Nina Simone: A Personal Tribute
(In Memoriam: Nina Simone, 21 February 1933 - 21 April 2003)
Nina Simone's death is another reminder of the end of an era. Her life and work may be analyzed aesthetically, socially, and personally. I have personal memories of Nina, some of which I shall relate later on.
Socially, her career in the USA is roughly coincident with the rise and decline of the Civil Rights and Black Power era. Europeans have a longer historical memory, and I'm guessing she is better known there, where she lived most of the time, I believe, for more than a quarter century. She made political statements in her music throughout the 1960s with such signature pieces as her incendiary "show tune" Mississippi Goddam. Some of her songs were also spiritual or countercultural in nature, such as her electrifying version of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord and her version of Hair. She also sang traditional standards, folk tunes, spirituals, French songs, and hit songs by contemporary songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
At the height of her fame she was billed as the "High Priestess of Soul". However, I cannot be sure what genre would best describe her. She didn't know, either: she asked me what category she fit into, because she didn't think she fit into any of them. According to her material, she could be placed into the categories of soul, R&B, folk, jazz, cabaret, and perhaps others. She was a classically trained pianist, but she accidentally got into a singing career while gigging as a pianist in a nightclub. That is quite fortunate, because she has an intense, powerful, inimitable voice. Stylistically as well as sociologically, she fits into a certain time frame, in which certain combinations of recognizably different genres (albeit with slippery boundaries) could be experimented with. (Ritchie Havens might be a comparable example, having risen during the "folk" music era.)
She passed the high point of her career in the early '70s, I believe, as far as the USA is concerned. She also left the country, though I can no longer remember why. When I met her, she was living in Switzerland, after having spent a time living in Liberia. (There are references to both in her songs.)
Nina had an incredible personal as well as musical intensity, earthy and magical, like an Obeah woman. "Ethereal" would hardly describe her individual or musical personality. She was serious business, and you had to appreciate her emotional force. (Musically, contrast her style with Sarah Vaughan's ethereal romanticism, and you may get an idea.) She had a deserved reputation for being a very difficult person. I was lucky to be spared that side of her personality.
I was introduced to her only after she was capable of peaceable interaction. Believe it or not, she came from Switzerland to visit Buffalo, but not as a public performer. Through a personal connection, she paid a visit to the Black Dance Workshop, and ended up staying with a friend of mine. His experience with her was like the taming of the shrew. He had to calm her down before introducing her around. She was intent on getting into his pants, but he wisely would have nothing to do with her in that department. By the time I met her, she was in a very sweet disposition, as was I. (I was much more accepting of people then, anyway, but that died with the '70s.) We all went out to a horror movie. She played a current love song and then told us how much she hated it. Late at night she put her feet up on my lap and told me what it was like to live in Liberia and Switzerland. I gave her a summary of Ousmane Sembene's film Xala.
There are several more details that could be told, but I think this suffices for now.
Though she failed to drag my friend back to Switzerland, she would call him from Switzerland now and again. I must have answered the phone a couple of times.
I don't recall any fresh material being released in the mid-'70s, but then Nina's album Baltimore came out from CTI. The CTI labelnow defunctwas one of the pioneers in the fusion sound. A number of artists recorded albums in very different styles from what they had been known for. Many of these albums were superb. (This is part of the story you won't find in Ken Burns' Jazz.) Nina's album was superb, especially the title song, which was written by Randy Newman but performed much better than his noxious groaning. My friend in Buffalo choreographed one of his best dances to this recordingabout urban decay and frustration.
I don't remember what else Nina did for most of the next decade. She showed up on at least one TV documentary. She did not seem herself. Eventually, I saw her again (though only as an audience member) right after I moved to Washington, where she made a surprise appearance, introduced by the Nicaraguan ambassador. (This was when Reagan was sending in the contras to overthrow the Sandinistas.) By then Nina was a cult figure to third world revolutionaries, in a way that did not make me extremely comfortable. She was led in by the hand, and it was obvious she was not well. She looked like she was on heavy medication. She played and sang one song, though.
As it turns out, her career did revive in the US to some extent; she played some gigs around the country. I think others noticed what I did, though it is possible that her condition, whatever it was, improved.
By the time Nina's autobiography came out, I had a whole lot more life experience under my belt. I was not as personally naive as I was when I was younger. And I was much more critical about a number of things. I found her autobiography very depressing, because it seemed that she was incapable of any critical reflection. She recounted her political connections of the period, without any retrospective evaluation of any of the politics of the '60s. She was friends with Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Toure), for example, but she had nothing to say about the twists and turns of his politics.
However, this is nothing compared to her complete lack of insight into her relations with men. I was able to put together what I read with what I knew personally, and it painted a rather dubious picture. Being a tough cookie herself, she gravitated to very powerful men, including heads of state, and of course she was ultimately disappointed. Indeed, in that department she was just the sort of woman I loathe, and I'm so glad she never got her hands on my friend's genitalia. Another of her anecdotes really turned me off, though it was also hilarious: Nina recounted a meeting with Louis Farrakhan. She recalls him having very tiny feet. He ranted on an on with his black separatist garbage. She was totally unconvinced, but she wanted some dick. She tried to get him to come upstairs with her, but nothing doing: he only wanted to harangue her. What this says about his sexuality I would not venture to guess, but it speaks volumes about her complete lack of consciousness when it comes to relations between the sexes. That lack of consciousness reflects her background, the time she grew up in, and .... we must remember, she is from the South.
I had fond memories of Nina, but I could never feel the way I felt in the 1970s, because now I knew too much and could not go back. Different times demand different consciousness.
By the time she wrote her autobiography, she had a fan club in Nijmegen, Netherlands. But she must have been in France at some point, because a news story surfaced in the '90s about some armed confrontation she was involved in, in France.
And that was the last I heard of her. I bought a couple of her recordings in the mid-'80s and thereafter: Nina's Back (circa 1985) had some powerful songs on it. Beyond that I can't remember much more. But every so often I would wonder what became of her and what kind of shape she was in. Now the end has come.
This might seem like a strange tribute, given that I've made some unflattering observations in the bargain. But I'm incapable of being a cult follower of anybody. I believe it is far more respectable to recount one's honest impressions than engage in thoughtless panegyric. This reminds me of another friend, still alive, thankfully, who said, also a couple decades back, that he would write into his will that I deliver his eulogy, as I would speak frankly and not talk bullshit. Let us hope we are both spared his funeral for a long long time. Anyway, there is always value to remembering the past as it was. Without nostalgia, we can appreciate what we've lost. There was a lot of magic in Nina; now it will live on through her recordings alone.
21 April 2003
©2003 Ralph Dumain
Dr. Nina Simone - Official Web Site
Nina Simone: The end of an era - BBC
Tribute to the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone - ABC Online
Fans mourn for jazz star Nina - Paris
Great Nina Simone Dies at 70 - Associated Press
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Uploaded 23 April 2003
©2003 Ralph Dumain