shattered,” Gavin writes, “he lived the songs with a painful intensity. The concert peaked with an epic nine-minute performance of ‘Valentine.’ Baker opened it with a trumpet chorus backed by guitar only, a chillingly stark musical skeleton; from there, his hollow, otherworldly singing drifted on a cloud of strings.” And then, less than two weeks later, in Amsterdam, he propped open the window of his third-story hotel room, and crawled out.