NINA SIMONE / “Everything Must Change”
Nina Simone. One runs out of superlatives in describing her. Indeed, to paraphrase Charles Lloyd, when it comes to fully describing Nina Simone, words don’t go there.
Nina was a primitive sophisticate. The force of her was elemental. She made you respond to her, against her, with her, enthralled or repelled, whatever. She just sho' nuff moved you.
Her emotional impact sometimes so naked, one is embarrassed by her presentation. So raw, you reacted as if you had been wounded: shot or stabbed. Somehow, there were moments with her when she sucked up all the air and one had to hold one’s breath until she finished a particularly moving passage.
1977. She completely gave up on living in America. Was gone for good. So she did this gig in London in December. Sitting alone at the piano and utterly wasting the audience.
Here are five selections from that concert. First “Rich Girl,” rendered as deathly sarcastic as a straight razor slice to the throat. It seems to be about somebody other than us until she gets to that part about how it is so easy to hurt others when you can’t feel pain. Pause. And then she interrogates us: “Ain’t it?” And of course she is right. When we can’t feel each other’s pain, it’s easy to inflict pain. The cutting off of feelings, the separation of the consequences of our behavior from the suffering that we cause in others. We even convince ourselves we’re not doing wrong. In a sense, most of us Americans are a rich girl and it’s a bitch the way we do the world, do each other, so surrounded by material pleasure, by things and drugs, and entertainment. Rich girl—that’s us. Most all of us in America today, the power center, the richest country in the world. The richest? What Nina say?: it’s a bitch!
“Little Girl Blue” starts off in mock innocence with a Christmas carol in counterpoint to the song’s melody. And then Nina provocatively jokes: “What’s so funny? You don’t want to hear this?” To follow “Rich Girl” with this prototypical sad song of the lonely is a deep social critique. This is the most meditative version of this song I’ve heard from Nina. All those held notes extended to the edge of her breath. And then there are those improvisations on the lyrics, talking not just about rain drops, but also snow and sunshine. By the end of the song, the piano is rumbling. It’s like a cinematic long shot zooming out so that we can see the girl and see that the girl is us in our sad moments.
Then comes an insightful and incisive deconstruction—a feminist reading of “The Other Woman.” By now we know this is no ordinary concert (not that any Nina concert was ever ordinary, but this one is extraordinarily non-ordinary). What Nina is doing is taking classics from very early in her career and giving them new interpretations not just musically but also politically. Nina is challenging our perceptions and preconceptions about social relationships and about our own received beliefs about happiness in love. Listen to her talking about how “love songs are never-ending.” And the whole time Nina is holding forth her dialogue with the audience about “The Other Woman,” the piano accompaniment does not falter. As I listen to Nina’s denouncement of pretentious romantic love, I hear her accompanying rhythm as a stately prowl.
Now here comes “Pirate Jenny.” The temperature drops about thirty or forty degrees. The piano gets sharp, sharp, almost atonal in places as Nina hits the keys with the savagery of a slave-wielded axe beheading the master. Again, I’ve heard Nina do this one a number of times, but this time she starts where previous versions ended. This is so intense, it’s damn near illegal. The audience is so moved they give Nina an ovation before the song is over. They are literally hollering back at Nina. But she is not through. There is a sinister piano interlude and then Nina enters in a soft voice, not shouting at all; indeed she’s whispering. And yet she is vengeful, unsparing. It’s positively frightening.
“Everything Must Change” is rendered as though it was Biblical instruction. Block chords chopped up and down the scale. Heavy tremolos rolling like deep thunder. Nina’s foot keeps time through it all. And then just past the three-minute mark she says, “We’re just getting started.” At that minute there must have been some levitation going on. It sounds like the piano and Nina were literally lifted up off the stage as she intones: you’ve got to change. The last four words are delivered from a mountain top of emotion.
Nina Simone. Damn.
This concert preceded Nina’s March 1978 Baltimore album by less than four months. That album has a number of these same songs on it. The album, however, is but a briefly flickering candlelight compared to the forest fire of this concert. Like the Me’Shell concert from last week, I don’t know the provenance of this tape. I just give thanks to have encountered it and am sharing the great goodness I have received.
The only way to keep goodness in your life is to give goodness to others. Goodness, like love, is truly something else. A great paradox: you have to give it away in other to keep it.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
A goddamn original
Nina was a goddamn original. Think about it. Who can you name that was anything like her? I can't think of anyone.
Earlier today Kalamu told me Mary J Blige has been tapped to play Nina Simone in a major bio pic. We started talking about the way you can hear the blues and pain in Mary's voice. About Mary's physical appearance. About her realness. Then we started wondering if Mary had the ability to give all of that of herself in an acting context. Can she do it? I don't know, but I sure will check it out to see for myself. It's an intriguing choice. I know Lauryn Hill would've done a more "professional" job and I know she was the obvious choice. With Mary, I can see the movie being awful, but I can also the possibility of it being incredible. We'll see.
One thing's for sure. Whether Mary succeeds mightily or fails miserably, she has her work cut out for her. Nina Simone is such a complicated figure. Technically gifted and classically trained yet staunchly blues oriented and deeply soulful. Serious as can be about her craft yet willing to joke sarcastically about money and drugs while on stage.
On a another note about the forthcoming movie, it just occured to me that Mary (as far as I know) doesn't play piano while Nina was nearly as good a piano player as she was a vocalist. Hmm. We'll see how they get around that.
The thing about Nina's music is, as long as you don't mind being challenged a little and as long as you have a halfway decent attention span, she'll never bore you. You won't necessarily enjoy everything she's doing but you will be provoked to feel, think and respond. It's not for nothing that she's our most-posted-about artist in the four years we've been doing Breath of Life.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, December 10th, 2007 at 1:12 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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