Nina Simone For Three Minutes, 1976
January 28, 2019
Nina Simone (née Eunice Kathleen Waymon) is called on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where she has played to unprecedented acclaim in the past.
She will play this festival again, despite insisting in this performance that she never will.
Nina Simone is confused.
Nina Simone is thin and muscly, which means she is not taking her medication.
One medication is lithium, a medicine that typically makes you dumb and fat, and fosters difficulty in accessing the gray matter volume of the left middle frontal gyrus and left inferior occipital gyrus. The creative part of the mind.
Nina Simone is taking the stage.
“Nina Simone” takes the stage.
“Nina Simone” is alone on stage while Nina Simone is elsewhere.
Nina Simone is so alone, that for a few moments, she’s unaware of the audience in front of her.
Nina Simone charms the audience and approaches the piano like an old pro, while at the same time being completely elsewhere. That’s how good she is at doing her job.
Dissociative fugue, formerly fugue state or psychogenic fugue, is a dissociative disorder and a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality. The state can last minutes, hours, days, months or longer.
Fugues are precipitated by a series of long-term traumatic episodes. It is most commonly associated with childhood victims of sexual abuse who learn over time to dissociate memory of the abuse (dissociative amnesia).
I don’t know if Nina Simone faced abuse. I do know she seemed to be forever navigating trauma.
I know this because I watched a documentary about her on Netflix.
Since it was discovered she had a gift for the piano as a small child, Simone dreamt of being the world’s greatest classical pianist. What she dreamt most of, in terms of pride and success and validation, was to play Radio Music City Hall. She never did.
She also never played classical music for an audience, burying her technical skill in a catalogue of songs she transformed and made transformative. Simone had studied at the Juilliard previous to her audition at the Curtis Institute of Music; an audition auspicious enough that her whole family moved to Philadelphia to support her. She was rejected at the last minute, after having radically changed her life in the face of their vociferous and inviting praise. Back home in Tryon, North Carolina, her rejection was reasonably attributed to race.
Two days before her death, The Curtis Institute of Music bestowed on the tumor-ridden pianist an honorary diploma. The insult could register as nothing less than violence.
Simone battled mental illness all her life, was secretly medicated for decades, and was known for her outbursts and violence.
Some of which were:
In 1985, Simone attempted to kill a record company executive with a handgun, accusing him of having stolen royalties. (Simone sold the rights to her debut album, Little Girl Blue, for $3,000; she eventually lost out on more than $1 million in royalties.)
In 1995, she shot and wounded a neighbor’s son with an air rifle after his laughter interrupted her concentration.
Simone once forced a cashier at gunpoint to take back a pair of sandals she’d already worn.
Simone rarely lived in the United States, and while living in Barbados had a long-term affair with the Prime Minister, Errol Barrow.
Singer Miriam Makeba urged Simone to move to Liberia, which she did in the early nineties for two years. There she behaved as a terrible mother, off medication, malnourished and unsupervised.
During her last American show, in Newark, Simone announced that “if you’re coming to see me again, you’ve got to come to France, because I ain’t coming back.”
Nina Simone was a snob and demanding. Nina Simone didn’t take any shit, was angry, was “difficult.”
Simone behaved in the way culture then (and still now) finds not only acceptable, but magnetic. Who also threw fits, pulled guns, fled the country, attacked people who interrupted them, neglected, abandoned, or dangled their children out of windows, and bubbled with sexual intrigue?
Essentially, most critically renowned, seen to be glamorous or ‘rock’ defining, difficult, trail of destruction, male artists of the same era. It doesn’t take much to search for and discover them. They’re the names you’ve always seen in Top 20 lists of the most influential people ______.
There was the old Southern racism that Simone grew up on. There was the world’s regular racism she endured. She was told she was too black, too dark. Her lips were too large and lipsy—her nose too flat, too black. Her hair was too natural. Starting out she played pianos in restaurants and then nightclubs in Atlantic City. One can imagine what she endured putting herself through Juilliard.
She was married twice, both to abusive and manipulative men, one of whom was her longstanding, Stalinist manager.
What I mean is that the narrative of the life of Nina Simone, up until 1976, had created a perfect moment in time and space for her to vanish. Walk off the stage while she sat at the piano.
Nina Simone is announced by the MC of the Montreux Jazz Festival thirty-one seconds into the full-length recording on YouTube. She is wearing a sleeveless black dress that accentuates her muscularity, and some sort of obscure metallic necklace. This is what Simone does next, and for how long:
It takes her from 0:33 seconds to 0:44 to arrive at the piano. She walks briskly from behind stage through shadows until she touches the piano at 0:45. If you slow it down, her face is visible during this head-bowed walk for a split-second. In it you can see the blank, emotionless face she’s propelling towards her instrument.
From 0:44 to 0:55, Simone bows at the piano, the elbow of her left arm resting on top, her left knee raised, with her body parallel to the ground.
It’s the bow you see in classical music, the extreme bow. A bow I’d never seen her give before: the practiced, ultra-humble bow of the symphony pianist.
The crowd claps enthusiastically.
She raises her head at 0:57, and stands up. The next shot is from a different camera.
From 0:58 to 1:34 the camera shows Simone—first in close-up—staring vacantly off into space. Her eyes are as slow as falling leaves. She looks somewhat inhuman; oily skin in the harsh light, her watery eyes unblinking. But, while you can see her eyes clearly, you can read nothing in them. She is completely without affect. During this entire half minute and change, her face only appears to be one thing: unoccupied. Nina only appears to be two things; both there and not there. At 1:13 during this period, Simone changes direction. She looks behind and up, then begins to stare left. A different camera is activated, and until she sits at the piano, she stares with a degree of visible confusion towards some phantom point near the rafters.
Throughout this period of quasi-paralysis, the audience claps, then begins to stop, since the action itself has begun to stop. You don’t cheer the intermission. Applauding inaction seems absurd, and besides, the intermission is your relief from the onslaught of sounds and language. The closer she gets to sitting at the piano and doing her job, the more hands begin to encourage her to be the Nina Simone they paid to see.
From 1:32 to 1:45, Simone adjusts the things one adjusts on the piano, then begins to look around, as if trying to find someone. At 1:46 she utters her first words: “I hear some other music.”
There is only silence.
From 1:47 to 2:06, Simone adjusts her microphone, asks if it is on, makes a brief inaudible comment that causes the audience to laugh, and appears to be bothered by something.
Her voice, even just when talking, was so beautiful, and at 2:06 Simone asks the audience, or herself, “do you hear all those noises?” Nobody replies. There are no noises. Suddenly at 2:09 she’s satisfied and says, “that’s all better.”
Over the next ten seconds she seems to be enjoying some unheard flirtation from an audience member, and the face that once looked incapable of expressing emotion comes resplendently back to life. She then says:
“I haven’t seen you for many years, since 1968. I have decided that I will do no more jazz festivals. That decision has not changed. I will sing for you, or we will do, and share with you, a few moments, after which I will graduate to a higher class, I hope, and I hope you will come with me. We will start from the beginning, which was about a little girl, and her name was Blue.”
Nina Simone starts playing at 3:06. Once she sits down her face breaks into recognizable emotional activity.
For six minutes, she plays like she always plays: extraordinarily and intuitively, with innate musical genius. She expands and contracts the time she spends between singing, sometimes playing short, simple blues scales, at times drifting into rococo explosions.
At 9:00 she gets up, and with apparent carnivorous enjoyment, subsumes the vital energy of the audience.
Her face smiles.
She sits back down.
She wrestles over the microphone mount, then plays free jazz, doing whatever she wants, all of it sounding beautiful.
Dissociation is forgetting but not knowing you’ve forgotten.
Or it’s forgetting about the thing called “you,” then going on as you normally would, just without doing the labor self-awareness requires.
During another song at another Montreux, Simone spoke about losing her name. Not Eunice. Not Nina. She talked about the inherent confusion of living inside of a body whose name was stolen from it long before it was ever conceived. How to reconcile a feeling of being born wrong-named, while you live out your life knowing another name was meant for you?
Dissociation, amnesia—both cause your birth name to feel unnatural, almost repulsive in its eerie recognizability. But your new name, (your away-team name), you associate nothing with. It means as much to you as the word used to describe a utensil for eating. The dissociative person is living in the space between names, which means living in the space between naming. As soon as you begin to discuss what naming and the absence of naming both enable and restrict, you expose a beehive of pockets. Pockets of time and of space. Where, the dissociative person may park their consciousness, their “real life.” Whichever one switches off and requires storage.
It’s useless to consider whether Nina Simone dealt with dissociation. To look for hints and moments.
But her paralysis in those minutes on stage make it easy to utilize Simone as a vehicle, to fill her vessel with a story that just happens to fit, choreographically.
She walks on stage briskly. It’s fast enough that you think, “that person is walking fast.”
At 0:45 she places her arm dramatically on the piano, and drops her body more. Her left knee is raised gracefully. She looks as if she’s frozen, and may not return to vertical.
It’s easy to imagine that for the next eleven seconds, it’s Eunice on stage. Probably having been practicing bowing daily for years as a child, the good bow.
A bow worthy of the Curtis Institute of Music.
But then it’s terribly sad. Thwarted dreams, a success borne out of compromise and necessary mutations.
So, I want Nina to be away for that part. Or I want Eunice to be there, feeling what she’d always wanted to feel. All that’s on stage, in this fictionalized section, is an absence. The absence of Nina Simone is commanding the attention of music lovers.
The songs can make you cry for a reason.
The thirty-six seconds she stands on stage, transfixed on the invisible, could be loaded with years of narrative:
The ex-husbands are up there.
Her daughter is up there.
Liberia is up there.
America is up there.
Her career is up there her past is up there her future is up there—the only thing she can’t find is her present, because there is no present to find. Half a second in the past and half a second in the future, she could be staring at nothing meaningful at all. I’ve stared at home, maybe all of this is about my inability to imagine staring while thousands of people are staring at me.
It looks sad though, I’m not making that up.
There’s a chart. It shows all human activity. It shows the percentage of people currently staring at any given time. It would take some hard work, but organizing the people staring into groups: types, jobs, health—I feel confident that the staring pie on the chart is necessarily more tragic than the sneezing pie.
There’s more to say and more moments to imbue with meaning, corniness, nostalgic politics, speculative psychiatry. None of it matters, really. You can cheer the intermission is what I realize. So much happens between activity.
Everything that becomes activated is generated in inactivity.
When you’re traumatized, you crave stability.
The truth is not in the consistency, Edgar Allen Poe said.
The truth is in the unnameable and the interstitial.
Which is why her songs make you cry for a reason.