Queening It

Jenny Diski

  • Nina Simone: The Biography by David Brun-Lambert
    Aurum, 346 pp, £20.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84513 430 3

The life of Nina Simone, who died at the age of 70 in 2003, doesn’t make for a happy tale, but then if it did, who would have written it? Given the melodrama and the perfect fit with the troubled-intolerable-her-own-worst-enemy diva cliché, it’s quite strange that there has been no substantial account of her life until now, apart from a highly unreliable ghosted memoir of her own and a reminiscence by the founder of her British fan club, David Nathan, and its secretary, Sylvia Hampton. Potential biographers might have been put off by the resistance of Simone’s daughter, who doesn’t want to talk about her mother, and many former friends and colleagues who refused to be interviewed or give on-the-record information. But David Brun-Lambert, seeing a perfect subject with a classically imperfect life, didn’t let a lack of new primary sources stop him. He had a story ‘of inconsolable solitude, of an artist wracked and torn by destructive forces. Under life’s blows and her depression, she became her own worst enemy, a woman singing of lost love and revolution who would find neither the man of her dreams nor peace.’

Yes, we’re talking here about an icon, a priestess, an African American civil rights hero. We’re also talking about dissolution and craziness, tantrums, hallucinations, wilderness years, comebacks, more wilderness years and sad endings. We might as well be talking about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter or Judy Garland, and several of them get namechecked here – Callas and Holiday repeatedly. All those women artists wracked and torn, felled by life’s blows, never finding their man or peace. I presume that the man and the peace are mutually exclusive. One or the other would be bad enough for the avid biographer and other lovers of desperate women singers, but to get both a man of her dreams and peace would surely render a life unwritable.

Billie, Bessie, Maria, Janis, Karen, Judy and now Nina, it is suggested, could sing the way they did only as a result of intense personal suffering and self-destructive behaviour, preferably based on underlying ineradicable mental disturbance and race or gender oppression. What would be the point of a great woman singer who led a perfectly undramatic life: how could such a creature be? It’s true that Kiri Te Kanawa seems to have led a regular sort of existence, as did Kathleen Ferrier, but even then there was Kiri’s rise from Maori minority to operatic greatness, and Ferrier’s early death from cancer, to add drama and to explain their voices. Wracked and wasted is what the fans want. Not that they don’t appreciate the voice, of course they do, but it’s like the people who continually ask writers: ‘Where do you get your stories from?’ There’s a cultural conviction that any ‘artist’ must have personal suffering to back up their work, otherwise there’s something undeserved and therefore inauthentic about it, perhaps even some sort of cheating. This is not so much the case with male singers: I don’t think Caruso, Matt Munro, Perry Como or Tony Bennett have been written about as tragic lives (though Chet Baker, with the sweet girlie voice that none of the divas had, probably belongs on the women’s side). Even the neurotic Sinatra is mostly known for having fun. Singing for men can be technique and a good voice, for women it has to come from bleeding wounds.

Given the reticence of those who knew her, Brun-Lambert fillets the two existing books, Simone’s own and Sylvia Hampton’s memoir, for most of his information, his main contribution being an exhaustive, positively wearying list of Simone’s concerts and recordings, as well as bulking the tale out with his own supposings and histrionics:

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