“Music has been a burden and a joy for as long as I can remember.” – Nina Simone
Nina Simone’s music is trembling and alive. Her piano and vocal techniques are studied and intricate, but they are saturated with an emotional fire. She didn’t know how to not share her wild and dirty heart with us, and that’s why we can’t help but fall in love with her. Her feelings, these feelings that many in her audience relate to, can go deep and dangerous. When a singer or musician presents with such raw and real feeling, it is often indicative of a very difficult life. A song contains it; a song embodies the whole of reality while it is being played, but how are these feelings supposed to be managed when the music stops?
Every one of Nina’s songs is a special brew with a secret recipe that puts a spell over the whole room. Every song seems to be a struggle to find out how she feels and to somehow let us know. “What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message which means using everything you’ve got inside you sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing,” Nina says in the new Netflix-produced documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?. “So sometimes I sound like gravel, and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”
“What makes me the happiest is when I am performing, and there are people out there who feel with me, and I know I touched them. But, to be completely honest the whole thing seems so much like a dream. I never thought I was gonna stay in show business.” – Nina Simone
She could captivate, entertain, and persuade on stage, but as her daughter says, she found it very hard to manage to live the rest of the time. It wasn’t just sadness that gave her trouble; it was an unshakable anger. As Nina’s daughter Lisa points out in the film, the problem was that she would still be fighting the battles she waged onstage, alone, long after the audience went home. There were reasons for her anger, of course. Big reasons. Nina was brought up in the Jim Crow south and received powerful and devastating messages about who she and her parents deserved to be in this world. She was criticized for her looks and denied admission Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia based on her skin color. She was always out of place. She lived a lonely life since the age of seven when she began taking piano lessons from a white piano teacher who took her under her wing. Without these lessons, and the fund her teacher set up for her to further her training, Nina would probably have never had a musical career. But, her lessons isolated her and left her in a world of her outside both the black and white worlds. She was a poor black girl in North Carolina who had been given a privilege usually only reserved for rich white girls: studying classical music. It was a gift, but it was also a source of tension for Nina. She had trouble, despite all of her hard honesty, being comfortable with herself.
Nina had another reason for her anger: she was physically abused by her manager-husband, Andrew Stroud. “Andrew protected me against everybody but himself,” Nina said. “He wrapped himself around me like a snake. I worked like a dog, and I was scared of him. And Andrew beat me up. I was deathly scared of Andrew.” One night the abuse got particularly bad. Nina had accepted a note from a fan at a club, an action that she considered to be innocent but Andrew took quite another way. He beat her in the street and continued the assault all the way home where he tied her up and raped her. That night she ran away to her guitarist Al Schackman’s house where she was able to successfully hide out for two weeks.
Nina and Andy’s abusive dynamic was not self-contained; they both psychically abused their daughter Lisa. “The fact that Lisa was abused by Nina and by her father was not something I had known, but the first time I met Lisa, I felt it,” the film’s director Liz Garbus says. “I don’t know how many of us could reveal that and not ask for editorial control. [But] without acknowledging the tough spots, how could you really acknowledge the full genius of who she was?”
“I think they were both nuts,” Lisa says about her parents. “She stayed with him. She had this love affair with fire. That’s like inviting the bull with the red cape, ‘Come on into my kitchen, and let’s see what we can do,’ and that’s what she did.”
Like any toxic and abusive behavior, there may be reasons, compelling personal and cultural reasons, behind them, but with incendiary actions, the reasons don’t matter. The mood, the emotion, is all that is felt, and an enraged person looks for any reason they can find the stoke their fire, explain their flame. After her parents’ divorce, Lisa says it just got worse for her. She felt small and helpless against her mother’s ire. “My mom shot me down a lot, attacked me in public. It is easy to attack children, they are small and depend on you,” Lisa remembers. “My mother was angry with the world and often the only person around to blame was me.”
Nina found an outlet for some of her anger in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She was inspired to write the impassioned “Mississippi Goddam,” and sing “Young, Gifted and Black,” but it seemed that this new search to inject meaning into her music just incited a further explosion. She became obsessed and paranoid. It was an important cause to get behind and to be inspired by, but it still wasn’t going to fill her up where she felt empty. It was a way to channel her anger, and ultimately a way to amplify it.
Nina Simone was searching for freedom her whole life. Freedom to be herself, and freedom from herself. She went from a marginalized childhood in North Carolina to NYC, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City. She traveled the world for it. When America got to be too much, she looked for it in Liberia; she looked for it in Switzerland, and in France. She looked for it in success, and when that didn’t work, she looked for it in giving up. Most of the time, though, whatever it was she was looking for was out of reach.
“It’s just a feeling,” she said in an interview about what freedom means to her. “It’s just a feeling. It’s like how do you tell somebody how it feels to be in love. How are you going to tell anybody who has not been in love who it feels to be in love? You cannot do it to save your life. You can describe things. But you can’t tell them. But you know it when it happens. That’s what I mean by free. I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free! And that’s something else! That’s really something else! I’ll tell you what freedom is to me, no fear. I mean no fear! If I could have that half of my life. No fear.”
Her lead guitarist Al Schackman said he always knew something was eating at Nina, something unpredictable and troubling. In the 1960s, a suicidally depressed Nina was hospitalized for psychiatric help, but a diagnosis wasn’t reached. Her life proceeded to fall further apart until she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the 1980s, a relatively new diagnosis at the time. The drugs she was persuaded to take would offer her a kind of stability she had not known before, but were eventually going to rob her of her musical abilities. Still, she chose to take her medicine and perform for as long as she could.
It does, however, guarantee that your art is a part of the journey of others, and it is a part of their happiness and helps them through their pain. Nina’s music is played at parties, and played in lonesome darkness. It helps people celebrate, and it helps people feel less alone when they are feeling bad. There’s nothing more beautiful we can offer each other.
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