Monday, February 6, 2012

My Nina Simone Experiment

College introduced me to Nina Simone. Not going to college, but college applications.  As a teenager getting ready  to decide my next four years, I set up a college application factory. The 'factory' involved 3 assembly lines spread out over the dining room table. Line A was for small liberal colleges in small towns, Line B was for big colleges in big cities, and Line C was for medium-sized colleges just outside or near big cities. Each line had a top school and a series of alternatives.

At the start of each line were the hard copy applications and all the basic paper work. Then off to the side I keep the factory parts to be added: resume, list of awards and honors, several generic letters of recommendation to be matched according to school, several notarized sealed transcripts I had sweet-talked the high school secretary into giving to me, and a file of prewritten essays. As the applications worked there way down assembly line A, B, or C, I would make a file folder, slap in needed material, transcript envelope, recommendations, and the appropriate essays.

The most personable and time-consuming part of college applications were mandatory essays. And I was determined to spend the least amount of time possible on this. I crafted and honed a series of Hallmark-card style essays that answered my passions, goals, why I loved (fill in the blank) big college, why (fill in the blank) small college liberal arts education was so crucial to my development, and why (medium sized school) had the best of both worlds. If I there was a school that decided to be 'eccentric and unique' in their questions I would answer the essays that offered the greatest chance for recycling. Northwestern University's infamous "if you had to design a building that expressed your personality" essay questions would send me into fits.

One day as a particular college application was making its way down the assembly line in its yellow file folder I noticed that all the essay questions were aggravatingly 'eccentric' and unique. I began eliminating the ones that were so strange no other college would even think of asking and sifting my choices down to 2 possible essays. One question was about my parents and family and the other question was to name a person in history who influenced me. I wasn't too keen on the idea of writing about Black middle class family life for fear that it might pop their 'downtrodden Black kid overcomes the odds' bubble. I settled on writing about a person in history. This is a great essay to have on file for any future 'who or what inspires you' questions.

I needed a hero. Problem was that I couldn't think of anyone from history who I admired and directly influenced me. I could go with the obvious choice for a Black kid: a civil rights leader. The safe, obvious pick is Martin Luther King. But they probably got hundreds of those essays. I didn't dare write "Malcolm X" or a Black Panther organizer, just in case the person reading it wasn't that left-leaning in their politics. A sports hero might get laughed at and put me in the 'dumb jock' pile. Who did I admire?

I got up from the factory line and walked to the living room. By the TV was a stack of magazines. My sister had purchased one I had never heard of: "Interview." I opened the glossy cover and learned that it was founded my Andy Warhol, the ultimate factory worker. The magazine reflected the genius of its creator: it was a colorful sausage casing stuffed with celebrities-interviewing-celebrities filler and idolatry. Perfect.

Consuming the magazine as I think Warhol meant it to be read, my eyes ran over the pages as my fingers snapped a new page on top: a word here -FLIP- a cheeky phrase there- FLIP- a new movie coming out- FLIP- celebrity fawning over another celebrity's- FLIP-perfume ad-FLIP. It was a patina of airbrushed faces, inconsequential beauty tips and a self-help word slaw not meant to be lingered on, but best consumed in a mindless frenzy while exercising, watching TV, walking your dog, or performing minor surgery. The artistry was in how editors and graphic designers could turn a chic let into a Thanksgiving feast. I really do marvel at craftsmen who can make a puff of smoke seem like a fortress and, upon first read, Interview felt like the mini-masterpiece of some marketing idiot savant. It was here amidst the fluff that a blurb on Nina Simone stuck out. In between designer bags and winking blue eyes, there was this image that was  mahogany. Stern, dense, and epic, the face of Nina Simone looked like they snuck a Tolstoy novel in between eyeshadow ads.

My fingers stopped flipping. My eyes lingered for a moment. Then I continued consuming with my fingers all the way to the back cover. The only thing I could remember in the colorful haze was the picture of that stern woman looking out. I thumbed my way back to Nina Simone. It was a one-pager, a simple rebellious reverie for the self-exiled American Black artist. I took in the bullet points of her life.

She was living in France.

She had quit America and its music industry years ago.

Her voice was thick and smoky.

She was a classically-trained pianist.

Her biggest hit, "Mississippi Goddamn," was penned in a furious outburst after a church bombing.

That's all I needed to know. I went to the computer and punched up a short essay about why and how Nina Simone  deeply impacted my life. Over the next few weeks and then months I polished and honed the essay every time I brought it out of the stable. After a while I began to feel guilty that I was using this Nina Simone hero essay and I had never actually heard one of her songs.

I went to the record store (yes, they did exist children)and discovered that there was quite a nice hidden Nina Simone section. I made sure to pick out a cassette (yes, they did exist) with her classic "Mississippi Goddamn" on it. When I got to the cash register, the clerk looked at my purchase and then looked up at me with shocked look. Then this burn-out hippie started nodding.

"Alll right!!"

This was the beginning of my Nina Simone experiment. This lady was already making me feel good and I hadn't even listened to one note. I guess she was respected and, by purchase proxy, I was respected and outside-of-the-norm. I was a rebel consumer and not like those college kids that wear Che Guevara shirts. Everyone knew Che. Only the elites knew Nina.

Nina Simone fans were like an underground cult back then. They lived in the catacombs, off in the abandoned mom-and-pop record shops, tape piles, and stowed-away treasure chests. You had to know someone who knew Nina Simone. As her albums were produced by so many different record labels over several generation that there was a lot of different quality and standards. You needed a Nina teacher. I found a few in unexpected places. Often these teachers were in their 40s and 50s and fit the progressive white liberal mode. Occasionally I would find another teenager who also knew what Nina Simone was about, but I found that there knowledge was at my level. They knew the bullet points of her career and her most popular songs. I didn't want to hang out with new Nina Simone fans, who just recycled what they heard their parents say. I needed to be around people who knew more than me.

I bought her biography, "I Put A Spell On You"and read it several times, highlighting different aspects of her life. The more rare Simone songs started appearing on my radar. By the time I arrived at Northwestern University I had several Nina Simone CDs amidst my gangsta rap and some r&b oldies.

One day I was looking for other participants in my Simone experiment. I played Nina Simone's album when my roommate, an 18-year-old Cuban-American, walked into the room. I played it cool and continued to do my homework but I desperately wanted him to like the tunes. My roommate sat at his desk reviewing his book. After a few songs, he blurted out, "Who is this guy?!"

I informed him that it wasn't a guy but a woman. Her name was Nina Simone. He frowned like he was being force fed liver-flavored jello. In a nonchalant tone I asked him what he thought about the music.

"It's...okay," he said while making a face like he just smelled a fart. "I just thought it was a guy."

I let the song on the stereo play out and then I turned off the CD. My roommate instantly perked up and started talking. He put in one of my rap CDs and we continued doing our homework. I made a note to never play Nina Simone in his presence.

My parents didn't like Nina Simone either. They found her annoyingly unclassified. She wasn't quite jazz, not quite blues, not traditional soul music. When I played a Simone CD in the car they listened politely.

"This is Nina Simone."

"Ahhh. Interesting."

Another failed convert. I put my Nina away. The Fugees had a one-word mention of the exiled diva. Lauryn Hill spit the verse:

"I be Nina Simone/ defecating on yer microphone."

And that is how most of the people in my generation would become familiar with her name. I didn't learn until much later that Lauryn Hill and Ms. Simone were actually friends and talked. It was possible that it was Simone's 'exile opinion' that prompted Hill to disappear from the music scene with her kids for many years.

Her name would pop up in odd conversations. The strangest and most unexpected people were familiar with her music and a part of the secret society. And there's still the fans that vaguely know and love her and then the fans who worship Simone. The one common trait in Nina Simone-philes is that they tend to be the one man or woman in a group of friends who is quietly and very discretely different. They have secret loves, passions that run like underground springs. They try to fit in, but can't pull it off completely. There's always a loose-end sticking out.

Her music is too varied in style and production quality to be analyzed in a neat and concise way. She sang a strange mixture of blues and soul with African drums and a classical piano flowing underneath. Who thinks with such richness or has an ear like that these days in contemporary music? And she recorded popular, eccentric masterpieces in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Over four decades her voice became slightly brittle, her tended to become more Africanized in the 1970s. And in the 1980s she had an unfortunate run-in with a synthesizer which, out of respect for her, I won't go into. I'll just say that I've only littered once in my life and it was at 55 mph after popping in a cassette and hearing Simone's voice being stretched over Euro-synth mixers. As the newly-purchased cassette leaped out of my hand and flew through the window I realized that I had become a Nina Simone snob. It pained me too much to see her voice ruined by shoddy production and cheap lyrics. In my rear view mirror I tried to see the tattered remains of my experiment with 1980s Nina.

And then I stopped listening to her. Just like that, I went from collecting random trivia, cherishing rare live performances, combing the internet for the mention of her name to nothing. Dead silence. She was making a comeback and I feared the worst. She wobbled out on stage for one final victory lap. Now re-introduced to America as 'an ARTISTE' she was selling out shows in New York and LA. Her voice was no longer smoky and reedy. It was just a smoldering wreck. I felt embarrassed for her. But then I noticed something. She felt no embarrassment or apologies. Yes, her voice was changing. That's what happens when a woman ages. Simone compensated by more creative arrangements, diva-like talking back to the audience, making demands on her musicians and fans to prop her up. Join in the chorus! Nina demands it! And we, the faithful Nina Simone cult complied. It was fun. We joined in the singing, the musicians bent their notes to her warbling voice. We were becoming a part of the art.

My love was restored. And with that she once again disappeared. Off to her chateau in France. Back behind the fences. She passed away silently behind those gates. Her songs have become more known thanks to youtube and the collapse of the record industry.

Currently it's a free-for-all in the music industry. Nina is doing quite nicely in the anarchy. She'll pop up in a movie, or a fashion show. I walked in Chipotle a few days ago and Nina Simone was blasting on the speakers. I stood there with my mouth agape. And then another Nina Simone song. Back to back!!! This wasn't just a random shuffle. The manager was a Nina Simone fan. The clerks were oblivious to what was being piped into their workspace. They groused and complained, rolled their eyes at the manager, and treated customers as a burden. But I was in heaven. They didn't know what they missing. I wanted to tell them, educate them, introduce them to the world of Nina Simone.  But then again it wasn't my place. They had to take their own journey, find their own music. I knew that I had found mine. 


Chiron Armand said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post on this amazing figure and hero of mine!

Aurin Squire said...

Thank you Chiron. She is still an inspiration and an angel i turn to in my life. It's amazing what artist can do for us in life.