“I wonder what`s wrong with baby?”
A tall geezer, a wide boy, with a thick, unkempt, jungle of jet hair and a five o’clock shadow – at 7:30 A.M. – pushes in front of me in the dining hall queue for breakfast. Dressed in a creased white shirt, partially tucked into what look like a slept in pair of beige chinos. Tommo.
“You Ground Floor boys in for an Original Oak steam up?”
He doesn’t notice me. His challenge aimed at fellow footballers, Al and Mario. But the “Ground Floor Boys” came as a package. So you got Maz, Al, and the “At All”. As in no hope “at all” of copping off.
The Original Oak was a quiet pub in Headingley. Not a regular student haunt. It had its own bowling green. It was the sort of place you might take a young lady on a first date. Somewhere you could talk without shouting over a mixture of Goth classics and Chart crap. Somewhere you were unlikely to be spotted. But, unfortunately for The Oak, mid-way between us and Leeds City Centre, it became the default weeknight destination.
Pints of snake bite were the fuel for a “Steam Up”. Lowenbrau lager and Copperhead cider. As the two drinks mixed, they formed a thick chemical cloud of precipitate. Suggesting that the “cocktail” was not such a great idea. These evenings would usually end in “conflict” with the bar staff. Caused by someone pinching the framed pictures or horse-brasses. Trying to kick the Johnny machine off the Gents` wall. Or parading around the establishment wearing a loo seat about his neck as a trophy. We once stole a wrought iron garden table from the garden. Which Howard then gave to his mum for Christmas. Howard and Al also managed to get in a fight there. With the Chess Club. Which they lost. Bringing rounds of stick about the “Grand Masters” being difficult opponents. About them being always three or four moves ahead. This camaraderie and competition had its root on the football pitch, but a willingness to drink yourself stupid or sick proved to be the bond. So when it came to the end of our first year, and we had to leave Halls, Tommo asked me if I`d like to move into a house his brother had bought as a reality investment.
Tommo and Mario took the first floor. Mario ending up with the best room through the use of his two-headed coin. Al and I were in the attic. Howard was in the basement. A room he chose due its sink. A luxury he referred to as an “ensuite”. Where the damp allowed fungus to gain a hold on everything, including him. Adrian joined Howard down there, when his plans to share with a group of girls went awry. Sleeping with two of them before the start of term.
If Tommo’s brother had met us, he`d have never taken us on as tenants. But we did a year there on Ash Road. Right next door to the cricket ground. By the time we left, the place had been gutted. The bath had come through the kitchen ceiling. The kitchen lino burnt. The carpets – now a health hazard – dumped in the front garden. The back wall kicked down to build a barbecue. The investment reduced to a brick shell.
Tommo received regular letters from his parents demanding outstanding rent. Our money going on squidgy black Gold Seal and cheap booze. Clan Dew. Which had a crudely drawn stag on its label, and claimed to be a distant relative of whiskey. Thunderbird. A fortified pear wine that we kept in the freezer. Since it was too foul to drink at anything above zero. Tommo only mentioned these letters in passing. During late night card sessions. The trouble was that no one connected ownership of the house with Tommo’s family. When crockery was being smashed, and furniture broken to build a bonfire in the kitchen, Tommo was there. Joining in.
At the end of the Summer term we threw a party. For the music I poled everyone for their top ten tracks. I made tapes. Drew caricatures of us all on the inlays. Made copies for each of us. One of Tommo`s ten was Nina Simone`s My Baby Just Cares For Me. Reissued, it had been at Number 1 in the charts and on every radio for what felt like the whole year. There was a video featuring animated, modelling clay cats. At the party – when its over-familiar piano refrain started – the dancing in the living room had stopped. The whole room shouting its displeasure. Me And H were creasing up.
“Tommo, they were boo-ing you last night!”
That final day on Ash Road I made one last fuck up. Intent on acting out the final scene of “Withnail & I”, I`d been theatrically waving goodbye to the others as their parents collected them. Waving a bottle of Adrian`s home-brewed red wine. Hammered. At ten in the morning. I forgot to get rid of the bong.
Constructed from a large glass jar lifted from the Chemistry Labs, the bong was part of the Saturday night ritual. Along with hairbrush microphone Elvis impressions, choruses of Kenny Rogers`s The Gambler, and giving each other abuse about what we`d chosen to wear. As we readied to go into town. A couple of us had steady girlfriends but a pack mentality ruled. You were measured on the number of drinks you sank. And the number of women whose favour you stole. Tommo once disappeared from a club with a girl, and when I asked him the next day “What did she look like?” He said, “Freddy Krueger.” But on another occasion his one-night stand had excused herself and slit her wrists in her bathroom. He`d broken down the door. Had his hangover kick-in while waiting in A&E. Coming home looking even more disheveled than usual.
When Tommo`s Mum and Dad turned up to survey the damage to the house, they found the bong. Its twists of tar blackened tubing had them convinced that it was something more sinister. Crack having begun to make headlines. They urged him to break off his friendships. Forbade him from ever meeting or speaking with us again. Instead, Tommo gave us pseudonyms to use whenever we called.
It`s funny but My Baby Just Cares For Me has become a personal favourite. Singing as it does of a crazy love. An impossible love. An obsession. An imagined, perfect, dream lover. Sung with a showbiz joy. Eventually tempered by the dwindling hope of ever finding that nutcase. I know. I`ve been there. I can remember the madness. Kinda laugh now it has left me. Kinda. Dance an only half ironic soft shoe shuffle. Miming a top hat and cane. `Cos only I know how dark it got. How self-destructive. How funny it wasn`t. Better to have loved, and lost it.
Such a professional. Yet such a human ache. Everything Nina sang sounded like a call for understanding. She flipped the song`s sexual preference. Swapped “Lana Turner” for “Liberace”, when no one was looking. Was she speaking out for LGBT rights back in 1958? Did she pick the song to reclaim it from Eddie Cantor`s original “Black Face” performance in Makin` Whoopee!? Segregation marked the whole of Nina Simone`s life. Dreams of freedom made her fearless.
Nina – The High Priestess Of Soul – was born Eunice Waymon, in Tyron, North Carolina, in 1933. Her mother was a preacher. She started at the piano aged around three. Performing in church. There, a white music teacher spotted her, and offered Nina lessons. A young girl in Jim Crowe country. Literally crossing the tracks to attend classes. She found herself isolated. Segregated by both colour and the seven hours a day of practice. Her ambition was to be the first Black classical concert pianist, and a fund was set up to help continue her studies. Raising Money through “Whites-Only” recitals. At the first of these fund-raisers, Nina`s proud parents were moved from the front to the back of the Hall. A twelve year old Nina refused to play until they were returned to their original seats.
The Waymon family relocated to New York when Nina enrolled in Juilliard. Then to Philly when she applied to The Curtis Institute. When the school rejected her, likely based on her colour, Nina went to work to support her folks. She taught from her home but also took a job at the Midtown Bar & Grill on Atlantic City`s Pacific Avenue. She changed her name to keep her involvement in the Devil`s Music from her mother. “Nina” was something a boyfriend would whisper. “Simone” was for Simone Signoret. The French actress who had then recently starred in Casque d`Or. The job required that Nina sing.
Nina`s commercial breakthrough came in 1958 with the recording of I Love You Porgy, from George Gershwin`s libretto, Porgy And Bess. Again, it seems a strange choice of song. Since Gershwin`s musical portrayal of Black stereotypes on “Catfish Row” had been under fire from African Americans for decades. There`s a video clip of Nina performing the song on Hugh Hefner`s Playboy Penthouse TV show. She is of course, the only Black person there.
By 1961 she owned a thirteen bedroomed house, which also contained a cold storage for her fur coats. In 1963, she hired Carnegie Hall, to fulfil a childhood ambition. Paying for it personally, when no promoter would underwrite the risk. From there the World knew her name and she began to tour globally. But she felt overworked. Angry with her abusive husband / manager. Depressed. Suicidal and violent by turns. Trashing dressing rooms. Nina`s daughter has said that it was anger that sustained the star. In 1965 she channelled it.
Nina wrote, performed and recorded, Mississippi Goddam in response to the murder of Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers. In response to the murder of four Black girls. Killed in the blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Whilst attending Sunday school. Nina wrote the song “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination”. Described it as “throwing ten bullets back at them”. Introduced it as “a show tune for a show that hasn’t been written yet.” Her voice broke during its debut. Radio stations in the South reciprocated by banning the tune and smashing their promo copies. Returning boxes of broken records.
Nina joined the Selma To Montgomery Marches. Watched over by the massed rifles of the National Guard. Told Dr Martin Luther King that she was “not non-violent”. Told anyone and everyone listening that she advocated armed conflict and sought a separate African American state. She said had she not been a singer she would have picked up a gun. But she recognised the stage as a platform “To help my people.” She said, “You can`t be an artist and not reflect the times.” That, “My people are just about due.” She wrote The Backlash Blues with poet / author Langston Hughes. Set out to make audiences uncomfortable. To shake them up. “To shake them to pieces.”
“This is not Jazz, not Classical, not Blues, but Civil Rights music.”
She wrote To Be Young, Gifted and Black with musician Weldon Irvine, with the aim of encouraging her “lost race” to be proud of who they were. To go looking for their history.
Nina met Malcolm X, and moved in next door. She met The Black Panthers` Kwame Ture, ne Stokely Carmichael, and became even more set on exposing the “sickness in America”. The institutional racism. In 1968 she quit playing tuxedoed, predominately White Jazz festivals. She started to sing only political songs. Her concerts intended to insight revolution.
“By any means necessary.”
As a consequence the bookings dried up.
After the assassination of Dr. King she suffered a nervous breakdown. Nina sacrificed her sanity in a fight for equality in an America that saw Black as “second-class” and failed to appreciate the genius of its women. In 1970 a nomadic existence began. Nina flew to Barbados to avoid arrest over non-payment of taxes. Which she claimed to be part of her protest against the Vietnam War. Then to Liberia, where she said she`d seen God. But her mood swings would cut like a switch and she was beating her daughter in public, and had practically stopped playing. Saying she now hated the piano.
Nina finally returned to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. For cash. Berating audiences. Calling them “unworthy” and “corpses”. In part angered by what she saw as the exploitation of Janis Joplin, who`d become the new Little Girl Blue. Who`d recently OD`d. Telling them that they wouldn`t be seeing her again. Leaving them with the memory of incredible, damaged readings of Janis Ian`s song, Stars, and middle-of-the-road standard, Feelings. Nina was then stuck in Europe. Moving from Switzerland to Paris. Penniless. Playing small clubs and bars for $100 fees. She looked like a bag-lady. In Holland, forced by friends to see a doctor, she was diagnosed as bipolar. Prescribed a regime of Trilafon. The friends acted as agents and put her back on tour. But the drug`s accompanying dyskinesia took its toll, and she now fought to control ticks and a slur. When she didn`t take her meds, which was often, musically she would still soar and amaze. Prompting Miles Davis to ask, “How does she do that?”
In 1987 Chanel chose My Baby Just Cares For Me as the music for that year`s campaign for its fragrance, NO.5. The re-released tune topped charts around the world. But Nina didn`t see a penny, since she`d signed over the rights for $3000 back in 1958. I guess that`s why it`s Claymation cats in the video.
Tell Me More And Then Some, from 1965`s Pastel Blues seems to be the reality to the fantasy of My Baby Just Cares For Me.
“The waiting`s been so long, it`s hard to be believing.”
How Soon Is Now?
On her cover of Bee Gee Barry Gibb`s In The Morning from 1968`s Nuff Said, she is
“Waiting on the ocean floor”,
“Building castles in the shifting sand.”
Then flying you “to the top right corner of the ceiling of my room”.
“It`s only morning and you`ve still to live your day.”
This is the optimistic dream that Nina wants you to hold on to. One where anything is possible. But to me it sounds like her own faith is failing. Perhaps that`s because she recorded the song only three days after a bullet killed The King Of Love.