Sometimes you can make a huge difference in the world by just being yourself.
While there have been many influential female musicians, there are few who have empowered as many women as Pat Benatar. Part of her influence came from her meticulous attention to song selection, some of it came from the songs she co-wrote with others, but most of her power came from her own sense of self-worth. By simply being herself—a confident, caring human being with a clear sense of direction and undeniable talent—she managed to expand the narrow social definition of femininity and inspire a generation of women to escape the chains of self-denial. She did this without sacrificing an ounce of her womanliness, and had the unique ability to manifest her sexuality honestly and confidently, without a hint of kittenish servility. In the first paragraph in the first chapter of her highly readable biography, Between a Heart and a Rock Place, she talks about how she overcame the great gender divide at a very early age.
I WAS NEVER JUST a girl’s girl. I grew up wanting to do boy things. Nail polish and baby dolls weren’t enough for me. I wanted to be making a fort or climbing a tree. Boys seemed to have all the fun. They got to use a hammer and nails. They got to sneak into abandoned houses and go exploring. They were out riding in go-karts. All that was right up my alley. And the boys I hung around made me tough. At first they were merciless—they never cut me any slack. You want to be on the baseball team? Use this thin mitt that hurts your hands so badly you have to bite your cheek not to cry. You want to hang out in our clubhouse? Get ready to have earthworms squished onto your bare legs. It was trial by fire, but in the end, I wouldn’t have been caught dead crying over a skinned knee. All this made me fierce, and soon they realized that I was “okay for a girl,” which was just fine with me, because I had a plan. I just needed them to let me in, which, of course, they did. My plan was this: I also loved being a girl. Loved it. There wasn’t enough makeup on the planet for me to play with and I lived in the pages of fashion magazines. But I was absolutely boy-crazy, and that’s where my plan came in. I wouldn’t be a typical tomboy; I would push the envelope in my neighborhood and bridge the gap between “girl stuff” and “boy stuff.” I didn’t want to be a boy, I wanted to be a girl who could do everything boys could. I thought the whole thing out: If I played boy-type games and did boy-type things, I could run around with the boys plus have all the fun they did. I got to both be them and be near them. It was the best of all possible worlds.
Benatar, Pat; Patsi Bale Cox (2010-06-03). Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir (Kindle Locations 128-140). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Pat was also lucky to find a co-equal partner who happened to be a fantastic guitar player and music arranger. I’m always amazed to see Neil “Spyder” Giraldo missing from the lists of great guitarists, but he’s definitely on my list. Spyder has the generosity and collaborative ear of the jazz musician, the kind of musician who realizes that it’s the whole that matters, not the parts. He plays to the song, not to impress anyone with pyrotechnics, and time after time you realize that the little thing he just did was the perfect thing to do at that moment in time.
As true in sex as it is in music.
I could have started anywhere with Pat Benatar, and was seriously tempted to start with Gravity’s Rainbow because it contains my favorite Benatar-Giraldo electric duet (“Disconnected”). I chose Crimes of Passion because it was her breakthrough album, and a great breakthrough album is a lot of fun for the reviewer. It’s exciting to hear a group of musicians find their game and feed off each other’s energy as they realize that something special is going on. And in addition to allowing Pat to demonstrate her astonishing vocal versatility, Crimes of Passion contains the songs that made Pat Benatar a hero to many women—unintentionally, of course, because Pat was just being Pat.
Unfortunately, the process that resulted in Crimes of Passion wasn’t exactly a trip to Disneyland. The band hadn’t even finished the In the Heat of the Night tour when Chrysalis demanded a new album because THE CONTRACT SAID they had to release one every nine months or the company would hold back payments. Believing with all her heart that human considerations and the quality of music mattered more than a fucking contract, Pat thought the demand was sheer lunacy: “No thought was given to my physical or mental well-being. I was treated like a machine built to serve the record company’s whims.” Once they started recording, the name producer assigned to the project checked out, leaving Spyder to shoulder the production load with the help of engineer Chris Minto. He received no credit for his efforts; Pat fought for him relentlessly until the suits at Chrysalis agreed to pay Spyder for his work . . . by deducting the money from Pat’s royalties. Overcoming post-tour exhaustion and record company bullshit was no easy task, but Pat and Spyder inherited a set of core values from their working class parents—when you’ve got a job to do, forget about all the noise, put your shoulder to the wheel and get the job done.
Listening to the playbacks was enough to give you chills. After all the stress and horrible shit we went through recording this record, we’d done it. We’d made the record we needed to make despite all the obstacles. Crimes of Passion reflected more of what we were about than In the Heat of the Night. Between Spyder stepping in on the production end and our live band hitting its stride, it had turned out to be a great recording. The band was solid and intense. Every one of them understood the sound that we wanted and delivered it.
Ibid. p. 83
The sound they wanted and delivered is captured right off the bat with the opening number, “Treat Me Right,” a piece dripping with attitude. The arrangement contrasts Spyder’s guitar attack with Pat’s command of the scale over the precisely syncopated rhythmic pattern, creating a delectable mix of aggression and purest beauty. The seamless integration of Pat’s voice and Spyder’s guitar is most noticeable in the transition from the second round of the chorus to the instrumental bridge, when Pat holds the note on the word “right” and Spyder matches the note with a sustain and moves to center stage. His solo begins with faithful attention the basic Dm/Am/Bb pattern of the verse, but when the music shifts to the out-of-scale E major chord, the man goes positively manic, shifting in and out of dissonance in a series of rising and falling runs, finishing the solo with an ascending riff that ends on point—and there’s Pat with her vocal, right on cue. This thrilling integration of voice and guitar was no lucky accident, but the result of clear intention to create a musical narrative:
Spyder had a theory about the way that guitars and vocals should work together. He wanted the guitar solos to be melodic—to lead into the vocals, not fight with them. It all had to do with keeping people musically interested in the song. When the vocal stopped, the guitar would take over. When the guitar stopped, the vocals would come back in. He saw a good song structure as being like a story with no lulls for someone to get bored. Every note would lead into the next, set the scene.
Next up is Pat’s cover of The Rascals’ “You Better Run,” and though the two versions differ in tempo, attitude and arrangement, they do share a common thread beyond the lyrics and and the notes in the sheet music : the video performances are documentary evidence of the obliviousness of record company marketing strategies. The difference is that The Rascals went along with the idea inflicted upon them while Pat told the marketing experts to fuck off.
The following video shows The Rascals performing “You Better Run,” in an unidentified outdoor location. It could be a clip from Where the Action Is, the Dick Clark American Bandstand spinoff that allowed teenagers coming home from school to watch their favorite stars cavort at a never-ending beach party, but the only pieces of evidence to support that theory are a.) a Hawaiian shirt worn by one of The Rascals; b.) the obviously directed hand clapping and c.) the hardly spontaneous dancing. The absurdity inherent in mimed performance is multiplied to the nth degree by having Gene Cornish wail away frantically on an acoustic guitar. How Gene could have used an acoustic to mimic not only electric guitar but organs, drums and bass is a mystery, but if the film is accurate, he’s the greatest fucking musical genius in history.
The Rascals didn’t deserve this. They were a damned good band placed in a compromising situation by television producers who had their rules and by record company executives who believed that selling music was like selling dishwashing liquid: the dummies would buy anything they saw on TV. Getting television exposure was the priority; if it made you look silly . . . get over it. Musicians had no say in the matter.
In contrast, Pat’s performance was a blessed act of defiance. MTV was in its start-up phase, and most of the band members went to the video shoot excited about the opportunity to ride the crest of a new wave. Spyder was justifiably skeptical, concerned that “a visual rendition of a song would interfere with the listener’s personal interpretation.”
I can fully understand why Pat is totally in love with that man.
The thrill of pioneering vanished once the director laid out the plan:
As we were getting ready, the director walked over to us. “We’re going to turn a fan on you, and I want you to just do what you do. Just go!” That told me he didn’t get what we did. I wasn’t a freakin’ runway model. “What do you mean ‘just go’?” I said. Just go? I don’t just go. “Well, you know, start posing and stuff.”
Ibid. p. 106
Dude, you should have known better than to mess with Pat Benatar:
I was horrified. This was new territory, and it was going to be on television. If this MTV thing was going to make us look foolish, then we’d have to take a walk. This guy didn’t know us, didn’t know our music, and almost certainly had never even seen us play. He didn’t know that I was not someone who walked the catwalk and posed on command.
“No! No! No!” I shot back at him. “Here’s the deal. We’re gonna play and you are gonna film it. There’s not going to be any blowing hair, and there’s not going to be any posing.”
The director agreed that we’d just play the song, which we did several times. Even though the director let us do our own thing, I still had a bad attitude. In the end, that attitude ended up helping me with my performance for the camera. It was the perfect visual for that song. I was pissed and it showed in everything I did that night. My sneers were real. It was a complete accident, of course. I was so young and raw then, and I felt like we were on the verge of a big crash and burn. But I definitely had a fuck you look on my face.
Ibid. p. 106-107
Video aside, this is one outstanding cover, with Pat spitting out her vocal with justifiable frustration at a guy who doesn’t know which end is which. Spyder and Scott St. Clair Sheets fill the soundscape with power chords and the occasional fill, and Spyder delivers another superb solo. Drummer Myron Grombacher is on fire throughout, integrating muscular drumming with a nice touch on the cymbal bell.
We downshift just a tad with our first Giraldo-Benatar composition, “Never Want to Leave You,” a meditation on the contradictory passions that sometimes infuse a relationship. Pat’s vocal here is appropriately more ethereal than earthy, and her command of the upper ranges and breath management are more than admirable. The introduction of harmony serves to emphasize the two warring positions within the woman’s heart (go-stay, together-apart) while adding additional color to an already beautiful vocal performance. Myron Grombacher’s work here is remarkably disciplined and precise, giving the guitarists steady support for their flights of fancy. The sudden ending takes one by surprise, and I always feel a little cheated that they didn’t let the music fade more naturally . . . then again, it could be an expression of the exhaustion of trying to process competing passions . . . either way, it’s still a wonderful vocal performance.
“Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is one of a few songs on the album originally written by a man that Pat transformed into expressions of feminine strength (in this case she only modified the lipstick line). Widely misinterpreted as a song that either encourages domestic violence (ridiculous) or urges women to stand up to the batterer and not take his shit anymore (understandable), the lyrics actually describe a battle for sexual supremacy between a proven stud and a very confident woman who knows she’s more than up to the challenge. Although Pat and Spyder got really tired of performing this song one hundred billion times, their performance on the album is fire personified. In his solo, Spyder navigates the syncopated rhythm beautifully, his fingers dancing over the fretboard, playfully covering almost the full range of notes available to a guitarist. And Pat . . . energy, attitude and sheer beauty in one vocal package . . . and baby, can this woman sing! I don’t care how many times I hear it, that moment when the drums back off to let the power chords move the song forward and we hear Pat’s defiant “C’mon!” is one of the greatest moments in rock history . . . and though guys may not understand this, that “C’mon” means so much more coming from a woman. Fuck yeah!
While “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is a rock ‘n’ roll classic, “Hell Is for Children” has the greater distinction of having become a human rights anthem. I write this on the day when the news came out that the Trump administration has implemented the barbaric practice of separating children from their undocumented parents at the Mexican border. I’ve been on the edge of tears all day, shocked that there are human beings with so much hatred for people of a different color that they would brutally sever the most important link in human existence. If you are ashamed to be an American because of this outrage, good for you—you should be ashamed. But what are you going to do about it? And what are you going to do about the millions of women and children who deal with the threat and reality of domestic violence every day?
That little rant brings up an important point about “Hell Is for Children,” which is that Pat Benatar is a far more effective spokesperson than I am. Bassist Roger Capps, who co-wrote the song, described Pat as having an “innate sense of right and wrong,” and when you combine that with the sense of fair play that once characterized the American psyche and unquestioning empathy for those who suffer, you wind up with a woman who knows how to reach people and touch their hearts. Parents who abuse children have violated a sacred trust, and while my instincts tell me to go after the parents, Pat focuses entirely on the child’s experience, presenting the lies, the irresolvable contradictions and the inexplicable harm of an abusive relationship in a way that only the heartless could fail to understand:
It’s all so confusing this brutal abusing
They blacken your eyes and then apologize
Be daddy’s good girl, and don’t tell mommy a thing
Be a good little boy, and you’ll get a new toy
Tell grandma you fell from the swing
Because hell, hell is for children
And you know that their little lives can become such a mess
Hell, hell is for children
And you shouldn’t have to pay for your love
With your bones and your flesh
Spyder contributed the music, switching between a funereal beat in the verses and a more assertive rhythm in the choruses, then suddenly moving to double-time on Pat’s sustained note at the end of the second chorus. Pat’s vocal in this passage is incredibly moving, a frantic cry to end the unthinkable practice of child abuse. Spyder follows her with a complementary solo with some heart-aching bends that echo Pat’s cry. The rising notes that lead to the finish reflect the rising anger everyone should feel when children are endangered. Pat’s request to Spider was “. . . To do something to the music that it sounds like pain. I want the intense pain that’s happening to these children in the notes.” Spyder certainly achieved that in the double-time segment, but should also be commended for leaving quiet space in the verses to allow people to fully take in the powerful story. Brilliantly arranged and executed, Pat described “Hell Is for Children” as her proudest moment, and rightly so.
I find it completely bizarre that the most common label applied to this song is “controversial,” and Pat was surprised by that as well. The initial hoo-hah had to do with the juxtaposition of the word “hell” with the word “children.” Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t believe there are people who would quibble over language when the subject is child abuse. Okay. No quibbling. Child abuse is wrong. It leaves children damaged for life. Stop it. Fucking stop it right now and forever.
Side Two kicks off with Neil Giraldo’s “Little Paradise,” a tight, ass-shaking rocker about Hollywood chicks whose identities are tied up in fashion, diamonds and Maseratis. Pat allows herself a little laugh at the absurdity of a life outlook where “Life without your Maserati is grounds for suicide,” and Myron enhances the driving beat with some interesting twists on the skins. It serves as a nice break between the intensity of “Hell Is for Children” and “I’m Gonna Follow You,” a song by Billy Steinberg, who wrote or co-wrote many songs for rock divas in the 80’s and 90’s, including Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” In this song, Pat takes the role of female stalker and delivers an appropriately creepy performance. When she shifts to the top of her scale in the bridge, she turns almost maniacal as if she’s going to completely lose it at any moment. Although it’s rarely a subject of critical discussion, Crimes of Passion qualifies on many levels as a concept album, as all of the songs deal with human passion, from the pure to the ugly to the (in this case) absolutely frightening.
“Wuthering Heights” certainly fits the passion theme, but before I evaluate Pat’s performance, I must disclose some very strong biases in relation to this song. First, I rank Emily Brontë’s book as one of the ten worst books I’ve ever read, a parade of thoroughly loathsome characters attempting to work their way through a dreary and limited plot that involves traipsing back and forth between two uninteresting pieces of property in the backwoods of Britain. How anyone can consider this pseudo-literary tour through a living mental health facility “romantic” is far beyond my comprehension. Second, Kate Bush is one of those ethereal, romantic women who drive me nuts, and I’d rather have a double root canal without anasthesia than have to listen to her annoying soprano. The fetish with televised Victorian period pieces that took hold of the PBS crowd in the United States during my last few years there was something I chalked up to temporary insanity. If you want to read a great female writer from the Victorian age, allow me to direct you to Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and forget about the Brontë sisters and Jane Fucking Austen.
Pat Benatar has overcome greater obstacles than my somewhat spicy personal opinions, and she does so here by imbuing a weak song with substance. Urged on by a meaty arrangement served up by the band, her vocal remains strong and clear even in the upper reaches of the register. Her classical training helps her navigate the song’s challenges but the solid rock backing keeps her grounded in the more earthy delivery of a rock singer. I don’t think much of the song, but I give the singer an A+ for her delivery and for a remarkable display of vocal versatility.
The album’s title comes from a phrase in “Prisoner of Love,” an infectious rock number written by rhythm guitarist Scott St. Clair Sheets. Whoever was in charge of the track order on Crimes of Passion should get a big hug or a blow job depending on preferences and sexual orientation, for while the entire album is perfectly ordered, placing “Prisoner of Love” after “Wuthering Heights” was an inspired decision, bringing us back from the moors to the dance floor. I love the nods to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools” in the first verse, examples of common references that any self-respecting rocker would recognize. The song flows beautifully, with just enough oomph to make it a solid dance number without going over to the dark side. I usually prefer rough and dark to smooth and sweet, but sometimes I just want a song that makes me want to dance, and like “Dancing in the Street,” “Prisoner of Love” fits the bill.
Crimes of Passion ends with another strong piece with a rougher edge, the Giraldo-Benatar-Grombacher rocker “Out-A-Touch,” a structural gem that demonstrates the importance of creating tension (in the verses) and resolution (in the chorus) in musical composition. The song is a dramatic monologue delivered by a fan with a serious obsession for her object of desire, and Pat plays the part of a woman-who-desperately-needs-a-life with full commitment to the role. The alarm bells go off in the first verse as you realize the extent of the twists and turns arising from her lonely obsession:
I’ve seen your picture in the paper
On the front page of magazines
I’ve pulled the trigger right at you
On billboards and movie screens
When I talk, it’s to myself
Cause I know your kind, you’re like everyone else
Maybe it’ll work itself out in time, before I lose my mind
You, you’re out-a-touch
All alone in a danger zone, and I think too much
Both pursuer and pursued are out of touch—the pursued idol in the physical sense, the pursuer in the psychological sense. The extent of the sickness that burdens her soul is vividly captured in the second verse:
I keep your letters by the mirror
You’re the subject of every dream
You’re not so invincible, and I’m not what I might seem
When I look, it’s in your eyes
And I know your look, you can hypnotize
How long does it have to last like this, a Kodachrome kiss?
The one saving grace in the song is that the poor woman realizes she thinks too much, a faint sign of self-awareness that a therapist might be able to latch onto. In any case, “Out-A-Touch” is a strong piece about a real-world problem, and a powerful way to end an album devoted to passion of all stripes.
Crimes of Passion is a breakthrough album in many ways. It certainly vaulted Pat Benatar to the pinnacle of musical success, and she managed to stay on top for several years. I think its more enduring value lies in the strength and courage Pat displayed in presenting herself in her natural state as a strong, confident woman; in exposing the dirty secret of child abuse to a worldwide audience; and in repeatedly challenging the shockingly misogynistic assumptions of the recording industry. By all accounts, Pat and Spyder are honest, sincere people without pretensions, people who care about the things that really matter in life: family, music and a sense of right-and-wrong. It’s nice to see the good gals and guys win for a change.
Strangely, the fact that Pat Benatar is the real McCoy has presented her with some challenges in the music industry. There’s a passage in Pat’s memoir that I found dismaying, revealing, but in the end, uplifting. Even after climbing the heights, it became obvious to her that some people in the industry had a hard time accepting her into the club:
In the beginning, I’d idealized rock music and its significance. I was a disciple who believed rock was the place where truth and freedom flourished. Artists were the progressives. Coming from my classical music background, the thought of being able to make music in any form I chose was irresistible.
I soon learned that in rock circles someone with my musical background and more middle-of-the-road outlook was sometimes suspect. There were unspoken rules of behavior, dress, and association. To be considered rock and roll you had to appear like you were always a part of the fringe. Ambition had strict rules as well, and success was to be limited and veiled. No deviation or you’d be seen as a sellout. And women? They weren’t equals, they weren’t rock stars, they weren’t players. Women were girlfriends or groupies.
Early on, I saw a lot of these rules for what they were: bullshit. The clothes were a costume just like on any other stage; the lifestyle was an act that didn’t end when people got offstage. Quirkiness was far more interesting to me than being pretentious. What part of constantly being scrutinized and judged was supposed to be attractive? Who were these people who did the judging, and who gave a fuck? These rules were just as confining as those used by the establishment they had so much contempt for. To me, being put into a box meant being put into a box. It didn’t matter who stuck you in there.
There’s something about Americans that make them prone to one-upmanship, whether it’s through educational differences, economic differences, social differences or political differences. For some reason, some Americans have to feel superior over other groups of Americans (not to mention foreigners), and spend way too much time worrying about how other people view them. “Am I in or am I out?” is a major preoccupation in many circles, an anxiety that is both wasteful and divisive.
Pat Benatar has never given a shit about any of that stuff, and made the world a better place by having the confidence and courage to just be herself. We can all learn a lot from her experience.
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 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 tune.
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-60’s 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-60’s 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 the 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 boy cots
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 allow 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 the 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 or 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 feel 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 usually I 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 was 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 a 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 ramps up her acting skills and makes 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 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 about 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 her 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.”