Entertainment Book Reviews

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Books: Pain and fame - agonies of a singing great

Biography: What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light, Canongate, pbk, 320 pages, €23.70

Mick Brown

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Flawed genius: Nina Simone often insulted fans who worshipped her.
Flawed genius: Nina Simone often insulted fans who worshipped her.
What happened, Miss Simone? by Alan Light.
On the road again: Nina Simone on a beach in Tel Aviv in 1978.

According to a new biography, despite her great talent, Nina Simone was thwarted by bad luck and her own instability.

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'Life has its problems/And I get more than my share," sang Nina Simone in one of her most famous songs. "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

But how can we begin to understand Nina Simone? Brilliant, contrary, temperamental - equally prone to flights of fire-breathing genius and bewilderingly self-destructive behaviour.

This biography was "inspired" by last year's acclaimed Netflix documentary of the same name. Alan Light, an experienced rock writer, has had access to all the same research. His book's most important interviews - for instance, with Simone's accompanists, her friends and her daughter, Lisa - were conducted by the film's director, Liz Garbus. But if much of the heavy lifting has been done by others, Light nonetheless traces a creditably coherent path through the sad and bewildering tangle that was Simone's life.

Born Eunice Waymon, she changed her name to Nina Simone when she started playing nightclubs in Atlantic City, knowing that her mother would disapprove.

Simone's father was a handyman, her mother a Methodist preacher who, although the backbone of their community in Tryon, North Carolina, was unable to show her daughter any affection.

A musical prodigy, Simone came to the attention of an English-born piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. "Miss Mazzy" loved Simone as if she were her own daughter and prepared her for a future as a classical concert pianist, even arranging the funds to allow her to train at the Juilliard School in New York. However, Simone's classical ambitions were thwarted when she failed to gain a scholarship to continue her studies at the Curtis Institute.

She attributed the rejection to her being black and poor. Her piano teacher of the time, Vladimir Sokoloff, later insisted she was turned down simply "because there were others that were better". Whatever the truth, it sowed the seeds for a lifelong resentment that her talents were never properly appreciated and an enduring feeling of racial bitterness.

Simone's first husband was a white man, "a creep" whom she married, she explained, simply because she was lonely. Her second marriage, in 1961, was to a mixed-race Harlem detective named Andrew Stroud, who became her manager. In the first flush of love, Simone described him as "my gentle lion, my Saint Bernard, and sometimes my stud bull".

On the night of their engagement, he put a gun to her temple and tied her hands behind her head while he read all the letters she had kept from a childhood sweetheart. "Then he tied me up and raped me."

Incredibly, they remained married for 11 years. As Simone's manager, it was Stroud who bankrolled her first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1963, which lifted her from the relative obscurity of performing in jazz clubs and gave her the imprimatur of high-cultural acceptance.

Simone's musical accomplishments are not in doubt. She made jazz sound like child's play, throwing in a few bars of Bach or Rachmaninoff when it suited her. She took material from every source and genre - Broadway show tunes, Israeli folk songs, Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington, Randy Newman - and made everything her own.

'Little Girl Blue', the title track of her debut album in 1958, fuses Richard Rodgers' melody with the tune to 'Good King Wenceslas' in a display of poignancy and seemingly nonchalant brilliance. Once you have heard her version of 'I Loves You, Porgy', her signature tune, all other versions pale in comparison. Her recordings did not always reflect her genius.

Different producers ladled on strings and choirs, as if to make her "easier". The lack of control she had over her recordings fed her resentment. She distrusted record companies, nightclub owners, agents - pretty much everybody - and not without good reason.

But Simone also had a vaunting self-regard and an appetite for money that was keener than her taste for hard work. Her husband claimed that her favourite thing was selling songs for commercials and getting paid for doing nothing at all.

The civil rights movement gave Simone a focus, both for her identity and her simmering anger. The first time she met Martin Luther King, she introduced herself with the words: "I'm not non-violent." "OK," he replied. "I'm glad to meet you." Her most potent song, Mississippi Goddam, was written in response to the bombing of a Baptist church in Alabama in 1963, in which four young girls died. Her scalding tirade against racial injustice prompted her friend Dick Gregory to observe that no black man would have dared to write it.

Stroud, who had promised her she would become "a rich black bitch", complained she got "sidetracked with the revolution". When she took to lecturing her audiences about civil rights, they responded by booing and avoiding her shows. Her marriage to Stroud ended following a threesome with a woman who claimed to be an Ethiopian princess.

And things got more bizarre from there on. Settling briefly in Barbados - the first stop in an endless peregrination, living anywhere but the hated America - Simone had an affair with the country's prime minister, Errol Barrow. It began with her stripping naked and running across a meadow, the prime minister in hot pursuit, and ended when he serenaded her with 'The Folks Who Live On The Hill'.

During an extended stay in Liberia, Simone spent most of her time dressed in a bikini and boots and entered into a relationship with a 70-year-old man named Mr Dennis, who introduced himself by sending a note: "Don't move. I'll be back in an hour. And we will be married in six weeks." They weren't.

The sad fact is that Simone's erratic temperament effectively sabotaged all her relationships, including that with her only daughter, Lisa, from whom she was estranged for years. She was paranoiac, depressive, prone to angry outbursts.

Audiences who came to worship her would frequently find themselves short-changed and insulted; she threatened one fan, who had come backstage to wish her well, with a knife. People who offered the hand of kindness would invariably withdraw it, nursing her teeth-marks. Her brother described her condition as "chemically multiple personalities". A more precise definition would be bipolar.

By the early 80s she was living in Paris, her star having fallen so far that she would stand on the pavement outside a club where she was performing, cajoling passers-by to come in. Resurrection arrived in the form of 'My Baby Just Cares For Me', which she had recorded in 1958, and which gave her an unexpected hit in 1987 when it was used in an advertisement for Chanel No5.

She died in 2003 at the age of 70, two days after the Curtis Institute, the school that had refused her a scholarship, named her an honorary doctor in music and humanities.

The cumulative effect of all this - laid out in Light's methodical, dispassionate prose - is one of sorrowful disbelief that such a prodigiously gifted woman should have suffered such an unhappy and embittered life.

Her audience's pleasure was at the cost of Simone's pain. But isn't that so often the case?

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