I watched a documentary last night about Nina Simone, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” I had watched part of this one before and became distracted. “Feeling Good” was the first Nina Simone song that I ever heard and I loved it. I’d been a Billie Holiday fan for years and I thought, how is it that I hadn’t heard this yet?
Nine Simone had a rough story, a rough life, despite her fame. Born Eunice Waymon, she changed her name because her mother was religious and she didn’t want to offend her with the kind of music she was playing. She decided on “Nina” as a variation on the Spanish name for “girl” and she got the name Simone from French actress Simone Signoret. ( Signoret is well known in this country for the French film “Les Diaboliques,” in which she plays a mistress who seems to plot with a wife in order to get rid of the husband. It’s a favorite film of mine. And for being the first French person to win an Academy Award in 1959 for her role in the film “Room at the Top.”)
Nina Simone wanted to play Bach and be the first black classical pianist. She got caught up in the Civil Rights Movement, her own observation and statement on the subject, her next door neighbor was Malcom X and family, and later said that it had hurt her career because so many of her songs were about that era and movement and that when it passed, they were no longer relevant to her audience. ( As opposed to timelessness of classical music or music not rooted in topical subjects of a particular time. And yet, what a contribution to that.)
Her second marriage to an ex-cop was abusive, and likely went on for as long as it did because he was also her manager and her career was going well. She eventually left, going to live in Liberia where she said that she felt like she had found some place where she belonged for the first time in her life. She fell into not taking care of anything there, not paying taxes and perhaps after years of such intensive responsibility and pressure, she just couldn’t be bothered with some things. She later became abusive herself, that is often a pattern for those who have been in such a situation who have not ever addressed it, understood it, or found some treatment or therapy. She was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive, what we would now call bi-polar, and prescribed medication that quelled the violent mood swings but slowly eroded her motor skills, which they new that it would. However, she went back to performing later in life and the footage of her hands, her fingers on the piano keys, is stunning, as though she were incapable of anything other than playing brilliantly. You could see the classical training right there, that she played, “My Baby Just Cares for Me” as though it were Bach. Her daughter Lisa, who had suffered at her hands and ultimately made peace with things, said, “She was brilliant, you know, just brilliant.”
It was such a dark story though, much more so than I had expected. As I sat there watching I realized that it was having this tremendously deep effect on me. I thought, “This is dark, this is so dark.” I got to thinking about my own life and living and my work and living, LIVING. I got to thinking about laughing and all of the things that we sometimes hang onto that keep us from our JOY. All of the things that keep us from love, and from others, from being open. How she was a person so hurt, like many of us are sometimes because life isn’t always easy. Katharine Hepburn’s famous quote about life is, “Life is hard, after all, it kills you.” But about how that’s what happens, our hurts sometimes cause us to retreat to “safety” so that we can heal ourselves or try to, and sometimes necessarily so, completely. I keep thinking about how tough a person really has to be sometimes, to stay tender. To say, “Okay, that really sucked, but I’m still here.”
I got to thinking about all of things that keep us from laughing and giving and loving and living. About her still talking so much later in her life about how she had wanted to be a classical pianist and play Bach, that it was still a regret. I was thinking how she didn’t become the classical pianist but how she had this brilliant career in jazz and the blues, and had a contemporary popularity that likely reached a much larger audience than if she had been filling concert halls playing Bach. Had she just been Eunice Waymon, the classical pianist, I might have heard of her, but would I have listened? Of course that would have been a different life for her because the one she had, as Nina Simone, sure came at a price, and could that have been different too? Well, I got thinking about it all and just letting go and being.
I got to thinking about being joyful. Life happens to us all. I got to thinking about how she said she wanted to shake people up. I thought about whether or not I wanted to know all of this about Nina Simone. Was it changing my perspective about her music? Was it going to make it less enjoyable for me to listen to? But then I thought, what if she had known how much she really shook people up? And I thought about how it was changing the way that I feel about some things, and that yes, I have been through some really tough things in my life, but I believe in love, and joy and happiness. Sometimes you’ve got to be really tough, to stay tender. It was a good documentary.