Nina Simone struggled with her fame, both with wanting more of it and wanting to jump out of the spotlight when it was shined on her. In an alarming piece from the July/August issue of The Believer, Joe Hagan writes of Simone’s struggles in her professional, as well as her personal life.
Somehow Hagan, “after a year of cajoling,” convinced Simone’s ex-husband, Andrew Stroud, to talk about his nine-year marriage with the singer. Quite the feat, given that Stroud wouldn’t even talk to Simone’s biographer.
The striking portion of this access, though, comes not in Stroud’s discussion of his relationship with Simone, but through Simone’s own writing, which Hagan dives into to give a heartbreaking glimpse of the difficulties that at times stormed Simone.
“[W]hat is immediately striking,” Hagan writes,
“is how lucid and candid Nina Simone could be, how easily she would tap her emotions in writing, and how, occasionally, she seemed to take great solace in getting thoughts on paper, often in her most desperate hours…When she’s happy, her writing is in a lovely flowing cursive; when depressed, a sloppy chicken-scratch. And when her mania has reached a critical mass, she defaults to large printed letters, virtual billboards that scream from the page.”
Hagan highlights many of these tragic moments, as in July 1964 when Simone writes, “Must take sleeping pills to sleep + yellow pills to go onstage.”—Valium, Hagan informs us—“Terribly tired and realize no one can help me—I am utterly miserable, completely, miserably, frighteningly alone.”
The notion of performers struggling with the feeling of being isolated even while they, maybe more than any among us, have the fewest moments alone is not specific to Simone. Still, she seems especially conflicted by the need to perform, while getting nothing from the performance to combat the isolation she feels, as evidenced by an entry in her diary, again from 1964:
“I wish I could really consider it work and just do a job and not care. The truth is I’m not on the same circuit as the typical American audience. I can’t reach them unless I turn myself inside out! And sometimes it takes too much energy. And then I feel so hurt that they don’t get me. Maybe if I thought of myself as Lenny Bruce, it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
As is often the case, the performer’s pain is what makes the art produced so powerful. If Simone didn’t turn herself inside out, what would the world remember of her?
Source: The Believer (article not yet available online)