“Man, you suck.”
These are supposedly the words spoken by Miles Davis to Chet Baker when Baker, after straining through a gig with Davis in attendance, walked up to introduce himself. In his book Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, author James Gavin traces the tale back to Baker himself, who supposedly shared it with singer Ruth Young during their 10-year affair. In one version, Davis chuckles in scornful disbelief as he says it; in another, he virtually spits out the words, willing Baker away with the sheer force of his spite. Either way, it’s a memorable tale, one that brings to life a horrible nightmare for any artist — approaching a hero in friendship and fealty, only to be publicly rebuffed with words that echo back from the smallest, darkest corners of our hearts.
Baker and Davis were both cool, but on opposite ends of the spectrum; Baker’s cachet derived from a series of records in which he seemed to effortlessly wipe away all of jazz’s extraneous noodling and pull the listener forward by laying back, while Davis was simply one step ahead at all times, called along by inscrutable signals that only he could hear. But by the early ’60s, Baker had already settled in, while Davis was just getting started — so even though it’s easy to dismiss his scathing insult as another example of Miles being Miles, I think it’s also possible that he was really trying to wake Baker up, to shame him into taking a look in the mirror and admitting he’d failed to live up to his artistic obligation.
Taken in this spirit, Davis could have been trying to do Baker a favor, Nick Lowe style, and he wouldn’t have been wrong. In Bruce Weber’s fascinating documentary Let’s Get Lost, there’s a lot of discussion about Baker’s appallingly lazy custodianship of his own talent. Aside from the fact that he had one of the most stomach-turningly epic drug habits in all of jazz (which is definitely saying something), he always seemed to be willing to settle for the easy way out with his music — he wasn’t great about practicing, he didn’t seem to care about expanding or strengthening his grasp of concepts or theory. He had a limited set of tools, but he knew exactly how to use them, and people were willing to pay to hear him do it. That seemed to be enough.
It’s telling that in Let’s Get Lost, Baker doesn’t talk a lot about music. He shares a few anecdotes, but when talk turns to what’s really important, it’s always something else. The happiest day of his life? The day he bought his Alfa Romeo. His favorite kind of high? A speedball. His art, especially toward the end of his life, seems likely to have been more of a means to an end than a true expression. It sounds borderline absurd to say it about a guy who led such a brutally sad life, but he coasted for a very long time — right until the dismal end.
I am not a Chet Baker scholar, and none of the above is intended as a condemnation of the man or his music; in fact, as often as not, I’d rather listen to Baker’s dulcet tones than Davis’ explorations. These are just musings triggered by a recent viewing of Let’s Get Lost, which happened to take place shortly after a day spent cowering in the company of my own inner “you suck” chorus. We all have these days (Right? Tell me we do) — cold hours in which it seems as if our every expression is swallowed into a void, as if the universe has conspired against us, as if we once had something to offer but now we have none. Why is that person enjoying success while I’m over here wallowing? I’ve done what they’re doing; no one noticed. Have I lost it? Maybe I never had it. I should quit. But what else would I do?
Thinking about that Baker-Davis meeting, I couldn’t help thinking that Chet was either too well acquainted with his inner “you suck,” or not well enough at all. It’s a miserable experience, one that I find myself plummeting into with something akin to the awful certainty I imagine bipolar people feel when a low period is coming on, but it’s also a crucible — a fight-or-flight moment that either calls us forward into unknown vistas or sends us scurrying for safety. In a way, I think it’s our sign that something is missing — that we’ve been failing to tend our creative gardens for too long, and it’s time to start digging deeper.
That word, “digging,” signifies labor, and it is — even when we’re talking about art in a vacuum, where the artist doesn’t have to satisfy anyone but himself, it can be painful. But when there’s an audience to consider, it’s even more difficult — once you’ve experienced the thrill of feeling your work connect with other humans, it’s hard to forget it. You’re engaged in a feedback loop, and it knocks your process into a sort of artistic Heisenberg principle; just the knowledge that you’re creating something for an audience alters the way it’s created. Even if you don’t have to worry about sales, how do you avoid thinking about what that audience wants? How do you avoid trying to identify the qualities in your work that resonate with people — and trying to amplify them? It’s tricky, and it can get you stuck.
So as sad as it is to imagine Chet Baker shrugging off opportunities to explore the outermost reaches of his talent, it’s also easy to understand. He knew what people wanted, and it didn’t take much to give it to them — even if, in the end, it ended up taking everything. If and when Miles Davis told him he sucked, did it ring with the awful truth of words he already knew by heart? I can’t pretend to know. I can only admit that I’m familiar with the sickening feeling of being knocked off my emotional axis by slights real or imagined, and grappling with the sinking certainty that I’ve left some corner of my creative acreage untilled for too long.
Those moments leave me feeling weak and defeated, but I know they’re signals that it’s time to work. To dig deeper, and deeper still.