Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Low Down by A.J. Albany

Subtitled "junk, jazz and other fairy tales from childhood," Low Down is the story of A.J. Albany's youth, spent much spent as misspent, in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Daughter of the great be-bop pianist Joe Albany- best known for his work with Charlie Parker and Lester Young- and Sheila- a beautiful hipster, and Allen Ginsberg's pre-Neal Cassady  fiancĂ©- Amy Albany was forced to grow up all too quickly, as she watched her parents descending into junkiedom. Joe would somehow survive that descent, but Sheila would disappear into the abyss, leaving Amy to assume, at an early age, the role of family adult. Joe was left raise his daughter in a world comprised of musicians, junkies, whores, sexual outsiders, probation officers and cops. Considering his circumstances, he didn't do all that badly, schlepping his daughter to clubs, where she would sleep on a blanket behind the bar, or leaving her with an array of dodgy, but loving, babysitters. Not surprisingly, Amy would turn into a child of the streets, her companions more often than not kids whose parents were similarly marginalised. Through it all, she remained preoccupied with how she could protect her father, whether from the law, dealers, landlords, or rip-off artists.

A.J. Albany's memory, informed by an incisive eye and turn of phrase, takes her days as a precocious five-year old to a wizened in-your-face teenager, an avid record collector, with tastes schooled by her father's music, and an attitude derived from having seen too much too soon. The scenes, most of them unforgettable, come in short, sharp shocks, as sleazy and sad as they are touchingly funny. There's pre-pubescent Amy being used as bargaining chip so her dad won't be sent back to prison by his parole officer. There's Amy meeting Satchmo- part Santa Claus, part God. There's Amy living in a string of run-down hotels and cramped rooms, surrounded by the desperate and downtrodden. It's not that she isn't aware of what's going on around her; it's simply it is what it is, including the suicides and the drug overdoses.  In the end, it's an exhilarating and courageous evocation  of growing up on the margins of the culture at a particular time and place: early 1970s L.A, before Reaganism, trickle-down economics, gentrification, tough love and austerity, when there was still a walkable wild side and an edge in the air.  It's also a heartfelt portrait of a gifted musician and  a loving depiction of a father-daughter relationship devoid of sentimentality. For me, Low Down can take its place alongside the likes of John Fante's Dreams of Bunker Hill, Dan Fante's Chump Change, John Rechy's City of Night, Art Pepper's Straight Life or David Goodis's Down There. I only hope the film adaptation, directed by Jeff Priess (Let's Get Lost's cinematographer), does the book justice.  After all, the track record for such projects isn't all that good.

Here's a documentary about Joe Albany.

And here a 2003 interview  with A.J. Albany.

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