“Our Fertile Hand”
June 26th – July 30th, 2016
reception: Sunday, June 26th, 6 to 8pm
Bill Cunningham in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Easter 1967, with his first camera, a half-frame that cost $35.
NY Times Published: June 25, 2016
Bill Cunningham, the street-style photographer whose photo essays for The New York Times memorialized trends ranging from fanny packs to Birkin bags, gingham shirts and fluorescent biker shorts, died in New York on Saturday. He was 87.
He had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke. His death was confirmed by The New York Times.
In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.
At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.
In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.
In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed him with the Legion d’Honneur. Back in New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him, as slight and bony-thin as ever, was installed in the window.
In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and profiled in The New Yorker, which described his columns On the Street and Evening Hours as the city’s unofficial yearbook, “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
In 2010, a documentary film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.
Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him.
He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.
He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had until very recently for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”June 25th, 2016
June 24 – July 16, 2016
Bill Berkson in 1971. Photo: Gerard Malanga
By William Grimes
New York Times published: June 22, 2016
In the artistic Manhattan of the 1960s, when the small worlds of experimental poetry, film, theater, visual art and dance bled into one another, an animated figure seemed to appear everywhere at once. Bill Berkson, poet and art critic, was the ever-present third man from the left in the group photographs that chronicle the era.
Inevitably, he appeared at gatherings of the poets of the New York School, at the gallery openings of artists like Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers, and at the downtown powwows where argonauts of the avant-garde like Rudy Burckhardt, Merce Cunningham and John Cage breathed the same rarefied air.
Mr. Berkson moved easily in this heady milieu, his striking good looks and insatiable appetite for the new affording him instant entree. His friends were legion, an endless roll call of the geniuses, provocateurs and poseurs who gave the decade its distinctive cultural tang.
“I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966,” he wrote in his memoir, “Since When,” to be published by Coffee House Press on a date to be announced
In 1960, John Myers, a partner in the Tibor de Nagy gallery, offered to publish Mr. Berkson’s poems. When Mr. Berkson pointed out that Mr. Myers had not actually read any, he answered, “It doesn’t matter, you’re in the air.”
Mr. Berkson died on Thursday in San Francisco. He was 76. The cause was a heart attack, said his stepdaughter, Nina Lewallen Hufford.
William Craig Berkson was born on Aug. 30, 1939, in Manhattan. The family was glamorous. His father, Seymour, was the publisher of The New York Journal-American, a Hearst newspaper. His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was a celebrated fashion publicist, the creator of the International Best Dressed List and New York Fashion Week.
The Berksons’ apartment, on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, was the setting for an endless round of cocktail parties populated by celebrity journalists, film stars and fashionistas. Through the front door walked Judy Garland, Cecil Beaton, Janet Gaynor, the swashbuckling journalist Bob Considine and the husband-and-wife radio and television hosts Jinx Falkenburg and Tex McCrary.
“I remember answering the phone to hear the alarming nasal of Louella Parsons — ‘Hel-lo, Bil-ly, this is Lou-ella. How are you?” — calling from Hollywood,” Mr. Berkson wrote, referring to the movie columnist, in an autobiographical essay for the reference work Contemporary Authors.
He attended the Trinity School in Manhattan before enrolling in the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began writing poetry. He graduated in 1957. Under his yearbook photograph appeared the motto: “Plato or comic books, I’m versatile.”
After studying briefly at Brown University, he returned to New York. “My plans included transferring to Columbia, but secretly I wanted to experience at first hand the steam-heated life of poetry and some other, seemingly connected fantasies of accelerated living,” he wrote in his autobiographical essay.
He enrolled in Kenneth Koch’s poetry workshop at the New School for Social Research, where, already under the spell of Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other Beat poets, he found in Frank O’Hara a congenial poetic idiom, vernacular and free.
When Mr. Koch left the New School in 1964, he invited Mr. Berkson to take over the workshop. This onetime student was now teaching up-and-comers like the future art critics Peter Schjeldahl and Carter Ratcliff, the future rock star Patti Smith and the poet Charles North. Later in the decade his voice, with other New York poets, could be heard on Dial-a-Poem, a free telephone service.
In more than 20 volumes of poetry, Mr. Berkson developed a freewheeling, idiosyncratic style that could be, by turns, conversational, epigrammatic, elliptical, whimsical and surreal. In a 2015 interview with PBS, he referred to his “sense of scatter.”
His poem “Signature Song” begins in relaxed, prosey fashion:
Bunny Berigan first recorded “I
Can’t Get Started”
with a small group that
included Joe Bushkin, Cozy Cole
and Artie Shaw in 1936.
His 1998 poem “Last Words” is a list of exit lines, ending with “Shut the door on your way out” and “You want I should call you a cab?”
“October,” one of his earliest poems, shows a keen observational side:
It’s odd to have a separate
escapes the year, it is not only
cold, it is warm
and loving like a death grip on
a willing knee.
After the Tibor de Nagy gallery published “Saturday Night: Poems, 1960-61,” Mr. Berkson went on to produce more than 20 poetry collections, several of them collaborative projects with artists he knew well, notably Philip Guston, Alex Katz and Norman Bluhm. His most recent poetry collection was “Expect Delays” (2014).
In 1960, after dropping out of Columbia, Mr. Berkson began working as an editorial associate at Art News magazine. This was the beginning of a long career as an art critic and curator. In New York, he contributed frequently to Art News and Arts, and after moving to the Bay Area in 1970, he wrote for Artforum, Modern Painters, Aperture and other publications. He was also a corresponding editor for Art in America.
In 1975, he married the artist Lynne O’Hare. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his stepdaughter, Nina, he is survived by his wife, Constance Lewallen; a son, Moses; a daughter Siobhan O’Hare Mora Lopez; a stepson, Jonathan Lewallen; and six grandchildren.
In California, Mr. Berkson edited and published a series of poetry books and magazines under the Big Sky imprint. After teaching a graduate seminar in art criticism at the California College of Arts and Crafts, he joined the staff of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984, organizing public lectures and teaching art history and literature. He was the institute’s director of letters and science. He retired in 2008.
In 2009, a half-century’s worth of his work was collected in “Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems.”
“I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry, and at some point the worry ceased,” he told PBS. “I gave myself permission to do what I’ve been doing all along without worrying about it.”June 22nd, 2016
June 22nd, 2016
June 21st, 2016
4th June – 24th JulyJune 20th, 2016
A long-tailed weasel in Yellowstone National Park. Credit George Sanker
By NATALIE ANGIER
NY Times Published: JUNE 13, 2016
At birth, the least weasel is as small and light as a paper clip, and the tiny ribs that press visibly against its silvery pink skin give it a segmented look, like that of an insect. A newborn kit is exceptionally underdeveloped, with sealed eyes and ears that won’t open for five or six weeks, an age when puppies and kittens are ready to be weaned.
A mother weasel, it seems, has no choice but to deliver her young half-baked. As a member of the mustelid clan — a noble but often misunderstood family of carnivorous mammals that includes ferrets, badgers, minks and wolverines — she holds to a slender, elongated body plan, the better to pursue prey through tight spaces that most carnivores can’t penetrate. Bulging baby bumps would jeopardize that sylphish hunting physique.
The solution? Give birth to the equivalent of fetuses and then finish gestating them externally on mother’s milk.
“If you want access to small environments, you can’t have a big belly,” said William J. Zielinski, a mustelid researcher with the United States Forest Service in Arcata, Calif. “You don’t see fat weasels.”
For Dr. Zielinski and other mustelid-minded scientists, weasels exemplify evolutionary genius and compromise in equal measure, the piecing together of exaggerated and often contradictory traits to yield a lineage of fierce, fleet, quick-witted carnivores that can compete for food against larger celebrity predators like the big cats, wolves and bears.
Researchers admit that wild mustelids can be maddening to study. Most species are secretive loners, shrug off standard radio collars with ease, and run close to the ground “like small bolts of brown lightning,” as one team noted. Now you see them, no, you didn’t.
Nevertheless, through a mix of dogged field and laboratory studies, scientists have lately made progress in delineating the weasel playbook, and it’s a page turner, or a page burner.
Researchers have been astonished to discover that the average mustelid is like a fur-covered furnace, its metabolic rate exceeding not only that of other carnivorous mammals but also that of its twitchy, ever-gnawing rodent prey.
“If you compare a least weasel to a meadow mouse, they’re the same weight, but the weasel has the higher metabolic rate,” said Roger Powell, an emeritus professor at North Carolina State University and doyen of weasel studies.
“The weasel heart beats at up to 400 pulses per minute,” said Mark Linnell, a faculty research assistant who studies mustelids at Oregon State University. “They’re geared to run at full speed, and they’re always high-strung.”
That keyed-up metabolism is another example of a grand mustelidian compromise. “If you have a high metabolic rate, you can be more active and search farther for food in more places and in more diverse ways,” Dr. Powell said. “But you have to catch more food in order to do that.”
Big cats must eat the equivalent of roughly a third of their weight each week; weasels must eat a third or more of their weight each day. “They’re living life on the edge,” Dr. Powell said.
Weasels also have big brains relative to body mass, and they apply their neuronal bounty to continuously fine-tune their movements during a hunt, a strategy that allows them to attack prey up to 10 times their size.
The fisher, a particularly fearless weasel in the marten branch, may be the only North American carnivore to have mastered the art of dining on adult porcupine — a large rodent that, in addition to being protected by a formidable quill sheath, weighs a good 12 pounds more than the eight-pound fisher.
“It’s got to be one of the great predator-prey matchups in history,” said Roland Kays, a biologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State. The fisher must encounter the porcupine on open ground, at which point it can start running circles around its quarry. The fisher tries to dart in and bite the porcupine’s vulnerable face; the porcupine pivots to turn its shielded back toward its attacker. Dart and spin, dart and bite.
After several deep wounds to its face, the porcupine grows weak, loses its footing and — match over. The fisher will then flip the punctured, pincushioned animal onto its back and carefully tear into a quill-free patch of belly, gaining access to desirable organs like the small intestine, which is not only rich in protein and lipids, but also contains the partially digested plant matter that even carnivores need.
Dr. Kays and a former student, Scott LaPoint, have found that fishers are far more behaviorally flexible than biologists had thought possible, at least in the Northeast. Hunted and trapped to near extinction until the 1930s, fishers — a misleading name derived from Dutch colonists’ word for polecat, a European weasel — began recovering in their traditional setting of deep forests, where they could easily avoid humans.
In the last few years, though, the weasels have apparently shaken off their reserve and begun showing up in suburban and urban areas — a shopping mall in Schenectady, N.Y., a parking lot in downtown Albany. Two years ago, a sizable male fisher made its way to the Bronx, startling anybody who saw it slinking along the sidewalk and raising hope that a solution to the city’s rat problem might have finally arrived.
The fisher, alas, soon disappeared. “I don’t know how that one ended up in the Bronx in the first place,” Dr. Powell said, “but it’s no place for a fisher, and I’m sure he wished he’d turned left when he turned right.”
For their part, researchers wish they could overturn the public’s generally poor opinion of weaseldom. To call someone a weasel means the person is shifty, untrustworthy. Weasel words are those squishy, defensive qualifiers beloved by, well, journalists.
In a recent “Brewster Rockit: Space Guy” comic strip, a “closet of nightmares” is opened to reveal, “AAHHH!!! Weasel-juggling clowns!”
Researchers speculate that the negative image may result partly from the mustelid’s serpentine silhouette: In some parts of Central America, weasels are called “furry snakes.” Or maybe it’s the distinctive mustelid musk. Most weasel species communicate with one another over large home ranges through frequent daubs of a pungent fluid excreted by their anal glands.
Shihab Shamma, who uses ferrets to study the mammalian auditory system at the University of Maryland and Descartes University in Paris, said of the ferrets at his Paris lab, “We give them the names of smelly French cheeses.”
But mustelid enthusiasts emphasize the family’s beauty and diversity: some 60 living species across all continents except Antarctica and Australia, ranging in size from the least weasel, the world’s smallest carnivore (weighing less than half a stick of butter as an adult), to the mighty wolverine, which can weigh up to 70 pounds.
Many weasels spend time in water, and one species, the sea otter, is a marine mammal that rarely comes on land. Sea otters are also among the only nonprimate mammals to use tools, cracking open a recalcitrant mollusk shell by banging it with a stone. Most of the time, though, the sea otter’s teeth do the job.
“Their teeth are amazing, like no other living carnivore,” said Adam Hartstone-Rose, who studies mammalian bite forces at the University of South Carolina. “They’re big and rounded and with no pointy cusps that might break off. They look like pillows or gum drops.” But the teeth, with their thick coat of enamel, can easily crush open a crab, clam or snail.
Most weasels have dentition more typical of carnivores, with a few sharp, slicing teeth and fewer, smaller molars, which other animals use to grind plants. As a result of their compact dental layout, many weasels have foreshortened snouts that make them look young and cute. They can also act young: Weasels are among the few animals that play as adults.
If they’re well fed, Dr. Powell said, “they’ll bounce and ricochet around, pounce, stalk, wiggle and change shape and just about turn themselves inside out. They put kittens to shame.”
Many weasels live in cold places, and because their long, thin shape has a high surface area relative to volume, they lose heat easily. To tackle the cold without relying on fat as an insulator, many weasels grow luxurious fur coats, some of the densest in nature.
A good head of human hair has about 350 hairs per square inch. On a mink, the fiber count per square inch is 44,000. Small wonder that people have historically coveted weasel pelts — mink, sable and ermine, the fur of pomp and royalty taken from the animals in winter, when their coats turn white.
Weasels also appreciate the value of co-opted fur. In winter, voles and mice build little dome-shaped nests under the snow. When a weasel finds one of these nests, it’s a genuine jackpot: lunch and lodging combined. Better still with a few tweaks: After eating the residents, the weasel lines its new dwelling in rodent fur to improve insulation.
“If you pop open one of these nests in springtime, you discover a macabre scene,” Dr. Zielinski said. “What was once occupied by a vole is now covered with vole-hair wallpaper.”
A rodent’s closet of nightmares: no clowns, no juggling, just one cold and hungry weasel, knocking at the door.June 19th, 2016
NY Times Published: JUNE 16, 2016
Over the last two decades, Canada has had eight mass shootings. Just so far this month, the United States has already had 20.
Canada has a much smaller population, of course, and the criteria researchers used for each country are slightly different, but that still says something important about public safety.
Could it be, as Donald Trump suggests, that the peril comes from admitting Muslims? On the contrary, Canadians are safe despite having been far more hospitable to Muslim refugees: Canada has admitted more than 27,000 Syrian refugees since November, some 10 times the number the United States has.
More broadly, Canada’s population is 3.2 percent Muslim, while the United States is about 1 percent Muslim — yet Canada doesn’t have massacres like the one we just experienced at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., or the one in December in San Bernardino, Calif. So perhaps the problem isn’t so much Muslims out of control but guns out of control.
Look, I grew up on a farm with guns. One morning when I was 10, we awoke at dawn to hear our chickens squawking frantically and saw a fox trotting away with one of our hens in its mouth. My dad grabbed his .308 rifle, opened the window and fired twice. The fox was unhurt but dropped its breakfast and fled. The hen picked herself up, shook her feathers indignantly and walked back to the barn. So in the right context, guns have their uses.
The problem is that we make no serious effort to keep firearms out of the hands of violent people. A few data points:
■ More Americans have died from guns, including suicides, since just 1970 than died in all the wars in U.S. history going back to the American Revolution.
■ The Civil War marks by far the most savage period of warfare in American history. But more Americans are now killed from guns annually, again including suicides, than were killed by guns on average each year during the Civil War (when many of the deaths were from disease, not guns).
■ In the United States, more preschoolers up through age 4 are shot dead each year than police officers are.
Canada has put in place measures that make it more difficult for a dangerous person to acquire a gun, with a focus not so much on banning weapons entirely (the AR-15 is available after undergoing safety training and a screening) as on limiting who can obtain one. In the United States, we lack even universal background checks, and new Harvard research to be published soon found that 40 percent of gun transfers didn’t even involve a background check.
We can’t prevent every gun death any more than we can prevent every car accident, and the challenge is particularly acute with homegrown terrorists like the one in Orlando. But experts estimate that a serious effort to reduce gun violence might reduce the toll by one-third, which would be more than 10,000 lives saved a year.
The Orlando killer would have been legally barred from buying lawn darts, because they were banned as unsafe. He would have been unable to drive a car that didn’t pass a safety inspection or that lacked insurance. He couldn’t have purchased a black water gun without an orange tip — because that would have been too dangerous.
But it’s not too dangerous to allow the sale of an assault rifle without even a background check?
If we’re trying to prevent carnage like that of Orlando, we need to be vigilant not only about infiltration by the Islamic State, and not only about American citizens poisoned into committing acts of terrorism. We also need to be vigilant about National Rifle Association-type extremism that allows guns to be sold without background checks.
It’s staggering that Congress doesn’t see a problem with allowing people on terror watch lists to buy guns: In each of the last three years, more than 200 people on the terror watch list have been allowed to purchase guns. We empower ISIS when we permit acolytes like the Orlando killer, investigated repeatedly as a terrorist threat, to buy a Sig Sauer MCX and a Glock 17 handgun on consecutive days.
A great majority of Muslims are peaceful, and it’s unfair to blame Islam for terrorist attacks like the one in Orlando. But it is important to hold accountable Gulf states like Saudi Arabia that are wellsprings of religious zealotry, intolerance and fanaticism. We should also hold accountable our own political figures who exploit tragic events to sow bigotry. And, yes, that means Donald Trump.
When Trump scapegoats Muslims, that also damages our own security by bolstering the us-versus-them narrative of ISIS. The lesson of history is that extremists on one side invariably empower extremists on the other.
So by all means, Muslims around the world should stand up to their fanatics sowing hatred and intolerance — and we Americans should stand up to our own extremist doing just the same.June 16th, 2016
Thanks to Sun AnJune 13th, 2016
Nina Simone in Pittsburgh, c.1962
London Review of Books
June 16, 2016
By John Lahr
In June 1954, the tall, wary 21-year-old classical pianist Eunice Waymon found herself outside the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey a few blocks north of the Boardwalk. Waymon, who had spent most of her hard-striving life in North Carolina, the sixth of eight offspring born to grandchildren of slaves, had never before been in a bar. She had been hired at $90 a week to play five hours a night. The salary, considerably higher than her pay as an accompanist to a New York vocal coach, would help her to defray the cost of piano tuition and to pursue her lifelong ambition to become America’s first black classical pianist. By her own account, the Midtown was a ‘crummy joint’ but she approached it as a classical venue. For the gig, she brought her make-up, a pink chiffon dress, and a stage name, improvised on the spot, to hide her louche employment from her mother, a Methodist minister who moonlighted as a maid. ‘Nina Simone’ is how she announced herself to the Midtown regulars. With a glass of milk beside her on the piano, Simone shut her eyes and began to play. At 4 a.m., when the set was over, she approached Harry Stewart, the owner and ‘host’, to ask how he liked her playing. Why hadn’t she sung? he asked. ‘I’m only a pianist,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Stewart said, ‘you’re either a singer, or you’re out of a job.’
‘I had a small voice, and the sense not to push it,’ she said later. As a child, she’d sung in church with her mother and sisters; she didn’t know, she said later, ‘that I could give it feeling with such limited means. My advantage was a perfect ear and that I knew how to play within my range.’ To fill each night’s long stint on the Midtown’s piano stool, she began to improvise with registers and inflections and to pronounce her own feelings inside the songs. To her surprise, she enjoyed the exercise. ‘The Midtown … made me looser,’ she said.
Singing was self-defining: it allowed Simone increasingly to speak from her black experience, not from the white milieu of classical music. ‘I didn’t know I could improvise like that,’ she said. ‘All the time I was practising. I’d practise Bach and Beethoven and Handel and Debussy and Prokofiev. Man, all the talent that I had inside me, that was created from me … I didn’t know anything about those songs until I first started playing in a nightclub.’ She went on: ‘I was repressed to the point where I hadn’t played any songs of my own for 14 years, and I didn’t even know I had them down there. I didn’t know until I first started playing at the Midtown Bar.’ Nonetheless, at first she conceived of her singing as part of her piano recital – ‘the third layer complementing the other two layers, my right and left hands’.
Simone’s husky contralto almost immediately found an audience. ‘The place was crowded. Couldn’t get in,’ her brother Carrol Waymon recalled of her initial wallop, in Alan Light’s gossipy What Happened, Miss Simone?, ‘inspired’ by Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary of the same name. The gravity and grace of her performance – her moody interpolation of lyrics played against a filigree of dissonant chord clusters – was a new sound which won a new kind of attention at the Midtown. ‘No talk and no whispering, just music,’ her brother recalled. Over the next two years, her billing went from ‘continuous entertainment’ to ‘new sensation at the piano’ to ‘the incomparable Nina Simone’; yet she still felt ‘dirtied by going into the bars’.
The edgy emotional intelligence of Simone’s singing broadcast not just a new sound but a new time. Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole – great black song stylists who emerged out of the 1940s and crossed over into the commercial white mainstream – succeeded precisely because their tone and diction took race out of their voices; they swung but without soul, which made the songs and the singers ‘easy listening’. ‘Easy’ wasn’t a word that was ever associated with Simone. In her life and in her lyrics, she always found drama. The feelings she called out of herself were complex and unsettling. She could be playful, cruel, arrogant, rapacious, furious, joyous, bereft. Her singing was at once ravishing and lacerating; it left its mark. ‘She didn’t sing jazz, because in jazz you have to submit to the force of the band – it’s a collective experience and I don’t think Nina liked to play like that. I think she liked it to be about her,’ the African-American music and cultural critic Stanley Crouch said of Simone’s musicianship, adding: ‘Her sound is freer than many sounds because she doesn’t imitate an instrument. She actually wants her sound to be a human sound.’ Listen to the resigned loneliness in her magnificent, trademark version of Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You, Porgy,’ released on her first 1958 album Little Girl Blue and in 1959 as her first hit single, in which she drills into the lyric to uncover a new seam of intimacy and anguish. ‘I love you … Porgy!’ she sings, her breathy voice cutting out the demotic ‘s’ of the song’s title, then taking a beat before it rises on the name as if a plea. ‘Don’t let him take me/Don’t let him handle me/with his … hot hands.’ On the same 1958 record, she pumps up ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ with a frisky stride piano; again, her plangent rendition of the album’s title song begins with her suggestive improvising of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and Bach figures as if the singer were distracting herself at the piano from the self-pity of the lament in which the song shows her to be stuck.
Sit there and count the raindrops
Falling on you
It’s time you knew
All you can ever count on
Are the raindrops
That fall on little girl blue.
As social unrest began to rumble through America in the early 1960s, Simone’s raised voice, her particular combination of truculence and artfulness, spoke to a voiceless, demoralised African-American community; it was a thrilling antidote to what Zora Neale Hurston called ‘the muteness of slavery’. ‘In representing all of the women who had been silenced, she was the embodiment of the revolutionary democracy we had not yet learned how to imagine,’ Angela Davis observed. ‘My people need inspiration,’ Simone said. In the spectacle she made of herself as well as in her voice – ‘I want people to know who I am,’ she said – Simone became a race champion. In the mid-1960s Vernon Jordan, the head of the Urban League, asked her how come she wasn’t ‘more active in civil rights’. ‘Motherfucker, I am civil rights,’ she replied. She was the first African-American performer to wear an Afro and to adopt African dress, ‘the first true music industry radical feminist’, according to Pete Townshend. In the process, Simone and her songs – the performance of self – had become part of the ground on which African Americans stood. ‘White people had Judy Garland. We had Nina,’ the comedian Richard Pryor said.
Simone’s voice answered the radical call for a profound articulation of the Black Tradition and incidentally made her ‘the patron saint of rebellion’, according to Crouch. Her singing, an African-American critic wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune in 1966, brought the listener ‘into abrasive contact with the black heart and to feel the power and beauty which for centuries have beat there’. Take her extraordinary ‘Be My Husband’, conjured mostly with clapped hands and stomped feet, which becomes a field chant, forcing ‘an awareness of what the blood knows and the mind has forgotten: a sense of origin’, as August Wilson said of the blues.
Be my husband man I be your wife
Be my husband man I be your wife
Be my husband man I be your wife
Loving all of you the rest of your life yeah
Simone’s voice – its power and penetration – was her achievement; she insisted fiercely on proper attention being paid to it. (In the Liz Garbus documentary you can see Simone in high dudgeon, pushing up from the piano and pointing to a hapless paying customer. ‘You! – Sit down!! Now!!!’) However, for most of her early life, as Light’s biography inadvertently shows, she was voiceless.
Simone grew up in a pious household, with a stern, distant mother who never hugged or kissed her; her beloved father, a jack-of-all-trades, was sidelined by illness during part of her childhood, which deprived him of a breadwinner’s authority. Emotional impoverishment was an even greater deprivation than lack of money. The sadness which would seep into her songs contained a solitude which was part of her confounding early inheritance: love that was not love, a parental presence that was not presence. ‘I needed to touch. I needed someone to play with me,’ she said. In the strict Waymon household, seriousness ruled, and Simone knuckled under. ‘There were never any jokes … never any games. My mom didn’t allow Chinese checkers, she didn’t allow cards. No dancing, no boogie-woogie playing. Everything was “no”.’ Fearing the withdrawal of her mother’s conditional affection, she was dutiful to a fault. ‘I never disobeyed at all. Never.’ She put her unexpressed and inexpressible feelings into the long hours of piano practice, and in her surrender to the keyboard, found a way to mother herself. The containment, playfulness, undivided attention and joy that were absent at home, she found at the piano.
In her family Simone was idealised as a ‘genius’ but not seen for herself. Playing the piano was how she won attention and affection from the world. (‘I need people to like me in order to like myself – I can’t seem to do alone – my ego and self-confidence was shattered somewhere,’ she wrote in an adult diary.) She grew up in a paradoxical emotional climate of grandiosity and insecurity. At two and a half, she’d memorised and played ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again’, a spiritual that her mother used to play; according to Simone, her parents ‘literally fell to their knees’. ‘It’s a gift from God they cried.’ ‘Anything musical made me quiver ecstatically, as if my body was a violin and somebody was drawing a bow across it,’ she recalled. She was playing piano at her mother’s church services from the age of three and by the age of five was the regular pianist at the Tryon, North Carolina Methodist Church, her mother’s ministry. ‘The little prodigy’ was her nickname in town; at home, she was excused from domestic chores. ‘She was preserved,’ Simone’s sister Dorothy said. ‘Her fingers were protected.’
When her mother, Mary Kate, drew the talent of her daughter to the attention of Katherine Miller, a white woman for whom she cleaned house, Simone found her first patron. Miller paid for the piano lessons which the Waymon family couldn’t afford and steered the child at the age of five to Muriel Mazzanovich (‘Miss Mazzy’), the British piano teacher who became ‘her white Momma’. ‘She took more care of me than my mother,’ Simone said, who walked two miles every Saturday to ‘Miss Mazzy’s house for an hour’s lesson’. In due course, Miss Mazzy organised local concerts for Simone, which helped to raise money for the Eunice Waymon Fund that she and Miller set up to further Simone’s musical education. Miss Mazzy latterly engineered Simone’s attendance at a six-week summer session at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Recalling her white benefactors years later, Simone said: ‘The two of them got together and did a job for me … And on me.’
From the age of ten, practising six or seven hours a day, Simone submerged herself in the music and manners of the white world. ‘Bach made me dedicate my life to music,’ she said. Her bedroom walls were decorated with portraits of Bach, Beethoven and Liszt. For her high school years, a place was found at Allen High School for Girls in Ashville, North Carolina, where the faculty was all white and where she boarded for three years on a full scholarship, rising at 4 a.m. every day to practise the piano until school began at 7 a.m. ‘I traversed two worlds, two cities, two states of mind each week,’ she said. ‘I was a baby and bombarded by a weight heavier than most children bear.’ She felt she didn’t ‘fit in anywhere’.
Compelled to be a model child, then a model student (high school valedictorian), Simone was also a model of the Southern species that Zora Neale Hurston, a Barnard-trained anthropologist, identified as the Pet Negro: ‘someone whom a particular white person or persons wants to have do all the things forbidden to other Negroes’. The price Simone paid for her white punctilio was a deep, if unspoken, self-loathing. Her stage surname was borrowed from Simone Signoret; in the first flush of recording success, riding down the West Side Highway with her guitarist Al Schackman in her new red Mercedes 200 SCE convertible with red top and matching red leather luggage, she enjoyed cutting a dash with a long scarf which she let trail dramatically behind her in the wind. ‘Grace Kelly,’ she said to Schackman. In her private memos, which are the most interesting – and best-written – part of Light’s haphazard book, she spelled out her ambivalence about being black. ‘I can’t be white and I’m the kind of coloured girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise,’ she wrote.
All her musical ambition had been directed at winning a place at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, a destination which seemed so inevitable her family moved north to be with her. But, at the age of 17, Simone was rejected by Curtis (two days before she died, they awarded her an honorary doctorate). She put the rejection down to racism. ‘Nobody told me that no matter what I did in life the colour of my skin would always make a difference,’ she said. ‘I learned that bitter lesson from Curtis.’ True or not, the narcissistic wound never healed; her humiliation fed a desire for revenge. She was so badly shaken by the failure that she rejected the opportunity to go to Oberlin College on a full scholarship. ‘I thought it was beneath my talents. Had I gone I would have polished my technique for a year and then I could have gone to Juilliard.’
Instead, she moved her bruised dream to Harlem. In her telling, after breaking up with her hometown sweetheart and going north, ‘I lost my love and gained a career.’ But her losses were greater than that. Having befriended a high-class hooker, Faith Jackson, who introduced her to bisexuality, she was confused about her sexual as well as racial identity. The 21-year-old woman who paused before entering the Midtown Bar and Grill on that June evening in 1954 had no career, no prospects, no life, and nothing to fall back on other than a tarnished faith in her own gift. She was a stalled, lost soul.
Singing stops stuttering; Simone’s increasing success brought a new kind of flow to her life. ‘She has hit the Big Town, and the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows – and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone,’ Langston Hughes kvelled in his newspaper column, ‘Week by Week’. ‘She is unique,’ he continued: ‘You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do – wheee-ouuueu! You do!’ Hughes was the first, but not the last, black intellectual to mentor Simone, who now found herself in the company of the likes of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who was particularly influential in raising her political conscience. Part of Simone’s momentum was down to her talent, and part to the burly macho former police detective, Andrew Stroud, who took over managing her blossoming career. He did a good job. ‘He used to tell me to put on the blackboard, I’ll be a rich black bitch by such and such date, and then I could quit. And I always believed him, and I never could quit.’
Stars are kings of capitalism, performing workhorses who prove that the system works. For Simone, the system seemed to be paying off. She shook the money tree. She had a house and garden in leafy Mount Vernon outside New York City, a gardener, a maid, a daughter, closets full of clothes, her own music publishing company, a music room of her own, a long list of high-class engagements, even two fan clubs. Stroud, a light-skinned black man, was the cleft in the rock of the world where the lonely fragile Simone could hide. (‘My Stud Bull! And sometime Bully,’ she called him.) Their relationship recapitulated the paradigm of Simone’s masochistic connection to her cruel mother. She both loved Stroud –‘You gave me my life back,’ she wrote to him – and feared the quality of his attention. ‘You worship me but that’s a far cry from love, motherfucker,’ she wrote to him. Stroud may have been guilty of putting Simone on a pedestal; he was certainly guilty of knocking her off it. On the night of their engagement, liquored up and jealous of a fan’s attention, he started hitting her in the taxi, and continued in the street and up to his apartment, where, his knuckles bloody, according to Simone, ‘he tied my legs and my hands to a bed and struck me, and raped me, and fell asleep.’ Reader, she married him.
In a short time she began to question whether the battle for popular success was worth the prize. Stroud, she said, ‘loved me like a serpent. He wrapped himself around me and he ate and breathed me, and without me he would die.’ Inevitably, undermined by the rage she had to contain, Simone began to act out. ‘I must hurt someone – I can’t help it – I am also pushed too far,’ she wrote to Stroud, trying to reason with her empire-building Svengali. She went on:
Work most of the time is like deadly poison seeping into my brain, undoing all the progress I’ve made, causing me not to see the sun in the daytime, not to smile, not to want to get dressed, not to care about anything except death – and death to my childish mind is simply escaping into the unconscious. Lisa [her daughter] is okay as long as she doesn’t want too much from me and is just content with my presence and letting me watch her at play.
On 15 September 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children. On hearing the news, Simone rushed to her garage to make a zip gun. ‘I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,’ she said, ‘Someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.’ In the end, her murderous fury was projected into the first of her serious political songs. Her ambition was ‘to shake people up’: ‘I want them to be in pieces. I want to go in that den of those elegant people with their old ideas, smugness, and just drive them insane.’ ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ was written in an hour. Set to a sprightly backbeat – ‘This is a show tune/But the show hasn’t been written for it yet’ – it created a seismic disturbance. ‘You don’t have to live next to me,’ Simone sang. ‘Just give me my equality.’ Instead of hymning non-violence and stoic endurance, the song promised mayhem:
Oh, but this whole country’s full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
‘We all wanted to say it, but she said it,’ the comedian Dick Gregory recalled: ‘That’s the difference that set her aside from the rest of them.’
Caged in private and a freedom fighter in public, Simone found herself by degrees at the crossroads of her marriage and her career. Her obsession with social justice put her at odds with her husband’s obsession with success. She wanted to make a different kind of killing. The Movement gave a mission to her voice; its promise of action was an antidote to her ennui. ‘All I can do is expose the sickness, that’s my job,’ she said, adding: ‘I am not the doctor to cure it however, sugar.’ ‘Backlash Blues’, set to Langston Hughes’s last poem, stared directly at the Gorgon’s head of racism and defied it:
You give me second-class houses
And second-class schools
Do you think that alla coloured folks
Are just second-class fools
Mr Backlash, I’m gonna leave you
With the backlash blues
At the finale of her thrilling, head-bobbing rendition – you can watch it on YouTube＊ – Simone, full of grudge and glee, pushes up from the piano to face the audience and speak the poem’s warning, which in her mouth feels like a curse: ‘You’re the ones who’ll have the blues, not me!,’ she sings. Her voice, raw with rebuke, leaves its audience with a bruise which has never lost the throb of pain.
By the late 1960s, Simone’s message from the stage grew fiercer and more apocalyptic. In her version of Brecht/Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ from The Threepenny Opera, she turned the swashbuckling saga into a call for racial retaliation. ‘Kill them now, or kill them later,’ she sang with unmistakeable emphasis. ‘I’m not non-violent!’ she told Martin Luther King, when they first met. In private and in public, she didn’t back down from her bow-wow position; her deracinated behaviour was in some way a barometer of the American madhouse. On 13 August 1967 in Detroit, two weeks after a five-day race riot left forty dead and the city in ruins, she sang ‘Just in Time’ to the crowd, adding: ‘Detroit, you did it … I love you, Detroit … you did it!’ She was still trying to start a riot the following year, exhorting the crowd at an outdoor concert in Harlem: ‘Are you ready black people … Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings? Are you ready to build black things?’
The only thing she managed to burn down was the foundation of her own life. As early as 1967, there was a foreshadowing of collapse. Before one concert, Stroud found her incoherent at her dressing table, putting make-up in her hair, unable to recognise him. ‘I had visions of laser beams and heaven, with skin – always skin – involved in there somewhere,’ she said later, about her psychotic breakdown. The assassination of Martin Luther King was another crazy-making blow. ‘It killed my inspiration for the civil rights movement, and the United States,’ she said, dubbing the republic ‘The United Snakes of America’. In 1970 she divorced Stroud; by 1974, she’d left America more or less for good, shuttling for the rest of her life mostly between Europe and Africa. ‘Andy was gone and the Movement had walked out on me too,’ she wrote, ‘leaving me like a seduced schoolgirl, lost.’ The Movement had served her as an antidepressant. It had contained her rage and without it the volatility that made her exciting and eloquent on stage made her hectic and impossible off it. Her roiling emotions were distressing to her as well as to those around her. She sought help and found little. ‘I sing from intelligence,’ she said, but she couldn’t live by it. Her behaviour ran to sensational, self-destructive extremes. Over the next 19 years of her life – she died in France of breast cancer in 2003 – she was hauled off to a hospital in a straitjacket; discovered naked in a hotel corridor, knife in hand; tried to burn down her house; fired a gun at a record producer whom she claimed owed her royalties, and at two French boys who’d interrupted her when she was practising. (She missed the promoter, but hit one of the boys in the leg.) The tyrannical will that helped forge the artist ruined the life. She was physically and emotionally abusive to her daughter; she quarrelled with her family and fell out with her once-beloved father, refusing to see him even on his deathbed. As her emptiness grew, so did her grandiosity. ‘I compare myself to a queen,’ she told Time in 1999. ‘A black queen … I have to be a queen all the time.’
Her distressing expatriate life had its small victories even so. In 1977, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Amherst College. (She insisted after that on being called ‘Doctor Nina Simone’.) Her 1958 recording of My Baby Just Cares for Me became the anthem for a 1987 Chanel ad campaign, subsequently going gold in France and platinum in England. In 1991, she sold out the Olympia in Paris for almost a week. Simone understood her singing as a form of enchantment. ‘You can hypnotise an entire audience and make them feel a certain way,’ she said. ‘It’s a spell that you cast.’ Her singing always worked its magic on the public but not on her life, which didn’t stop her from trying to cast its mojo over herself. At night, she said in 2001, ‘I sing a song called “Jesus Paid It All”. I chant it.’
Jesus paid it all.
To him I owe.
Sin has left the crimson stain.
He washed it white as snow.
She added: ‘I sing that over and over and over again. Until I fall asleep.
What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography by Alan Light
Canongate, 309 pp, £20.00, March, ISBN 978 1 78211 871 8
June 9th, 2016
June 5 through July 8, 2016
Opening Reception at a later date (waiting on a poster)June 5th, 2016
Cassius Clay being escorted from an armed forces examining station in Houston, Tex., after refusing to join the army. Credit Associated Press
By WALTER MOSLEY
NY Times Published: JUNE 5, 2016
When I was 15 years old some kid at my school asked me what I felt about the draft and Vietnam. He wanted to know if I expected to go to war and if I was happy about that possibility. I told him that I had no intention of fighting the Vietnamese, “first, and most importantly, because I have no desire to be killed or maimed and secondly, because I feel no hatred toward or fear of the Vietnamese people.” These are the words I used and even at the time I wondered where they had come from.
The answer was, of course, Muhammad Ali. His courageous and articulate stance against the imperialism of that war had seeped into my awareness without my knowledge; that’s how powerful he was. I mean, he was fast and strong in the ring, but Ali’s rope-a-dope or phantom punches were nothing compared with his character, his commitment to a code of conduct, and his unique ability to motivate the entire world.
I remember the day I became aware of the Champ. My mother was driving me to school after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. At a crosswalk a black man passing in front of our car suddenly turned and, raising his fists into the air, announced loudly, “I am the greatest!” I was frightened by the man’s violent outburst, but even then I heard the pride and hurt, the dashed ambition and the shard of hope that cut through him. Cassius Clay’s declaration had become his own. The Black Pride movement was on, and one of its pillars were these four words.
Ali brought white college students together with black militants in their fights against war, racism and class oppression. His words were powerful, but I feel that it was his presence and willingness to engage that opened the doors between the races. Not everyone loved him. If you choose a side and commit to change, if you’re brash and outspoken and brave there are bound to be detractors. If you put human life above nationalism, or one God over another, there will be haters. But even here, over the decades, Ali changed many hearts and minds.
And he did this without the trappings of many social and political leaders. We always felt that he was one of us and with us because he was a working man. He was our John Henry. He was sweat and bone, blood and pain. That’s the language of the worker. And like most people, who build the world with their sweat and strain, he had his best years taken from him.
He took on some of the baddest fighters that ever got into the ring. Many of his opponents were stronger than him; some matched him in heart; there were others who went toe to toe from the first round to the last, taking a great toll from him. And later on there were men younger and hungrier than he. But Ali was a magician in the boxing ring. He was the embodiment of the sweet science. He beat big men like Liston and George Foreman, smaller men made from iron like Joe Frazier, and hard, hard hitters like George Chuvalo and Earnie Shavers.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Ali made his opponents famous, at least in the boxing world. To fight Ali was money in the bank, your name in the newspaper, and the assurance of future fights in the spotlight.
Ali was possibly the most recognizable face and name in the world. And it’s hard to be that famous unless you are a fiction like a movie star or have an army or a movement behind you. Ali was loved because he walked with us and took the barbs and arrows, body blows and head shots, the prejudices and dismissals.
He believed in himself absolutely, but that faith did not diminish the rest of us. He loved the crowds who greeted him. They felt it, returned it and fed off it. When I sat next to him at a TransAfrica event in Washington years ago, he told silly jokes that anyone from 6 to 60 could enjoy. He would do magic tricks for people. Ali’s confidence allowed him the greatest gift — to be just another human being bemused by Creation.
He rose, head and shoulders, above us, but those shoulders were broad enough to allow us to climb up there with him and see that we’re in this together.June 5th, 2016