Nina Simone: the Last Day of a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist
In the before-mentioned Fader Magazine presentation last summer many contributors attempted to explain what Nina has meant to them musically, artistically, politically, or as a personal acquaintance or friend. But the closing reflection, by Antony of Antony & the Johnsons, opted for something different, offering up a feverish attempt to articulate what it is about Nina Simone’s music that reaches such an indefinable place for so many people—particularly for him. I’ve decided to include the closing two paragraphs here:
“She was almost from another planet in terms of the power that she harnessed as a hardcore, hard-boiled black American woman. It’s so complicated being a woman in relation to men and then defending your people from the perspective of the underclass sex. And she is one of the brave few that stared all those demons in the eye and roared like thunder. And of course she was fragmented and cracking. You have to be, to be that brave. That’s why, to me, all of those little stories and gossips about her, none of those details of the pedestrian identity undermine the vision and the endpoint that she reached as an artist and as a visionary. That’s just the path there. You don’t get there by doing what your neighbors think is right. You don’t get there by coloring inside the lines.
The path of the hero is hard earned, and her genius wasn’t in the trauma—it was in her ability to turn experience around and transform it into a sound that people can hang their souls on. She was the voice for so many disenfranchised people. I mean, I’m probably the farthest thing possible from the person she imagined she would reach.”
In all my readings I have yet to come across something as lovingly—or movingly—written as this, if only because it feels like it is actually coming from the same insanely passionate, on-the-edge place as so much of Nina’s music. I mean god, “a sound that people can hang their souls on?” A heavy, on the surface overreaching statement, but upon reflection one that’s sobering in its accuracy. Because for me, and I think for many others, listening to the scathing wails of an “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life” or “House of the Rising Sun,” the naked emotional devastation of an “Everything Must Change” or even the wounded amusement of a “Trouble in Mind” is to experience that rare manifestation of direct emotional involvement and interaction with someone else through an artistic medium.
And that’s the appeal of Nina Simone to me—every time I decide to pop a CD into my care stereo or click a track on my iPod she always manages to catch me unaware, even when I think I know what’s coming this time. Somehow, someway, via that rough, gravelly voice and fingers flying down piano keys she’s creates this railroad line directly into my heart, and immediately sends this giant, unstoppable train to smash down anything in the way as it barrels down towards my soul. I can’t count how many times I’ve been left, sitting and wondering what the hell has just happened.
As Nina would cry at the end of a song or a concert—“that’s it!” This series might not have lived up to what I had hoped it would be, but hopefully through these rambling, malformed odes of a fanboy there’s some sense of what this artist means to me.