Inspired by the Academy Award-nominated Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, music journalist and former Spin and Vibe editor-in-chief Alan Light pens an intimate and vivid look at the legendary life of Nina Simone, the classically trained pianist who evolved into a chart-topping chanteuse and committed civil rights activist.
Drawn from a trove of rare archival footage, audio recordings and interviews (including Simone’s remarkable private diaries), this nuanced examination of Nina Simone’s life highlights her musical inventiveness and unwavering quest for equality, while laying bare the personal demons that plagued her from the time of her Jim Crow childhood in North Carolina to her self-imposed exile in Liberia and Paris later in life.
Alan Light spoke to Read it Forward editor Abbe Wright about Nina Simone, one of the most influential, provocative, and least understood artists of our time, as well as his other experiences in rock ‘n roll, from synthesizing Simone’s interactions with David Bowie, to sitting in on Prince’s sound checks, to being the only journalist in a room for a Bob Dylan show.
Read It Forward: One of the things I find so interesting is that usually movies are adapted from books. But with this book, you went the other way. How did that come about? Why did you feel like this story needed to be committed to paper?
Alan Light: I don’t know that I decided so much as the producers and the team behind the movie did. I think that once they started seeing that the film was getting traction at festivals, they wanted to tell more of the story. With any film there’s such a small sliver that actually makes it to the screen. There’s all this other stuff that went into the research and there were all these other interviews. So I think the notion was if somebody wanted to go deeper into the story, and they wanted to know more about Nina than the hundred minutes we’re able to show in the film, then there should be a place to tell the rest of the story.
That was the driving idea for the book, which is a really interesting model that makes sense when you think about it. They did a fantastic job with the film, but there are whole storylines that can’t be explored because they would just take too much of the time. So why not find another way to utilize all that? It was a bit of an inside-out way to do things.
I mean, usually by the time you start the writing process and you’ve done your research, you kind of know the story that you’re going to tell, and you’ve been shaping it along the way. Here I was handed this incredible archive, but I needed to figure out what was in there. What were we dealing with? I spent more time going through the archive to pull apart what pieces I wanted to use, and what connected to what, than I spent actually sitting and writing. So it was a little upside-down, but it meant I had access to stuff that otherwise nobody starting cold would ever be able to get to, like the diaries and the family interviews and all this other stuff.
RIF: Rather than leave it on the cutting room floor from the documentary, you must’ve felt like a glass blower, breathing more life into what was already there.
AL: It’s such a complicated and rich and multi-pronged story to go into. It’s interesting to see the decisions that they made making the film and which things did get emphasized and which things had to fall away. They took all this stuff and made one kind of project out of it, and then I went and made another kind of a project out of the same stuff. It’s much more like, and this is sort of dopey, but it’s more like making a sculpture than making a painting. It was more about cutting out the stuff from the block and seeing what you’re left with rather than taking what you have and building it up.
RIF: So one of Nina’s famous quotes, which I love, is that it’s the artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. Do you think today’s artists embody the same political passion that she lived her life by?
AL: I don’t know that artists of her time embodied the same passions that she lived by. I think that you see the degree of uncompromising commitment in Nina that’s different than other artists that you associate with activism or with civil rights. There’s a different kind of relationship that she had with it. She really felt that the work was about that, and it was devoted to that. She was plugged into a different community at that time, but I think she was also very frustrated with that community. She saw them drop off as they either got tired or frustrated, or certain progress was made, and they felt like, okay, we can back down a little bit. She was in some ways the last one holding the flag and saying we have to keep fighting, keep struggling, keep going. I think you see examples of that today.
Certainly there are still artists who are activists and who are outspoken. The scale is just so different, and everything is so much bigger today. The entertainment complex is so much bigger; the music business is so much bigger. And those are not bad things; those are just what they are. So I don’t know that the number of bodies who devote themselves to causes and to activism, I don’t know that the sheer number is much different, but it’s certainly a different proportion next to what’s out there. They have to yell louder. They have different means to be heard, different ways to organize and communicate, but they have to make more noise to get any attention.
RIF: It was such lifeblood for her. It influenced her relationship to this country. You write that she had a sticky relationship with the U.S. Who do you think turned on whom first?
AL: I think that all of Nina’s relationships were complex and fraught from a very early age and at a micro-scale that gets amplified to the community, the country, the world. All of these ripples go out from seeds that happened early in her life. The first phase of her life was putting all her chips on this dream of becoming a great classical pianist. That embodied the hopes and dreams and finances of her community, with all of the attendant pressure put upon her. That was the goal; that was what she was going to be. And then she doesn’t make the last cut to pursue that. The reasons we’ll never know, but what matters is that she believed that it was because of her race and because of her gender that she wasn’t given the opportunity to take that final leap into that world. So when that’s gone, she’s struggling for a direction, and she becomes this other kind of performer. She starts singing in bars, and she starts making different kind of music. But she doesn’t believe in it in the same way. Then she finds the civil rights movement, and she finds politics, and she finds something, and she moves her chips from the square that says pianist over to the activist square and puts everything into that. When that ultimately disappoints, when that doesn’t completely transform the world, when others start to step away from it but there remains injustice and racism and all the things that she’s fighting, I think that’s when her life becomes really difficult. She’s placed these two big all-consuming bets. She’s spun the wheel; they didn’t come up. And now what happens? That’s when I think you really start to see a decline and a different kind of frustration, a different kind of anger in her, in conjunction with these serious emotional and mental issues that were also progressing. That becomes the next chapter, which is very different than the ones that precede.
RIF: Do you think Nina’s self-exile to Liberia was in direct proportion to her frustration with the movement?
AL: She’s looking for a place where she fits in. She’s trying to find somewhere that she belongs. She very clearly feels like she doesn’t belong in America as it is, that she doesn’t belong to the protest movement that remains as we move into the seventies, which is very different, much more focused on Vietnam protests and on other things than on civil rights protests.
RIF: She hated the rise of disco.
AL: She has a very different relationship to all that. And it’s weird. Obviously you read these stories of her time in Liberia, and it’s very mysterious and weird and hard to make sense of. She did say for the rest of her life that was the happiest that she ever was. Whether that was her trying to convince herself of that, or whether that was what she felt at the time, it certainly was something that she needed then. She sort of flailed around searching after that. After she leaves Africa, there are times when it’s almost impossible to track where she’s living. She’s bouncing so rapidly and frequently between different continents and different residences. There were times, I just had to like okay, stop, where are we? Where is this happening?
RIF: Where in the world is Nina Simone?
AL: There’s this brief phase where she goes and moves to Montreal for a few weeks, maybe months, and then just splits and leaves her apartment and never goes back. I think Africa was, if nothing else, a last kind of stability for her. But she couldn’t really work there. And that was part of the allure for a while, because she felt she had been working too much. She felt she put too much into it; she needed to step away from it. But she was far too restless to sustain that without getting bored and not doing anything. So the clock sort of runs out on that.
RIF: And she did feel a sort of kinship to Africa, which is interesting, having never lived there before.
AL: She had been there early in her career in the early sixties for this artists exchange sort of trip. But it’s funny because her collaborator, Al Schackman, who appears frequently in the book, says she loved that trip, but she didn’t. Other people felt like they had come back to the motherland, and she just didn’t feel that at the time. She was fascinated by it, but it didn’t blow her mind that way where she felt like this is home. But ten years later I think she was in a place where she felt like, okay, now I see what this means inside of me to be here.
RIF: It had rooted itself early on and grown. I love the meeting that you describe of Nina and David Bowie in the club.
AL: It’s a really fascinating moment. You can read all kinds of things into this odd little relationship, but I think that what was important for her was that Bowie really understood her. This is 1974–75, and David Bowie is as big as any rock star in the world. She took her daughter to go see him at Madison Square Garden. She went out that night to some club and ran into his entourage there, and he invited her to join them.
They started this relationship where he called her every night for a month, and eventually came down to visit her at her house. Aside from getting respect and attention from this star and feeling like here was somebody who understood her talent, he also offered validation to her. This extraordinary thing, at least as she recounts, he said was, “The problem for you is that you’re an artist, and you’re not comfortable as an entertainer, and they’re going to tell you that you’re crazy because you can’t fit into this commercial world. You’re not crazy.” There are very few of us who are out here in this exalted space. And he said I’m not a genius like that. I set this target of being a rock star, and that was my goal, but that was never your goal.
That was such a fundamental struggle for her over her entire career. Especially coming out of her classical training, and coming out of never really giving up this dream that what she was here to do was to play classical piano, not to be a pop star, it explains so many things. How she was difficult and confrontational, and how she would yell at her audience and curse them out if they weren’t paying enough attention. In the world that she came from, you went to a concert hall, and you sat, and you listened, and it was a serious exchange, and she was making art.
She was certainly attracted to the material gains and the lifestyle, and this is a tension that plays out through her career. It ultimately blows her marriage up. But I think getting this recognition from David Bowie, who understood that about her, saw this is somebody who’s about something different than the pop marketplace and is being driven by something else, I think that was very validating to her, very important to her. And now as we’re all looking back and paying tribute to all of these contributions that Bowie made, it’s such a fascinating insight into him and into his vision and relationship to this stuff as well.
RIF: Yeah, and the hand he lent to other artists.
AL: Which he continued to do, usually to younger artists offering that encouragement coming up. But in this case reaching out to somebody at a time where she really needed it. I mean this is in the mid-seventies. The IRS is after her. She has to give up her house and begin this very itinerant phase of her life. To get that sort of acknowledgement from a super-superstar, you can only imagine what that would have done for her right at that moment.
RIF: Right, it must have felt like a life raft. And he was also such a unique flower, I think, for her to see. He’s not another cookie cutter rock star.
AL: Yeah, I don’t know what she made of the music at all. I can imagine that there’s plenty of stuff she would complain about, but I think she certainly recognized what his power was and then what this humanity and this sort of aesthetic clarity was for him.
RIF: Who else inspired her musically?
AL: She would mostly only claim classical composers. She said Bach inspired her. That was the target for her. Leaving aside the technical prowess and the physical demands and commitment that it meant, she talked a lot about emotionally what his music did, the journey that it took you on, and that it was about these kind of rising waves. There are several interviews where she talks about it with that metaphor: it’s a bigger wave on a bigger wave, and they come crashing at you. And that’s what she is aspiring to do. It’s about this momentum and this continuing rise of intensity. She would only invoke the greats. She would say that she didn’t really like jazz. She loved Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and these figures because they were the best at what they did. She liked the people who were the best.
She didn’t want to be put into a slot of jazz. She was like, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in those who are the masters at whatever that craft is. So she had, as with everything else, a very tricky relationship with jazz. Billie Holiday was somebody that she was often compared to. Literally within the same conversation she would say that she admired Billie Holiday, and she would say that she hated Billie Holiday.
She would say she was flattered by that comparison and she was insulted by that comparison. I think for her the initial response was, don’t just call me a jazz singer because I’m black. Like, that’s an easy shortcut to talk about what I do, and what I do is not jazz. It’s not improvisational in that way. It’s not collective in that way. She said she had no patience for the blues. But one of her great records is the Nina Simone Sings the Blues.
RIF: Yeah, of course.
AL: So this is all very conflicted, but I think to her it was about the aspiration. The mastering of what you do, whatever it is that you do.
RIF: She was all about “don’t put me in a box.”
AL: It’s one of the things that was most striking to me while going back and listening. It’s very hard to come up with any comparison with anybody else who spanned the range of material and the diversity of music that she drew from and attempted. From Israeli folk songs to Bee Gees songs to old slave songs to African music to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs. I don’t know who else took on this kind of genre-, era-, location-spanning swath of stuff. There’s something that’s truly unique about what it was she was doing.
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And that presents its own challenges as well. She didn’t want to be called a jazz singer. She didn’t really want to be called a soul singer. She was kind of okay being called a folk singer, I think just because that at least gave you more latitude to roam. But who was like Nina Simone? Nobody was like that. So what do you call it, and where do you sell it? It was in a world before things were quite as stratified as they later became. But you can see even then, what do you do with this?
RIF: Right. It’s both freeing and very alienating, I would imagine.
AL: Particularly in conjunction with a hostility toward the industry, the record companies. How do you get any sort of marketing focus or momentum behind this? I have no idea. And the records didn’t sell, other than that sort of initial burst, they didn’t do very well. She was skipping around between projects, in between labels, and seeing if anything sticks. And really not that much did.
RIF: Right, except for a few singles. So drawing from your experiences as being a writer for so many years for Rolling Stone, editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin, how does digging into an artist’s back story enhance your understanding of the music?
AL: I think people have different relationships to the music.
RIF: And not everyone is Alan Light.
AL: Not everyone, well not everyone needs or wants that. You can listen to it to listen to it, and that’s fine. But when there’s an artist whose music really speaks to you and connects with you, you try to get inside why that is. What is it that is powerful about what it is that they’re doing? How did they get to that place where they could make that? I think, as with any artist, certainly as with any significant artist, we want to understand where is it that these things come from, where is the drive to create, the drive to continue doing so? What are the choices that they make, the directions that they pursue, and the directions they don’t pursue? Those are not arbitrary decisions.
There’s not usually a simple commercial answer to that. Nobody knows what’s going to work, what’s going to sell, what’s going to connect, certainly not the things that are going to stick around for decades and hold that kind of power. So I think the desire is to get a sense of where they come from. What were the things that made up an artist and pushed them forward, and then what were the different forces and thoughts and elements and influences that shaped where it was that they took their work? That gives you a richer understanding of what it was they were aspiring to, what it was they were accomplishing, why they stuck with or didn’t stick with certain directions and decisions that they made.
Obviously I’ve made a career of being fascinated by these questions, but you reach a point where there’s not an answer. Nina wasn’t a writer—there are only a handful of songs that she wrote. She was an interpreter and a translator and a channeler. But when you hear someone like Bob Dylan talk about it, he won’t say, “when I wrote that song.” He’ll say, “When that song was written.” These artists get to a place where they’ve created everything, they’ve had all their own experiences and influences and vision. And then this thing comes through them. Trying to get as close to that as you can, that’s the fun part.
RIF: So do you have any favorite musical memoirs?
AL: Because I’m the fan that I am, I love Dylan’s Chronicles. I think half of it or more is just made up. I think it’s a beautiful, lengthy Bob Dylan song that offers tremendous insight. Perhaps not always reliable accuracy, but that’s the game that he’s in.
RIF: Right, that’s Dylan.
AL: I think that’s magnificent. It’s less a music book, but obviously Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a fantastic piece of writing about art and about New York City and…
RIF: The time, the artists, the period…
AL: The community. Keith Richards’ book is tremendous fun to hear him just pull up the next barstool and tell you the stories. Again, there’s issues with what’s actually in there, but many of these things live or die on whether or not they sound like, or feel like the person. One of these that I love was Rod Stewart’s book.
RIF: Oh, really?
AL: It’s kind of ridiculous, but he’s kind of ridiculous. It’s really funny. It gives you the sense that, if you were going to sit down and watch a soccer match with him and have a beer with him, these are the things he would be doing. There’s a tone to it that I think is great. That’s one that I really enjoyed and it did well, but it doesn’t get taken as seriously because he doesn’t. But that book is really, really good. I went back and reread Miles Davis’ autobiography recently, which gets a little bit forgotten because it’s from 30 years ago. But there’s just phenomenal stuff in there. Again, incredible evocation of time and voice that holds up now pretty powerfully.
RIF: You’ve written about, let’s see, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and the whole “Hallelujah” history. Tupac, of course, Gregg Allman. How do you pick your subjects?
AL: Some I pick, and some pick me. And I’ve been fortunate. As I’ve wound up one and started thinking about the next, somebody has come my way. One way or another, they find you. Even the ones that I generated, it’s hard to say like where it came from. The “Hallelujah” book is very close to me just because it was such an interesting high wire act to try to pull off. To write about one song for however long…
RIF: 300 pages.
AL: But even that came in a weird flash. Sort of, oh, this is interesting. This song is in a different place. I wonder how it got there? There was no strategic thing that took me to that. The Prince book, the Purple Rain book, obviously grew out a lifelong obsession. Prince was somebody that I’ve worked with a lot, and somebody that I think about and talk about a lot, but I actually started that project thinking about another book. I was first thinking about a book about 1984 but could never harness that into an idea. I realized that I could get a lot of the ideas that I was thinking about through Purple Rain. It was a lens that took me to a lot of the things that were going on at that time.
You spend a lot of time sitting around trying to come up with an idea, but that’s never gotten me anywhere. And then these things sort of materialize. Writing Gregg Allman’s memoir with him was like that. I had recently done a New York Times piece with him, and soon after that they announced he was going to do a memoir. We said let’s call him up and see, and it worked out. I wasn’t chasing him to do it; it just sort of broke the right way. I wish I could do it a little more strategically ’cause it would be easier. Like, okay now I’ll sit down and find the next book, but it doesn’t happen that way.
RIF: What are some of the most memorable live shows that you’ve seen?
AL: Well, let’s see. I guess you think of the crazy one-off things that you fall into most of all. I’ve seen, again he keeps coming up I guess because it is sort of the primary obsession, but I’ve seen 75 or 80 Bob Dylan shows.
RIF: Dylan led to a big break of yours.
AL: Yes, it was a big break for my career. This particular show was important to me for a bunch of reasons. In 1990, Dylan played this club show in New Haven. First of all, it was down the street from where I lived in college. Second of all, it was Dylan playing a club show for a couple hundred people. And then third of all, it turned into this four-hour kind of open rehearsal for a tour that he was going to go on. And finally, I ended up kind of sneaking in because I was at Rolling Stone at the time. I was just starting out. I was going to go do it as a Random Note: Dylan plays a club show. They cancelled press the day of the show. I had to sneak into the show. Then I was the only journalist in the room, so my big break at Rolling Stone was covering this thing. Everything about that show was top of the list.
My Prince experiences also stand out. Sitting at a piano bench with Prince at sound check, things like that. Does that count as a show? Some of those amazing late night club after-show things that Prince did; those definitely are things you don’t forget.
Then there are ones that are more historically charged, and charged by the moment. I was fortunate enough that I was traveling with U2 for a story during the first shows they played after September 11th, which was an incredible experience. A few weeks after that was when they came and played at Madison Square Garden. Having spent a lot of time with them, I could see how intensely and intensively they were trying to figure out what did their fans want? What did the world want from them at that moment in history? By the time they came to New York City, and it was really the first time that a lot of people had been out and in a crowd, that was the most emotional show that I’ve experienced. I mean the whole place was floating in air, and the whole place was in tears. I’ve never experienced anything quite as powerful as what those couple of shows. So those are short list of memorable things I’ve seen.
RIF: I have goosebumps.
AL: It was extraordinary. I’m not a do-or-die U2 fan. There are things that I love that they’ve done; there are things I don’t really care about. They are always amazing to work with because they’re just so smart, thoughtful, and great as interviews, and all that. But seeing that, being inside that at all, at that of all moments, was really just like nothing else.
RIF: Yeah, the timing really made it magical.
AL: That’s one that stays with you forever. Then some of the legends, I mean seeing Miles Davis play at the end of his life. Seeing figures who are the real gods for me, that I got to see in person, before it was over, while they were still walking the earth.
RIF: I feel that way about authors sometimes. Do you think books and music do the same thing, do similar things, or are they different?
AL: No, well maybe it’s my own idealization of such things, because I don’t have the fiction-writing gene at all. I would have no idea how to do that. I don’t feel the need to write a screenplay. I think there’s something that fiction does that’s closer to songwriting. I mean there’s obviously great beauty in history and in analysis and in essay writing. But the close your eyes and take you to another place that songwriting can do, I think you feel that more in fiction than in journalism.
The great examples of writing about music obviously are transportive and insightful and creative as well, but the extraordinary thing about really great songwriting is the concision and the precision. There are things that are very different about songwriting and about poetry. The sound of the words and what you can do in a very compressed space is what’s so fantastic about it. And not always in the super high-flown ways. I defy anybody to write a better first line of a song, or a better first line of anything, than Tom Petty writing, “She was an American girl raised on promises.” It’s seven words. It’s a full…
RIF: Short story.
AL: It’s a short story; it’s a history lesson. That’s unbelievable writing. So I think that’s a very special and mysterious and magical thing.
Image credits: Author photo: © Mary Ellen Matthews