Nina Simone spent most of her life out of sync with the world, a state of existence characterized by pain and frustration, but also essential to artistic development. The artist spends a lifetime differentiating between personal truths and societal truths, using this perceptual divide to create an aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience (as opposed to an anesthetic experience) wakens the mind and senses of the listener or viewer. When you experience something aesthetically, you open yourself to alternative ways of looking at life, the people around you and the society you inhabit. An aesthetic experience is therefore a subversive experience, as all societies structure themselves to encourage stability, conformity and a shared vision of life.
Most pop music is an anesthetic experience. It is designed to make you feel comfortable, secure, and happy with your life. Its melodies, harmonies and lyrics generally fall within accepted boundaries. Occasionally those boundaries expand to allow for more musical variation, and sometimes artists expand cultural boundaries through the inherent drive to differentiate themselves from the norm. Most of the controversy surrounding The Beatles when they arrived in the States had more to do with their hair and their impact on young girls than their music. Their early songs obeyed the basic rules of pop music, as demonstrated by the flurry of establishment artists who rushed to cover the works of Lennon & McCartney soon after they conquered America. “Hey, maybe these long-hairs are okay after all,” thought Average Joe after finding himself whistling to covers of Beatle songs by Herb Alpert and Ella Fitzgerald. Joe could now write off long hair and screaming girls as “just kids being kids,” sit back and enjoy the new normal. The threat turned out to be a false alarm; the foundations of society remained firmly in place.
Much to their credit, The Beatles continued to push boundaries. Whether it was John observing that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, expanding the limits of pop songs with “Strawberry Fields Forever” or admitting the use of LSD, The Beatles made a significant contribution to the expansion of the definition of “normal” in the Western world. In addition to their obvious talent and the intimacy they had created with the listening audience over the years, there was one other advantage they had that allowed them to challenge social norms without appreciably damaging record sales.
They were white guys.
Society finds it much more palatable to accept criticism when it’s delivered by nice-looking white guys with a sense of humor. It’s much harder to take criticism from a woman, especially an angry black woman, even when that woman is exceptionally talented and presents the message in the socially acceptable formats of easy listening, soft jazz and Broadway show tunes.
Nina Simone began her career singing songs well within acceptable boundaries, a combination of show tunes, standards, an occasional blues number and traditional gospel songs. Once she crossed the line into protest songs with “Mississippi Goddam” on Nina Simone in Concert, public perception changed. Nina always felt she had been blacklisted by U. S. radio stations once she raised her voice in protest, and the decline in her U. S. record sales during the mid-60s certainly indicate that her embrace of the Civil Rights Movement had damaged her brand. This may seem strange to those who look back on the mid-60s as the golden age of the protest song when Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Barry McGuire and Janis Ian became household names and even Elvis joined in the fun with “In the Ghetto.” Nina Simone took the hit because she was a powerful black woman who refused to hold back, a spectre even more terrifying to racists than the big black stud lurking in the shadows waiting for the chance to give all those peaches-and-cream white women the time of their lives.
As an artist, Nina Simone was automatically out of sync. As an African-American with a vagina, she was triply out of sync. It’s no wonder that her later years were marked by anger, outrage and bipolar disorder, when her trauma would drive her to traumatize others.
Her legacy to the world is her music, a diverse and deeply engaging catalog of music in multiple forms and genres. She built this catalog despite a lasting indifference to the music business, viewing her career as a way to pay the bills while she continued her studies of classical music. Nina Simone had more musical talent and ability than most of us have in our pinky finger, and though she spent a couple of years wasting that talent on blah pop songs, she left a legacy only a few can match. The Essential Nina Simone captures her power and diversity, emphasizing the period that represented her artistic peak—when growing social consciousness awakened mind, body and soul, resulting in live performances and recordings that clearly qualify as compelling, aesthetic experiences.
“The Other Woman” (1959, Nina Simone at Town Hall): One might expect a Nina Simone collection to begin with “I Loves You, Porgy,” her only Top 20 Billboard hit. Alas, that song (along with other standards) came from her first album for Bethlehem Records and the compilers were apparently unable to convince whoever owns the Bethlehem catalog to play nice. Actually, I rather like opening with something from Town Hall, as this was the album that made the folks in Greenwich Village stand up and take notice. This piece, written by African-American songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson, is sung from the perspective of the downtrodden housewife of the 50’s, stuck at home with kids, curlers and the cleaning while hubby bangs the shapely, well-coiffed and superbly accessorised secretary after office hours. Nina plays the part to perfection, capturing the pathetic nature of the housewife’s meaningless consolation prize, “But at least he comes home to me.” I realize this song is pre-feminist, but geez how I wish the women would have united in opposition to this entitled jerk and rendered his active member inert with a couple of kicks to the nuts. Still, I can comfort myself with Nina’s gently emotive voice and her classically-enhanced piano.
“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (1959, Nina Simone at Town Hall): Nina takes this old Scottish folk song absconded by the hill folk in Appalachia and frees it from the traditional meter, extending notes according to the felt passion of the moment. The simple fact that a black woman sings a song about the beauty of her male partner—presumably an African-American male—makes her rendering subtly subversive. The piano introduction builds from relative quiet to furious intensity before ending on a cue chord that seems one octave too high but beautifully introduces Nina’s extended vocalization of the word, “black.” Even at this early stage in her career, she displays the remarkable command that holds you in anticipation of every subsequent note.
“Nobody Knows When You When You’re Down and Out” (1959, single): Nina would eventually have several encounters with blues standards during her recording career, and the way she absolutely nails this old Bessie Smith number makes you hungry for more. She literally owns the song, changing the words to suit her voice and creating a finish so strong that she almost makes the blaring band accompanying her completely irrelevant. Personally, I wish they would have backed off entirely, as Nina had more than enough power to get this sucker across the finish line.
“Trouble in Mind” (1960, Live at Newport): The Greeks called it melancholia; the common term in use today is clinical depression. Though volumes have been written about it for years, there are few songs that capture the essence of depressive affective disorder as “Trouble in Mind,” written by a jazz pianist named Richard M. Jones in 1924. The chorus depicts the “brave face” a person in depression conjures up, partly to lift the spirits, but primarily to console those around them who find depression unpleasant, socially unacceptable behavior:
Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause that sun is gonna shine in my back door someday
It’s a façade that can’t possibly last, and eventually the other, uglier possibility emerges from the emotional cauldron:
I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line
And let the two-nineteen train ease my troubled mind
Though this performance took place long before Nina was diagnosed as bipolar, the song has an eerie, foreshadowing quality about it, in large part because she sings it with feeling—feeling that changes with the mood of the lyrics. Her rich, contralto voice holds so much here—false optimism, weariness, dark fantasy, hopelessness—all reflected in subtle changes in vocal dynamics and phrasing. The quiet, extended fade ends abruptly with a sudden increase in volume and Nina imitating a trumpet flourish, a nod to the norms of playing in front of a live audience who came to have a good time.
I would have loved it had she faded to a whisper then quietly strolled off the stage.
“Mississippi Goddam” (1964, Nina Simone in Concert): Ironically, the song that turned Nina Simone into a controversial figure is structured as a classic Broadway show tune, with the faux-dramatic flourishes common to the musical numbers Barbra Streisand sang during that period. Nina wrote the song in about an hour, and you can feel its stunning immediacy more than fifty years later. After the musicians establish the semi-comic, catchy rhythm, Nina introduces the song:
The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam (warm laughter from the largely white audience)
And I mean every word of it (more laughter, though obviously subdued)
Nina then takes us on two rounds of the chorus, using a familiar within-the-limits melodic pattern that could have come from Oklahoma! or Funny Girl:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
She separates the syllables on the cursed word, just as we do when we hear something shocking beyond belief: god-damn! A brief bridge leads us to another repetition of the chorus, and all the comfortable white folk in the audience probably felt pretty relieved at this point, thinking “Okay, this isn’t too bad.” The song then shifts to the minor key, and the insistent rhythm that felt so lighthearted a moment ago now takes on a darker cast. Nina uses the opportunity to slyly insert an explanation of the musical style she has chosen to employ:
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
As she begins the first verse, the change in her tone is palpable—it’s now, “Let’s get real, people.”
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
That last line should have outraged every person in attendance at Carnegie Hall that night. Maybe after the show, once the drinks were poured and the cigarettes lit, someone in the entourage would have spoiled the post-theatre dinner by asking, “How can people live like that, in constant fear of their lives? We have to use our white privilege to help these people!” Nina’s tone during the verses is no-holds-barred “This is real, heavy shit, people!” and that intensity continues when Nina cues the shift to call-and-response with the classic white excuse for tepid action: “They keep on saying, ‘Go slow!” Nina rattles off a list of “Negro jobs” (picking cotton, washing windows) and common slurs (rotten, lazy) while the band members respond, “Do it slow!” People are dying every day at the hands of vile racists and all you’ve got is “Go slow?” “Go fuck yourselves,” I would have responded, and although Nina doesn’t go that far, the anger she expresses in the final verses certainly captures that sentiment—but first, she can’t resist taunting the audience:
I’ll bet you thought I was kiddin’
I’ll bet they did. Guess what? She wasn’t.
Picket lines, school boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
J. Edgar Cross-Dresser labeled any unpleasantness part of a communist plot, à la “They’re stirring up our Negroes.” It was a lie that some Americans actually bought, but Nina goes further, exposing the entire American dream as a lie:
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
I imagine that most Americans of the time would have been shocked by the inference that American history is one big lie, as Americans have always believed in their essential righteousness. The more threatening line is “You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” portending a violent revolution. Although Nina Simone supported Dr. King’s non-violent approach to change, the documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? showed several diary entries where she expresses her anger in the form of violent fantasies. At this point in her life, I interpret that line as a mix of deep emotional frustration and a warning to those advocating gradualism rather than a call to action. Her warning would prove prescient less than two years later, when Watts exploded, inspiring the Reagan-driven racist backlash that planted the seed that grew into Donald Trump. “Mississippi Goddam” is a still-relevant indictment of American racism, the factor that defines American history more than any other, and continues to define the American way of life to this day.
“See-Line Woman” (1964, Broadway-Blues-Ballads): The B-side to “Mississippi Goddam” would later be released as an A-side, probably because a.) it’s damned compelling and b.) songs with Afro-Caribbean rhythms were pretty popular in the late 50’s and early-to-mid 60’s. The song itself is an ancient song of uncertain origin, but the best guess places its birth in one of the ports in the southern United States. The “see-line” or “sea lion” woman is essentially a more modern version of the mythological sirens, whose call would lure dumber-than-fuck men to sail their ships into the rocky coasts, all in the pursuit of pussy. The sirens in this song are the entrepreneurial prostitutes who set up shop in seaports to meet the excess demand and outrageous supply of ships full of horny sailors. Like the sirens of old, these early female capitalists left destruction in their wake:
See-Line woman, dressed in red
Make a man lose his head
See-Line woman, black dress on
For a thousand dollars, she wail and she moan
Wiggle, wiggle, turn like a cat
Wink at a man and he wink back
Now child, see-line woman
Empty his pockets and wreck his days
Nina’s arrangement of handclaps, drums and flutes allows her to go into sort of a trance, and she sings the story as if she’s visualizing the docks, smelling the salt air and staring with wonder at the remarkable women in “silk stockings with golden seams.” Her tone is a combination of warning to the sailors and admiration for female power, and my biases say she comes down on the side of the women. As a woman who firmly believes that female domination is the only social structure capable of producing everlasting human happiness, what else would you expect me to say?
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1964, Broadway-Blues-Ballads): Though The Animals’ version is more familiar to most, let me tell you something: Nina Simone wipes the floor with Eric Burdon. For one thing, you can actually understand the lyrics, something Eric had a hard time doing because he was always faking a black accent over his native British phrasing. For another, Nina masters the psychology of the person who explodes with rage at random intervals and then feels (or feigns to feel) apologetic. Occasionally, she goes over the top (the expression of tears on the closing line of the chorus, for example), but all in all, she overcomes a ridiculously ornate arrangement to come out a winner.
“I Put a Spell on You” (1965, I Put a Spell on You): Now we have her version of the song popularized by ex-Animal Alan Price, and the contest here is much closer. The organ on Alan Price’s version is one of the few organ pieces I desperately love, and his vocal reflects a dark confusion about the wayward passions that are racking body and soul. Nina’s version is more in the tone of a real-life practitioner of voodoo who has chosen to use the dark arts (inappropriately, I might point out) to keep her male lover’s pecker in her and only her vagina, where it belongs. I’m tempted to give Alan the victory here due to those goddamn strings in Nina’s version, which contradict the possessive mania of her vocal, but her vocal riffs are pure passion. Nina in a squeaker.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas” (1965, I Put a Spell on You): Jacques Brel represents the highest degree of separation between my musical tastes and my mother’s. She loves the guy; he drives me fucking batty. So, while I can’t recommend the song here, I do recommend Nina’s performance, and though it’s sung in somewhat over-precise French, her precision serves as a valuable learning tool for those just beginning their efforts to master the French language.
“Strange Fruit” (1965, Pastel Blues): Written by Abel Metropol, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, the anti-lynching song originally titled “Bitter Fruit” began life as a poem published in a Teachers Union paper that was later picked up by a Communist rag of the era. During the 1930’s, many Americans with liberal inclinations joined the Communist Party primarily due to its emphasis on genuine social equality for all in contrast to the bullshit equality peddled by the American Establishment. In J. Edgar’s twisted mind, if the Communists advocated for something, it was by definition anti-American, hence his insistence that the Civil Rights movement was all part of the larger Communist plot to undermine American values. Linking Communism with Civil Rights turned racist assholes into patriots, and the White Power structure of the Confederacy guaranteed that no white person would ever have to face punishment for lynching American citizens without due process.
Despite the consciousness-raising power of the song, despite decades of calls from the NAACP and other groups to pass a federal anti-lynching law, nothing changed. According to Wikipedia, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress and none of them became law. Everyone blames the failure on the power of the Senate’s racist Southern bloc, but to my knowledge, no one ever challenged the political structure (i. e, power based on seniority rather than competence) that allowed the atrocities to continue.
Nina chose to perform Time’s “Song of the Century” in minimalistic fashion, an arrangement limited to the essential chords and Nina’s clear and commanding voice. She enunciates every word with searing clarity, forcing you to visualize the “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” and experience “the sudden smell of burning flesh” that cruelly erases the scent of magnolia. Though “Strange Fruit” is known as Billie Holiday’s signature song, I’ve always felt that the blaring trumpet fills decorating her version rather jarring and unsupportive of the subject matter. Nina’s version leaves you in stunned, guilty silence as you consider the horror of it all.
Abel Metropol (who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan to make white Americans happy) would later go on to write “The House I Live In,” a vision of an open society respecting all races and religions popularized by Frank Sinatra and Josh White. All the evidence coming out of the United States at the present time indicates that no one took that song seriously either.
“Four Women” (1965, Wild Is the Wind): Incredible as it may seem, this song exploring racial stereotypes through the experience of four African-American women was banned by several radio stations for . . . being racist. You can’t make this shit up, folks. Americans are very creative when it comes to preserving the inalienable right to be a racist asshole.
The four black women in the song are of diverse skin colors, but all are subject to demeaning stereotypes, victims of circumstance and what Thulani Davis called “the damning legacy of slavery.” Aunt Sarah personifies the long-suffering denizen of the South, “strong enough to take the pain.” Saffronia is the outcome of a rich white male raping a black woman in the hallowed style of Thomas Jefferson. Sweet Thing has tan skin that makes her acceptable to johns looking for a socially acceptable way to explore forbidden fantasies. The fourth woman claims she’ll “kill the first mother I see,” deeply bitter about both slavery and the inheritance of the childish name “Peaches.” The stories of the first three are related in a tone of shameful detachment, while the verse about Peaches is full of anger and grit, leading to a powerful crescendo on the acrid rendering of the name she finds deeply insulting. Given the increase in intensity in the “Peaches” verse and Nina’s personal growth trajectory, it’s easy to define Peaches as Nina Simone, and while that view has some validity, it diminishes the empathy Nina felt for all the women she portrays. The dynamic she describes—the power of stereotypes to dehumanize coupled with the power of stereotypes to encourage conformity—is essentially the human struggle for individuality in societies that encourage simplification through classification, particularly when it comes to people of color. A powerful song highlighted by a powerful performance, “Four Women” is an enduring and honest exploration of a subject that is too uncomfortable for most people to handle.
“Sinnerman” (1965, Pastel Blues): Nina Simone’s rendering of this old revival song she learned from her minister mother is a ten-minute master class in piano accompaniment, vocal phrasing, arrangement diversification and the power of human percussion. The basic lesson is more interesting than most gospel songs, for the Lord sizes up this sinner as a guy who only runs to the Lord when he’s in deep shit, and the Lord tells him to go to the Devil—a bit of tough love from God Almighty. Nina’s piano contributions vary from insistent rhythm to remarkable runs that break free of the key and intensify the excitement. Her phrasing is very loose, conversational and breathy—at times she sounds like she’s running out of breath, reflecting the enhanced spiritual state of the preacher confronting the sinner. Despite her rejection of precise note placement, her profound sense of rhythm always places her vocal in sync with the rhythm by the time she ends the chorus. The arrangement features a diverse set of soundscapes including an extended hand-clapping segment and the passionate piano-vocal duet that precedes the rousing climax. “Sinnerman” is a musical masterpiece—as compelling a piece of music as you will ever experience, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.
“Do I Move You?” (1966, Nina Simone Sings the Blues): Me being me, I was seriously tempted to review Nina Simone Sings the Blues because it’s her sexiest album by far. Figuring my readers couldn’t stomach another celebration of the glory of sex, I’ll limit my exploration of Nina Simone’s contributions to the field of erotic music to the two excerpts from that album that appear in this anthology.
NOTE: Recently a reader called my writing “vulgar,” so here’s your official consumer warning that my commentary on this song and the next will be extremely “vulgar,” with language similar to the language you’d find in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, the passage that led to the decade-long ban of the world’s greatest novel in the U. S. and U. K. “Vulgar” is in quotes because I don’t believe in the concept of vulgarity, a socially repressive notion if there ever was one, a ludicrous limit to expression that is applied more stringently to women than to men.
In other words, fuck vulgarity.
“Do I Move You?” is so hot that the male band members can’t contain their excitement, as they shout and scream to what Nina’s laying down—female dominance, defined as the state of relations where the pleasure of the woman is the first and only priority:
Do I move you, are you willin’
Do I groove you, is it thrillin’
Do I soothe you, tell the truth now
Do I move you, are you loose now
The answer better be (Yeah, Yeah)
That pleases me
The men take the “Yeah, Yeah” response, responding to Nina’s demand (“the answer better be . . . “) with enthusiasm up and down the shaft. But the core line is the one that ends every chorus: “That pleases me.” It’s a not-so-subtle reminder to the inferior sex that their standard single shot is neither a priority nor even a consideration except in the context of achieving female pleasure. Nina sings this song with sadistic delight, reveling in the power of the bottomless depths of female desire. Though she’s in serious heat throughout the song, she rises to orgasmic levels when she cries “Great God Almighty” before the final “That pleases me,” and though my orgasmic lines are more secular (like “Fuck yeah!” or “Keep it the fuck coming!”), I fully embrace the notion that orgasms are a religious experience. This is the first pairing on the album featuring Nina with both guitar and blues harp, and she responds to those high-heat instruments by doubling down on the vocal temperature.
“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (1966, Nina Simone Sings the Blues): Having dissed the importance of male ejaculation in the discussion of the previous song, I will now restore it to its rightful place in the sexual hierarchy, honoring Nina’s stated desire to feel a little sugar in her bowl.
Personally, I would prefer a lot of sugar in my bowl. I love the feeling of a man shooting into me. On a sensual basis, it’s warm and wet, especially at the moment of release. Depending on male physiology, the temperature of his come may be warmer or cooler than the temperature of my natural juices, and I find the temperature differential incredibly stimulating. Even if the guy wasn’t that talented in his overall delivery, I can never remember a time when I didn’t shoot upon male ejaculation, and I usually come four or five times depending on how much the guy has to deliver.
To be perfectly honest, the orgasms have more to do with the conquest than the physical sensations. I love breaking a hard cock, stripping a male of their pretentious notions of power and their fragile shield of manliness. For me, the primary purpose of male ejaculation is to make me happy, not the other way around. It isn’t that I don’t care whether or not my sexual partners experience pleasure—eliciting pleasure is an effective way to establish domination, especially when you overwhelm them with pleasure. But since ejaculation is the end of the road for most men (at least temporarily), that shot had better please me mightily or that dude will never get another chance to fill my bowl.
Nina’s approach is more subversive than mine, more the plaintive bitch in heat than the dominant female. Even from this apparently submissive position, there’s no questioning the intensity of her desire: her horniness has triggered mood swings and she’d rather go with a hard one than a bottle of pills to regulate her constitution:
I want a little sugar in my bowl
I want a little sweetness down in my soul
I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad
Feel so funny, I feel so sad
I want a little steam on my clothes
Maybe I could fix things up so they’ll go
What’s the matter daddy, come on, save my soul
I need some sugar in my bowl, I ain’t foolin’
I want some sugar in my bowl
While I’m not fond of euphemisms, I can handle sugar = semen and bowl = vagina because color and shape are in sync. The arrangement features a sax solo by Buddy Lucas, who applies the passion he regularly displayed on the harmonica to the larger reed instrument and more than holds his own despite Nina Simone’s completely mesmerizing vocal.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (1967, Silk and Soul): Professor Billy Taylor co-wrote this jazzy spiritual back in 1963 when the Civil Rights Movement was really hitting its stride. Nina manages the flow of the song exceptionally well, expressing the sadness and exhaustion occasioned by constant repression in the first two verses, then strengthening her vocal in the third verse to reflect a deep longing for the right to live up to her potential and act upon the feelings deep in her heart:
I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew
In the last verse, she lets it all out, using the symbolism inherent in the flight of a bird to carry her to the uplifting conclusion:
Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
And I’d sing cos I’d know that (3)
I’d know how it feels to be free (3)
Although many were (and are) intimidated by Nina’s choice to voice anger and frustration, beneath those entirely justifiable feelings was a woman with classically human aspirations capable of expressing joy as well as anyone.
If you’ve been following the timeline, you may have noticed that Nina Simone had been one busy gal. She released twenty studio and live albums in a span of ten years, and an incredible twelve albums between 1964-1967. Much of this lunatic scheduling was driven by her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, who also started slapping her around during this period. The quality of her material declined precipitously, as she turned to readily available pop and soul songs to fill up albums. Compared to the passion she brought to previous performances, she delivers these songs perfunctorily and professionally, with mixed results. “The Glory of Love” (1967, unreleased) should have been left it the can, as it’s an awful song in the first place. “To Love Somebody” (1967, To Love Somebody (1969) turned out to be her first Top 10 hit in the U.K. but did nothing in the States; perhaps the British preferred Nina Simone Lite to the real thing. “Do What You Gotta Do” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!) is a Jimmy Webb number spoiled by a glossy soul arrangement full of unnecessary distractions (the Brits loved it anyway). It seems like this period was dominated by Nina recording songs that “everybody else was recording,” as demonstrated by her choice to record “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!) from the horrid musical Hair. It’s probably the best of the four, but still a long, long way from her best stuff.
“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!): Nuff Said! featured one stirring moment, the live rendition of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” Performed live at the Westbury Music Festival only three days after the death of Dr. King, the band had no time to rehearse bass player Gene Taylor’s moving eulogy. According to Nina’s brother, Samuel Waylon, they learned the song the day of the performance; in the unedited version (available on YouTube), Nina mentions she had just learned the song “yesterday.” If Nina had broken down in the grief of the moment, no one could have blamed her, but with supreme will she tames the flood of emotion and gave what could be the performance of her life. Through Gene Taylor’s honest lyrics, she expresses all the sadness, frustration, anger and disbelief that people felt at that moment, providing listeners with a blessed moment of catharsis. After a period of singing songs that were far beneath her talent and disconnected from her passions, the performance must have been liberating for her as well. And though the song focuses on Dr. King’s contributions and legacy, it ends with a dire warning:
Folks, you’d better stop and think . . .
For we’re heading for the brink.
What’s gonna happen now that the king of love is dead?
History tells us that the progress Dr. King helped initiate would solidify and strengthen after his death, confirming his legacy a hundred times over. Sadly, the people of the United States have traded a minister of love for a preacher of hate, and overt racism is now all the rage in the land of the free.
Listen . . . and remember the struggle, the progress, the possibility. Please, America, don’t let this dream die:
“Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” (1968, Nina Simone and Piano): Man, I loathe the Jonathan King original . . . I’ve never heard of another composer who so completely ruined his own composition. His sanitized vocal bears absolutely no relation to the pointed social criticism in the lyrics, making the end product intensely annoying. Nina Simone saw the potential, and instead of giving another half-hearted rendition of another half-assed pop song, she ramped up her acting skills and made the song her own. She takes the cue from the line, “A church full of singing, out of tune” and presents us with a dissonant, drifting vocal that reflects a planet gone mad, as described in the lyrics. By the end of the song, she seems infected by the madness, increasing her disconnection from the scale and tossing out lines as if she were on acid. An absolutely riveting example of outstanding song interpretation.
“Revolution” (1969, To Love Somebody): This is not a cover of The Beatles hit (though the guitar riff curiously resembles George’s fills on “Old Brown Shoe”). While Nina’s in good spirits, I think the song flopped because of its too-close resemblance to the original, particularly the common rhymes (constitution and evolution) and the reference to destruction. I’m sure that many listeners of the time thought she was covering John Lennon, albeit rather loosely.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969, single): Although I’m not a big fan of self-affirmation songs, rituals or chants, I’ll make an exception for this one because I grew up hanging out with various POC and budding gays and spent a good chunk of my time trying to lift up their spirits and convince them that they weren’t the worthless pieces of shit society claimed they were. It still blows my mind that I have so many “natural advantages” because of the color of my skin, a condition Ian Anderson described as “an accident of birth.” At first glance, people don’t know that I’m a sadomasochistic pervert in a bisexual relationship—they look at me and feel either comfort (that I’m not going to rob or kill them) or suspicion (that I’m the arrogant white bitch who believes in her god-given superiority). People don’t walk across the street to avoid me when they see me coming. They don’t ask to be moved to another seat on the airplane. They don’t hurry up and finish their meal once they see a group of white women like me enter the restaurant. If I decided to wear a hajib on my stroll down the Promenade, people would think “fashion statement,” whereas if my dark-haired, dark-eyed, brown-skinned partner did the same, she might draw some attention from the gendarmes. First impressions matter because most are reflections of stereotypes, and stereotypes stick unless you actively engage the person you’re stereotyping.
The stereotypes applied to Black Americans had always adhered to the tired old themes of intellectual inferiority and laziness. That’s why MLK, John Lewis and the others who led the movement were so threatening and “uppity”—they could speak better English than the crackers and there was absolutely no question about their willingness to work their asses off for what they believed. White people of the time were terrified by the phrase “Black Power,” which they mistakenly took as a threat instead of an attempt to rid the black psyche of centuries of programming that told them not to believe in themselves. When Weldon Irvine (lyricist) and Nina Simone (composer) wrote this song in honor of the late Lorraine Hansberry, it was a message of affirmation that served as a sorely needed antidote to the self-loathing that held back too many good people:
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are a billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!
Nina’s music is full of strong punctuation, especially on the chorus lines, reinforcing the uplifting message in a thrilling fashion.
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (1970, Black Gold): The spoken introduction tells us a great deal about Nina Simone’s journey so far. Responding to Faye Dunaway’s comment that “she tried to give the people what they want”, Nina says, “That’s a mistake . . . You use up everything you’ve got trying to give everybody what they want.” Then she admits it’s a skill she’s had a hard time mastering, a surprising admission from a woman who came across as “too strong” for those who liked their women docile. The truth is that the challenge of not living up to everybody’s expectations is a challenge we all face (except for sociopaths like he-who-shall-not-be-named), and finding the right balance is always a tricky thing.
Sandy Denny’s signature song is the perfect vehicle for Nina to reflect on life in the context of the strange concept of time. Further along in the intro, Nina opines that “time is a dictator,” a feeling common to many in our too-busy age, but in this context reflects the scars Nina earned by giving too much away in the pursuit of her musical career. Accompanied only by a simple guitar strum for a good part of the song, it feels like Nina is singing more to herself than the audience. When she offers us a perfectly lovely piano solo, it feels like an echo of the line in “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free” where she sings, “I wish I could do all the things that I can do,” giving herself a moment to indulge herself in bit of piano artistry, an aspect of her talent that she never quite fulfilled based on her own high standards. This is one of the lovelier and sadder moments in the collection, where a woman who has achieved so much expresses the wish that she should have resisted the demands to “give the people what they want” with more vigor.
“Here Comes the Sun” (1971, Here Comes the Sun): In comparison to “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” this is a fairly weak effort marred further by overproduction. The tiny piano solo is lovely, but as is usually the case with Beatle covers, it’s hard to compete with the original.
“Just Like a Woman” (1971, Here Comes the Sun): Here Nina surpasses the original, not a particularly difficult task given Bob Dylan’s typically piss-poor vocals. However, Nina goes beyond the vocal competition and makes the song hers by turning it into a reflective moment on what it means to be a woman in our society. The off-structure piano intro is sheer delight, another small example of her underplayed virtuosity. For most of the song she tracks Dylan’s third-person presentation of the woman in the song, but in the last verse Nina becomes the subject:
Yes, I take just like a woman
Yes, I do, and I make love just like a woman
And I ache just like a woman
But I break just like a little girl
She delivers those lines on the fade, ramping down the background support to close in relative quiet as she sings the final line, confessing her vulnerability. I never knew whether or not Dylan was being sexist or empathetic with that final line, but when Nina Simone sings it, it becomes a courageous act in a world where tears are seen as a sign of weakness for both sexes but the kiss of death for a woman who’s trying to get people to take her seriously.
Fuck that. I respect and cherish people who are willing to show vulnerability—it’s a strength, not a weakness.
“Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” (1974, It Is Finished): Nina recorded this song for her last album on RCA before going on hiatus for four years. Written by Ailene Bullock, Tina Turner’s older sister, it’s essentially an early rap about hypocritical men: preachers, hipsters and educated snobs. What’s interesting here isn’t so much the song as the shift to African instrumentation and style. This was a rich mine for Nina to explore, but by this time, she was ready to disengage from the grind and wander the globe, spending time in Liberia, The Netherlands, Barbados, England, France, Belgium and Switzerland.
“Rich Girl” (1978, Baltimore): I can’t believe she bothered to come back to do this absolutely crappy Hall & Oates number. In all fairness, this is a compiler fuck-up: they should have included the title track, her reggae version of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.”
“A Single Woman” (1993, A Single Woman): Her final studio album was broadly panned; her voice had lost much of its resonance; and the arrangements are seriously over-the-top. Correcting their Baltimore error, the compilers picked the one song on the album that unintentionally came closest to reflecting her life at the time: the terrible loneliness of a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Always alone at home or in a crowd;
A single woman out on a private cloud;
Caught in a world few people understand
I am what I am only one single woman
Rod McKuen wrote the song, but as she did on all of her best work, Nina made this song her own.
The brief biography posted on ninasimone.com describes the last decade of Nina’s life:
With two marriages behind her in 1993 she settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She would continue to tour through the 1990’s and became very much ‘the single woman’ she sang about on her last label recording. She rarely traveled without an entourage, but if you were fortunate enough to get to know the woman behind the music you could glimpse the solitary soul that understood the pain of being misunderstood. It was one of Nina’s many abilities to comprehend the bittersweet qualities of life and then parlay them into a song that made her such an enduring and fascinating person.
It’s no surprise that Nina wound up finding refuge in France, the sanctuary for many artists the world over, and especially welcoming to black jazz artists of note. While we have our own problems with racist populism and institutional sexism, the French have been better than most in respecting the contributions of artists the world over. There was no way she could have returned to the United States, as she had experienced the more virulent strain of racism in that country first-hand, and had exposed American myths about equality as absolute falsehoods.
In her autobiography, Nina Simone stated that her mission as an artist was “to make people feel on a deep level.” I don’t know how anyone can listen to “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” “Sinnerman,” or “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” and not feel strong emotion—and that applies to both listeners who cherish equality and listeners who cherish notions of white supremacy. It’s always somewhat dangerous to trigger the deeper feelings we would like to hide, and sometimes listeners blame the artist for exposing the ugliness of some of those emotions. Any artist who dares challenge cultural norms is going to face blowback, but in Nina Simone’s case, the blowback damaged her career and eventually robbed America of one of its greatest musical artists—a woman who displayed unusual courage, exceptional versatility and astonishing musical ability. If Nina Simone’s life is viewed through the lens of tragedy, it is a uniquely American tragedy: the failure of a culture to embrace a talented woman who wished only “to give all I’m longing to give.”