May 8, 1994
What is the mark of the true star? Champagne and roses, chauffeur-driven cars, floor-length furs, standing ovations, global recognition? Or the chutzpah to walk on stage in bagging sweatshirt, limp leather miniskirt, white tights and suede wellingtons? Maybe it’s just the trick of inspiring paralysing terror in anyone who crosses your path. By any reckoning, Nina Simone sits at the top table.
By Monday blood pressure levels are soaring across Glasgow. There’s the car problem in Tunisia, the dog problem in Paris, her manager is too petrified of her to pass on interview requests, and she has switched to a flight scheduled to arrive all of 30 minutes before she’s due on stage. Then there’s the ticket headache. Simone has pulled out of the Glasgow Jazz Festival twice in the past, seats aren’t selling because nobody thinks she’ll turn up. The word from Mayfest is: ”It’s a nightmare.”
But a nightmare with distinct overtones of farce. By Tuesday anticipation is at such a pitch that newspapers are running entire features about being kept on hold by the switchboard at her Tunisian hotel, news stories based on a 10 second phone call (she hung up). A television crew is kept on standby all day without filming a shot. We’ve all heard the stories: Nina the unpredictable, canceller of sell-out dates, the diva who’s been known to walk off after 20 minutes – no encore – or stop a song to harangue the audience for not listening properly. Yet when the show finally misses its eight o’clock start, it’s because her drummer is late. Miss Simone – Doctor Simone, as she likes to be called – is in the wings and raring to go.
This is the point at which things begin to go right. She walks on clasping her hands above her head like a prize fighter then toyi-toyies around the stage, beaming hugely: South Africa is free. At 61, the voice is a little gruffer, those sorrowing arpeggios a little less fluid, but when she really lets rip, hammering out those swirling classical chords on the piano, she can still sing up a storm. Of course, she can’t resist terrorising the audience a little, breaking into a number called She-lion every so often (”she drinks a little coffee/she drinks a little tea/she drinks a little champagne/and then she go home”) before strolling off-stage. But she’s only teasing.
And we love it. There’s nothing like the possibility that every number is the last to hone a crowd’s appreciation. Even the clothes are a kick: it’s like turning up to see Montserrat Caballe sing Tosca in a shell suit.
The court of Queen Nina is unanimous that there’ll never be a better chance to snatch an audience. Mandela’s in power, the lady’s on a high, and the expressions of numb relief suggest this is not a conjunction you can count on too often. The man from Mayfest is displaying the compulsive garrulity common to survivors of natural disasters and near-death experiences.
So I’m led to a poky nook in the wings set up like a supper club booth, the table lamp casting its rosy circle, a bucket of champagne on the pink cloth, and an assortment of managers, musical directors, security attendants, chauffeurs, champagne-pourers, you name it, in respectful attendance. Dr Simone sits resplendent in leopard-skin coat with a paisley headscarf tied under her chin. So like the home life of our own dear queen.
”What time is it?” she asks inauspiciously. Half past 10, someone says. (Actually it’s 10.23 but this does not seem the moment for pedantry.) ”You’ve got 12 minutes, honey.”
Right now, face to face with a notoriously temperamental star and surrounded by a rapt audience of hangers-on, 12 minutes seems an eternity. I try Nelson, but she’s never met him; the personal psychics and past lives, but she’d rather not discuss them. Her complicated relationship with her 93-year-old mother? Senile for the past year and now dying. Her home near Marseille ..? At last that powerful face shows a flicker of interest.
This is what happens when you meet one of the all-time legends of popular music, she talks about servant problems in the South of France. The boy left her because his girlfriend got sick, the girl quit because she couldn’t take the pressure, some of them she had to fire … And yet even as the precious minutes tick by, there’s a certain fascination in this, a river of lament rumbling ceaselessly on, like the bass notes churned by her left hand on the piano. If Simone wasn’t born to sing the blues, then she’s had a lot of practice.
Musically or conversationally, the style is similar. Her forte is fortissimo, a vigorous dolour flaring suddenly into thundering wrath or, on nights like this, raucous high spirits.
She laughs, exposing a set of teeth that make the keyboard look undersupplied. ”All the men are always after me, these French cats. They’re always on the phone, at the door. You just have to be attractive and a woman alone. They’re terrible, they don’t let go. I run a lot, I mean that. I had to run to Tunisia 14 days ago, I put my bags in my car and took the overnight trip.” The laughter evaporates. ”I got no business being alone.”
A chastened critic once wrote that seeing Simone in concert was far more effective at re-educating men than any theoretical feminist could be. ”We cannot come away unaware of the harm we do.” She’s been swindled and hospitalised and heartbroken in her time, but she keeps coming back for more. The saddest point in a show with more than its share of affecting moments comes when she remarks that she seldom feels like a woman these days.
”That’s real,” she says now. ”I remember a time I would never dare go on stage in boots and my hair unkempt and a pack at my waist like this. Oh Lord, 10 years ago it was unthinkable. I’d make the audience wait until I put on my make-up and a gown and gold shoes and diamond earrings. I like men, I like men a lot, and I do not get beautiful for a woman or for myself.
”It’s been so long since there was a man I could respect, an agent or a father-image or a friend. I know I’m not alone. I bet you’re not married.” Confirmation of this cheers her up considerably. ”Mmmm-hmmm, got you that time.”
Loneliness is a constant theme, in song and speech. She’s alone in the south of France; all her friends live in Paris. When she travels, she’s struggling to carry 14 pieces of luggage on her own. (Being Simone, no one suggests she pack less.) She’s alone in Glasgow, now, checking into a hotel she doesn’t even know …
This moves Raymond, her manager, an undersized Frenchman in a faded denim suit, to assure her that there is ”no problem” with the hotel. ”No problem” choruses the court. ”I don’t want to hear ‘no problem’,” she snarls, and without warning Raymond is on the receiving end of a spectacular, if repetitive, verbal mauling. The court holds its breath. She turns back and, after a beat, resumes her comedy routine about the amorous persistence of the French.
The next hour is something of a white-knuckle ride. One minute she’s flirting with the municipal security men (a one-way process, it has to be said) drawing up a wish list of furs. ”A nice white mink all the way to the floor – thanks guys – and a brown ranch mink for travelling with a matching hat – hello – and a nice one like this …” She strokes the leopard-skin, but the joke turns to fury. ”They brought it on the goddam airplane. Chick didn’t know how to fold it, trailing it on the floor. Oh Jesus. I’ve had some very beautiful things in my life, and I miss them. It’s awful.” Her lip puckers and she emits the low humming of a child pretending to cry. She’s playing again, reminiscing about all those diamond earrings and gold shoes. ”Clothes when you put them on it takes you two hours and you got to have two men you’ve got your eye on.” Suddenly she proffers a palm. ”Gimme five.”
Here the drummer remarks that you wouldn’t catch him taking two hours to dress for any woman. ”That’s not crazy,” she snaps. ”You don’t know nothing about women. You missed the whole point.”
And so it goes on. No one is safe. Even I come in for the odd basilisk glare, but by then it’s clear that these mood swings are at least as much a performance as the one she has just given on stage.
Poverty and prejudice deprived Nina Simone of the chance of becoming America’s first black concert pianist. She was refused a scholarship at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute, and the disappointment scarred her life. Jazz was just for the money, and to prove the point, leaving no one in any doubt that she was born for better things, she became the difficult diva. It was fine in the 1960s, when her high-handedness was employed in the service of the Civil Rights movement, but there came a day when her blend of blues, gospel, jazz and classical went out of fashion.
The 1970s were the wilderness years, although even then she observed a certain style. Run-ins with the taxman left her broke, but at least she was broke in Paris. There is talk of turning one of her many love affairs, her liaison with the then prime minister of Barbados, Earl Barrow, into a film with Whoopi Goldberg.
In the 1980s she was rescued by Chanel which, in choosing a 1958 recording, My Baby Just Cares for Me, as soundtrack to a commercial for Chanel No 5, brought her into the limelight again. True to form, she sued. (Not that she doesn’t have grounds for complaint about money, it’s been estimated that failing to read the small print of her first record contract cost her a million dollars.) Now she’s not only in vogue but enjoying ”classic” status, the bad behaviour, all those stories about her dancing naked in nightclubs and relieving herself in taxis, are a form of insurance.
It’s a lesson she learned in Paris when, attempting a comeback, she played a small club on the Pigalle and nobody turned up. Stardom was a package deal: if she didn’t stay in the luxury suite and get mentioned in the gossip columns for attending celebrity parties, she wasn’t the singer they wanted to see. You’ll never get her to admit to ring-fencing herself with her retinue’s fear – ”I don’t do that: that’s their own thing” – but it’s all part of a strategy to ensure that she is never undervalued again.
My last glimpse of her is in the back of a car, just before she’s driven off to the unknown hotel. Without an audience she seems less formidable, vulnerable even, gesturing feebly at a briefcase on the seat beside her. ”Help me close this,” she says, not moving. She’s trying it on, of course, she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself. But for the sake of maintaining the legend, it seems a small price to pay.
Courtesy of Scotsman Publications