Nina Simone, live at Montreax. It happened in 1976. She died in 2003. I wish I'd known there was more to her than, "My Baby Just Cares For Me". It was the joy of digital TV that introduced her to me. So there. TV is good for something. But I missed following her career and the pleasure of watching her change and grow, because until I caught the tale end of this concert, I had no idea. But the concert happened decades ago, and she herself died of breast cancer years ago, and here I am, so powerfully moved by a proud voice that's now just a ghost on the digital stage.
This ghost is a strong one. This ghost is alive. She looked fiercely at the crowd and told them to sit down. Sit down. She glared at them. Obviously, she wouldn't continue until they sat down. They sat.
The bit I saw was just the end of the concert, but I didn't know that yet. She was improvising a little and it petered out, and she found she had drifted into playing 'Feelings' on the piano. "You know this one," she told the audience. Then she told the audience that she wanted them to help her with this song, while the machine gets its act together again, she told them. She told them to think about why this song had been written. Some in the audience laughed. Pop songs are written for money. She said she wasn't laughing at the guy, she wanted the audience to think about the conditions that had made this song necessary.
As she sang, it became plain that this song was not about the money. It was about a pain so deep that the writer wanted to deny it had ever taken place, a loss so bad that at times the whole story of the relationship had never happened, that they'd never even met. Nina Simone didn't sing it like a pop song. She sang it as if she was thinking about it now, and the words of it, the story of it, made sense, and she gave this sense of it to us. So now it's not a pop song anymore. Now it's a profoundly sad song of someone trying to find some way to survive the emotional depths, the dregs, they are in.
Then, she found an answer to it. Having explored the place that this guy had gone to, having taken us having the sore, raw points that had made this song his only, necessary response, Nina Simone gave her own response. She had shown us an emotional place that no one could live in, a place, after love, where the writer was cutting off part of his humanity in order to survive, a place that was going to get very cold for anyone who tried to stay there. This was what Nina Simone showed us without having to tell us. And just as I was thinking, or, rather, feeling, that the writer needed another answer in order to, not just survive, but live, she gave it. "You'll always stay in my heart, no matter what the words say."
I need say nothing more, but I will, for my own sake, not for yours. To get it off my chest. So that I can feel I've said it fully.
When she sang those extra words, "No matter what the words say," it showed, not just that she had found an understanding of this particular song, but that she understood about writing, about letting words come where they want to. The pain had pushed out some negative words, but, under all that, there was still another place, a human place, that the pain was strong, but in the end, love was stronger still. Even though the relationship could not be what it had been, the heart survived and there was a place in it for the person who had once filled it with love.
Her answer was one of strength. It made sense in her. She had the hard, bright, stabbing glance of an eagle with something to protect. She was strong. She had plunged right down into the depths where the writer had been, had gone down there with him, let the music take her there, and come back up with an answer that makes us all stronger.
She had taken us on the journey with her. When I think of performers worrying about how best to convey the meaning in the words they have been asked to say, and consider that in this case Nina Simone had simply sung what she found herself singing, and sang the the answer that became necessary, and had us all with her while she did it, I can understand why the audience wanted to stand for her, give an ovation for her.
She was Nina Simone.
For more about her, here are a few sites, and don't forget to download some of her music as well.
Dr Nina Simone: The official Nina Simone Website
For a brief overview of her life, check out Wikipedia . She was active in the civil rights movement for blacks in the U.S., and included James Baldwin, a famous black writer, among her friends.
There is a DVD of Nina Simone live at Montreax 1976, and I like this review by Michael Jones explaining why it is better to get the DVD of that concert rather than the cds. His perception of the artist seems fairly close to the impression I gained of her.
The song "Feelings" was by Morris Albert. A look at the lyrics just doesn't convey what Nina Simone got out of it. However, it was on an album released in 1974, and was a hit in 1975, so it was still fresh in people's minds when Nina Simone gave her rendition of it in 1976.