A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
Man I can understand how it might be
Kinda hard to love a girl like me
I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free
I just wanted you to know
I’ve loved you better that your own kin did
From the very start it’s my own fault
What happens to my heart
You see I’ve always known you’d go…
I have avoided writing about Nina for almost six years now. Daunting, difficult, mysterious and magnificent, she defies easy category or glib biography, but she has touched me over and over since 1976 when I first heard her. But now I feel compelled to attempt at least an introduction to the most haunted, most incredible, most heart-breaking performer I ever saw live – on three occasions during the 1980s.
The first occasion I was with my girlfriend Mumtaz Keshani at the Barbican Centre in London. We’d come to pay homage to the great jazz and blues singer in one of the great halls of England. It was 1982. Nina was guided out onto the stage by a male assistant/manager/husband? She settled at the piano and scowled at us. She wasn’t in the mood. Over the years I’ve come to realise that she rarely was. Funnily enough her LP Live In Concert 1964 has one song ‘Go Limp‘ when she is clearly enjoying herself. But this is unusual. Nina didn’t really specialise in happy songs, or indeed in happiness. She famously hated My Baby Just Cares For Me which is by some measure her most positive track, mainly because it never earned her any money. The bouncy jazz standard was written by Donaldson & Kahn and recorded by Simone on her first album in 1958, but languished in obscurity until it was used for a Chanel Number 5 commercial in the mid-1980s. The LP was subsequently re-released by Charly Records, whereupon the single was a hit. It became a dance-floor favourite, and still is. (It closed my sister’s 40th birthday party celebration for example, a fact which my brother Paul enjoyed immensely). But when Nina played it live she usually passed some caustic remark “here’s the song you wanna hear…”
Soon into the show at the Barbican we realised that this was going to be a very particular kind of concert. Her performance perfectly matched her mood and thus was extremely honest, but her mood was quixotic and combative. She didn’t appear to be capable of pretending or indeed of singing anything unless she really wanted to. We got renditions of some of her angry songs – mainly from the 1960s when she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement – Mississippi Goddam, (“this is a show tune….the show hasn’t been written for it yet”) See-Line Woman, (join in – you can do better than that!) and the Brecht/Weill Pirate Jenny, which was terrifying and magnificent. The audience cheered and the ghost of a smile troubled her heavy features. But actually she then stood up to take the applause and proceeded to walk slowly back offstage with some assistance. The band gamefully struck up a jazz shuffle but the gaping hole on the stage was undisguised. Would she come back? When Nina appeared a few minutes later I swear I could see a slight stain on her blue full-length dress, like water (she took pills) or vodka (she took vodka).
This time she stared at us for a longer period of time and decided we needed a good talking to. I cannot remember what she said but it was painful and bruised and brooding. She appeared to resent being there. Forced to sing songs for money. She started to play the opening cadences of Randy Newman’s Baltimore from the 1978 LP of the same name -a fantastic record which includes Everything Must Change, Balm In Gilead, and the hugely affecting Judy Collins song My Father. Baltimore is one of Newman’s best songs and opens with a simple piano phrase and a sad lonely image, perfect for Nina: “…beat-up little seagull on a marble stair/ tryin’ to find the ocean, lookin’ everywhere” when she suddenly stopped dead and announced that she wasn’t playing that song, it was written by a white man. The atmosphere changed. It was uneasy, it was thrilling, it was a tightrope walk and we didn’t know if she, or we, would fall. A few people left which made the rest of us dig in and wait for the undoubted moment or two of illumination which would surely come. And sure enough among the huge wobbles and disappointing shrugs Nina Simone became more magisterial with each passing minute, one moment surveying us like insects, the next singing her sobbing bluesy delivery with real pain.
My fantasy had been, of course, that she would be the singer-songwriter/interpreter of the classics that I had discovered on the LP Little Girl Blue. Recorded in 1958 on Bethlehem Records it contains that song My Baby Just Cares For Me, plus Love Me or Leave Me, Little Girl Blue, I Loves You Porgy, You’ll Never Walk Alone. It’s the classic introduction to the artist. When she made it she was 26 years old and living in New York. We’d fallen in love with the record and played it A LOT. It was much later that I discovered that Nina had been bought out of her royalties for $3000 – about 25 thousand in today’s money – and her decision I understand. She moved to Colpix Records immediately after this, but when My Baby Just Cares For Me eventually became a huge hit in the 80s she didn’t get a cent.
Back at The Barbican Nina was delivering a sulky version of something I didn’t know, turning in a perfunctory rendition of something I did, and causing quite a number of the audience to leave. By the time we were half-empty it felt like a defiant decision to stay–those of us who did stay witnessed that rare thing–an artist delivering a perfectly honest live performance, a performance that was a mirror of exactly where she was at in her life–and it wasn’t a good place. Tired of hiding. Tired of being managed. Tired of singing for money. Towards the end she cheered up and had us clapping and singing along, and she bowed in faux elegance, strangely dainty but unsteady, proud and deeply vulnerable, bloody-minded and unrepentant.
We were on our feet clapping and whistling. She didn’t come back for an encore. We knew she wouldn’t. I can’t remember the rest of the setlist, but she didn’t sing I Loves You Porgy, or Little Girl Blue or Love Me or Leave Me or my very first love: Do What You Gotta Do.
I bought the single from a Soho record shop in my first year at LSE–late 76/early 77–when I was educating myself in soul music and english law. The song was the B-side to Ain’t Got No / I Got Life, which is a mash-up of two songs from the musical Hair and had become a hit single (#2 in the UK) in 1968. Her performance is extraordinary. The song was written by the inimitable Jimmy Webb (Galveston, Wichita Lineman) for Johnny Rivers in 1967, and Nina covered it a year later with the same arrangement but with a considerably heavier delivery. The words are dredged out from her very soul of her bones as she delivers the frankly pathetic final line of the chorus :
Come on back and see me when you can
and she changes the nature of the song from a paean dedicated to a wild sweet firehorse of a free-spirited girl, to a tragic hymn for a weepy slumped & broken woman waving her philandering man off the premises, heartbroken. It is an extraordinary performance and it has haunted me from the very first time I heard it, and throughout the years since.
It is also, strangely, Nina Simone’s only “soul” record really, based on the arrangement. She was a jazz singer, a blues singer, a folk singer, a show-tunes singer, a ballad singer, just a singer–and she preferred to be known as a “Freedom Singer”. I’m fairly sure I put this song on many soul compilation tapes–c90s–and almost certainly on the soul tape I made for Jenny not long after we started ‘dating’. God knows why–it is utterly inappropriate.
For the young, the young-at-heart and those interested in 21st century pop, Do What You Gotta Do was sampled heavily on Kanye West’s song Famous in 2016, appearing on his LP The Life of Pablo, although I should note that it isn’t the Nina Simone version, it sounds rather like someone has re-recorded it.
Over the years, as I collected her LPs from the simple beauty of Nina & Piano in 1969 to the majesty of the arrangements on 1965’s I Put A Spell On You, (which includes Feeling Good and Ne Me Quitte Pas) I realised that whatever the song, whatever the genre, the same bruised quality is there–the voice wavers, worries, and hangs in the air like a teardrop about to fall from a melancholy eye. Ne Me Quitte Pas is the Jacques Brel song which is one of her signature performances and which dear Maureen Hibbert sang for me at my 60th birthday party. In French. Quite magnificently !
What we are listening to here, every time, is disappointment. The disappointment of not getting into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, her dream, because she was black, and forging a career as a cocktail lounge singer instead in Atlantic City, playing blues, jazz, classical, calling herself Nina rather than use her real name Eunice Waymons and risk her mother finding out that she had fallen so low. She carried this disappointment all her life and, along with the anger that flowed deep beneath, it imbues every song she sang. But there is something else. She had awful luck with partners, both business and romantic. The royalties she never earned, the sometime abusive marriage to Andrew Stroud who became her manager. But again her wounds seem deeper than this too. There are terrible stories of her walking naked through hotel corridors holding a knife, stories of despair so deep, and sadness so enveloping that her very survival seems to be a triumph. Watching her walk this line onstage, so vulnerable, so defiant, so talented and yet so churlish was always an extremely moving experience. She demanded worship, but we applauded her bravery.
I saw her twice more after that show and the same feelings were repeated: awe, concern, amazement and yes, disappointment. She could share that all right. The second time was at The Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road with Rita Wolf in 1986, when she stood at the front of the stage and shouted at us all with her hands on her hips, the Priestess of Soul, the Queen of Disdain commanding us to kneel and pray. She was immense. She was so much better, physically, mentally, spiritually than she’d been in 1982. Spellbinding is how I remember it.
The final time I saw her was at Ronnie Scott’s in 1987, again with the small band, drums, bass and Nina on piano. It was intimate and all the more excruciating for it. She was extremely perfunctory and tired, complaining about the heat, the theft of her music royalties and other betrayals, her hands playing those heavy chords which so often supported her weary aching voice. It was like witnessing something private and painful, but was of course, public and captured for all eternity on the LP Live At Ronnie Scott’s released that same year.
We are thrilled when our heroes and heroines put their souls on the line, bare all for their art, sob into the microphone or disintegrate onstage before our very eyes. All for the price of a ticket. But is it an act? Or a craft? Nobody can fall apart every night on cue can they?
Well yes they can–ask my wife Jenny Jules who I’ve seen do it night after night. It breaks my heart. Jenny saw Nina towards the end of her life at the Festival Hall when she lit a cigarette onstage and nobody dared ask her to put it out. Nina Simone had the craft as a singer, a songwriter, an interpreter, a performer–but she couldn’t hide her pain when it was real. And when it wasn’t there, she didn’t act it–perhaps she couldn’t at this late stage. Her renditions were often perfunctory and irritable. Nevertheless, we still lined up to pay to see her. She took medication for depression for most of her life and appeared, from the outside at least, to stagger from disaster to despair and back. She lived in Barbados, Liberia, Holland, France and Switzerland after quitting the USA. She counted Lorraine Hansbury, Miriam Makeba and Martin Luther King among her friends. She used to threaten people with a shotgun and once fired it at a neighbour’s pool, hitting a teenage boy. I think on reflection she was disappointed primarily with herself, like we all are, and couldn’t quite pretend not to be.
While searching for the pictures to accompany this piece I found this jewel of Nina enjoying her breakfast in bed somewhere in the world, and smiling. I’m glad she had some genuine moments of joy as well.
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.