His name was Chet Cahill. Her name was Billie Best. They bonded over “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and other vintage sci-fi movies. Members of the band all lived together in an eight-bedroom Victorian house in Newton Highlands. Soon, Chet and Billie were together. It was 1976. “We shared a deep belief in the work we were doing. Orchestra Luna was our love child.”
A year later, the band disintegrated when lead singer Karla DeVito left to tour with Meat Loaf and, later, launch her own solo career. Chet and Billie rented an apartment in Boston’s South End. In the late 1970’s, Chet battled cancer for the first time. Orchestra Luna morphed into harder-rocking Luna and later Berlin Airlift.
After some ups and down, Billie and Chet married in 1985. They rented a chapel they found in the phone book. It was called Adam & Eve. In marriage, they gave each other space for creativity. Together, after a series of other jobs, they bought a farm in the Berkshires. Cows. Chickens. Fences. Slaughtering at home. And a “gut renovation” of the old farmhouse.
The farm is where Chet died when the cancer came back. The farm, too, is where Billie discovered secrets about her husband—secrets she lays out in the first few pages of her sterling memoir, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life (or Couples Therapy with a Dead Man).
The biggest secret is the arrival of a gift when Chet is very sick. A juicer. It’s a gift from the other woman, who quickly earns the nickname “The Juicer” and who also comes for a visit. She wears “high heels with tight jeans.” Billie has seen many such women in rock clubs over the years. Groupies. Billie cooks an Italian dinner for the three of them. (Chet is very sick at the time.) And Billie Best, who pours her soul out all through this memoir, recalls this painful moment over a few gripping pages in Chapter 1.
“This was the day my brain began to separate from itself, cleaved into sections like a melon split with an axe … I couldn’t believe that my dying husband had betrayed me, was betraying me right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t accept that he preferred to be with her when we had so little time left, and every day was precious. I couldn’t reconcile my self-image with all of this. So I separated myself into pieces, and after September 27th, 2008, wherever I was, part of me was always locked in a box someplace else.”
In a way, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life is a sort of un-boxing of Billie’s life. It’s raw, honest, funny, insightful, and gripping. Think Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club meets Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with a dash of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go Down to the Dogs Tonight.
The writing is exquisite. Billie Best writes with detail, color, and a terrific sense of rhythm. Her appreciation for story comes as no surprise—nor does her talent for self-awareness.
“Books are my key to the Universe. I read and do, read and do, read and do, until finally I’m certain I know, and I don’t need to learn anymore. I just do. Often that’s when I make my biggest mistakes. I’m so certain of what I know that I don’t allow for the possibility of learning something new. My knowledge becomes a series of switches, on/off, yes/no, right/left, open/closed, a grid of pre-existing ideas that becomes a filter of everything that enters my mind.”
Chet’s death is moving. So is how Billie handled it. Billie’s life after Chet’s death is powerful, relatable, and admirable, too. Billie tries to make sense of Chet’s behavior—and the behavior of men. Her emotions are bare and so is her thought process. She analyzes choices along the way and, of course, realizes she had flings, too, inside and outside the marriage to Chet. “The arc of karma is long,” she concludes, “but it bends toward payback.”
I knew Billie and Chet. I was a big fan of Orchestra Luna before Chet joined the band. I lived in that eight-bedroom Victorian house in Newton with Billie, Chet, Rick (Kinscherf) Berlin, Karla DeVito, and many others who came and went. I even wrote a few articles and reviews of the band for local Boston newspapers.
To me, Chet was a super kind guy. He was sincere, low-key, and a heckuva bass player. To me, Billie was cool. I remembered being impressed with how she managed to wrangle this large band into some sort of order. I showed up at Orchestra Luna and Luna gigs all over New England with the band in one of the happiest and craziest years of my single, post-college life—a year that began in 1977 and ended with me driving to California, for work, in 1978.
From a selfish perspective, How I Made a Huge Mess of My Life helped me fill in the gaps on what happened to two cool people in the decades after I said good-bye. But it’s a book anyone could—and should—read and savor.