Nina Simone: So Close Yet . . .
Lufthansa Airlines gate, Los Angeles, March 30, 1999
The weight of artistry is unlike any other. It is not like a shackle you can remove once you buy your freedom. It is not a fragile sheath of skin you can crawl out of at the end of your life. It is so unlike any other choice of profession or career because it, the art, lives and breathes inside you. It often holds your eyes steady when you want to let them wander on the other side of sane. It becomes the breath, many times saving your life with a well-placed kiss, a piece of bread, a corner of water, a straw.
That is what I recognized the moment I came to know the music of Nina Simone in the summer of 1993. Her lyrics spilled in my mouth like a young woman about to lose her virginity to the right man. My work as a performance artist and a poet--granted, like comparing a sliver to a redwood--resembled Nina’s. My etchings as a writer and a poet filled up within me like a well of crisp Michigan water, seeping with a heady speed into me, even as time emptied it. On more than one occasion, Nina Simone’s words and music saved my life.
I’ve come to Nina as someone who thinks it’s extremely important to unearth her role shaping the current alternative musical landscape. Her contribution to the culture of politics and the black power movement is solid and much of it unearthed. But mostly, secretly, I am fascinated with the ghost of the woman who always, no matter whose arms she found herself in, seemed to feel a profound loneliness. Reading about Nina’s political ideas and revelations in her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” I wondered what I could say to Nina that wouldn’t set her afire with disdain for my youth. Still, there was so much I wanted to ask her. How was she? What was her music like today? What did she think of the current state of black America?
Nina’s guard had gotten on in age; politics have changed. Many of her friends, comrades and lovers have crossed over. We writers believe we can change the world through the power of the pen and not a gun. How does that make her feel?
Five hours later, flying over the Atlantic
When I brought my idea to the magazine class, I shyly dropped my silent passion: “I want to write an article to the effect of looking for Nina Simone.” Her name fell like an unwanted piece of fruit on the table.
“Who’s Nina Simone?” The innocence in the young college girl’s eyes was painful. The professor and I exchanged stunned glances, and then smirks at their ignorance. At that moment, I realized I was in the 30-something club for good. Most of the circles I traveled in had a Nina story.
Originally, I took this class as a job requirement to keep current with the times, but these sweet babes were just breaking pimples as second- and third-year students. Even though Nina Simone was technically before my time also, I could say to them: “She was way before your time.”
I had stumbled upon her music at a knockdown record store in a half-off bin, and the first time became the hundredth time that I played that tape. I wore it out. Eventually, even my then 6-year-old daughter could sing “Mississippi God----,” word for word.
As a poet and budding performance artist, I found that Nina’s lyrics poured an entirely new concept of poetry and song into my realm. As I grew into my art, I knew she was someone who had freed me from the normal R&B; supposition for black artists. I would step onto the stage and wave the musicians into silence, unafraid of my own rustic, untrained voice because she’d already done it. Without a word of greeting to my audience, I too would plunge into a melancholy tune.
I am, by far, not the first performance artist to integrate Nina into their work. Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Oleta Adams, Nancy Wilson and countless others have discovered their own personal styles, becoming vessels of prayer as the song flows through, teaching us with their passion and, if nothing else, holding a candle up to their own pain.
So when I said I wanted to write an article about Nina Simone, the class deflated. My teacher fueled up. That day, he asked everyone to ask me one question about my story, rapid-fire. As they shot questions at me, the Nina story filled in. I answered their questions as best I could, but I knew that I was barely articulating the utter devotion to the art and the artist. I sputtered because I honestly and fully didn’t know what I wanted to say. I just knew it had to be said. I talked until my throat was dry. I was unable to wrestle this feeling, a silent keening obsession with the enigma of Nina Simone: her music against the silence, her voice against the hard times, a multi-emblemed flower, a symbol of survival on each petal.
Slowly the article took on a life of its own as Nina’s essence danced on the smooth tabletop in the chilly room. Later that night, the professor called me and left a message saying, “You realize that you have a book here.”
I had a book. “No, not another project,” I thought, gritting my teeth. But he was right. In order to do justice to Nina, to truly uncover the pulsing echo her musical presence left, I wanted to know what the last few years of her life had been like, what was she doing. I always had an inkling of where she was, whispered sentences of Europe and journalists she’d intimidated. A successful lawsuit against her former music company. I began searching for Nina Simone. I tracked her last performance back East and wrestled her agent’s phone number from the receptionist.
On the RER train.
I turn my thoughts to how I will approach Nina when I see her. How will I impress her? How will she impress me? Although I’d heard stories of her chasing unwanted reporters off her property, allegedly once with a gun, I felt somehow that I could show her my empty hands, bare my neck in submission like a cub and maybe she would let me in.
I don’t even have an interview set up; I have a promise of one. But I am hopeful, and I am in Paris. I am like a butterfly scratching from its cocoon to meet spring. When I see her, when I find her, what will I say? How long will I live after I kiss the sun?
April 3, meeting with Nina’s manager.
The last three days have gone by in a blur of sightseeing and crepes avec champignon. Finally, Nina’s manager called me back, and we arranged to meet. When I walked up to the restaurant and bar, I see him as he described himself. A short Italian man, hair slicked back, vest over a dingy T-shirt. He’s been her manager for 18 years, he says. He looks tired.
“She is difficult,” he says. He orders a Scotch and chain-smokes through the entire meeting. “She doesn’t like interviews.”
I cleared my throat and tried to start off with the pitch and ended up pouring out my utter love and devotion to her music and the art form it spawned in Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I tell him I want to make the millions of hip-hop heads and the culture aware of her importance. I want to find out where she’s been and what she needs from her public to continue being the queen diva.
“I want to write her next book,” I say. “I don’t feel anything up to the point has given her justice.”
Spent, I end my speech.
He watches me unflinchingly. He gulps down his drink and tells me Nina might or might not give the interview, but “it helps that you’re black.” I nod my head knowingly. At this point, I would run naked through the streets of Paris to talk to her.
“And, for God’s sake, don’t ask her who plays the piano!” he barks. He orders another Scotch and lights up again. “You know she’s a concert pianist?” Yes, I did.
“Well, the book shouldn’t be done like the last one. It was so glossed over, and whoever writes the next book can’t let Nina bully them.”
I agreed. There were places in the autobiography where I could tell part of the story was missing. I could almost feel her hovering over the writer, scratching out her own words as he retyped them exactly as she wanted them said.
“I’ve heard the rumors about her,” I offer.
“They’re all true,” he says, smirking as though he wished he could tell me more. Abruptly, he rises to go.
“So, when will I hear from you?” I ask, wanting to follow him like a good reporter. But this is Paris, and I’m on his turf.
He snuffs out his bud. “She is in the South of France. Can you get to the South of France before you go?”
I start calculating my francs and rearranging the three days I have left in France.
“And she wants money to be interviewed.”
I suddenly suffered a lapse in hearing. The gaiety in the air landed like a plastic bag over my face. My newspaper would never pay for an interview; we just didn’t do things like that.
“I, I’ll talk to my editor,” I sputtered. “But we, they have, I mean, we’ve just never paid for an interview before, one that I know of, at least. But I will ask him and get back to you.”
“OK, well. I will call you tomorrow and tell you what she says.”
He left in the stale cloud of smoke he’d appeared in. Suddenly, Paris lost a bit of its luster. I called my editor that evening and told him about the interview. He was equally as disappointed. The next morning I waited for Nina’s agent’s call and then finally placed a call to him. Over the next few days, I left several messages. I went sightseeing and even rode a boat down the Seine, but Paris had become just another big city with lots of people. I left without an interview, but even when I returned home, the first thing I did after dropping my bags was call him. He never phoned back.
I hold on to my story, that almost-interview with her, and all the other Nina accounts I’ve come across. Like the one about her at a nightclub in New York. My girlfriend was a waitress there and said Nina wouldn’t sing--virtually holding the audience hostage--until the club owner gave her a drink. He’d refused because of her reported problem with alcohol. Or the story about her brother’s LAPD-related death causing her to have a nervous breakdown. I don’t know whether or not this incident, if true, was a catalyst in causing her to abandon America, but escape she did. I continue to collect Nina encounters and reminiscences, all with the hopes that another Nina story will be mine to tell, preferably one with her voice and her words in it. And I am still hopeful to see the sun--still searching for Nina Simone.
* Nina Simone’s concert tonight at the Wiltern Theatre is sold out. Shonda Buchanan, a poet and writer living and working in Los Angeles, is in search of a ticket.