Long time ago, in the mid Seventies, there was a strange woman who lived nearby. She and her husband went to bed early (like about seven o’clock), she’d read everything to be read (worked for Some Manhattan Publisher), was a recovered drinker, and played a strange solitaire game on her cobbler’s bench coffee table
, which I later learned was four-suit Spider, the most complex solo card puzzle of them all. When I complimented her on the wall hanging in her living room, she offhandedly mentioned Ben Shahn
hardly ever did commissions, but had given her a few sketches that she'd worked as the 12 days of Christmas
. I might have worshiped the ground she walked on
, but she was, mostly, our neighbor.
She asked me what kind of music I liked. I said, I know, most kids around like rock, but one thing I really like, is soul.
Ah, soul. She looked reverent. The most emotional music.
I was puzzled. Soul was a lot of Black people singing pretty love songs and painting uplifting pictures of life in da hood. It was happy music, when the world seemed sad. Then I heard what soul meant in the early Sixties. And what it meant was Nina Simone.
As with Laura Nyro, this is someone you’ve probably heard, but never heard of: if you've ever felt the remorse of a beating spouse in "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by the Animals, marveled at the emotional complexity of "Wild is the Wind" by David Bowie, it's Nina you're hearing (and does it make it better or worse that a Black woman wrote it, only to be sung by white men?). Also as with Nyro, her work doesn’t easily slot into a neat category: soul, yes, but a kind that never slept with Berry Gordy, blues (maybe). Rock? Folk? Jazz? Who knows? Her oboelike, sophisticated voice would grace any New York cabaret, her social consciousness could go toe-to-toe with the Black Panthers (and win). It’s a good thing she was never on Oprah, because she would have blown her out of the water (if she didn’t stomp on her toes, and spit in her eye, on camera). In "Love me or Let me be Lonely" you keep watching her eyes going in and out of focus, those hunched narrow shoulders and unschooled demeanor like the Spelling Bee Champion of North Carolina until you settle on the fact that no contemporary Black female pop star would ever have such a huge mouth (which, is is clear, she intends to use), nor as queenly Nefertiti-like a neck (and to Camille Paglia, yes, women exist who look like that). No drugs, but she sure was bad crazy. Certified. Violent. (At times.) Oh, yes, she was also a classical pianist. Trained at Julliard. The only reason why we aren't hearing the Baroque stylings of Eunice Wyman on NPR in the wee hours is that the classical world of mid-century America just couldn't take her in. (In those days, you couldn't work in an orchestra as a woman unless you were a harpist or something, much more as a Southern African American woman.) Ray Manzarek owed the break of "Light My Fire" to her and perhaps, still does, and George Winston carries on the tradition. And, of course, the same scene that took her in, just because of her skin, was the north side of Manhattan, USA that people call Harlem.
People love Melissa Etheridge for her depiction of the searing heat of a lesbian breakup. That’s a gentle breeze compared to Nina. Sinnerman depicts the literal Apocalypse, in a way that cannot help but make you feel for the poor sot caught up in it. She modestly asserted that it was a favorite spiritual of her Methodist mother’s — “to induce confessions of sin” — but it’s really not about that. (Although it probably did that. Really.)
In her hands, it’s all about the individual. Here again, all I can do is to quote near-misses — it’s like, but not quite “Locomotive Breath”, but in this case, it's Everyman who has the last say. After being driven to the Rock, who cannot help him, to the River of Blood, and to the Boiling Sea, he calls upon the Lord, who sneers “Go to the Devil!”
Who is waiting for him, but…
This isn’t Revelations. It’s Job.
Maybe somewhere in the next few minutes, God says “You ought have been prayin’.” but He really doesn’t have the last word. The Sinnerman is the center of this passion play. Hold to your word, Lord, as long as I can praise you, I still have your word that I have your protection and your salvation. And I praise you now, Lord. Listen to it now, and know the core of mystic thought. There's a reason why Aretha Franklin is Queen of Soul, but with Simone, you're hearing from the High Priestess.
Like I said, she was wicked crazy. Check it out.