February 19, 2010|
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Under a Strange, Soulful Spell
By DWIGHT GARNER
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Illustrated. 449 pages. Pantheon Books. $30.
In 1960, one year after Nina Simone’s first album, “Little Girl Blue,” was released, the poet Langston Hughes struggled to put the appeal of Simone’s music and presence — that dusky voice, that unblinking gaze — into words. “She is strange,” Hughes wrote in The Chicago Daily Defender. “So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire.”
Hughes was just getting warmed up. “She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks.” He continued: “You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!”
Simone soon befriended Hughes, and through him she dove into the beating heart of that era’s young black intelligentsia, becoming close to both James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who would become godmother to Simone’s daughter. That Simone was absurdly talented was already clear. But her new friends helped crystallize her inchoate political thinking.
One result was a stunning song, “Mississippi Goddam,” written by Simone in the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings and the killing of the civil rights advocate Medgar Evers. In many respects it represented the pinnacle of what would become a long and tangled career. “Alabama’s got me so upset,” Simone sang. “Tennessee made me lose my rest./But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”
It was a song that inserted her into the forefront, at least musically, of the civil rights movement. Its recording is a moment that Nadine Cohodas’s fascinating if turgid new biography of Simone, “Princess Noire,” builds toward and then falls away from. In the case of her career, that falling away was a long, slow and painful one into mental illness, megalomania and increasingly strange behavior.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in 1933. She was one of eight children. Her father worked a variety of jobs (cook, dry cleaner, barber), and her mother was a Methodist minister. People knew right away that she was special. When she was 8 months old, she could hum “Down by the Riverside.” At 2 ½ she could play a church organ.
Simone’s dream was to become a concert pianist, and she studied briefly at Juilliard. She was devastated when she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a rejection that may have been racially motivated, Ms. Cohodas writes. To pay the rent Simone began playing in bars, where she treated her gigs almost like concert recitals. She began to sing as well as play and took Nina Simone as a stage name in part, Ms. Cohodas suggests, to hide from her mother that she was playing in sometimes unsavory places.
Simone had, almost immediately, an electric effect on listeners. She brought to the stage, one critic wrote, “an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories.” On her first LP Simone recorded a version of “I Loves You, Porgy,” and it became a Top 20 hit.
Before long she was playing the Village Vanguard in New York and the Newport Jazz Festival, even appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And she was pouring out the songs that would define the early part of her career: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Sinnerman,” “Feeling Good,” “I Put a Spell on You.”
From the start audiences and critics had trouble pinning Simone down. She was a classically trained pianist, but her work also drew upon jazz, gospel, the blues, folk and European art songs. When the jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason described her as “some exotic queen of some secret ritual,” he was commenting on her comportment as much as her sound.
Simon was a remote and formidable presence onstage, not afraid to stop a song midchord in order to chew out a talky audience member. While playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1961, she snapped, “For the very first time in your lives, act like ladies and gentlemen at the Apollo.”
Her anger spilled over offstage too. After the Animals had a hit in 1965 with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song that was written for Simone, she confronted the band’s lead singer, Eric Burdon. “So you’re the honky,” she said, “who stole my song and got a hit out of it?”
Simone became increasingly politicized in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She recorded some intense and moving songs, — including “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” based on a play derived from Hansberry’s unfinished writings — and began dressing her sidemen in dashikis. But she also alienated audiences, showing up late or not at all, hectoring them from the stage.
The second half of “Princess Noire” chronicles Simone’s slow descent into mental illness; she was ultimately diagnosed as having schizophrenia, Ms. Cohodas writes. There are suicide attempts and frightening moments onstage and in hotels. When a friend took Simone to a musical revue in Washington, she began speaking to the onstage performers from her seat.
She was given to bitter onstage utterances like “I don’t wear a painted smile on my face, like Louis Armstrong.” She demanded she be called “Dr. Simone” after receiving an honorary degree from Amherst College. She claimed in one interview to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen.
Nina Simone was married twice and had a daughter, Lisa, but to many people she often seemed lonely. She didn’t take care of her money and was in constant financial trouble. She left the United States in 1973 and lived in Liberia and Barbados before moving to France, where she died in 2003, apparently after a stroke.
Simone wrote an autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” that was published in 1991, but Ms. Cohodas is convincing on the subject of that book’s factual deficiencies. Ms. Cohodas has clearly done her research, but “Princess Noire” remains a strangely distanced and brittle biography.
The book describes concert after numbing concert, until all the stage patter gets mixed up in your mind. At times it reads less like a biography than a depersonalized series of performance reviews snatched from Variety. The arc of Simone’s life story becomes blurred and often lost.
Reading “Princess Noire,” you also wish that Ms. Cohodas, whose previous book was a biography of Dinah Washington, put her critical voice to stronger use. Nina Simone recorded an avalanche of music (“I made 39 albums, and they’ve pirated 70,” she complained in the 1980s), plenty of it lame. Ms. Cohodas doesn’t spend much time wading through this material, helping us compile our mental playlists or directing us toward worthy, lesser-known Simone recordings.
“Talent is a burden not a joy,” Simone said during a sloppy, uncomfortable 1978 concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.”
Nina Simone was not, this biography makes clear, quite like anyone. That night in London she pulled herself together and played a final song, a dark version of “I Put a Spell on You.” And then she walked off the stage.