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Like a Song: Angel of Harlem

@U2, December 19, 2009
By: Lisa Zeitlinger

 

[Ed. note: This is the 42nd in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]

Like A Song

Rattle and Hum has always been one of my favorite U2 albums. I have found many special songs within the magic that encompasses this release, but no song is more near and dear to my heart than "Angel of Harlem." It is important to me because I consider it to be a love song to Billie Holiday, New York City and the rich, musical tapestry that entwined them together.  I have lived in the New York City area all of my life, and it is difficult for me to describe in words how much this place means to me. New York has a magical way of casting its spell on you. Once you are under it, you are there forever. Others claim to have left their heart in San Francisco, but New York City demands nothing less than your soul. It gets under your skin. What you get in return is precious beyond price.

U2 has done a great job of expressing how that magic found a way to captivate them in the opening lyrics of this song.

It was a cold and wet December day when we touched the ground at JFK
Snow was melting on the ground 

On BLS  I heard the sound of an angel
New York like a Christmas tree 

Tonight this city belongs to me, angel  

It was the spirit of this city's musical history that put U2 under its spell and in particular the spirit of the greats from the age of jazz. New York City had a great, urban-contemporary radio station called WBLS. It was here that you could enjoy an eclectic format that included jazz, soul, R&B and vocalese (poetry and prose). It was called The Total Black Experience in Sound. Everyone in New York City knew WBLS back then, and you can still listen to it today.

As for New York being like a Christmas tree, anyone who has seen New York City lit up at night can attest to the beauty those lights bring to the city. As I walk those streets around the holidays, it's amazing how that location gets me in the holiday spirit. It is yet another way the magic is passed along. With New York City representing commercial success, every artist dreams of making it big here in the city of blinding lights right from the moment they first see it.

Birdland on 53
The street sounds like a symphony
We got John Coltrane and a love supreme
Miles, and she's got to be an angel

We continue on our musical tour to the legendary Birdland Club. It was here that jazz legend Charlie Parker performed on the club’s opening night of Dec.15, 1949. It was called Birdland in honor of Charlie's nickname "Yardbird," which was commonly shortened to "Bird." Jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Count Basie have all played there because the center of jazz had changed from Chicago to New York City in the late 1920s. The horns in this song add to the spirit of the music that poured out of all of those great jazz clubs where shows started at 9 p.m. sharp and extended sometimes until dawn.

Most of those clubs were in Manhattan on 52nd Street, but Birdland was just west of 52nd Street. Back in the day, the sounds you could hear walking down those streets from the jazz bands playing in the clubs would have been incredible.

Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies
Angel 

We are now introduced to the real star of this song: the angel. The lyrics tell us so much more about legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday than just the magic of her haunting voice. She was nicknamed "Lady Day" by musical partner and longtime friend Lester Young, and although her voice lacked range, she had a very intimate approach to singing. Critic John Bush said she "changed the art of American pop vocals forever." Billie Holiday brought audiences to tears when she sang as her delivery cut through the fronts that people put up to find the truth hiding underneath the exterior.

I can be counted among the many who have cried while listening to Billie Holiday songs. I'll never forget the first time I heard her sing. I was about 15 years old and going through some difficult times as teens often do. I was very close to my grandmother and talked to her about a lot of things. Our favorite topic was music, which was my first love. I remember telling her that the music that was popular at that time (late '70s disco era) was not inspiring to me at all. I desperately wanted to feel something when I heard a song. She suggested I listen to her favorite singer: Billie Holiday. I had heard of Billie but never really listened to her sing before. The first song my ears heard was "God Bless the Child." I could feel tears slowly coming down my cheeks after the song ended. I had never heard a voice that made pain and heartache sound so beautiful. She wore her heart on her sleeve when she sang. It felt like Billie was bearing her soul only to me and in return I had no choice but to do the same. My tears also fell because this was my beloved grandmother's favorite song.

They are both gone now, but my thoughts turn to them every time I hear this song. I later came to learn that Billie wrote this after a heated argument she had with her mother over money. This song is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and was voted one of the songs of the century by the National Endowment of the Arts.

She says its heart, heart and soul.
Yeah, yeah

It was Billie's heart and soul that got her through many dark times. I can relate to this part of the lyrics during my darkest time. I had to find the courage and strength to be there for my oldest son who was then 4 years old after I had just lost an infant. I had to prepare for a baby's funeral and at the same time be happy and cheerful when my son came home from preschool all excited to tell me about the fun he had that day. It took all of my heart and soul to accomplish that, but like Lady Day, I found a way to do it.

Blue light on the avenue
God knows they got to you
An empty glass the lady sings
Eyes swollen like a bee sting
Blinded, you lost your way
Through the side streets and the alleyway 

Billie Holiday was raped as a young girl and recruited as a prostitute in a brothel at the age of 15. She was arrested in 1947 for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. She served one year in prison and got out early for good behavior. Her drug use, drinking and relationships with abusive men throughout her career led to deteriorating health. She died in the hospital on July 17, 1959, of cirrhosis of the liver while under arrest for possession of drugs with 70 cents in her bank account. U2 have painted a beautiful yet dark portrait of Lady Day in their lyrics. We see the angel (the bright side) and the devil (the dark side). We all have that same yin and yang within us constantly battling.

Like a star exploding in the night
Falling to the city in broad daylight
An angel in devil's shoes
Salvation in the blues
You never looked like an angel

This is a sad story we see over and over again with people who have an extraordinary talent. They often take the wrong path, which ultimately leads to their destruction. Despite all of that, the music of Billie Holiday somehow managed to touch the hearts and reach the depths of the souls of all who heard her sing. I am one of them.

Soul love and this love won't let me go
So long Angel of Harlem

I'll always remember that day I first heard Billie sing. Her spell was cast on me. Her songs always remind me of the light that was somewhere deep inside her despite living in so much darkness around her. When I find myself in times of darkness, she is an inspiration that leads me back to the light. I have walked the streets of Harlem where Billie once walked. I have even passed the newest version of Birdland located in the neighborhood where all of the wonderful jazz and soul musicians played in the clubs. I feel their presence and I hear their music. I sometimes let my mind wonder what life was like back in those days. I would have liked a chance to live in that era. Sometimes when I walk through that area I smile, play "Angel of Harlem" on my iPod and begin to imagine.

For a few moments, I get to go back to that time in my mind. I can see Billie there. I can usually spot my grandmother there as well as she enjoys the music from the front row and encourages me to once again sit beside her and listen. Billie Holiday no longer walks those streets or sings in those clubs, but I hear her voice when I am in those side streets and alleyways. She now sings with the other angels.

For Eleanora and Jean, with love.

© @U2/Zeitlinger, 2009.



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