"Everybody is half dead. Everybody avoids everybody, all over the place, in most situations, most all the time. I know. I'm one of those everybodys. And to me, it is terrible. And so all I'm trying to do all the time is just open people up so they can feel themselves and let themselves be open to somebody else. That is all. That's it."
That's quite a quote—and I think it sums up perfectly why artists do what they do. The quote belongs to Nina Simone, whose comments in an intimate interview open the DVD that accompanies the new CD box, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story (RCA/Legacy $44.99). It will be released on September 30.
The DVD runs 23 minutes and features nine songs. Most are spirituals, including Backlash Blues, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free and Precious Lord. The video is a superb and smart visual addition to an already impressive box of music.
The DVD originally was an Emmy-nominated color documentary from 1970 that interspersed interview clips with concert footage. Here you get to see a singer whose artistic courage spawned a generation of folk, soul, rock and gospel singers. Without Simone, singers like Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Gladys Knight and so many others might not have reached so deep or taken as many creative risks.
The other DVD you should know about is Nina Simone: Live in '65 and '68 (Jazz Icons, $17.99), also due September 30. This DVD ups the ante, with Simone in an even more intense gospel-folk-political groove than on the RCA disc.
On both DVDs, Simone is fascinating to watch. Like Miles Davis, Simone wore her art and mood on her face. And like Miles, Simone's face was beautiful, seemingly carved out of ebony, with each curve perfect and significant. With eyebrows arched and her mouth curled up, Simone could unleash a torrent of music that was spring-loaded with gentle rage and barbed subtexts.
While watching these DVDs, I found I couldn't take my eyes off Simone's mouth. Her lips were so beautiful and dominant that her blinking eyes almost seemed like bystanders rather than participants. In some cases, her eyes passively blinked like steely guards watching for reactions to the pointed lyrics delivered by her mouth.
Nina Simone: Live '65 and '68, captures the singer in Holland and England. Shot in black-and-white for local television, the footage features Simone in a darker and steamier creative mindset. But rather than vent, she sings her protest songs as if rocking a baby to sleep. The resulting contrast between her heat and restraint is hypnotic. [Photo: Hulton Archive]
The Dutch audience is dead quiet, captivated by Simone's lilting voice and narratives. It's a pleasure to see intelligent people absorbing art and actually understanding or trying to understand the artist's message rather than holding up cell-phone cameras or sporting Nina Simone T-shirts.
During the December 1965 performance, Simone sings Brown Baby, Four Women, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Tomorrow Is My Turn, Go Limp and her own Mississippi Goddam. This performance is especially flinty.
The September 1968 performance in London is a few shades lighter in tone. Audience fashions and hairstyles had changed in the three years that elapsed, but Simone remained a poetic beacon. The songs are Go to Hell, Ain't Got No/I Got Life, Backlash Blues, I Put a Spell on You, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood and Why?
What makes the Jazz Icons DVD so important is that you get to see Simone in her full fury. She goes so far into a song you wonder whether she's ever going to come out. Seeing Simone in action also reminds you how big a role the church played in her interpretation and delivery. In addition to being a singer with a conscience, there was a revival meeting quality about her vocals, with call-and-response and chanting designed to wake up sinners and whip souls into a frenzy.
As you study Simone in the videos, you'll see how hard it must have been to let go completely in front of audiences and why it's that type of truth is essential if you're going to be taken seriously. I also came to the conclusion that you can't listen to Simone or watch her with the same mindset you use for pure jazz artists. You need to change your head. Jazz has a different drama built into the music, and you come to expect a certain level of entertainment, polish and style with singers like Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughan. Not so with Simone. She's about the beauty of rawness and hypersensitivity. Her art is emotional. It thrashes. It lashes out. And it sobs. And it absorbs everything in its path.
If you can make the shift and accept Simone on this level, you'll see instantly what she was doing and why she remains important and timeless. On these DVDs, seeing is believing.