Laurie Verchomin was Bill Evans' lover during the final 18 months of his life. Through this critical period, Laurie struggled with Bill's chronic cocaine habit and deteriorating health. But she also respected Evans' creative space at home in New Jersey and while accompanying him on grueling performing tours in the U.S. and abroad. For Laurie, these trips weren't always romantic, musical adventures. They were typically burdened by stress, stretches without rest, and enormous worry and fear. As creative as Evans was, he was relentlessly self-destructive, and, she says, viewed beauty and ugliness as inextricably linked. [Pictured: Laurie in late 1979]
So many questions came to mind when I interviewed Laurie, some of them judgmental and, in retrospect, silly: "Why weren't you more forceful in getting Evans to halt his drug habit? Why didn't you push him to take better care of himself? Were you an enabler?" I say "silly" because Laurie's answers were always completely rational and logical: "What would you have had me do? There was no stopping a lifetime of bad habits. Bill was such a creative force, who was I to get in the way of that? He was deteriorating when I arrived and beyond saving. All I could do was make him feel comfortable and be there for him emotionally."
In Part 2 of my interview with Laurie, she talks about the now famous song Evans wrote for her, their only big argument, how Evans made up, trying to understand how so much beauty could come out of someone so self-destructive, and what Bill never did the entire time Laurie knew him:
JazzWax: Bill Evans’ Laurie was composed for you. How did the song evolve?
Laurie Verchomin: Bill wrote it on May 31, 1979, at the end of my first visit to New York. He sent me several versions of the song in his letters that followed. There were five letters in all with five versions of the song. The final version is dated July 29, 1979.
JW: Could you read music at the time?
LV: Yes, so I could figure out what the song Bill wrote sounded like. Both my parents were musicians. My father is Ukrainian Orthodox, so we grew up in the church with melancholy music. Bill had that background, too. His mother belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. So we shared that heritage. That’s where much of the mood in Bill’s music comes from: the Russian Orthodox Church.
JW: Did you enjoy what you heard in the music Evans sent along?
LV: Very much. In fact, [jazz educator and pianist] Andy Laverne is looking at all five versions. He wants to write a harmonic analysis of Bill’s songwriting.
JW: What is Evans saying to you in Laurie?
LV: It’s an ascension thing. He modulates up, up, up. As he said to me, “You have to work really hard and make something out of your life.” My life became that ascending song after his death. Everything evolved from that experience, from the trauma of his death.
JW: How was Evans as a companion?
LV: He was perfect. He left me a lot of space. You could have your own thoughts. Discussions would arise. When you’re young, you want to know everything. I was so open to everything. He was very keen to that.
JW: Did you ever fight?
LV: Never. Actually, I take that back. We had one moment when he was very upset with me.
JW: What happened?
LV: He asked me to do something for him that I refused to do.
LV: Bill asked me to go buy him cocaine. I refused. I told him I wasn’t going to do it. So he raised his voice and got really angry. A couple of hours later, though, he brought me a Hallmark card with a stock message written by Leonard Nimoy [pictured]. Bill wrote an apology on it [below]. He had a great deal of control over his emotional state.
JW: How did Evans manage that?
LV: He always thought out in advance how he was going to express his feelings. It’s a thing of creating observations. If you can get to a place where you can observe how you’re feeling before you express those feelings, you create a space, a buffer zone, where you can objectively consider your feelings. It becomes like an art form. [To read Evans' note, click once on the image to enlarge]
JW: Was it frustrating not being able to extract Evans from his drug habit?
LV: Given our age difference, I wasn’t trying to influence or control his life. I knew that the only thing I could do for him was to be there emotionally, to observe and help if something was beyond his control. I was there to cover for him.
JW: That seems a little distant and detached.
LV: Look, when you meet someone who has terminal cancer and is dying, your energies aren’t spent trying to save them. You spend your time doing what you can to help comfort that person.
JW: Did Evans ever indicate that he would make an effort to quit his cocaine habit for you?
LV: Bill would make overtures that he wanted to quit. But it was clear that he wasn’t going to. And I wasn’t there to fight that force. It would have destroyed me. My task was to be accepting. All I could do was to make the daily struggle as easy as possible for him.
JW: Why was someone as gifted and as in control as Evans so hopelessly addicted to something so obviously destructive?
LV: I never did figure that out. That part of him was a really deep place. I don’t know why someone like Bill would be so persistently self-destructive. It’s such a conundrum. It’s such a riddle. For me it’s still a mystery. The only way to understand Bill was to realize that destruction and creativity exist simultaneously. Because Bill was so intensely creative, he had an intensely destructive side. He told me he never could do anything halfway. It all had to be to the extreme. He felt the same way about his addictions.
JW: Did Evans know how you felt?
LV: No. I never had a discussion about his addiction. It’s not something he wanted to discuss with me. It seemed obvious to me that the issue was not going to be discussed seriously or ever fully resolved.
JW: Was traveling with Evans during his performance tours in 1979 and 1980 exciting?
LV: They were nerve-wracking trips. It was always a tension-producing experience. It was physically stressful to travel and perform. He was traveling with large amounts of drugs going through airports. We were in a new city every few days, making [drug] connections, getting to the clubs, playing the gig and getting back to the hotel to rest up. Then it was on to the next city.
JW: Did you go with him to Paris in November 1979?
LV: No. I joined him in London at Ronnie Scott’s Club for two weeks. I wasn’t invited on that Paris trip. But soon after he left he called to tell me that things weren’t going so well with his health. He was quite ill. The music is what carried him. Whatever I added certainly wasn’t as powerful as the energy he received from the music.
JW: Did Evans get any rest on the road during his last 18 months?
LV: Bill rarely slept the entire time I knew him. When you’re consuming cocaine the way Bill was, he would be in different states of exhaustion and never truly rested. He never slept.
Tomorrow, Laurie talks about Bill Evans and Miles Davis, how Evans felt about Davis, what Bill told her about Davis' cruelty toward him, and how Evans' manager Helen Keane coped with his self-destructive streak.
Photos of Laurie in 1979 (top) and the Hallmark card courtesy of Laurie Verchomin. Laurie is working on a book about her relationship and experiences with Bill Evans. For more, visit Laurie's site here.
JazzWax tracks: Bill recorded Laurie 12 times between August 1979 and September 1980. One of my favorite versions is Evans' last known performance of the song, recorded without his knowledge at Keystone Korner in San Francisco on September 6th—just 11 days before his death. The track is available on The Brilliance, which can be downloaded at iTunes and Amazon. Now that you know the composition's back-story the song sounds like a musical letter of desperation and relief to Laurie, who was in the club that night.