Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Feeling Nina Then and Now

Many days I curse myself and YouTube for the unholy alliance and waste of time the two of us have squandered away more often than I’d wish to reveal. Then I come across something like this post that was up for a few weeks about a year ago and then not available again until recently.

One of the things I feel blessed for in this life is having seen Nina Simone live three different times. Twice I felt cheated for her overpriced, obscenely short, indifferent performance. Exasperated, I asked myself: How could I have worshiped this woman who just put on the most trite performance I've ever seen? Then once it was a near religious experience. In many ways the same show, but something was just slightly different. Was she mad at the audience, America, life, herself, racism, the lack of progress in social change, the cruel joke of life, the fact that it was so short?

In this clip, she takes a song that many have called one of the worst pop tunes ever written, makes a stab at it, trashes it, deconstructs it, reconstructs it, and then rises with phoenix-like bombast to make you uncertain of the trip you’ve been on and where she is taking you is hard to describe. How she manages to hammer out so much from something so slight over the course of ten and a half minutes restores my faith in her and life. About five minutes into the clip, her vocal reaches its apex, when you go from laughing at the lyric to thinking, just for a second, that its truth and simplicity are so brilliant that no one to date had the insight she has to dive in and bring out the writer’s truth. In the few seconds there where the camera zooms in, she lets out the words "...feelings like I never had you..." you are experiencing a performance that is nearly equal to the summary of the entire career of Bette Davis or Meryl Streep. So much condensed, real emotion transported onto a shaky little lyric, reminding us that the words really don't matter as much as what you feel when you sense them through such an artist. Then she launches into a Keith Jarrett-worthy passage of keyboard invention before ending our journey, not quite sure where we’ve been but certain we’ll never be quite the same again.

Uh, I guess you might guess that I've forgiven Nina for those two bad concerts I saw. Were they really bad after all?

Special thanks to Lauren of Mindful Things whose own posts of other Nina tunes inspired me to search this clip out again and making me grateful in a deeper way to be alive and having been in the same room with Nina when she walked this earth.

UPDATE: Kusala's comment questioning whether this was really from the DVD 0f her 1976 Montreux concert or from the film the film Supreme Sorceress motivated me to seek out the two DVDs. I found the former, from which this clip actually originates, but not the latter which I'd also love to find. Having it on the bigger screen and superior sound sytem is a vast improvement but also saddens me that I'll never see Nina live again. Yet, I find myself singing out to the void and hoping that she know that I have "fellings like I never lost you..." Oh, I can't even say the rest since she makes me feel it for real in my heart.

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At 5:14 AM, Blogger laurenbove said...

Thanks so much for your brilliant summation of that Nina Simone moment. I saw it recently on the boob tube and was like....wha? But now I truly get it. Like all art, I now have a wonderful new way to look at that performance that was so befuddling.

Honestly,I thought she had "problems" with "feelings" before but now I know it's way more complex than all that.

(I LOVE your blog and thank you for the props dear.)

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Incredible vid! We love Nina!! (I'm talking about my whole household.) Thank you for this!

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Lauren - Yes, the first time I saw this, I said, "Aw, she's flubbing the song," but then kept getting drawn in. It worries me that I might think she could make "Itsy Bitsy Spider" take on metaphysical import too. I think she really does plumb something profound out of this deceptively simple lyric -- that often we focus on the "feelings" of love without having any real connection to the other person, then we mourn the new feeling of loss and realization that it all was a fraud.

What I have come to realize is that Nina was a supreme artist and regular human being. Some nights she was depressed and off, others in rare form. She was not, as she says in her intro "a robot", and thus did not give consistent performances. If you want a wind up toy that gives you the same show every night, go to Vegas or Branson. Performers like Nina promise to give you a bit of their soul, and it will never be the same each time.

Reya - Oh, a household of Nina-lovers is a wonderful place to reside. My cat loves her too.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger rich bachelor said...

Yeah, I only saw her once, and it wasn't very long before she died. The performance was also very short ("That was eight bucks a song," one of my pals said), and largely filled out by the backup band, who no one was there to see, of course. She could barely walk, and could only barely sing.

And it also was depressing for the crowd of proud-of-themselves Portlanders, who would automatically respond with howls of laughter any time Nina would use the name 'Bush' in a sentence. Still thinking that "Mississippi Goddamn" is a comedic tune after all these years...

And now, I wish I'd seen her in the early '70's, like so many other performers.

At 8:59 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Rich - I've heard some interviews with her too where you wonder what planet she is from. In her peformances, sometimes folks weren't sure if some of her patter should be responded to with laughter, applause or silence. And she would make you feel as if she didn't give a damn what you did. Yes, she certainly was in her prime pre-1985 or so I'd say. By the way, I'm having her version of "My Way" played at my funeral. The rest of the service will be all Mozart played on 100 toy pianos.

At 9:29 AM, Blogger kusala said...

YouTube labels this a recording from Montreux, but I'm it looks to me very much like a clip from a movie called "Love Sorceress" (Sorcière d'Amour) that documents a Paris concert at L'Olympia. Any opinions?

"Sorceress" is an amazing film and you must all see it if you haven't. I meant to blog about it after seeing it a couple of years ago. I can't remember which now, but one of the songs brought me to tears and many made me break out in goosebumps. I think I need to own it, but I'm not sure if it's on DVD.

I feel lucky to have seen her a year or two before her death (probably the same tour Rich saw). Even though she was in poor form and seemed in terrible health, I was particularly moved by her rendition of "Young, Gifted and Black." I attended with an acquaintance who regaled me with stories of meeting her by chance in Provence in the 1980s and visiting with her on a few brief occasions.

What a life she had, but what a woman. I only hope she was somewhat happy when she passed and not embittered.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger marxsny said...

I love Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue is a fantastic record and I love her version of "My Way". I have never seen this clip or had the opportunity to see her live. I have seen her daughter, Simone, on Broadway though. In Aida if I remember correctly.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Kusala - I think she likely left us feeling, as always, a wide range of emotions. Everyone of them was real. No matter what she did, she could never fake it.

Mark - I guess I didn't know about the daughter being on Broadway. I do remember her mentioned in Nina's autobiography, "I Put a Spell on You", which, typically, as fascinating and frustrating.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger laurenbove said...

"Itsy Bitsy Spider" ....haha.....true that! You're such a wit. My cat loves Nina to sing whist she dines. Very romantic feline.

At 8:03 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Lauren - Maybe our cats should meet. Mine's a boy.


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