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Scoring a Love Affair With Nina Simone

Nina Simone’s voice was notable for its range of expression: It could be jubilant, reverent, haunting, despairing, angry, fierce, scathing, gentle, sensual, bawdy and even more. She punctuated and teased it out with masterful piano arrangements, but the riches were always in that voice. Whether singing standards associated with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald or the signature tunes of George Harrison, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Simone made each indelibly her own. With the controversial biopic Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, potentially forthcoming this year, what better time to get reacquainted with the real deal? A longed-for career as a classical pianist eluded Simone; instead she plumbed gospel, Broadway, jazz, soul, pop, folk and rock. Her subjects ranged from racism, crime, sin, death and the blues to black pride, feminism, freedom, redemption and love. On this last topic she was a virtuoso, passionately narrating love’s beginnings, ups and downs, and endings. She left dozens of examples, and narrowing those down for this playlist meant rejecting many worthy contenders, including “I Got It Bad, and That Ain’t Good,” “Since I Fell for You,” “To Love Somebody,” “The Other Woman,” “Since My Love Is Gone,” “The End of the Line,” “Forget,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “My Man Is Gone Now,” “Spring Is Here” and “For a While.” Every fan has special favorites, but here are some of mine—all involving the many forms of our central human concern, as expressed by the inimitable Nina Simone. Declarations Simone delivered messages of love in a variety of styles. Her poignant rendition of the Gershwins’ “I Loves You, Porgy” is a masterpiece of emotion and understatement, while a plaintive howl conveys love’s “awful ache” in her cover of Billie Holiday’s “Tell Me More and More and Then Some.” In the rollicking recording of “Love Me or Leave Me” on her 1966 album Let It All Out, Simone romps through an exuberant piano interlude, an ode to her favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Longing In these three songs made for dancing close and slow, Simone gives a suggestive twist to mundane household tasks (“I want a little steam on my clothes”), and she campaigns for romancing in the dark and in the light: “In the Dark,” “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Turn Me On.” Lust The eight-minute song “Jelly Roll” is about as smooth and swinging as they come, and there’s no mistaking Simone’s meaning. She’s not singing about pastries when she exults, “I could go for a ride on your sweet jelly roll, but I wouldn’t give nothing for my juicy, juicy soul.” Runners-up: “Chauffeur,” “Do I Move You?” Bed of Roses Simone admitted to having a tumultuous personal life, and songs about relationships going well are relatively few in her catalog. Her hit “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is given a bizarre (creepy, even) treatment in Aardman Animation’s 1987 music video. Hear also: “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You,” “You Better Know It.” On the Rocks “Be My Husband” is the bleakest of marriage proposals, made to a man who treats the singer “so doggone mean.” Discussing relationships in an interview, Simone stated that she would not do housework, yet here she sings, “If you want me to, I’ll cook and sew”—a clear sign this entreaty is made under duress. Also try: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “I Put a Spell on You.” Cheating Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” and “Don’t Explain” are stripped-down and grief stricken, while “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” is brassy and sassy. The End “Do What You Gotta Do” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas” are both beautiful, but let’s close with Simone’s wrenching cover of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” Be sure to stick around for her phrasing on the final lines: “I get along without you very well, ’course I do, ’cept perhaps in spring. But then I should never ever think of spring, for that would surely break my heart in two.” Photo courtesy of STEVE WOOD/Rex USA/Everett CONNECTS_Nina-Simone

by Amy K. Hughes

Aug 19, 2014

The Dark Life of Madeline’s Daddy

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.... They left the house, at half past nine... The smallest one was Madeline. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline books are classics of children’s literature, and yet his own childhood reads like a dark parable. When he was six, his father abandoned him and Ludwig’s pregnant mother. (In the same swoop, his father abandoned his pregnant mistress, who committed suicide.) Bemelmans’s mother shipped the rebellious Ludwig off to work in one of his Uncle Hans’s hotels. During an argument, 16-year-old Ludwig shot the head waiter. He was given two choices: reform school or America. Ludwig chose America, but dear old dad, now living in New York, forgot to collect his wayward son, so Ludwig spent Christmas Eve 1914 on Ellis Island. He was carrying two pistols—he might have to shoot angry Indians, after all. From this Dickensian upbringing sprang the willful, intrepid Madeline. Madeline in New York, a glorious exhibit at the New York Historical Society, honors Bemelmans’s career and celebrates the 75th anniversary of the publication of Madeline, his greatest creation. Children of all ages will delight at more than 90 works on view, including the original Madeline manuscript and Bemelmans’s own paint box. While the redheaded girl who fearlessly says “Pooh-pooh” to the tiger in the zoo lived in Paris, Madeline is really a New Yorker. The artist once said, “I am part of New York, as so many foreigners are, and I love this city.” Bemelmans’s daughter, Barbara, remembers living in the Hotel Irving near Gramercy Park and eating dinner “oh, almost every night” at Pete’s Tavern. (Bemelmans wrote the first lines of Madeline on the back of a Pete’s Tavern menu.) Last winter I spent a cozy afternoon nursing a $20 black russian in the Hotel Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar. A resident of the hotel, Bemelmans agreed to paint a mural on all the walls in exchange for 18 months’ free rent. Madame Clavel, Madeline and the 11 other nameless little girls in two straight lines are there in a corner by the bar (pictured). Bemelmans suffered a nervous breakdown while serving at a mental hospital during World War I. Desperate not to become like the inmates, he turned to drawing to ease his mind. “I have started to think in pictures and make myself several scenes to which I can escape instantly when the danger appears.” After the war, Bemelmans worked as a cartoonist, but his life changed the night May Massee, the children’s book editor at Viking Press, came to dinner. Thrilled by Bemelmans’s drawings, she told him, “You must write children’s books!” The idea for Madeline came to Bemelmans when he was laid up in the hospital, having been struck by a car while on vacation. There he met a small girl “who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me.” Madeline’s worldwide success (the book was followed by five sequels) gave Bemelmans the resources to indulge his favorite passion: travel. He loved life, noting “one who has known how troubled life can be, has a real appreciation of it when it is good.” After such stormy beginnings, Ludwig Bemelmans lived a good life. That’s all there is; there isn’t any more. Photo courtesy of Colin J. Warnock CONNECTS_Madeline

by Colin J. Warnock

Aug 18, 2014

“The Giver” Got Kids of the 1990s Into Self-Determination

Lois Lowry’s controversial 1993 novel The Giver is now a staple of the children’s literary canon; its film adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, opens today, in fact. Back when I was more or less the right age for the book, its Newbury Medal was newly minted, but I wasn’t immediately certain that I was allowed to read it. Being an advanced reader in elementary school necessitated lots of negotiations with my parents and teachers in attempts to balance my appropriate reading level with my corresponding level of emotional development. I got a green light for The Giver, however, which renewed my faith in grown-ups who would entrust young readers with complicated moral questions—in this case, the thorny issue of assisted suicide. In broad terms, The Giver is, for many children, an introduction to dystopian scenarios, as well as a parable about the insidiousness of conformity. These points weren’t lost on me as a kid, but what impressed me most about the story was that, while the protagonist, Jonas, deals with his own problems—he is assigned to a life as the keeper of his community’s collective memories, both pleasant and terribly painful—bit by bit the tale emerges of another person who was once cursed with the same responsibility. This girl, named Rosemary, chose “release,” i.e., lethal injection, over continuing to experience how raw life could be outside their restrictive society, which had embraced a program of “sameness” to shelter its people from emotional pain. This book marked the first time I gave serious consideration to the question of why a person might want to commit suicide and whether that could ever be something another person could support. It felt like a worthwhile ethical exercise, one I was equipped enough to start grappling with, if not make up my mind about. It was definitely much more than could be said of the pedantic takeaways from other stuff I was reading at the time, literary material like a Baby-Sitter’s Club spin-off series about little sisters, along with British children’s classics such as The Secret Garden. But as the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s proves, in an ironic parallel to the world of Lowry’s novel, not everyone is ready to allow children to ponder big issues. The Giver ranks at number 11. I was pleased when I started to see trailers for The Giver’s film adaptation earlier this year, and I’m awfully glad I got my hands on the novel when I did. It’s certainly worth renewing public interest in this one for a new generation, and of course Meryl Streep looks as if she’ll be austerely amazing in it—something all generations can enjoy. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_The-Giver

by Emilie Ruscoe

Aug 15, 2014

The Miraculous Helen Mirren

A new Helen Mirren picture arrived in theaters last Friday—a feel-good East-meets-West parable called The Hundred-Foot Journey. Like its director Lasse Hallström’s earlier confection Chocolat, this flick concerns culinary cultural conflict in a French village. Mirren plays a chilly restaurateur who loses her cool when an Indian eatery opens right across the road from her Michelin-starred establishment. From the trailer, Journey looks either too easy to swallow or a tad gag inducing (or both). But I may go see it anyway, simply because I’ll have a look at anything Helen Mirren appears in. “Have a look” doesn’t mean I’ll see it through, however. I had great hopes for Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, starring Mirren as Prospera, an opposite-gendered avatar of Shakespeare’s marooned sorcerer. But the film’s overwrought yet inept special effects quickly wore on me, and after half an hour I just couldn’t take any more. I did enjoyably sit through the preposterous geriatric comedy-thriller Red, mostly because of Mirren’s delicious turn as a retired MI6 hit lady who eagerly dusts off her machine gun when duty calls. Of course, Mirren just walked through that part—but, boy, can she ever walk through a part. Given the right material, she does so much more. Mirren’s Academy Award–winning performance in Stephen Frears’s The Queen is absolutely uncanny. She doesn’t impersonate Elizabeth II—she incarnates her. Reportedly, even the real queen found the portrayal true to life. Mirren’s ability to become the character she plays is a rare gift among actors. For all her shape-shifting talent, Meryl Streep doesn’t seem, to me, to have it. Maggie Smith does, but then Smith, for at least the past couple of decades, has mainly played variations on the same dotty dowager role. Not Mirren. Over the years, she has incarnated many diverse personae: from British royals (not just both Elizabeths but also Queen Charlotte, in Nicholas Hytner’s little masterpiece The Madness of King George) to a below-stairs drudge with a terrible secret (housekeeper Mrs. Wilson in Robert Altman’s grander masterpiece Gosford Park, for which she should have won an Oscar) and, in her defining role, a police detective who’s both dogged (i.e., tenacious) and dogged by institutional sexism and her own proclivity for errors in personal and professional judgment. As Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the British crime series Prime Suspect, which ran for seven seasons between 1991 and 2006, Mirren presented viewers with an excruciatingly actual human being: by turns astute and clueless, sexy and warty, groomed and disheveled, fiercely ethical and capable of pitiful moral lapses. People tend to think TV’s current golden age began in 1999, when The Sopranos premiered. But I’d date its birth to Prime Suspect’s first season, and I’d say, too, that all the television actors who in the meantime have given us such knotty, fascinating characters—James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, to name a few—owe a large debt to Mirren’s fearless portrayal of DCI Tennison. She’s one of the few great actresses (Bette Davis was another) who doesn’t seem to mind being filmed looking just awful, which makes watching her all the more compelling. I recently spent a week rewatching Prime Suspect, whose first six seasons are streamable on Netflix. That binge fest gave me the urge to become a Helen Mirren completist—reason enough to mosey over to the movie house to see The Hundred-Foot Journey, even if the film itself ends up not being worth the trek. Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_Helen-Mirren

by James Waller

Aug 14, 2014