Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nina Simone: Feelings

Yeah. That Feelings.

That once evergreen cocktail lounge cheese brick that's but
a thinly disguised reworking of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies. (The thief in this case was French composer Louis Gasté who "wrote" the melody in 1956, though he had to sue Morris Albert to get credit. It was Albert's performance of this English version that was the international hit.)  "Sentimental sewage" is how composer Richard Strauss once described the music of his peer Rachmaninoff and it'd be easy to make the same assessment here. A tune practically manufactured for a wussy, weepy warble. But in this you'd be wrong. Whatever you once believed about Feelings, cast that away; Simone's trenchant evangelism for the song  will surely shatter such naive notions. There's truth in all that cheese and she's going to tell it: It took a profound and abysmal pain to compose a song like Feelings and for this reason it deserves respect, not ridicule. A point of fact that she'll stop in mid-bar to punctuate. Don't laugh, she says and then proceeds to forget, misremember, and reimagine the song in her own words—some completely off the top of her head as you'll see. Words that push this once squishy ditty from the realms of the pathetic to the suicidal. ("I wished I never lived this long.") Eventually this leads to a little Bach-like interlude to throw a couple of rivets into the lid for closing. She finishes with a big Over the Rainbow type coda, a few last words, and then, The End.

Read the original lyrics and discover only a mere suggestion of what Simone offers here. In terms of evolution, Albert's version had barely yet crawled out of the slime.

Nina Simone was never one to back off from the cloying pop tune. Dig through her catalog (To Love Somebody, Alone Again (Naturally), Mr. Bojangles, Angel of the Morning, and on and on) and you'll note it's loaded with the stuff. For her, covering these songs was a badge of honor. For less capable talents, mining this kind of Top 40 would only diminish the fire of their better work. (Ever heard Sinatra take on Mrs. Robinson or Tie a Yellow a Ribbon?) But not for Simone: Look at the way she looks out into the audiencethrough them reallylike a Harvard professor trying to explain Moby Dick to ADD middle schoolers. She's on a mission and the message is what matters; If the audience can't receive it, well, she's only too happy to play the message just for herself.

What kind of artist could take on a sludgey, over-worn nugget like this
and raise it up to such an exalted altar? Only a genius.

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