family, midlife, music

Three Pricks and a Lost Nina

got my art, got my soul


Three pricks, lost objects, extreme memory and Nina Simone’s ‘Feelings’

          To a discussion on politics at the Methodist Central Hall, Parliament Square. We arrive late, with the last empty seats high up at the back of the third tier. This far from the stage I can’t hear what the panel’s saying about the state of the world. 

In the absence of verbals, I settle for visuals. The interior of Central Hall is ugly-beautiful with its pointlessly baroque details, but impressive for sheer scale. There is a gigantic dome with four large oval windows coloured the dark blue of the night sky. 

Walter Benjamin ​wrote against observing architecture with ‘rapt attention’, arguing for buildings best left for ‘noticing … in incidental fashion.’ Still, looking at buildings is a hard habit to break. It’s become more of a thing with age. I feel like a camera going out to fetch lunch at work. Watching the buildings scroll past, the mass of brick and stone and concrete should seem substantial, but the outline of the roofs against the day feels fragile. No matter how well made, no experience is built to remain intact. I can stare and stare, but this moment cannot be bagged and stored away. Objects get lost.

When I was twentysomething, I worked for six months for the civil service on a temporary contract and took part in a strike that lasted just one day. All of my work colleagues identified as leftie and yet some refused to strike. They had their reasons, they angsted at length over what should be done, but I forget the particulars of why several elected to cross the picket line on the big day of action – into the workplace, eyes averted, heads down. One measly day seemed a small price, a minor test of your commitment to revolution, but they flunked it anyhow. 

We marched on strike day from the office to a rally at Central Hall. It was a cold, foggy morning in November. I bought a designer winter coat the previous summer dead cheap in the sales. The coat was mushroom, long and by Katherine Hamnett, and I got it out for the first time on strike day. I felt warm marching, and though a lot of what I wore back then would perhaps not seem so sharp nowadays, the Hamnett coat would look just fine. I still regret letting it go simply because it was old. Is that how I want to be treated in years to come, abandoned on the steps of the local charity shop, balled up in a bin bag?

The Organ at the Methodist Central Hall, London
massive keyboard

I reminisce for Silba about this prior visit to Central Hall from long ago. I point to the massive church organ behind the stage, and dredge up an enriching fact to share. That organ, I say, it features on Manhattan by Scott Walker from the album Tilt. The instrument sounds as massive as it looks, I add. 

Yes, big organ, replies Silba.

Following the talk, we wait for a bus at an empty stop under Big Ben. The clouds clear and the clock face is bright as a projection. I feel excited to be so close to a famous monument and point. Look, Silba, Big Ben. Yes, penis tower, she replies, and continues with her phone. 

Big Ben at night as seen from north end of Parliament Square, London
London by night

When we get to my place it’s late and we drink some whiskey – good for the not smoking. I notice one of the cacti by the window is leaning into the glass pane. I say to Silba, look how the cactus has grown towards the light. 

More pricks, she replies.

Shortly the Annoying Son bursts through the front door. It’s his arrival style these days. Like Kramer in Seinfeld – as if he struggles with his own momentum and it’s a repeated surprise to him. 

He sits for a short time to eat a snack, but coughs up a limited supply of words on the evening he just spent with friends. ​’I know you less every day,’ a melancholy Annette Bening observes of her teenager in 20th Century Women

Three Cacti in a Plant Pot
lean in

      London in the 1970s hadn’t properly recovered from the war. Incredibly there were still bomb sites in the West End. I was ten and learning the bassoon at school. The instrument broke and I took it for repair at a music shop on Denmark St. I went after school by myself in the dark. I crossed Soho lugging the bassoon in its heavy, cumbersome case. I didn’t pay much notice to Soho’s porny neon and acres of sleaze. It was the vast hole in the ground I walked past, visible through a gap in the fence, that grabbed me. There was another wartime bomb crater at the back of Charing Cross Road. These holes the size of a city block were exciting. They suggested not only drama and adventure, but that we had all the time in the world. 

But of course – the punchline – we don’t have all the time in the world.

If you google the lost object you get back links for practical guides for finding missing car keys or an ear ring. There are strategies for retracing your steps, brain mapping, applied logic and anti-panic techniques, CSI-style subdividing of floor space into grids facilitating forensic searches covering every inch of the room until the missing item has been apprehended. 

Experts advise that subjects visualise recent actions or regain short term memories by following the emergent thought. Try dredging your subconscious. Maybe give numerology a shot; or hire a psychic. Astrology and psychoanalysis both have a point of view on the lost object, while a so-called Dr Solomon advertises a 12-step programme to lead the befuddled back to the vanished item, ‘Like a bloodhound.’ There are also prayers to recite, magic spells, mantras, and even a guide to locating misplaced items the Islamic way. 

Jill Price was born in December 1965 and always had a good memory. She can recall stuff right back to eighteen months. But after a traumatic family event in her early childhood, Price’s very good memory blew up into a vast, turbo-charged data retrieval system. 

Price has a rare condition called highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and can remember almost every day of her life, broadly and in fine detail. Price’s hyper memories are triggered by dates. ‘Whenever I see a date flash on the television (or anywhere else for that matter), I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on and on and on. It is non-stop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting … Most have called it a gift but I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!!!’

Price believes her family moving once too often when she was little left her bereft, and the sense of loss made her obsessed with holding onto every last detail of every experience she’d ever had. This can happen sometimes with lost objects.

A longread in the Guardian on Price and others like her (not that there are many in the world who reach the extreme level of mental hoarding that’s HSAM) concludes that too much memory can be a bad thing. Price admits however that despite her condition being a challenge and fatiguing, she also enjoys replaying memories. Like she’ll be blow-drying her hair and it’s October 4 and so she remembers all the other October 4s. ‘I’ll just do like the last 40 years in my head.’ 

Bob Petrella, also with HSAM, will find himself stuck in traffic on a Saturday in June, and passes the time recalling and ranking the best Saturdays in June he’s ever known – one way of coping with gridlock. 

HSAM might help psychologists and neurologists better understand how we make and stockpile memories. One tantalising thought is perhaps we all have a HSAM level of recall, we just haven’t learned how to access the store. In the meantime, if memory is the thing that defines humans – memories are all of us, perhaps – does it follow therefore that HSAM people are more of a person than the rest of the population?

There once was an episode of Star Trek, when an alien hiding inside a human body – a 1960s white Californian male body with period buzz cut – betrayed his difference by speed-reading on a proto e-reader. He scarfed War and Peace in short order and then relayed gobbets verbatim. I was only about nine and though suitably impressed, as well as immediately tuned-in to the applications one might find for such a skill, both in school and versus friends, I quickly figured out that, as with immortality, total recall might eventually turn out to be a real downer. 

When we talk of memory, we need to think about why we also forget, and how useful this can be. Forgetting is part of what humans do (even staunch sectarian nationalists, the ones with battle dates from centuries ago tattooed blue on their shins, they also forget things). Perhaps forgetting is something important and not just wasteful – defrag the hard drive, clear some space in the store room. 

But not too much of a clear out, don’t dump the Hamnett coat all over again. Memory is something that helps us to function in the here and now. I don’t need to figure out the kettle each morning, I remember how the switch works from yesterday. Memory will help with the kettle tomorrow morning, Sunday, and into next week. 

Memory is how I ride my bike. But memory is also the stories we tell. 

Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul
her voice

The singer Nina Simone’s key memory story was being unexpectedly turned down for a place at a fancy music conservatory in Philadelphia when she was a teenager. 

A child prodigy from an early age, Eunice Waymon (as she was born) had always been marked out for brilliance with the piano. At three or four, Eunice played from memory a religious song she’d heard sung at church. Her parents felt intense gratitude for the Lord sending them a gifted child. Not just Eunice, not just her parents or siblings expected she’d pass the interview in Philadelphia (at the Curtis Institute of Music), the whole community she was raised in, which had even set up a foundation to fund Simone’s further education, expected the town’s young genius to sail through admission. 

But the fancy school turned Eunice down – with the rejection most likely on the basis of race. The expected career as a classical pianist died there on the spot. Eunice was not going to get to Carnegie Hall by practising Bach or Beethoven seven hours a day. She took another route. 

Eunice Waymon played her first proper showbiz gig in June 1954, aged 21 at a bar and grill in Atlantic City. Ashamed at what she was doing, she gave herself a stage name, Nina Simone, and played until 4am. Afterwards, the owner said, you didn’t sing. ‘I’m only a pianist,’ Simone replied. ‘Tomorrow night,’ said the owner, ‘you’re either a singer, or you’re out of a job.’

Simone described her singing voice as ‘small’, but she began to improvise and express her troubled feelings inside the songs she played and sang. And she liked how this felt. She located in singing a means to articulate her experiences as a young black woman in her space and time. ‘The depth and darkness in her soul reached you very quickly,’ remarks her former guitarist, who witnessed Simone’s early years as a co-performer. 

Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, LP by Nina Simone
jazz as played in an exclusive side street club

Simone went to Harlem and made a name for herself. Her voice was edgy and her intertwined feelings of isolation, mistreatment and rage were often provoking. As a performer Simone could be sad, imperious, demoralised, brilliant, manic and truculent. Her distinctive style brought praise, considerable wealth and non-stop bookings (‘All I did was work, work, work. I was always tired, I was always tired’). Apparently, not a lot happiness flowed from all the success – perhaps the material comforts, for a while. And then later came the exhilaration of becoming politically active. Simone was a radical creative voice in the civil rights struggle from the early 1960s upwards – ‘Motherfucker, I am civil rights’ – but she had poor mental health and suffered extreme hallucinations. 

In the 1970s, Simone dumped her violent husband manager, who treated her like a workhorse, and departed an America on fire, where she could no longer bear to live. (In 1959, James Baldwin wrote ‘I left America [in 1948] because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem.’ Simone wrote a similar lament in her journal.) 

Simon bounced around Africa and then Europe for the rest of her life. There were wilderness years and comebacks and tantrums – her rage escalating on and off stage. 

In these years Simone was once carted off to a hospital in a straitjacket; she tried to burn down her own house; she was discovered one night naked in a hotel corridor with a knife in her hand; she shot at a record producer; and then she shot at two young boys who interrupted a rehearsal. She abused her daughter, fell out with most of her friends, and compared herself to a  queen. ‘A black queen,’ she told Time magazine in 1999. ‘I have to be a queen all the time.’ As Jenny Diski describes it, Nina Simone was a ‘perfect fit with the troubled-intolerable-her-own-worst-enemy diva cliché’. She died of cancer in 2003. 

Nina Simone, Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976
in uncertainty

Sometimes Simone had a mean style playing live. She would terrorise the audience that paid to see her perform – ‘You! – Sit down!! Now!!!’ It’s all on YouTube. At the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, her first big show coming off an extended lay off, Simone wanders the stage asking if David Bowie’s arrived yet as ‘David, he’s my dear friend.’ (Another lost object.) Someone from the stalls shouts, ‘Just play a song!” Simone yells back, ‘Oh, shut up.’


You can almost taste the anger as Simone reaches the last song of the show. I found this clip online. I wasn’t looking for Simone, or anything musical, so it’s not a lost object – but what is it? 

Simone plays ‘Feelings’ for her final number. You know, the execrable ballad: ‘Feelings, nothing more than feelings… Fee-lings, wo-oh-oh-oh fee-lings…’ and so on. There are inventories online of the world’s worst songs, and Feelings is often listed. Originally recorded by the Brazilian singer Morris Albert, the melody is based on a French tune from the 1950s, called Pour Toi, to which Albert appended his bland, bloodless, English lyrics. 

Why is Simone singing such cruise ship polyester, a woman with her back catalogue? Well, Feelings was contemporary and singers can feel pressed to move with the times. Regardless of its faults, Feelings was covered by many during this period. Still, Feelings! Actor singer Julie Andrews once dismissed the song as too difficult to sing because it has no meaning. (Yes, that Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins off The Sound of Music – hardly the planet’s most controversial voice.)

What possessed La Simone? Her mordant expression opening the song suggests she’s wondering the same. But the incomprehension and intermittent complaints are misleading. She knows. There’s more complicated stuff going on than simple bloody-minded disdain.  

Simone starts out playing with a plinkety plonkety contempt. There’s no response from the audience. She continues, but in a flat style with a low key belligerence. She stops abruptly and asks the audience: You know Feelings, right? This finally draws the ripple of applause she’d been waiting for. It’s the first tetchy exchange of the song. 

Did Nina really expect delighted clapping for finishing with Feelings? Propped in front of YouTube, you start the process of making sense of this puzzling seventies artefact. Commanding her audience to acknowledge Feelings is her saying, Yes, it’s that godawful song, and I’m about to sing it, and then leave you. And you, you’re about to listen; so we’re all in this together and you must recognise how we must start with this heap of dross, to appreciate fully where I’ll lead you eventually – to some higher plain. 

Simone continues to sing and play, figuring a way through the early reaches of the ballad. Her voice isn’t great at this point. I imagine a stranger from another planet, who’s never previously listened to Nina Simone and knows nothing of her legend. Let’s call the alien the Annoying Son. What would he make of it so far? 

He’ll be underwhelmed. I can imagine his pithy critique: ‘Technically, is this singing?’ 

If we saw Simone in town tomorrow busking to Feelings, would the response be genius! Or, poor lost soul? Without the Simone backstory, you’ll likely be mystified. You need to stick around to get anything from Feelings.

At which point Simone takes a break from the song. She’s not convinced the audience is hundred percent with her. Adopting the third person – rarely a good sign – she reminds her listeners in a machine-like voice on the necessary rules of exchange with performance: 

‘The.Robot.Is.Going.To.Play,’ she declares, each word an isolated sentence: 

‘As.A.Robot.Gets.Herself.Together.And.When.We.Get.To.The.Middle…When.We.Have.Forgotten.Our.Feelings.Of.Love.You.Will.Help.Me.’

Is the audience agreed? We can’t see them, so it is hard to tell. I can’t hear anyone saying, Yes, Nina. But it’s possible they’re nodding their agreement.

Simone resumes, twiddles a few keys absently, then breaks off again. ‘Goddammit. Like, what a shame to have to write a song like that!’

Does she mean, shame the composer got so heartbroke? Or shame Morris Albert penned such vacant greeting-card sentiments? ‘I’m not making fun at the man,’ she declaims. It’s just, ‘I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that.’ The look on Simone’s face indicates that by ‘condition’ she means what form of artistic alienation could cause a writer to fart such banalities?

Nina Simone, artwork by Stanley Chow


In the moment Simone seems exasperated to be singing a dud for her climax piece. But no one forced her to pick this showbiz loser. So why the moaning? It’s a ruse perhaps, a performer’s gambit – you malign the rough material you’re about to turn to gold.

The music resumes. Simone plays some fine, frilly extemporised flights across the keys as slowly she builds towards the song’s first peak point. ‘It’s sad,’ she observes concerning the maudlin tone. ‘But isn’t that what you expected, anyway?’ 

Around six minutes into the piece she calls out, ‘Let’s hit the climax.’ This isn’t a commentary on where the song’s headed, but a bid for audience participation, for the festival crowd to sing along. By now, Simone seems up to her ears in powerful, consuming emotions, the feelings of the ages rolling off the keyboard and through her voice. However genuine her misgivings about this song of Feelings, Simone has become gripped as she belts out her own big feelings, large enough feelings to fill your sails, but also, one imagines, strong enough to blow their owner onto the rocks. 

Then the first peak moment passes and Simone dips. She becomes critical once more of the song. ‘Here, it’s so embarrassingly soft,’ she mutters. But the negative appraisal doesn’t last, as the oscillating, bi-polar switchback soon slings Simone forward again, out of the doldrums with a headlong return to stormy seas, where the emotional currents run deep. 

Despite having a rage on with the audience, Simone implores that they join and share these Feelings. ‘I need people to like me in order to like myself,’ Simone wrote in her journal once. ‘I can’t seem to do it alone, my ego and self-confidence was shattered somewhere.’ 

Summoning storm-force emotion from a showbiz joke, Simone cries at the audience, ‘Feed me, feed me, feed me.’ And by now they do – well, some of them. ‘Feelings, wo-oh-oh feelings,’ she sings, and they sing beside her gently. ‘Feel you again in my arms/Feelings, like I’ve never lost you…’

Simone then switches once again, breaks off from the words and plunges into a long passage of high-powered piano work, playing a blend of Bach and Feelings that would be touching kitsch if the left hand rhythm wasn’t so growling and gutsy.* 

After this long expansive spell, Simone raises the song towards its last and highest peak as she improvises on a roll. The piano becomes thunder, her voice loud: ‘I wish I’d never lived this long,’ she spits. ‘I hope this feeling never comes again.’ Her tone is strung out between cathartic and eviscerated – a nihilist’s fury at life being one big mistake. ‘She was always full of anger and rage,’ Lisa Simone observes of her mother, ‘fighting her own demons.’ Well, after a lifetime of racism, abuse, exhaustion, emotional estrangement… ‘Got a lot to be mad about,’ as Solange sings on A Seat at the Table.**

So, out of the ruin of anger comes an onstage exorcism – well, of sorts – painful to witness, but also undeniably involving and moving. Simone appears consumed by the banality of this ‘meaningless’ song. What we’re looking at goggle-eyed is a lifetime of regrets – that she had to perform, that she still needed the money, but also needed the approval of strangers, and hated this. Add to such regrets the lonely, unloving childhood, racism, bad marriage, the years over-worked, the hope and rage and disillusion of the civil rights struggles, the many nervous breakdowns…. Yes, so many feelings.

‘You will always stay. No matter what the world may say. No matter what the day, you will stay here in my heart. No matter what they say. No matter what they compose, or do. No matter what their drugs may do. Or songs may do. No matter what the people may do.’ Pause. ‘Or the machines will do to you. I will always have my feelings.’ Longer pause. ‘And that is all. That is it… The base.’ 

And suddenly Simone stops. . The song is over. The show’s finished. Nina mutters Goodnight and gets up and departs the stage. She’s gone. 

‘Nothing is the same after hearing this’ reads a comment on YouTube. 

Feelings is a strong, troubling clip that leaves many questions in its trail. Did Simone pick the song because it spoke to her directly, or was it just a technical exercise?  Perhaps the cruise line polyester has substantial depth. Those who gave Feelings the cursory kiss-off, maybe they missed something that Nina didn’t. Is the vacancy of Feelings actually an opening, its blankness a sublime simplicity to be remade as a multi-dimensional, complex wail? You just need the emotional fragility of a Simone to dig out the good from the dreck.

Simone, as we think of her in capsule form, was a psychic mess of walking exposure – why wouldn’t she sing a song about feelings, it’s what she is? 

Or did what we just saw derive largely from technique? Did we fall for the suffering diva cliché? As Jenny Diski once described it: ‘Singing for men can be technique and a good voice, for women it has to come from bleeding wounds.’ 

Nina Simone in Red
what happened, Miss Simone?

It’s a conflict perhaps, if you like to think of things in this way; or a test of perception: do we see a troubled artist on the verge of disintegration or some rare grade alchemy at a jazz show? Maybe Ms Nina filled the song with meaning, because Ms Nina was not capable of blandness – not when she performed, not ever, in fact: ‘My mother was ‘Nina Simone’ 24/7,’ recalls Lisa Simone. ‘Not just onstage. But after everybody had left. And that’s where it became a problem. She couldn’t live with herself. And everything fell apart.’ ***

Once asked what freedom felt like, Simone replied, ‘freedom from fear.’ Onstage at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, Nina Simone is living in uncertainty; in extreme uncertainty, and doing so in public – that’s her in the spotlight. It’s what she once wrote in her journal, that she was a person ‘split down the middle’.

In midwinter 1817, the poet John Keats walked home with friends and ‘several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement…. I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’****

For Keats living in uncertainty was a glorious state of being. But there will be some, or many, for whom negative capability means almost no capability for life at all. (The final lost object?) And you watch Simone at Montreux, and for all the amazing gut-punch emotion of her performance, the strongest, most enduring response is, this isn’t living.

Big Ben, London, in black and white

* I know a bit about kitsch and piano stars. I once took Vela to see Lang Lang at the Roundhouse. He arrived on stage  wearing a silver suit dipped in glitter, with dry ice up to his throat,  Lang Lang’s hair was electric and vertical. Many in the crowd, mostly women, rushed to the front. Several swooned and threw flowers and screamed Lang Lang! He started to play. Half way through the first piece, there was a pause and in that brief quiet moment, Vela shouted out her feelings. Later, we watched some of the show on iTunes, you could clearly hear Vela’s voice: ‘Lang Lang, I love you!’

** Solange, Mad (from A Seat at the Table):

I ran into this girl, she said, ‘Why you always be complaining? Why
you always gotta be so mad?’ 

I said, ‘I’m tired of explaining.’


Man, this shit is draining


I got a lot to be mad about (Be mad, be mad, be mad)


*** Carl Jung said ‘humanity needs difficulties: they are necessary for health.’ You watch Simone though. You read and hear about and also listen to Simone’s shattered psyche and you think, No, Jung’s got it wrong. 

**** Negative Capability. In a similar style, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska said her favourite phrase had become ‘I don’t know’. The critic David Rieff takes Szymborska’s position to be a call to forget, that there is for her a moral imperative for letting go, ‘so that life can go on… For everything must end, including the work of mourning. Otherwise the blood never dries, the end of a great love becomes the end of love itself.’

References

Nina Simone, Feelings

Jenny Diski, Queening It, The London Review of Books

What Happened, Miss Simone? Netflix

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