A Brief Biography of Al Bowlly (1898-1941)

by | Apr 24, 2021 | Wendy Day 2 - Group B | 9 comments

It’s true he was born near a beach in Mozambique.

It’s true his parents were Lebanese and Greek.

It’s true his parents met on the way to Australia.

It’s true his parents then moved to South Africa.

It’s true he was in a band in Indonesia.

It’s true he died in his flat in England.

He had a bone in his throat and he later lost his voice. “Recording more than 1,000 songs,” the doctor scoffed, “will do to a man such a thing.” The doctor called it a wart. He borrowed money for surgery, knew what it meant to be a barber, a jockey, a street showman busking for coin.

It’s true his wife was with someone else on their wedding night.

It’s true he saw it all.

It’s true they divorced two weeks later.

It’s true she died that same year.

He said no to an overnight stay in the town where he played. His voice so ancient that, at the time, men wept from bereft nostalgia, past longing, casually weeping, crying freely, seeing his words as an urn, each hum as a spirit, a concoction, a potion, a dose.

It’s true he took the last train home.

It’s true he slept in his bed.

It’s true a parachute mine blew his bedroom door off its hinges.

It’s true the door impacted his head.

It’s true he was dead.

They bombed and they bombed and they bombed him some more. He, the king of the voice, how they wrung his trumpet. This world of man. This sadness, goddamnit, even to this day.

9 Comments

  1. Trent

    Hey Benjamin –

    this reads like a kind of twisted “Behind the Music” type documentary!

    “It’s true he took the last train home” is my favorite line.

  2. David O'Connor

    Benjamin, this really showed me the door to the Al Bowlly rabbit hole, thank you. I’m sliding down now. What a life! I wonder how this would look as a paragraph? I wonder too if this could be a series of lesser-knowns brought to life? Love it, thank you!!

  3. Sara Comito

    Woah woah woah! Now I want to know about this life, but I feel like any biography will pale in comparison to this beautiful drum beat of a portrait. Truly amazed.

  4. Jan Elman Stout

    Wow, Benjamin! I adore researching when I write and so also seeing it reflected in others’ writing. I couldn’t take a single pause until I reached the end of this marvel. Thanks for teaching me about Al Bowlly. And then there’s the writing itself. I love the form–all the succinct “It’s true” lines interspersed with/broken up by mini paragraphs. VERY well done.

  5. Wendy Oleson

    Benjamin, thank you for this beautiful tribute, “A Brief Biography of Al Bowlly (1898-1941).” You inspired me to learn more about Mr. Bowlly, and I found myself on YouTube listening to recordings of him. This one was really lovely (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr4ncMR5EVQ)—I felt like I was stepping back in time, my mind wandering to my beloved grandmother, wondering what it was like for her to listen to his music when she was young and he was still alive. Your work opened that portal to another world, which is what I hope my writing can do at its best.

    The two opening lines create a great echoing of stressed syllables as well as that “bique/Greek” rhyme, all of which draws me in as a reader:
    It’s true he was born near a beach in Mozambique.
    It’s true his parents were Lebanese and Greek.
    That repetition of locations is really nice: “Australia,” “South Africa,” “Indonesia,” “England,” and paint a picture of this truly international man. The reader is, fortunately, somewhat prepared for the tragedy of Mr. Bowlly’s story by the title—we get “brief” and that tight timeline—but the passage about his throat and the unhelpful doctor is so sad. This section becomes all the more powerful because of it: “His voice so ancient that, at the time, men wept from bereft nostalgia, past longing, casually weeping, crying freely, seeing his words as an urn, each hum as a spirit, a concoction, a potion, a dose.” That’s some magnificent writing! And it does prepare us, in some small way, for his death—though you do such a good job showing how absolutely extreme and violent it was: “They bombed and they bombed and they bombed him some more. He, the king of the voice, how they wrung his trumpet. This world of man. This sadness, goddamnit, even to this day.” I’m a big fan of that “goddamnit,” because the text itself can’t contain the sorrow, frustration, and futility, the limitations of mourning.

    Thank you so much for this gift.

    My best,
    Wendy

  6. Randal Houle

    Excellent, Benjamin. Great form and control. I like the couple paragraphs that do not start with “It’s true that” which gives me the impression that there are spaces for either extrapolation or mythification. This is a great form, and I like the iams of the Its true that… lines. Great work.

  7. Suzanne van de Velde

    Benjamin —
    “He said no to an overnight stay in the town where he played. His voice so ancient that, at the time, men wept from bereft nostalgia, past longing, casually weeping, crying freely, seeing his words as an urn, each hum as a spirit, a concoction, a potion, a dose.”
    So beautiful and sad, love how it shows the world wounds the best of us the deepest.
    Thank you for introducing me to Al Bowlly — and as David says, the rabbit hole.
    Thanks also for introducing me to your work!

  8. Judy Bates

    Benjamin, I love this format and the homage you pay to Al Bowlly. So many great people have tragedies and continue to work their art.
    Thank you for your tribute to this man and sharing his story.

  9. Federico Escobar

    Hi, Benjamin.

    Great piece! It felt almost incantatory, as if we were reading something that had a pace and just the right words to bring the man back. Just when the words were most capable of hypnotizing readers, you cut in with a different sort of paragraph, a welcome change. I wondered if the last set of “It’s true” statements could take up more space in his life—it seemed a little out of balance with the first set, which covered so much ground, so that when we get to “It’s true he was dead” I felt it was stating something we already figured out. Perhaps something like “It’s true this was his life” seems more epic, more aligned with the kind of bewildering scope of a life that went all over the place and ended suddenly, a footnote to the history of war that was not a footnote to the history of music. Good read! Thanks!

    All the best,
    Federico

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