Clip: New Nina Simone biography
Nina Simone had many minds -- connected to one strong spirit.
By Johnny Ray Huston
'I KNOW ABOUT God," Nina Simone says, "but I don't believe in any
"I think it's necessary, and I know that ritual is necessary," she
continues, picking up speed. "If I need the solitude -- and I often do --
and the meditation and the questions and communication with God, I'll go to
any church. But I won't get involved with it to the point it dominates my
thinking. Music is my god."
The above quote comes from an interview segment at the beginning of Nina
Simone: Live at Ronnie Scott's, a 1984 London concert recently issued on
DVD. It leads into footage of the late Simone singing and playing "God God
God," a performance that could teach Nico a lesson in terms of finessing
the recurrent notes and tonalities of a dirge. Her left hand keeps rhythm,
her right hand solos, and her eyes stare straight ahead. The sound is naked
and minimalist; the meditative quality of her voice shifts to frustration
and striving resolve as the piano sound grows more forceful and ascends a
staircase of wakefulness.
"God God God" drifts near-aimlessly along a somnolent journey, then snaps
to attention and grasps at a revelation just out of reach in a manner that
only a Simone song can. Yet even if music was Simone's god, the
onward-and-upward questing that characterized her songwriting and
performances extended from her life ? this daughter of a Southern methodist
minister abandoned a "home" country that had subjected her to racial
discrimination and governmental persecution, which were often
interchangeable. She romanced a prime minister in Barbados and a major
business leader in Liberia before settling, as fitfully as one can settle,
in France. Within the song, Simone refers to "God God God" 's title mantra
as her "silent war cry." But she was rarely silent in life.
Break Down and Let It All Out, Sylvia Hampton's new Simone biography
(written with her brother, music journalist David Nathan), captures more
than a few war cries, many directed at those close to Simone. Like Simone's
autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, Hampton's portrait takes its name from
a signature song, but the similarities basically stop there. The bipolar
opposite of Etta James's outrageously candid Rage to Survive and a stern
cousin of Billie Holiday's mythmaking Lady Sings the Blues, Simone's
self-account aims to maintain an air of mystery, leaping eras to downplay
behavior that doesn't fit her deserved reputation as a righteous civil
rights icon; the result is a strange work that comes to an abrupt close
shortly after a suicide attempt is casually dismissed. Break Down focuses
precisely on the volatile behavior Simone refused to disclose. A foreword
by Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, sets the mood, reminiscing on "her
smell, her touch, her smile (when it was real) and her passion."
That parenthetical stands out. It's the stuff of mother-daughter melodrama.
But neither Break Down's foreword nor the book that follows qualifies as a
Christina Crawford vendetta -- even if Simone, like it or not, became a
surrogate mother of sorts to Hampton. A fan club secretary, Hampton could
be counted upon for unreasonable devotion. Simone imaginatively tested the
limits of this quality, until one 3:15 a.m. phone call -- angrily demanding
that Hampton show up immediately at her hotel room -- caused it to snap.
For years the Love Sorceress and High Priestess of Soul and her most
faithful worshiper remained out of touch. Shortly thereafter, when Nathan
refused to travel on a whim to Morocco with Simone in order to help her
write her life story, she proceeded to write him and Hampton out of it.
Simone's Live at Ronnie Scott's dates from a time close to Break Down's
chief showdown and serves as another window into her state of mind at the
time. One of her greatest compositions takes the Lord's name in vain, and
her varying performances of the song honestly reflect her moods of the
moment: on the famous 1964 recording Nina Simone Live at Town Hall,
"Mississippi Goddam" is forceful, even comedic in its defiance. Twenty
years later and one ocean away at Ronnie Scott's, Simone races through it
somewhat distractedly, adding the name "Reagan" to its list of
everybody-knows-about woes, impatient not so much with the song as with its
continued relevance. The tune she throws the full force of her talent
behind is the romantic lament "For a While," a bit of treacle she turns
into gold ? after dedicating it to an absent lover.
If music is Simone's god, then listening to her music (and that of Jimmy
Scott and others) might be as close as I've come to worship. The couple of
times I saw Simone in concert, late in her life, the eccentricities that
Break Down renders in compassionate, sometimes hilarious detail had moved
to the foreground of her onstage presence. She raised a scepter to demand
standing ovations, which audiences were more than willing to provide.
Working with a full band (as opposed to Live at Ronnie Scott's two-piece)
sometimes muddied her approach, and her near-aimless drifts didn't always
find their way back to a song's end. Yet just when one might begin to
worry, Simone would throw a lightning bolt. Langston Hughes's "Images"
silenced the concert hall.
Wild is the wind, wild was her mind, and Break Down contains more than a
few colorful anecdotes about Simone's quirks. Relying on the suspect
practice of relating decades-old conversations verbatim as if she'd taped
them, Hampton studiously re-creates Simone's tendency to pepper remarks
with a sharp "Ha!" and favorite expressions such as "man" and "daaarling."
While disdainful of the media's tendency to emphasize Simone's problems,
Break Down hardly shies away from relating painful stories about the mental
instability of the woman behind the music. And yet the ones that linger are
funny: "Dr. Nina Simone" having her arrival announced at the bank and
sparring with restaurant owners. A naked-beneath-a-fur-coat Simone
commanding a bashful Nathan to share her belief that she was the
reincarnation of Nefertiti ("I was a great queen"). Who could argue with
Break Down's chief paradox is that while Hampton's and Nathan's white,
British, and gay background proves a severe limitation in terms of relating
to -- and relating -- Simone's experiences and her troubled mind, it also
adds an ever tense poignance to their bond with her. Perhaps never fully
formed, that bond was impossible to sever. "YOU MUST BELIEVE IN GOD, you
MUST believe in GOD!" Simone yelled at Nathan during one of their first
encounters, shortly after Blood, Sweat, and Tears' cover of "God Bless the
Child" had sent her into a rage. Both he and Hampton wound up following her
advice, and I'm not talking about mere diva worship.
It's easy to see why. Filtering a strong spirit through a wealth of
personae that might give Chaka Khan woman envy, the ritual and the
meditation and the questions and the communication are all there, in her