Gerald Busby’s Lust for Life
Composer Gerald Busby could not have guessed that after surviving heartbreak, HIV, and drug addiction, he would experience an artistic rebirth in his twilight years.
Gerald Busby is an acclaimed composer, best known for creating the film score to Robert Altman’s 3 Women.
Born in Abilene, Texas, in 1935, Busby studied piano as a child, playing with the Houston Symphony at age 15. He attended Yale University, and later became a protege of famed neoclassical composer Virgil Thomson. His first commission was from the great American choreographer Paul Taylor for his work, Runes (1975). Soon after, Robert Altman asked him to compose the music to his critically acclaimed film, 3 Women (1977).
He has composed over 500 works, including the opera Orpheus in Love (1992) and The Flowers of Evil (2015), which set poems by 19th-century French writer Charles Baudelaire for orchestra and chorus.
When The New Yorker magazine described Gerald Busby as “a last living bohemian,” the composer took it as quite the compliment. Ensconced in the iconic Chelsea Hotel in New York City since 1977, he’s had something of a Renaissance as a composer in the past ten years.
Gerald Busby: It’s a reinforcement of my identity, in the most intimate way. That’s who I want to be remembered as—a person who created pleasure for other people.
It all began so well for Busby. His first commission in 1975 was from the great American choreographer Paul Taylor for his work, Runes. It was a big hit. Then Robert Altman asked him to score his movie, 3 Women. Altman and Taylor are two of five people Gerald Busby has worked with who he describes as bona fide geniuses. The others are the celebrated American composers Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein. And the iconic choreographer Martha Graham. But by the mid 1980s, it all started to go wrong for Busby: he contracted HIV. And as he watched his life partner Sam Byers die of AIDS, Busby picked up a serious drug habit that would blight his life for almost a decade.
Gerald Busby: He was withering away, he lost his mind. It was just a dreadful experience. And I was taking care of him and I was going crazy. I was going mad, and an old sex buddy of mine called up one day and he offered me crack and I immediately took it. If he had offered me heroin or anything I would’ve, I mean you know there was no thought about it whatsoever. It was all like “Let me out of here. Get me you know, anesthetize me. I want to escape my own consciousness,” is what it was.
AJC: But you thought you yourself were on a death sentence at that point.
Busby: Well yes, ’cause all of us in the early days of the AIDS thing presumed in our, dreadfully, in our hearts, that everyone who was infected was going to die. And probably much sooner, sooner than later.
But Gerald Busby didn’t die, and in his sixties, decided he was ready to live again. Reiki, an energy based healing technique, helped him restore balance to his life.
Busby: When I gave up drugs, and of course my age too, I gave up sex. And that, I was very dedicated to sex and in fact when I first did Reiki I kept thinking “How can I use Reiki to make my sex better?” That made my Reiki master really crazy. She didn’t like that at all.
AJC: Why did you give up sex?
Busby: I guess the reason is because it was so closely aligned with drugs. That when I gave up drugs, it was just you know, for the previous 10 years, I hadn’t done sex without drugs. So it was all kind of one thing. It took away the, you know the tyranny that I grew up with as a gay man. You know, when you had to be subversive and it was very, you’re like a criminal. What I learned was how to find clever ways to get away with it without being detected. So there was a lot of this criminal, this subversive kind of thing, which in itself fed you know, was a stimulus.
AJC: Two subversive things happening at the same time.
Busby: Yes, yes.
AJC: But sex is legal now.
Busby: Oh I know, I know. But I’m 80 years old. Are you married? So here we are, and it’s interesting too because I now have several young, anywhere from 25 to 40 year old, artists. A choreographer named Eric Taylor who’s brilliant that I’m working with, whom I love dearly and I think mainly because I have absolutely no agenda, no sexual expect[ation], nothing. But we are so close and we work so well together, and we’re so honest with each other. We’re so open because we have no secrets. I mean, somehow not having the secret of sex is—relieves me, kind of freed me like “Oh, I don’t have to have any secrets,” and I begin to think I’m much freer. The fewer secrets I have, the more freedom I have.
Now instead of drugs and sex, Gerald Busby is fueled by a renewed lust for life.
Busby: The most important thing is to be present as much as possible, ’cause that’s who I, I’m at my best in terms of writing music, in terms of talking, in terms of anything. I’m at my best when I’m present.
And Gerald Busby’s commitment to living in the present and letting go of the past has eliminated any fear of the future.
Busby: Dying is just another experience. It’s just a big fart or it’s a big gas coming or it’s a big, who knows? And Virgil was a wonderful example of that. When he was 92 he still had his marbles. He was still going and so forth, but he said one day, that’s enough. And he meant life, and so he planned, started writing out exactly what to do when he died. He said, and then he said I’m going to stop eating on Tuesday, and I’m going to stop drinking water on Thursday and I want to die on Friday so I can be in the New York Times on Sunday. And he did it and it was perfunctory. It had no emotion, nothing. It was just like “Okay I’m gonna take a trip to Nova Scotia.”
AJC: And did you cry?
AJC: Why not?
Busby: Well, because he never stirred that kind of emotion in me. I didn’t miss his presence. If he’d been charming, maybe I would have cried. He wasn’t.
AJC: People will cry when you die.
Busby: Oh will they?
Busby: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! I’d kinda like it.