Nick Abadzis

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A Weekly Song: Episode 13 - Nina Simone


It’s that time of year... Spring is here...  

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First of all, thank you for coming here and reading this. According to the stats and return visits I’m getting on this site, it seems some of you out there in Internetland genuinely enjoy my musical memoirs and how they pertain to my career in comics and storytelling, so I thank you for your continued curiosity and interest.

However, dear reader, I hope today you’ll allow me an element of melancholy to proceedings.

Selfishly, it’s all about me, not you. I began this series of musical posts as an exercise of sorts; a way of getting myself writing each week and I chose music because it’s a big part of my life and creative process. It’s a subject about which I thought I could ramble knowledgeably and entertainingly without too much worry about other factors involved in storytelling, such as plotting and character development.

Oh, unwary writer, you forgot how the events of the real world intrude upon any intentions to keep an unwavering course upon a straight road. There are always bumps, crossroads and badly signed turnoffs. This past week presented a sudden detour with the death of Scott Walker, one of my greatest musical heroes. As a friend of mine and fellow fan put it, “Didn’t see this coming. Just the other day I was wondering what strange, uncharted territory Scott might end up in next and now we’ll never know.”

True dat, and especially resonant coming so soon after the news of the passing of Mark Hollis. Later in this series, I’ll do a longer post on Scott – I have a few good tales, including one that actually features the great man himself in a cameo of sorts.

That’ll have to wait until I’m up to it, though. Today, I’d like to talk about one of the other greats who has sustained me through dejection via the explorations and revitalizations of her own soul. Many, many words have been written about Nina Simone and I’m unlikely to add anything of much import, except for the possibility that my words my encourage you to explore her vast back catalogue if you’ve never done so. She remains hugely popular and enduringly relevant.

I chose this week’s song because last week, while visiting New Orleans, I woke with it in my head. It arrived unbidden after hearing of the death of Scott Walker. Walker and Simone have always sat and faced each other upon twin mountain tops in my heart, possibly because I discovered both at roughly the same time but also because they’re both diarists of the human condition whose insights echo down to the rest of us in valleys below. If that sounds a tad worshipful, please indulge me – I’ve literally had nervous breakdowns to the music of Nina Simone, and she helped me heal.

Spring is Here is a Jazz standard originally written in 1938 for a musical comedy by Rodgers and Hart and there are many and numerous versions (see Notes below). The way Nina sings it, it may be one of the saddest songs ever, and this from a woman capable of lifting one’s heart right over any internal, earthbound knots and into a cloudless sky. When she takes flight, so does the listener. When she’s low and sombre, as she is here, you find yourself involved in her plight, her voice like a cloak of molasses that wraps around you and invites you in to share the heartbreak.

She recorded a couple of versions, the first for Nina Simone with Strings, but the version I know best appears on a French album called Ne Me Quitte Pas (the title track being a Jacques Brel song also recorded by Scott Walker as If You Go Away and Momus as Don’t Leave). I know it best because I heard it first – it’s the first album of hers I bought, and this is the song that hit me hardest and convinced me Simone was the genius I’d heard she was.

Both Nina’s versions omit a prelude from the musical, which sets up the song and contextualises it:

Once there was a thing called spring

When the world was writing verses like yours and mine

All the lads and girls would sing

When we sat at little tables and drank May wine


Now April, May and June

Are sadly out of tune

Life has stuck a pin in the boat


Spring is here…


(Compare with Ella Fitzgerald’s jauntier version, which includes that opening.)

The omission makes the lyric all the more powerful and Nina’s languid delivery shapes the song into something casually devastating. She makes it feel like bereavement before any has happened – which is, perhaps, what loneliness is, being a cousin of grief. Grief, however, is an emotional mechanism for healing, while loneliness can be an expectation continually thwarted, a hope for understanding and kinship going unfulfilled. It’s the way she sings it: grief isn’t necessarily endless, where loneliness might be.

Spring is here

Why doesn't my heart go dancing?

Nina Simone completely and instinctively comprehended the depths and nuances of different emotions and knew how to communicate them. Her piano was a precursor, an interpreter and signal to the emotions she sought to portray in song, in any reading of any song. And damn, she was some pianist, but if she wished to break your heart in two with her voice, she could. The jagged pieces can pierce your sides while listening to her.


…Maybe it's because nobody needs me

I saw Nina perform live on two occasions. The first time, at north London’s Town and Country Club, she wasn’t in the lightest of moods, but the gig was astonishing, electric. She pounded upon the piano keys and banged the lid of it down when she thought we, the audience, weren’t paying her enough attention. She scowled at us, but she didn’t leave the stage and once we were admonished, she played a set of favourites. I remember her doing Young, Gifted and Black but alas, no Spring Is Here. After the show, I stood with my then-wife at the bus stop and she passed us in her chauffeured car, pulling up beside us in the traffic. We stood momentarily dumbstruck as we called her name and she turned, smiled and waved, the car pulling off as the lights up ahead changed from red to green. Nina Simone smiled and waved at me. After that gig, too.

Nina live, the second time at Ronnie Scott’s, was a revelation. She seemed happy, even exhilarated, borne aloft on the adoration of the audience. I’m glad, as part of that audience, I managed to give her something back.

Each separate gig fit my mood at the time.

... 

The breakdown’s worth clarification, isn’t it, dear reader? I suppose I can’t leave you dangling on that one, even though it would be breaking the rules and talking about a different song.

Okay, since you’ve been good and you’ve read this far.

After my first wife ran off with a sound editor because he had more money than me, it became obvious we should get a divorce. I woke up one day and put on Nina Simone’s Here Comes the Sun, the first side of which ends with Mr. Bojangles. Now, Mr. Bojangles is one of those story songs, a description of a character and maybe is a little bit corny with not the subtlest of lyrics, but on this occasion, I found I couldn’t get through it without breaking down.

When Nina sang of how the eponymous Bojangles still grieves for a dog he had twenty years earlier, it felt like that idea of a perpetual bereavement, an endless loneliness and inability to communicate.

He talked of life…

Every time I put on that track, I kept breaking down at the same point in the song, as if there was a scratch on the vinyl that somehow triggered in me this emotional reaction, as if there was a ghost locked at that point in that groove, doomed to rise up and prompt tears in me; make me feel unlovable, unloved, unable to communicate. I’d put the record on again and this kept happening, over and over, until I checked in with my doctor and received a diagnosis of a breakdown and got myself some therapy for chronic clinical depression.

Mr. Bojangles is still the only Nina Simone song I have in my collection that, for obvious reasons, I have some trouble listening to, but it’s also the song that told me I was ill and should probably get help. That was Nina Simone’s recorded voice fluting through my inner being to provoke some survival instinct. Nina and Bojangles got me out of a spot, and such is the power of music, especially hers.

Take a listen to Mr. Bojangles if you have a mind to, but Spring Is Here is the song that got me into Nina Simone. Now I’m passing the favour on. Nina Simone, y’see, is not simply heartbreak. She is revolution, magic and joy.


Notes

Here Comes the Sun is a “recovery record” for all sorts of reasons apart from those described above, including the title track and the most extraordinary version of My Way you’ll ever hear.

As mentioned, there are many versions of Spring is Here, but here are a few of my favourites.

If you clicked the link above, you already heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version.

Instrumental covers also abound, including this one from the fabulous Errol Garner who, like Simone is classified as a “jazz pianist,” a description that does not do him justice.

...And another by The Bill Evans Trio. 

I love the pop treatment of The Supremes’ version.

Carly Simon, herself no slouch when it comes to torch songs recorded this version (on an album called Torch, no less).

And last but not least, Julie London’s version.

There are many more. Enjoy.

 

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An album so good I purchased it in a variety of formats (the vinyl version three times over). I may have given this album as a gift more times than any other collection of music.

An album so good I purchased it in a variety of formats (the vinyl version three times over). I may have given this album as a gift more times than any other collection of music.

Spring is here

Why doesn't my heart go dancing?
Spring is here! Why isn't the waltz entrancing?


No desire, no ambition leads me
Maybe it's because nobody needs me

Spring is here

Why doesn't the breeze delight me?
Stars appear, why doesn't the night invite me?
Maybe it's because nobody loves me
Spring is here I hear

Spring is here

Why doesn't my heart go dancing?
Spring is here! Why isn't the waltz entrancing?
No desire, no ambition leads me
Maybe it's because nobody needs me

Spring is here

Why doesn't the breeze delight me?
Stars appear, why doesn't the night invite me?
Maybe it's because nobody loves me
Spring is here I hear

Songwriters: Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart

Spring Is Here lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc