‘Low Down’: A daughter remembers her flawed father

by Eddie Richey

A.J. Albany’s Low DownA remarkable writer remembers jazz great Joe Albany, her loving but flawed father who inspired her.

One of the very first jazz LPs I ever owned was The Right Combination, Joe Albany with Warne Marsh. It was nothing more than a rather poorly recorded rehearsal tape, which I later discovered was the only LP of Mr. Albany’s music released between 1947 and 1971.

Despite its flaws, it reminds me now of a collection of letters written by Flannery O’Connor. Her letters aren’t the literary masterpieces Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away are. But these unedited gems are in many ways far more revealing of who she was as an artist and a person.

In one of life’s wonderful moments, I learned about the book Low Down – junk, jazz, and other fairy tales from childhood, written by Joe’s daughter, A.J. Albany, from Warne Marsh’s son, K.C.

As much as I learned about Joe Albany’s battles with addiction and neglect, this is A.J.’s story.

There are moments of dark absurd comedy as humorous as anything penned by Elmore Leonard. And there are moments of pure darkness as harrowing as anything ever written by Jim Thompson.

As an eight-year-old, she was struck by an article she read about the Tunnel Rats, American Special Forces in Vietnam, who had to secure the maze of tunnels created by the Viet Cong. She pasted it into a scrapbook entitled, Bad Rotten Stuff, as a reminder that things could be worse for her. She could be a Tunnel Rat.

One night, she was awakened by the sound of her father having sex with a woman named Rhonda in the bathroom.

“Deeper, harder.” Rhonda was barking orders at Dad like a brigadier general. Though I had some vague notion of what was afoot, it sounded so severe I barely resisted running interference on my Dad’s behalf. It was clear she wasn’t going to shut up anytime soon. I tried burying my head inside of the couch bed, but she was a bigmouth. I started to feel inexplicably sick from it, and turned my thoughts to the poor, unsuspecting Tunnel Rats and the various fates which awaited them. “Now. Do it now!” she continued.

There were vipers hidden in the bamboo, rigged so a soldier could unwittingly tip the deadly snake out, and onto his neck or face, if he hit the bamboo with his helmet. “Give it to me harder!” Spears were mounted below that would run through their groins as they descended. “Deeper, deeper.” Baskets of scorpions were released from the ceiling when they stepped on a tripwire.

It was no use. My head was imploding. Just as I was removing myself to the fire escape to get some sleep, I heard Dad speak. It was a comfort knowing he hadn’t been beaten into a coma. “Ah, why don’t you shut up,” he yelled. Lovely silence.

Terry, the transvestite who loved her father, is one of my favorite people in the book.

Terry proved to be a much better mother than my natural one. She baked cookies, put me in French braids with blue ribbons to match my eyes, and even joined the PTA — June Cleaver with a dick.

When a father at her school discovered Terry was a he, he confronted her. A former boxer, Terry decked the asshole.

She smoothed out her shirt, gently took my hand, and earned herself a place on my short list of heroines.

Not often have I encountered a character in a book, fiction or non-fiction, which has touched me as deeply as A.J. Albany, and her story of growing up without much of a mother, and with a junkie father. She has earned a place on my rather lengthy list of heroines. Despite the horrors she witnessed and endured during her rough childhood, the love and affection she and her father had for each other cuts through the pages as clearly as her father’s melodic brilliance cuts through the rough recording of The Right Combination.

What affected me the most about this story was how A.J. never let the circumstances of her life — constantly moving, few friends, sexual abuse — ruin her life. She understood the pain her father endured as a starving artist, and didn’t judge him for deadening it with heroin. Her book is as revealing of her as a writer and a person as those Flannery O’Connor letters I cherish.

She did what her father did — channeled her pain into her art. It’s very inspiring to read about someone who lived through hell and emerged intact. It also made me recall my own father, and how he inspired and influenced me as a writer.

Once or twice in the book, A.J. wonders if she didn’t disappoint her father because she didn’t inherit his musical talent. As much as I love Joe Albany’s brilliance as a jazz pianist, I think A.J. has surpassed her father as an artist. And I know he would be so proud of her that she has.

Note: This marvelous book has very recently been filmed, with my current favorite actor, John Hawkes (Teardrop in Winter’s Bone) as Joe Albany,and Elle Fanning as A.J.

Eddie Richey

About Eddie Richey

The author is a screenwriter who is a Warne Marsh nut, and is working on the documentary "An Improvised Life." A former college professor who discovered the eerie similarities between academia and organized crime, he is currently working on the true story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted during a robbery and then arrested. Two wonderful directors are attached to two of his crime scripts, and two unapologetically Noirish scripts are seeking directors.

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