Monday, December 19, 2011

The Flesh Succeeds: Nina Simone: "Ain't Got No/I Got Life/Do What You Gotta Do"

After great grief, there has to be a stock-taking; a simple assertion of what and who you are. It is a painful thing to realize that you don't have things, that what you once had is gone; you have to rejoice in what you do have and make the most of it, while you can.

Nina Simone's recording of this song* came just a month or so after Dr. King's assassination, a time of anger, a time when a purpose that seemed unstoppable had to be buoyed up and sustained. Simone was no stranger to covering songs from musicals and besides the gospel-style music I am guessing she picked this one (actually a medley of two songs from the first act of HAIR) as it directly addresses the loss everyone was feeling...that they had nothing left - nothing external, not even a name. The eternal value of the person and his/her right - freedom - that was all that was left. It is like hearing a birth in reverse; everything, even the mother, is absent. Life is the main thing; it is the only thing. That no one can take away, though as the story in HAIR runs, even that is a debatable point...

But Simone's voice, astringent and fierce, makes it sound as if life is at the same time a base line from which to start and something that is hers, as if she had in fact created herself. The burden of not having anything becomes a blessing of a clean slate, again rejoicing in the physical body (HAIR is a very physical show, from its title on down) and the life all of these parts lead together to make up a human being (not unlike this song, which is also one of liberation). The body as a weapon; the body as an ultimate assertion of something that cannot be lost, unless there is death...and this is a song, ultimately, of life over death, of life over the "measly little world" (cf. Hendrix) that would tie it down. It is also an angry though - as if all these losses were unnecessary in the first place, robbings that have left the person with nothing more than themselves.

"Do What You Gotta Do" is a Jimmy Webb song, which is to say it's about freedom and love and how they clash. It is another song as well about how she knows she's hard to love and her heart is her own; this is self-possession on another level. If he has to be free, well, that seems inevitable; 'they' are against him and she loves him more than they ever will. Instead of being deadly fierce here Simone trembles and admits vulnerability, not as a virtue in and of itself but as a symbol, paradoxically, of strength; she is strong enough to love and let go and may never get to see him again...because there is something bigger out there that he has to do - follow his "dappled dreams" that she understands, even if no one else does.

In the first song, she asserts her freedom; in the second, she honors the freedom and needs of someone else. As the 60s come to a close, it seems freedom is the ultimate right and the ultimate gift; but there is another side to them, that wants a sense of belonging and attachment, a side that is less HAIRand more Grease. In the swirling and confusing late 60s, some basic truths have to will out first, and the toughness and quiet sorrow and acceptance here are and were the best ways for riding out a difficult period.

Simone strode in, better equipped than most to handle the situation; and Alan "Fluff" Freeman's support of this is how it got, improbably, into the UK chart in the first place**. Next we go back to the old guard, for a song about love and loss...

*The version I've posted isn't the single one that has applause from the April 7th concert mixed in, presumably to make it 'flow' as a total album ('Nuff Said!) I can only wonder if, years later, a certain producer remembered this and did his own live-to-studio tinkering for this classic (for all I know it was influenced by her; Elton certainly respected her, as anyone would).

**I am still puzzled as to how this, also a cover of a song from HAIR, only got to #11; I guess it was just the times. I still find it overwhelmingly moving...more evidence, I'm guessing, of my American childhood.

1 comment:

Mark G said...

Of course, many years later, it's more recognised for advertising yoghurt.