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Pop Music | ESSAY

Conversations with a voice aching of experience

May 18, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Nina Simone is live on stage in my car, brimming with optimism, boasting, "Tomorrow's my turn ...."

She's riffing in my living room, remixed, "feeling good." And in my bedroom, she's just piano and voice confiding, "With these few goodbye words / How can I sing?"I don't dare interrupt her.

We've been having a running conversation for years, and when she died late last month, it didn't -- couldn't -- stop.

There are entire chapters, hers and mine, that we haven't gotten to.

My introduction to Simone was "Little Girl Blue." I might have been 10 or so. She was, well, grown up. My mother had the old "Nina Simone" Bethlehem LP, and by the time my hands got to it, the sleeve had yellowed and the glue had dissolved, so the cover opened up like a book. In whimsical script it advertised, "Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club."

I wanted to know what was inside.

I liked that she was sitting on a bench in a red plaid poncho, this black woman alone in a big indistinct city, looking thoughtful, and I wondered how she got there. Hearing the music and the tremor of her voice at that time made me realize that although I slipped easily into their contours, there might be layers -- "all you can ever count on / are the raindrops" -- I didn't really understand. By the time I circled back to the early Simone in college, she was "cool," off-the-beaten-track coffeehouse fare. She was idiosyncratic. And there was something freeing about rediscovering a woman so bent on cutting a singular path in bold strokes at a time when I was finding my own voice and stride. But she wasn't merely ambience. She broke through the party chatter or the hiss of the Venice Beach cafe's grand cappuccino maker. She cast the spell with her voice: her open vowels; the precise phrasing; the drawn out spaces between words; the sisterly "don't worry, childs."

What were we listening for? Maybe it was the sudden stops and headlong runs of Simone's piano spills in "My Baby Just Cares for Me" because, as one friend pointed out, "that's the part that feels like falling in love." Or maybe it was the "through the darkness to a new day" of "Here Comes the Sun," a dispatch that can only be told through the eyes of a grateful survivor. She was always the best seatmate for the long, head-clearing rides between one life chapter and the next, and she gave race politics a hip spin ("Old Jim Crow"). Her singular voice, woody and deeply grooved, testified and rabble-roused, swinging all the while.

Eventually, I'd "borrowed" pretty much all of my mother's disintegrating LPs -- Nina in all manner of African head wrap and sparkly evening dress, chunky jewelry and frost lipstick. I noted her evolution. And the songs that had changed me began to change. I'd lived "Love Me or Leave Me," been buoyed by "Feeling Good." They'd become more than songs; they were emblems -- souvenirs of a life's journey.

I couldn't/wouldn't cast her "role model," certainly not in that classic sense. Nor could her trajectory quite be summed up as cautionary tale. As Simone sang a life's worth of songs into my life, nothing ever was sewn up easy, tied up in a bow. The exotic concert stages, the French address, the collection of world-altering admirers from James Baldwin to Miriam Makeba, didn't add up to a fairy tale life.

But that, I began to realize later, was why she appealed to me. She would take the spills and not hide the scars. There was a blaring forthrightness about her, bald and cut down to the nerve, as she told the truth about everything from race and politics to the trapdoors of love. At quick glimpse, she possessed all the details that made, I thought, for a romantic sketch of a life, and yet -- there was the pain. What wasn't in her voice had carved itself plainly on her face.

While many wondered at her anger, I wondered at her capacity to continue despite all -- a life that had been marked by racism, tough business breaks, null-and-void love and displacement. She lived the same way she sang -- oblivious to or unheeding of the way someone might have done it before.

Not so long ago, just weeks before she died, I'd been spinning a song of hers -- "Tomorrow Is My Turn" -- on repeat mode in my car, hearing a lyric I hadn't paid much attention to before. "But honey it's too late to regret what is gone will be no more." A message that seemed louder, more emphatic after she passed away.

When I heard she'd left the world, like she sometimes left the stage -- abruptly and with oblique explanation -- I pulled out "Nina Simone" -- my very own copy, a rare, Japanese pressing, a gift from a friend-suddenly-turned-suitor. A story Simone herself, I knew, would find amusing but most likely familiar. But I wasn't ready to listen to it. I knew "Little Girl Blue" -- "Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy / To cheer up little girl blue" -- would make me just that.

I didn't need to: I saw that face, the sum of all the choices and their consequences. And in my head, I heard her voice -- the tremor and the emotion of it: "This old world is a new world and a bold world for me."

It was all right there.

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