Thursday, October 31, 2013

Root Down: Ike and Tina Turner: "Nutbush City Limits"

If the whole late 60s/early 70s vibe, in albums anyway, was the constant longing for home - to find a home, to go back home, to be confused as to where or what "home" meant anymore - well, for Tina Turner her hometown was Nutbush, Tennessee, and she has her own song here (Ike Turner wrote the music but for whatever reason let Tina have the full credits) to explain just why she isn't there anymore.  Or does she?

It wasn't known to the general public at the time, but is now very well known - that Tina was in an abusive and volatile marriage with Ike*, and during those last years (things were bad at this time, and about to get worse, with Ike's alcoholism and cocaine addiction) I have no doubt this song played a big part of her eventual self-liberation.  Because, famously (and not too long after this clip from the Cher show) she left Ike with almost nothing to her name, nothing but her Buddhist belief and a sense that she had had more than enough.  "Nutbush City Limits" is a song about roots, beginnings, what makes a person a person - in this case, growing up in a small town (it's not actually a city).  You get the idea it was a place where not much happened (it's a "quiet little community") where people went certain places on certain days ("You go to store on Friday/You go to church on Sunday") and yet the song is so funky that you just know the rest of the week is a push-and-pull between self-respecting neatness and propriety ("Twenty-five is the speed limit") and the gin house where, if you are arrested for drunkenness, you don't get bail, just salt pork and molasses.  There are clear lines in Nutbush ("You go to fields on weekdays/And have a  picnic on Labor Day") and if you are young Anna Mae Bullock then you either fit in or you don't; but as someone once said, a beginning is a place to start and how many musicians have come from places like this?  Almost all of them, I imagine (and even if they didn't, they will say they felt as if they did).  Tina sings this with pride - this is her town, her roots, something Ike cannot take away from her - and as narrow and regulated as it sounds, this is where she is from, quite literally - and while there is no way she could go back to it, it's within her.  The most significant line for me is "You have to watch what you're putting down" - i.e., if you don't conform in some way then you just have to leave, though as it happened Tina left due to family turmoil and was brought up in several different towns, Nutbush being one of them.  Maybe Tina wrote this as a reminder that she was, before she'd gotten onstage in St. Louis to sing with Ike, a person of her own, shaped by experiences and places and that that was worth remembering, in and of itself. 

That this song was done by her several times more (and was done as part of Brian Johnson's audition for AC/DC, and was covered by Bob Seger - it brings the rock and the funk**) shows how important it is to her, how maybe writing it was her first step in finding herself (if I can use 70s psychology speech) and liberating herself from Ike.  Is she still there?  I can't help but think it's a fond song, a proud one, a song about overcoming limitations and actually appreciating those limitations as solid, near-tangible things.  It's not nostalgic in any way, but a badge of toughness; if I survived there, I can survive this.  Life outside the sequin/high-heel shimmy does exist; and sure enough, she learns about Buddhist prayer and somehow makes it through.

Next up:  even doing a cover, he's all the rage. 

*Summed up for me and countless others in the movie What's Love Got To Do With It? in the "Eat the cake, bitch" scene. 

**This was a #2 Radio Luxembourg hit, and the last real hit the couple had in the US pop chart - a bigger hit in the UK, despite/because of its subject matter, I think.

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