Once there was no one like Nina Simone. She poured forth her passion and yearning, explosive and lyrical, in every dimension: personal, romantic, sexual , political , musical, theatrical, poetic. Her presence was stunning, overwhelming, compelling. When she died I thought surely someone would make a movie about her, a tribute to her art and to her precious heart. When it didn’t happen, I looked for video/audio of her, dreaming of making such a film about her, to keep her alive not only in her recordings but in body, in plain view, in her majestic, thrilling presence. When I looked I saw why no one has made such a film. The vivid videos of Nina Simone that you find document, in the main, her devastation, her despair, her wretchedness.
So here’s then the question: How could someone with such dignity, courage, brilliance, beauty and gorgeous music become, rather quickly, a wretched woman coming apart at the seams, undignified, embarrassed, humiliated, craven, so needy, off-key, pathetic, stiff, awkward, almost ugly at times, choosing strange music and delivering it (and well as her standards) badly? The standard answer is that Nina Simone was bipolar, that her mental illness destroyed her art and her life. As a superficial statement, this is true – whether or not the currently popular designation “bipolar” is useful. But vulnerable people – in this case, a woman vulnerable to hurts and frustrations and an inability to love – become distraught, in the way Simone did, for biographical and concretely real reasons. I want to explore some of these reasons, situating her in her times, looking at what she said and sang about herself, and show how the credulous ideology of the 60s, white, black, and pathetically tendentious was a sea of false promises in which Nina Simone drowned.
Remember the extraordinary performances that defined her: On September 15, 1959, she stepped onto the stage at Town Hall in New York. The recording made from of this concert was her greatest album, Nina Simone At Town Hall. Written at the end of the 50s, this album towered above all the popular music of the 60s. It included:
Black is the color of my true love’s hair (3:23).
Exactly like you (3:06).
The other woman (2:52).
Under the lowest (5:18).
I don’t want him (anymore) (5:43).
Summertime (instrumental) (2:49).
Summertime (vocal) (2:39).
Cotton eyed Joe (2:51).
Return home (4:55).
Wild is the wind (3:22).
Fine and mellow (3:18).
Four Women, released on “wild is the wind“, 1966.. A live version from Antibes in 1969 was anthologized, but the original is surely greater, as it does not descent in pedagogy.
“The Other Woman” from the album Nina Simone At Town Hall , recorded in NYC on Sept 15th. 1959. Written at the end of the 50s, this album towered above all the popular music of the 60s.
Mississippi Goddamn has a beautiful, mature performance: Live Performance in 1988 in Hamburg.
Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair, from Nina at Town Hall. Said( on ninasimone.com) to be from From Wild is the Wind, 1966. Yet it was already anthologized on a verve release of 1964. Astonishing as the original is, see the live version, said to be With Emil Latimer, c. 1969. Suddenly there is a part two: and Simone is now singing to a woman.
Don’t Smoke in Bed, from Little Girl Blue, 1958.
Famous for her musical contribution to the civil rights movement, her statements about that movement – in particular on the issue of the non-violence of Martin Luther King’s movement versus the violence-endorsing black power of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X.
There exists a ten and a half-minute video, live in Montreux in 1976, shocking in how perplexed it reveals Simone: the recording of the ultra-shlock tune “feelings”. She takes this song – apparently seriously – but gets lost in it, in her distress and confusion and anger. Feelings, nothing more than feelings, feelings of live. The music stops, I think because Nina says something to the musicians. Then she talks about herself as if she is a robot. Then starts again. Suddenly she’s making fun of the song, and says “I’m not making fun of the man, I cannot believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that” now silence meets that gnomic confused statement She says this with a particular kind of angry diction of lefty sixties tone, maybe Leroy Jones/Stokely Carmichael/Ishmael Reed, and then when there is mostly silence and a little tittering she orders: “come on clap”.
Feelings, feeling that i never met you, feelings that I’m never even saw you in my heart – some powerful piano – the tune can be played honestly even if the words cannot really be sung honestly – strong piano – then she tries to find her way – feelings of love feelings swear of all my life I feel it cause I wished i never lived this long hope this feeling never comes again feelings, feelings like i never lost you feelings like i never really had you here in my arms come on let’s hit the climax feelings you know the song come on oh oh feelings whaooh feelings oh oh oh oh in my arms oh yeah(slightly african) feelings as sweet as oh oh feelings I’m gonna let you so soon so embarrassingly soft so let’s please feelings oh oh oh feelings oh oh oh feelings here in my arms feelings oh oh oh feelings feed me feed me feed me in feelings … then some of her bach-like piano work – then her famously overdone climactic guitar work – then suddenly little girl blue type fingering … here in my heart you’ll always stay here in mt heart no matter what the words may say you will stay here in my heart no matter what the day you will stay here in my heart no matter what they say no matter what they compose or do no matter what the drugs do what songs my do what people may do our machines will do to you I will always have my feelings nothing can destroy them cause i know that is the base for-or-or-or you … finale .. grandiose … good night!
Watch her, for example on a video made in 1970, the authors imagining that she is being brilliant and that they are revealing investigating the source of that brilliance, artistry, inspiration, and defiance. They try to explain how she can make such extraordinary music and hold so powerful and outsider a political stance at the same time.
“If I had my way I would have been a killer”.
In the middle of “Rich Girl who gone to far and you know it don’t matter anyway”. Suddenly: “it’s easy to hurt others when you don’t feel pain”. Then to the audience: “ain;t it”.
But no: what emerges is horror, is the opposite of what they intend and what we hoped for: a confused, sad, tortured woman, self-contradictory to the point of incoherence, no more able to articulate what goes on inside her and how that becomes music than any cliche ridden hippie of that time:
“Everybody is half dead
And at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in 1976, 14:37 seconds of awful
Watch her singing “I got life”, hear the desperate attempts at self-affirmation:
got my freedom
got my life — long extended
got my liver
that I’m too tired
somewhere that i didn’t feel
She takes on “Pirate Jenny” and imbues it with her anger enough,:
But she is unable to reach the level of Lotte Lenya or Ute Lemper, and so the effect, feels theatrically angry and is by comparison wooden.
She talks about her work, life:”
before i die
supposed to go
if people like
laugh each time they see us
just makes you e
pay them no mind
your love ain’t gonna last too long
keep on walkin by my side
nerve look behind
remember that I love you
don’t pay them no mind
let em know that you love me
that you love you
i don’t need anyone but you
just you and me
we’re gonna make it all alone
let em laugh at
so i don’t’ know
the force that’s inside of me
She instructs a band member:
keep your eyes on me
right on me
then you be all right
she comes out in her horrid white off the shoulder outfit
She sits down
the look on her face is shifting from afraid
to weird to just a hint of smile
adjusts the mike
a drum/guitar beat
trouble and mischief
you know damn well you’ll go hell
now you’re living high and mighty
you know damn
yes you will
you’ll go to hell
paid for you sins
keep your children from doing wrong
cause you know damn well they’ll go to hell
apple they ate from
tree of hate
so you know damn well they went to hell
you know Adam
yes you do
some say that hell is below
I say it’s right by my side
evil in the evening
i must be in hell
yeah – we must be in hell
must in hell!!!
she stands and wiggles and squirms. so inelegantly, so stiffly,
her head and arms moving as if given commands
he told me
he told me all my
till they open up the door
one of these days
how you feel
leave you with the blues
always thought I was shaking people up
so bad that when they leave
she’s clapping her hands yelling
everybody’s feeling like everything all right
stop playing and everybody dancing.
she’s up again head throbbing
up and down
out in front
rotating her hands
when to go
drive them insane
i pray everyday
for god to make my mind clear
in a few words
millions of people could know
take english again or something
the power of words and how to put them
that’s nin a Simone
trying to be a concert pianist
started to sing because of the jobs
every one of her breaks have been justified
enjoyed so much
your wife miss Nina Simone
since Andy has been handling my career
career wise – Stroud speaking – financial independence
don’t worry about nothin
keep yourself calm
afraid taht i won’t be able to do all
before i day
swithc no switch
if people like
each time they see us walking by
and they’re whispering
want to die