Queening It

Jenny Diski

  • BuyNina 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:

Can we believe that, granted these powers which she used often, so much so that she would lose them in the end, Nina used the Spirit to her own ends without it ever seeking payment in return? Was the spirit ever compensated for the power it gave? What could it have asked for other than her life, her raison d’être, her soul?

So many questions and so few answers. Fortunately, with or without the Spirit, Simone’s story is everything it should be and falls remarkably well into that dramatic three-act story arc so loved by scriptwriters. If the film rights don’t sell I’ll eat my hat.

Act One: Little Eunice Waymon, a piano prodigy according to her teacher in Tryon, North Carolina, destined to be the first internationally celebrated black classical pianist. She lived in a hard-working family; her mother was a Methodist minister, her father a handyman before becoming a preacher and then an invalid. Eunice’s talent was recognised and nurtured by the community, white and black, which set up the Eunice Waymon Fund to pay for her lessons and send her to music college. Expectations were huge and apparently (Simone’s version) she was obedient and focused on fulfilling her mother’s and the whole town’s dream. At three she was hailed as a little Mozart, at six she was playing Bach in church. Nothing very remarkable happened in Eunice’s young life (though it doesn’t happen at some length in Brun-Lambert’s account of her childhood), except dogged and future-directed piano practice. She lived under an increasing burden of expectation on a talented black child, picked out by the local white community to go places on their behalf. When, therefore, at 21, after a lifetime of being told she was headed for Carnegie Hall, she failed the entrance exam for the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, her life collapsed. In her autobiography and in many interviews Simone blames her rejection on racism. She didn’t get in, she was sure, because she was black, not because she wasn’t the best. Who knows, the paperwork has gone, her audition was unrecorded, but she was probably right. It was, apart from not being allowed to use the dry-cleaner’s in Tryon, her first confrontation with prejudice. And, according to her, even towards the end of her life it was a wound that never healed.

Act Two: Eunice stayed in Philadelphia, and taught music. She started playing piano in a bar in Atlantic City in the summer, and she began to sing. People stopped talking and listened to her, and the following summer they came from all over specially to hear her. She got an agent and a husband who had been a fan and was (shades of Billie) a hopeless drunken, junkie burden. She was ripped off by a record company and given a lousy recording contract that kept a good deal of money out of her hands as she became famous. She dumped the husband, found another, Andrew Stroud, an ex-policeman. He became her brilliant manager, but not much of a husband, working her too hard and beating her when things got difficult. In the late 1950s and early 1960s she was singing ‘I Loves You Porgy’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’ in her groaning, scrapy, mesmerising new-found voice. She lived in a six-bedroom apartment and drove a Mercedes. Stroud pushed her career, set up tours, got her performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, playing at the Town Hall in New York. ‘Porgy’ got into the charts. Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone (after Simone Signoret), she got more and more famous and came under more and more pressure. In New York she met James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones and Langston Hughes, who educated and politicised her. In 1962 she had a baby and a wet nurse was found for the child so she didn’t have to stop touring. A year later Simone finally got to play at Carnegie Hall, not Bach, but Duke Ellington. ‘Miss Simone has a very developed sense of the dramatic and of contrast, as when she plays a popular song with a primitive, repetitive and sensual rhythm. She’s a highly talented animal on stage,’ said the New York Times, which might as well have said simply: ‘She’s black.’

By the end of 1963, Kennedy had been assassinated, and white resistance to civil rights in the South had resulted in the killing of Medgar Evers and the firebombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone wrote ‘Mississippi Goddam’, which became a civil rights anthem and brought her performing and her politics onto the stage together. One day, Stroud walked into the studio to pick Simone up and ‘found her down on all fours busy collecting scraps of iron’.

  ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m making a gun.’

  She had been taken over by an uncontrollable need for action and violence: ‘I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone,’ she explained.

Act Three: Simone had become the ‘high priestess of soul’, for her audiences and, more dangerously, for herself. After a concert, she told Sylvia Hampton, her English friend: ‘The spirits of my African ancestors were there. I could feel them and they really took hold of me . . . I could see them moving about . . . Yes, it was deep, man . . . I just let the spirits take hold of me . . . But you know, I expect people to respect me. What I do demands so much of me that they must respect what I do.’

It turns out she wasn’t speaking in metaphor. She began to black out, and throw monstrous tantrums. She hallucinated. On one occasion, in Baltimore, Stroud walked into her dressing-room, where she was ‘clad in a white gown, applying foundation to her hair. “I was having hallucinations: I thought that I had to be the same colour all over, so I put make-up on my hair . . . I thought I had to get on a laser beam with Andy, I thought I could see through his skin.”’ The hallucinations could last hours, sometimes weeks. Simone, Hampton wrote, had ‘a medical condition that created an imbalance in her brain. Her mood swings were nothing more than symptoms of this imbalance.’ Still, ‘being around her at that time had become incredibly difficult.’ And, of course, she couldn’t be persuaded to stay on medication.

Brun-Lambert quotes this, and much else, veering throughout between the Hampton book and Simone’s own, building his picture, and filling the many gaps with speculation. ‘But would Nina Simone’s art have reached the dramatic intensity that it achieved without this psychological instability? Without this impossible antagonism between her career and political involvement, between femininity and violence, between motherhood and disorder in her love life?’ The ‘dualities’ dog her, he writes, reaching a crescendo (although I see no incompatibility between motherhood and disorder, or even femininity and violence, myself). Where Brun-Lambert doesn’t know, and he often doesn’t, he wonders hard. ‘It is hard to suppose that Andy Stroud was in the dark about his wife’s intimacy with Marie-Christine Dunham, but no one can say how he reacted to the news.’ Being short on hard information doesn’t mean pages can’t be covered. And he’s happy to dream Simone’s private dreams for her: ‘She’d have to start over. And why not? It wouldn’t take much. A man. Someone to look after her. She needed a man, a man’s arms, a touch of insouciance, sex, lightness.’

Simone wrote about herself as the tragic star who had no home, bore the burden of fame, was lonely and tired. She alienated people and found herself alone. Stroud left her when she took off for Barbados. She discovered she was wanted for unpaid taxes, so she stuck around in Barbados, queening it and having an affair with the married prime minister, Errol Barrow, which ended when she demanded he leave his wife and marry her. There was very little work now, with a new generation of singers coming up, and promoters tiring of Simone’s temper and demands. Miriam Makeba suggested she go to Liberia, the extraordinary land of freed slaves who had set up a society as rigidly structured by inequality as they had known in America. Simone danced naked in night clubs in Monrovia and was attended by witch doctors who told her that her father’s ghost was always with her. He became a continued presence. She found a rich lover and protector called C.C. Dennis, but lost everything when she confided to a friend that he was impotent, and the friend – wanting Dennis for herself – put the word around, and ruined the nurtured life Simone wanted so badly. Just as well, because Liberia was to fall to coups, chaos and revenge executions (Dennis’s son among them) not so very long after. Then she drifted, living in Geneva and wandering in search of a wealthy man. Occasionally, she made comebacks and gave concerts, always showing up hours late and sometimes just terrorising the audience for half an hour and leaving.

She had a few devoted friends who tried to help and keep watch over her, but finally she rejected them, and was taken over, as the famous, vulnerable old quite often are, by young strangers who make it their job to get rid of the old friends and appropriate control of their legendary and willing hostage. She died of breast cancer, crazy and pathetic in a dismal housing estate near Aix-en-Provence. Not the upbeat ending that Hollywood prefers, but sometimes you just have to stick to the script.

Back in 1997 Simone played the Barbican and had a good night. I was there, and though she was stiff and remote much of the time, from medication or drink it seemed, she warmed finally to her task. John Fordham wrote in the Guardian about that night in his obituary of her:

She spat out ‘My Way’ with a new ferocity over a racing hand-drum pulse, and ‘Pirate Jenny’, one of her most spine-tingling interpretations, with an edge that rolled back the years. She then progressed to the front of the stage, smile slowly spreading in elation. ‘Since you’re all standing,’ she said. ‘I’d like you to join me in singing “We Shall Overcome.”’ Everybody did. It was a remarkable example of distracted genius suddenly remembering the point, and it was a chemistry that she activated countless times, for millions of entranced listeners.

We did all stand and sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with Simone, for all the world as if she and we had done just that, though of course we hadn’t by any means.

Increasingly I wonder if we wouldn’t do better without biography. Of course we want to know other people’s stories and to roll around in distant tragedy, but the pairing of talent and life too often suffers from banal, received assumptions based on ghastly popular psychology. The thing about Simone isn’t her mental illness, whatever that might have been, or her bad temper; the thing about Simone to anyone who didn’t know her personally, is her recordings, or having witnessed one of the really good concerts she gave. Reading this biography and knowing much more about her life hasn’t improved her music one bit. That’s what she had to offer, her claim on our attention, even now. It might be better for everyone if we took what there was for what it was. The superficial has its place. She was a stylish, sometimes stunning singer who could hold an audience. Perhaps it should be left to fiction to worry about why and how, because fiction has the possibility and the freedom to be original in a way that dogged biography doesn’t. It was such a relief to close Brun-Lambert’s biography and play a CD of Simone, her left alone to sing, me to listen.