"Hey," the friend on the phone said, "Nina's dead."
Normally, I'd have to stop for a moment to guess "which Nina?" But I remembered this particular caller from Miami's Gusman Theater when Nina Simone came to call back in late 2001. Remember? Simone insisted to us that she was only 64 years old, but when she died Monday at her home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, her spokesman said she was actually 70.
The tickets billed an evening with "The High Priestess of Soul," but soul was only one fragment of that night's program. Tired, probably in pain, and not given to suffering foolish audiences, Simone was touring strictly for financial gain. Yet no one cared or complained, feeling fortunate to have experienced one last appearance from a legend. No one at Gusman that November night could've entertained hopes that she would ever return (after all, it had been more than 19 years since her last South Florida performance), which cast a bittersweet sheen on Simone's clumsy antics. But we weren't there to experience perfection or to criticize; expectations of a serious performance were quickly dashed when we saw that the star had to be helped on- and off-stage. We came because it didn't matter what she was doing now or why. We wanted to say we'd seen a rarity, even one dimmed with fatigue and clearly going through the motions. Yeah, we were little more than voyeuristic fanatics at that point, not unlike the folks who'd turn out to see Elvis' coat touring without the King.
Comically cute, Simone waddled from piano to center-stage microphone, her visible rolls of chub stuffed into a sausage-casing gown the color of new Astroturf. She waved a whiskbroom at the crowd to indicate she was ready for more applause. Sadly, save for a few fleeting flashes, Simone was well past her vocal prime. Still operating flawlessly, however, was her faux-exasperated cajoling and thinly veiled insults directed at the adoring crowd.
Unfortunately, the end of the concert quickly devolved into choreographed chaos as representatives from the Miami Light Project swarmed the stage to take turns blowing smoke up Simone's ass (though she loved the attention), presenting her with some award trinket and a key to the city. When they lamented that they wished it could have been a key to Fort Knox's gold reserves instead, the singer drawled, "Ohhhh, that's too bad."
If Nina seemed ungrateful, she was forgiven. As our southerly sister paper reported, "she could have been wheeled onstage in a hospital bed, attached to life support, and the crowd still would have gone wild."
Simone did a lot more than inspire a new legion of female African-American singers. Brian Eno's 1994 diary, A Year with Swollen Appendices, recounts Simone's authority not musically but more or less the same way the rest of us used her songs -- to feel part of another time. Up all night, in one of Bono's palatial homes in rural Ireland, the two millionaires listened to Nina's albums while taking care of several bottles of expensive red wine.
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Though Bandwidth cannot claim to have heard everything in her oeuvre, we'll vouch for The Tomato Collection, a double-disc entry released in 1994 with the same scattershot appeal of her final Miami concert -- a satchel of soul standards, French chanson, popular covers, showtunes, stately piano jazz, even protest tunes from the '60s. "The Assignment Song," a seminal example of potent proto-rock, and "Zungo," a chant based on a work from Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, remain personal favorites to this day.
Speaking of a bittersweet sheen, spelunkers stuck down in Fort Lauderdale's underbelly won't be able to enjoy apres-midnight breakfasts anymore at Joe's Bel-Aire Diner at 17th Street Causeway and Eisenhower Boulevard. Thank those Orange Terror Alerts for manhandling your marmalade: roadblocks, checkpoints, and armed soldiers assigned to protect Port Everglades made driving to the diner difficult. Our final Sunday-morning visit nearly didn't happen after a National Guardsman demanded photo IDs from everyone in the car, then turned us around to make a different approach. What we'll miss most: the slightly sinister, perpetually empty neon-lighted lounge; the red Mustang bursting from a glazed-brick turquoise wall in the non-smoking section; the Kennedy administration booths; the wheel o' pies; the sub-Starbucks blend of Good Morning America; the toast and grits and runny eggs; and the grizzled, gum-smacking waitrons no doubt commuting from Davie trailer parks.
Greasy-spoon adherents still have Lester's and the Floridian. When they bulldoze those joints and put up a "Look for a new WALGREENS!" sign in their places, we're paying a visit to the John Deere dealership ourselves. Bulldozers look fun.