Nina Simone: “Frighteningly Sad”

Cathy Lee
Sojourner: The Women's Forum, 30 April 1986 

Experiencing Nina Simone live in concert for the first time was, for me, a lot like walking into the film The Color Purple without having read the book or even knowing much about plot details. I had nothing in my experience to compare with the multi-leveled dimensions of pain and oppression suffered by the film's protagonist. Nor did I know how to react appropriately to the portrayal of Celie's suffering and transcendence: empathy is too familiar and sympathy too distant a response. 

In her appearance at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival on March 16, Nina Simone embodied the same suffering, presenting her own fearsome psychic struggle in music for our entertainment. She took to the sparsely-furnished stage bundled in what turned out to be two full-length fur coats. (A Globe fashion article earlier in the week had declared that coat-upon-coat was this year's important designer statement.) Simone wrestled off first one, then the other, disrobing like a prizefighter at the start of the first round. Underneath she wore upper-body armor of gold lame, a short-sleeved tunic over a simple black knee-length skirt. Unlike most other vocalists of her stature, she wore little jewelry: gold earrings only, no diamonds. 

Each of these details, each of her slow, meditative, deliberate movements revealed deeper intimacies about the woman. When she began to play the piano-a quiet, fugue-like exploration -the person categorized as "vocalist, great" manifested herself as a highly accomplished, classically-trained pianist, and revealed where her masterful vocal dynamics originate. 

The chords she played were fairly simple, but rumbled underneath with the brooding volcanics of Bach and Beethoven. She began singing-yes, that very voice, that gritty-honey voice-a song with repeated phrases: a bird falling to the earth, watching how people live their lives, dust in their brains, how sad, birds, insects, who am I?, thoughts about reincarnation. In one indelible moment. Nina, who had up until then avoided addressing the audience directly, said, "Am I the only one who thinks [she snapped her head toward us] these
mysterious thoughts?" Later, she declared, "I know who I am-I'm in Boston on a Sunday night." Toward the end, she mused about knowing you're born again, and being tired of it. She suddenly left the stage. 

In the audience, many applauded. Many others were dumbstruck. Applause, that kneejerk reaction to a performer ending a song, felt very wrong at that instant. But what was the right response? As the seconds Nina was gone elongated, our next formulaic audience reaction-the shouted-and-clapped demand for more-felt even worse. But we did it anyway. In the last twelve years Nina Simone has performed rarely. She has been known to cut performances short. Uh-oh, some of us were thinking. 

In this way, Nina captured us in her own dilemma, her world of not-really-wanting-to, but must. She returned. 

Her next offering was the "fast song" from, she triumphantly declared, her new album Nina Is Black! on VPI Records. With a theme similar to the first song ("People it's rough/The going is tough/It's cold out here"), she eventually reprised the opener's depressing lyrics, concluding, "Since I know who I am, I can't stay here." A second time, she fled backstage, later returned. 

Her choice of a love song with French lyrics recapitulated the threat of loss, and "Ne me quitte pas" ("Don't Leave Me") amplified her bicultural, bilingual background. Simone started to trust us more, spoke to us a little more easily, explained how her parents, who were very poor, managed to find the money for her music lessons. The obligation she felt to repay their sacrifice led her to take a supperclub job in Atlantic City, where she played a classical piano repertoire. She hinted that this "milk" was inappropriate in a "champagne" environment. Soon the owner came in and told her that if she wanted to keep the job, she had to sing. Because of her obligation to her parents, she agreed to sing the one song she knew (and one of the songs many of us this night wanted most to hear) from Porgy and Bess, "I Love You, Porgy." In it, Simone substituted "I must go home now" for "I want to stay here" -another subtle, telling commentary on her working life. 

Simone shared still more of her pain in the next song, dedicated to "his memory-I'm not over you for a while." A combination of poor vocal miking and Simone's habit of alluding to rather than declaring left unclear exactly who "he" was-or if he was one man or a succession of them. 

Nina also shared a moment of genuine release, with a sort of boogic-woogie audience sing-along (!): "My baby just cares for me." She really seemed to enjoy directing her better-than-a-thousand-voice choir. She came away from the piano to face us, smiling broadly.

What a relief to see her smiling! Back at the piano, she continued to direct with chords instead of eye contact, as in church. 

The next song, she announced, was a hymn familiar to black churchgoers, "Balm in Gilead," but its melody appeared only as fragments in the piano, with different lyrics in French and English. She mentioned she was on her way to another performance in Israel within the week, a declaration which prompted uncertain applause that Nina seized upon, said she needed for moral support, and relished as we gladly obliged with more. 

Her final song was extremely discomfiting, and more expressive of the enigma of Nina Simone. She sang her own lyrics to the pop tune "Alone Again, Naturally," lyrics that spoke of her three-week wait for her father to die, plumbing the depths of his unfeeling relationship with her and with her mother, admitting she loved him, concluding with the original words, but phrased in such a way that she could have meant them sarcastically: "When he passed away, I cried and cried all day, alone again, naturally." 

Simone revealed exceptional musical skills as both pianist and vocalist, and brilliant abilities in manipulating listeners' emotions and expressing the palpability of her own volatile passions. As she herself is trapped by the necessity to earn a living by presenting her music in concert-the personal expression of a raw open wound of a private life, it seems-Nina Simone succeeded in capturing us, her fans, in the similar absurdity of our position of demanding her "entertainment." 

I found Simone's performance "great" in the same way I found The Color Purple "great": emotionally resonant, thought-provoking, demanding of a response to its creator's message in a more spiritual dimension, satisfying as a statement of a woman's transcendence of nearly insuperable odds. I met the real Nina Simone at Symphony Hall, Boston, on Sunday night: she was beautiful, gifted, and has grown frighteningly sad.