Nina Simone, Goddam!

A sober look at the legend's return

About 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 8, under the auspices of the Miami Light Project, the doctor was in. Escorted by a well-dressed man to a microphone at the center of the Gusman Center's stage, Dr. Nina Simone, recipient of honorary degrees from Amherst College and Malcolm X University, began what would be the first of many waves of her African ceremonial fly whisk to rile the adoring crowd. Resplendent in a revealing green sequined spandex tube dress that made her hefty body look like a turtle, she teetered unsteadily to the bench at the grand piano a few feet behind her and plunked herself down. Then, after a few minor adjustments (again rendered by her original escort), Simone, known for her eclectic repertoire encompassing jazz, blues, gospel, and pop, instructed the audience on a few points: Her five back-up musicians were clothed not in carnival costumes but in African dashikis; and she was not 67 years old as the press frequently has reported, but "64 going on 5000."

Simone perhaps was alluding to the fact that her status as high priestess of soul enabled her to pack a lot of high living into her days. That much was obvious judging by her shaky gait and the sad state of her voice -- lacking in modulation and sometimes off key -- as she delivered her first song, "Black Is the Color." As the roughly 60-minute show (dedicated to ancestors such as Marcus Garvey, Roy Innes, Stokely Carmichael, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry) progressed, it was clear that the extra millennia she awarded herself in age made nary a difference.

The audience, ecstatic to see Simone (who had not played Miami since 1972), didn't mind at all. She could have been wheeled onstage in a hospital bed, attached to life support, and the crowd still would have gone wild. They clapped along heartily with her solidly mechanical piano playing on an extended version of "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," which Simone described as an old Paul Robeson gospel song. Interrupting the normally quiet intervals between tunes, screams of affirmation from male and female audience members earned puzzled replies of "Huh?" and "What?" from the vocalist. Seemingly in her own world, she barely heard a word the audience said, acknowledging only the applause she frequently garnered by waving her feathery accessory. For one brief moment, though, someone got through to her, crying out: "You move me!" Her response: the bluesy tune "Do I Move You?"

Problems arose when Simone tried to move herself. She led the audience through a disheartening lethargic take on George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," set to a sluggish reggae beat. Then she broke out her French, unleashing a poignant, mournful rendition of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("If You Go Away"), during which she often had trouble regulating the tone of her voice. Rising from her bench, she wobbled precariously around the stage like a toddler to the tribal anthem "See Line Woman" (or would that be senile woman?), pausing at one point to stand in front of the percussionist and shake her rear end lightheartedly at the spectators. When she returned to center stage to replace the microphone she had plucked from its stand, she missed. The mike landed on the ground with an ear-splitting thud.

Her escort returned and quickly scooted from behind the curtain to right the fallen mike and whisk Simone away. The keyboard player and two guitarists also vacated the stage. A makeshift intermission followed, filled with the sounds of the drummer and percussionist pounding away while the audience conversed or took a bathroom break. Simone emerged approximately fifteen minutes later, wearing the same green gown, a disappointment to those who expected a celebrity of her prominence to supply at least one costume change for their entertainment dollar.

During the last segment of her set, Simone offered an "homage and recognition to our martyr Martin Luther King" with "Why (The King of Love Is Dead)," leading into her signature "Mississippi Goddam." Throughout the clever anti-racist show tune, she boldly asked for applause and joked about the convoluted presidential election. Although it was hard enough for her to rise to her feet, and it seemed doubtful she would stay there once she did, Simone presented another tribute to a fallen hero, Bob Marley, performing a dragging, overly long rendition of "Get Up, Stand Up."

Soon after she introduced her backing musicians and finished with the solemn "Four Women." With a flash of her whisk, she was gone. A prolonged standing ovation and roar from the crowd drove her back to play a rushed, sloppy "My Baby Just Cares for Me," the song that rescued her from obscurity when it was used as the soundtrack to a dramatic Chanel perfume commercial in the mid-1980s and became a huge British hit. As Simone bid the crowd farewell, she was bombarded by gushy city and county officials, bearing a proclamation and a key to the city. When told they didn't have a key to Fort Knox for her, Simone sighed and said, "That's a shame." But all the gold in the country would be little replacement for the edge, the subtlety, the smoothness she lost long ago. Only youth would suffice. Whatever her age and no matter how honed her sense of humor, Simone may have had that sobering realization when she gratefully commented, "You remembered me! I didn't age much, did I?"

 
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