How Journalist Alan Light Wrote Nina Simone’s Biography in Reverse

Nina Simone circa 1968. (Photo: Getty Images.)

How do you write about an artist when her life doesn’t fit into a clear, linear narrative? Do you run with the legends and draw conclusions based on speculation? Do you sanitize her biography by giving the story a nice, feel-good conclusion in the third act? Do you present the conflicting reports and contradictions as-is, without editorializing, and let the tangents add to her mystique?

These are the questions that separate journalism from fiction, reporting from conjecture. For veteran music journalist Alan Light, the former editor-in-chief for Vibe and Spin who’s written books about Prince, the Beastie Boys, and Leonard Cohen, among others (he ghostwrote Greg Allman’s NYT best-selling bio, too), the distinction between what can be written as fact and what cannot is a reporter’s line, clearly drawn and not to be crossed.

‘A lot of people get called unique, but there’s nobody comparable to Nina Simone.’

Maybe this discretion is what prompted Crown Publishing to approach him with a treasure trove of exclusive interviews, tapes, and documents on the life and work of Nina Simone, one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, songwriters and activists. The research was originally culled for the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, but Mr. Light was given the task of going deeper. And since the documentary’s release on Netflix in June 2015, Simone’s work has undergone a repeated resurgence.

Some of this might have to do with the doc, but it’s more relevant to connect the viral spread of Simone’s song “Baltimore” in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder, or John Legend’s comments about her upon accepting the award for his song in “Selma” at the Oscars, to her larger message of radical activism. Simone’s life and work categorically rejected the systematic oppression that our country still negates to reform, and though her story is not particularly happy or easily understood, it shines a light on her commitment to remain a true artist, even when it meant making people uncomfortable.

Throughout his biography, that which Mr. Light cannot definitively answer about Simone only adds to her mystique.

Working backwards off of other people’s research and information, Alan Light felt compelled to present every facet and complexity of Simone’s life with factual accuracy, which wasn’t easy. Many anecdotes were hard to put in a time or place, and many conflicting reports of her behaviors and travels don’t add up. Mr. Light’s job, as he told the Observer, was to present Simone’s story in all it’s contradictory, complex glory. For as seemingly sporadic and contradictory as Simone’s biography reads, so too was the life of the woman who lived it. Throughout his biography, also titled What Happened, Miss Simone?,  that which Mr. Light cannot definitively answer about Simone only adds to her mystique.

Mr. Light and I met at the Soho bookstore cafe of Housing Works, a nonprofit that donates all of its proceeds to combat AIDS and homelessness, where Mr. Light happens to sit as co-chairman of the board. His son will be Bar Mitzvah-ed in the bookstore next month, too, which doubles as an event space. Mr. Light’s love of Housing Works makes clear his strong belief in the importance of community organization, a theme that comes up repeatedly when we discuss Simone’s life and work.

On one level, our conversation echoed the importance of maintaining a process for journalistic verification, of resisting the temptation to draw conclusions about a person even when those conclusions are very much insinuated and suggested. But more importantly, we spoke about a woman whose creativity and determination were unmatched, whose story knew no easily anthologized third act, and whose lasting legacy still leaves people feeling equally uncomfortable and inspired.

(Penuin/Random House)

(Photo: Penguin/Random House.)

Your Nina biography was inspired by her recent documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? Can you explain that a bit?

Yeah, it’s a bit of an inside-out process. I think that when the doc started making the rounds at the festivals last year and started to get out there, that they got a sense it was going to get some attention, and there was going to be some traction around it. I honestly don’t know who initiated the idea of “we should do more stuff.” We all know, you work on a documentary for years and years, there’s all of this research you amass and this tiny fraction of stuff that makes it to screen. And so the idea was [that] we have this big archive we’ve been working from, and is there something we can do for people who want to go further into [her] story?

She had a lot of archivists.

Well there are the archival interviews, there’s the interviews they did for the documentary, all of the interviews she did for various stop and start attempts at a memoir.

There wasn’t one?

Well there was an autobiography that was sanctioned, it came out, but it’s a mess. All of the raw stuff, there were I think four different writers who took a shot at that, so there’s a lot of her. And then her diaries, her journals, her letters, all this stuff. So the publisher approached me to say, “Here’s everything they made a movie out of, take it and go make something else out of it,” which is a very upside-down way to put a book together. It’s very different working off of someone else’s research, and there are limitations and issues and other things to work around given that.

‘There was a lot of untangling, looking for clues to create a chronology.’

Like not being able to talk to some people?

Yeah, and just the broadest strokes. You’re left with conflicting versions of a story from two people who’ve been dead for 10 years, and you’re not even working off of listening to them or hearing inflection or anything.

You mean Nina and [husband] Andy Stroud?

Nina and Stroud, or Nina and the musicians. There are lots of interviews from the film where you’ve got guys from the band saying, “Well one time we played this show where Nina did this.” In a movie that’s great, you can use it whenever. For me it’s, “When, where, when did this happen?” I need to know where to put it in the story. There was a lot of untangling, looking for clues to create a chronology.

Nina Simone performing at Carnegie Hall. (Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Alfred Wertheimer.)

Nina Simone performing at Carnegie Hall. (Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Alfred Wertheimer.)

As a biographer, though, to what extent do you embrace that oral history and uncertainty as mystique?

Well, the trade-off is access to stuff that you would never get coming into this—you wouldn’t get her family stuff, you wouldn’t get her daughter, her papers and all these things if you didn’t just set out to write this book. The only way to do it under this time constraint was just to take all the raw material and carve a loose oral history out of that, get everything in the right sequence and start writing around that. That was the only way to tackle this big, raw block of stuff and turn it into something.

In the interim between when the documentary became available on Netflix and now, we’ve seen what happened to Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner (and many other cases). You touch on that in the intro, talking about the resurgence of Nina’s song “Baltimore” going viral around the Baltimore riots. Did that affect your research and give the work a different sense of structure or purpose?

I don’t know that it affected the research so much, but it’s certainly a different lens that you look through. When you’re thinking about the legacy of this kind of artist, of somebody who sacrificed so much for her political activism, and chose to take a path that was not the pop star path, which she could have pursued more. Instead, she staked everything on the movement, and used her music in a different way. That’s something that was in and out of focus at different times in history.

There are times when that feels more vital, relevant and alive. It really felt like as the movie was coming out and as I was starting work on this, there was this big wave where you were just seeing her referenced a lot. John Legend quoted her in his Oscar speech, there was a tension around Selma where there were different stories being written and different artists looking to her. You want to believe that somebody like this does leave a mark that continues to resonate. It feels like this is a moment where she has.

‘You want to believe that somebody like this does leave a mark that continues to resonate. It feels like this is a moment where she has.’

Her biography is not easy and pat like the Johnny Cash story, it’s complex. She’s full of contradictions. The big one for me is that she seems like this incredibly brazen, self-assured person who keeps wanting more for herself and society. But then she’s in this abusive relationship for so long. I think that the book gets a little more deeply into how she reconciles that, but it’s still this lingering question.

There are numerous contradictions. That contradiction is, in one way, somebody who sees themselves as a very pure artist, who sees her music as having this higher mission and purpose, complete with the sacrifices and everything that entails. Someone who also still wants recognition and fame, and the house with the pool, and is very jealous of the material success. Just looking around and saying, “Well, Aretha’s on The Tonight Show, and Diane Carroll is on Broadway. These are my peers and I’m not getting that.” You’re not getting that because you’re pissing a lot of people off with the stuff that you’re doing, and you don’t get to do both.

‘She never wanted to be called a jazz singer. “The High Priestess of Soul.” Well, O.K…. not really, but O.K. To her, that’s not taking her as a musician. That’s taking her as a black woman doing this performative thing.’

Well, she told Dr. King when she met him that she didn’t believe in non-violence! And the Malcolm X connection blew my mind. I didn’t realize he was assassinated on her birthday, I didn’t realize that his daughters lived right next door to her.

Yeah, this close connection to the families. After Malcolm is killed it’s much more a family connection than, it becomes this sort of activist-based community, this generation of black artists and political figure. There’s this really interesting scene around this neighborhood in Mount Vernon, and how that plays out to the next generation, I really didn’t go into it here, but you look at Puffy and Heavy D and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. This hip-hop generation comes out of Mount Vernon specifically.

In the end, you look at Nina’s story and the sense you get is that she really put all her chips on this classical career, on this classical training. The way her whole town, her whole community invested in her to become the first great black classical piano player in the United States. When that doesn’t work out, she’s angry and confused and bitter about it. And she casts around, looking for purpose and falls into this entertainment career. She then finds this sense of purpose with the movement, with activism and moves all her chips onto that square. When that ultimately disappoints her, she kind of spins out. You get the feeling that she’s gone through investing everything emotionally into a direction.

You talk in the book about how she feels not in control at these points but there are such clear points of demarcations, and they’re all instigated by her—by her willpower, by her decisions.

It’s really frustrating. It’s a frustrating story and a frustrating read. But there’s so much going on in her mind, and that manifests in the music. A lot of people get called unique, but there’s nobody comparable to Nina Simone. And there’s nobody who tackled that range of material, that crazy breadth of things that she absorbed and took on.

Like reinterpreting Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” as protest music?

Or Israeli folk songs, or old slave songs. One of the truly great Bob Dylan interpreters, and Bee Gees, George Harrison and Leonard Cohen. It’s a staggering thing, and her “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is just one of the greatest renditions. It’s phenomenal. But what do you call her? People would call her a jazz singer, she’d get furious. She never wanted to be called a jazz singer. “The High Priestess of Soul.” Well, O.K.… not really, but O.K.

Even that has some racial subtext to it.

Right, to her, that’s not taking her as a musician. That’s taking her as a black woman doing this performative thing.

‘To his credit, Hefner was very racially progressive. He would put a black artist on television just to sing straight and do her thing.’

You talk a bit about her ability to use her skills as a classical musician to demand attention. And I think she used that to subvert a lot of these expectations. That was the beginning.

Well, that was also a very clear conflict. The sense that she would chew out an audience or storm offstage or get really confrontational, she never really gave up this sense of herself a “classical artist.” Someone who should be playing in a theater, with an audience that would sit and listen attentively and respectfully, and that’s what she wanted.

She wanted that going and playing in nightclubs, in jazz festivals, in all these different scenarios where that wasn’t what she was going to get. She never reconciled herself during it, she never accepted it fully. And that would be part of the mystique. People would wonder, “Is she gonna show up? Is she gonna get through the show?” That would be part of the mystique and of the energy around her appearances, but to her, she wasn’t doing that for showbiz. She was doing that very specifically not for showbiz.

One of the turning points that interested me, and you speculate that it’s because she had a young daughter, but the Birmingham church bombings. It got me thinking about some of the earlier decisions in her career, playing in brothels and nightclubs, her first television appearance on Playboy’s Penthouse. It seems a little antithetical to what Nina was about. I know she as just starting out, but would she have done things like that later in her career?

I don’t think so, but the context changed so much. When you think about what the acceptable outlets were, you think of Playboy as this regressive thing, but back then the jazz pull was the Playboy pull, and to his credit, Hefner was very racially progressive. He would put a black artist on television just to sing straight and do her thing. What were the opportunities back then to do that? I have this songwriter friend who’d never heard “Mississippi, Goddamn” before. He was saying that in 1968 that song would have made no sense, but in 1963 the weirdness of it was this exploratory drawing of a show-tune that it has.

That was subversive, too. You said it was intended to fuck you up a little bit.

Absolutely. But a few years later that would have just been crazy. There you sort of understand where somebody writes that song from, why that tension means a certain thing just then. Similarly, I think playing in nightclubs, playing on the Playboy show. What are the options in front of her, that even a few years later would [play out] in a very different context?

She’s very present in all these different periods.

And slightly ahead, when you think about it. She gets involved in the civil rights movement already saying, “What Dr. King is doing is important, but I don’t believe in non-violence.” She’s already moved over to the Black Power step, to another place. And when she sort of drifts off at the other end, when people say ‘we’ve won these big fights’ and people are getting harassed, assassinated, fleeing the country. Nina was the last one still screaming about this stuff.

‘Nina was the last one still screaming about this stuff.’

That manifested for me with regard to the reaction that “Four Women” received in the black community, these radio stations refusing to play it. In the wake of the Malcom X assassination, was the perspective of the community at large on radical thought and organization changing, and did she suffer from that?

Well I’m not an expert on the movement in a way that can fully break that apart, but what I think is significant is, there’s not a lot of that self-critical work about the black community being done, certainly in pop music at that time. This was all sort of new. There was a sense of unity, of unification and struggling together. But there were not a lot of people who would write a song like “Four Women,” saying that there’s a way different black women get treated, including by other black women and by black men. That there are differentials and problems in those relationships, as well. That’s really more the sort of ’70s identity politics point to be making than [during the] mid-’60s, still in the moment of protest.

It makes me think back to those early chapters when you describe her childhood, particularly that point where she nurses her father back to health at a very young age, what is it, 4? It seems she learned self-reliance and self-actualiziation at such a young age that she was surprised when the communal struggle, and the benefit of community, wasn’t as valuable to her.

These themes from childhood and the relationship to her parents play out throughout the rest of her life. Her relationships with men and women, too. She had this very intimate relationship with her father, that was this much more playful relationship. Whereas her mother is this pillar in the church community, who Nina felt was very distant at home and never gave her the love, recognition or acknowledgement that she needed, that she actively wanted the rest of her life. Nina talks about how her mother never really acknowledged her music or her accomplishments, always felt that they were against the word of god and not proper, or acceptable.

‘As you read just the raw [text of] her talking, she’s a wildly unreliable narrator. Her sense of sequence in time and when things happen is just nonexistent.’

 Ironic, because she kept that pious value all her life.

Well she keeps this preacher’s fire! And there’s a line where she says something like, “The irony is that I was able to do this thing that she thought was so unholy and have this impact on people.” With these relationships that she had the rest of her life there’s such a straight “connect the dots” thing from her childhood.

Putting the spousal abuse and her relationship with him as manager aside, do you think that was a lingering unsaid aspect in her relationship with Stroud? Because I think about the story of the threesome at the end of her relationship, and that woman she was traveling with.

The woman who comes to visit her in Barbados, yeah. In some ways the hardest things to make any sense out of are these personal relationships, because it’s so unclear what is reality and what is fantasy. As you read just the raw [text of] her talking, she’s a wildly unreliable narrator. Her sense of sequence in time and when things happen is just nonexistent.

Nina circa 1991 (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Nina circa 1991 (Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

The diaries aren’t confessional in that sense.

They start there, and then they’re something else. But these relationships where she talks endlessly about this guy in Liberia, this man who’s a magnate for palm oil, very rich, very big connected guy there who says “everyone knows you’re here” and “I’m gonna marry you,” then they go and he takes her on this thing where he takes her to his house in the hills for two weeks? I have no idea what actually transpired.

There’s things where [you wonder], “Did any of this happen? Did some of this happen?” And then, invariably, that relationship with the Prime Minister of Barbados, what is this? Is it a fling she ascribed all this significance to? Did she feel like she slighted him in some way and he cut her off? What’s clear is, she’s drawn to these powerful, very masculine and aggressive, protective men who are going to take care of her.

You can’t help but think of her father.

Yeah, her father was not the breadwinner for the family, he was very strong and supportive for her but was not that kind of a guy, and that’s what she’s looking for over and over again. Where that’s hard is in this relationship with Andy Stroud, that clearly is the defining relationship of her life personally and professionally. From what everybody says she was attracted to his aggression, to his macho. He was a cop working on the street who would knock heads, and everyone would run when they saw him come. She got off on that. And there’s this one horrible situation before they get married where he beats the hell out of her. That story’s consistent, how he tells it, how she tells it, how her guitar player tells it.

What is very unclear after that is, was this something that continued to happen? She sort of says obliquely that there were other beatings. There’s one time that her daughter remembers when he slapped her in the car. He says, “I fully cop to this one terrible big thing that happened, but she holds that over me and says it was something that happened over and over in our relationship, and it wasn’t.” This is where you hit that limitation. These are all people who are no longer with us, they’re not always entirely believable.

And you’re dealing in reportage so you’re not trying to speculate.

You’re trying to decipher. Because you want to be sensitive to it, because these are sensitive issues, because you don’t want to dismiss either side. But that’s really tricky in these circumstances, to feel like you’re playing fair.

‘I think Nina felt very flattered. “Honored” isn’t the right word, because she felt like she very much deserved to be there—to be recognized by that community and have someone like Lorraine Hansberry take her under her wing’

The fact that Stroud was a cop, I mean, it’s just so weird, the idea that she fell for a cop against all the dialogue about police brutality that’s happening now. 

Yeah. I feel like that has more to do with this sort of machismo, “man’s man” thing that recurs, that’s not unique to Stroud. But she saw his ability to use that in making the shift to being her manager, and to running her business, and to being used to dealing with hostile negotiations as an asset to fight for her business concerns.

Talk a little bit about Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote Raisin in the Sun, because their relationship seems interesting. She really seemed to fortify Nina with a sense of awakening in a way.

That’s right. Lorraine Hansberry was really a mentor figure to her, and Nina loved being a part of this downtown black intellectual set in the early ’60s where she can retain this relationship with James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. I don’t know if it’s because it was another accomplished, groundbreaking woman in her professional life, who wrote the first play by a woman to ever make it to Broadway. But I think Nina felt very flattered. “Honored” isn’t the right word, because she felt like she very much deserved to be there—to be recognized by that community and have someone like Lorraine Hansberry take her under her wing, to make her think more about the artist’s role and culture’s role, and ultimately to steer her in a more politically radical direction that became more enforced when Hansberry died.

Carrying the mantle.

Yeah, keeping that torch going became more of a sense of responsibility. To have a black, female mentor who was another artist and had the sensibility of an artist helped Nina to hone that side of herself and her ambitions.

It’s really interesting how she crossed all these legendary people. Not just people of color, but all over. When you talk about the downtown scene, I have to ask because the book doesn’t go into it too much. Are her problems with heroin picking up then?

That’s another one of those things that she talks a bit about, her drug experimentation in diaries and stuff. And you can’t quite tell how much is her trying to show off and how much that’s real. Ultimately, the irony is that as her mental issues become more serious and she’s being prescribed this medication, she has this resistance to taking those drugs, because you see over and over again artists don’t want that sense of being dulled, they don’t want to feel that part of them is tamped down by these medications. We’re used to reading about how drugs destroy the artist, and this is a situation where not taking the drugs, the prescription meds just sees her go deeper and deeper down.

It’s not an easy narrative like that. There’s no trajectory that fits how we like to hear someones life story wrapped up nicely.

No, and by the end she’s geographically bouncing around in ways that are almost impossible to track. Like, where is she? She’s in Africa then she’s in Switzerland, but she has this house in Los Angeles and there’s this month where she goes to live in Montreal, but she up and drives away, leaving all her stuff there. Just trying to actually place where she is at what date in what location, and when there’s a story happening is she in California or Belgium? It gets really complicated, and you just see her sort of spinning and unraveling through that.

‘I don’t know what the 101 version of Nina is. I don’t think there is one. And that’s why she doesn’t have that same sort of visibility and that same sort of presence.’

What did this project ultimately teach you about Nina?

Well there are these things that come up in different places, where there’s an open question that you can’t address in a film. It’s going to take 20 minutes even to get into what you’re talking about. Nobody was standing up the way Nina was standing up. At every organizing meeting, somebody would play a Nina Simone record. Nina was just the soundtrack to that moment in history. We lose a sense of that. Because she’s so hard to categorize, because there’s no huge radio hit that lives on oldies radio. People know the name much more than the music, and even the name they’re not sure what to do with. Getting a real sense of what she meant.

You don’t want there to be these unanswered strands. You at least want to feel that this is an incredibly complicated, incredibly troubled person—here are the things that are on the table. I don’t think I need to wrap those up in any one definitive conclusion around all of these different things that are spinning around her. But you do want to feel that you’re presenting the pieces and leading to some sense of this life.

Dr. King’s more radical policies of income and wealth distribution get left out or sanitized of many history books. I think in some ways, those more radical ideas as they lived in Nina are not pleasing for the gentry to talk about, and to anthologize, and acknowledge.

And leaving aside the more conspiratorial, more strategic answer to that, they’re complicated. It’s a lot harder of a story to talk about Dr. King as not just the amazing achievements around Selma, non-violence, the march on Washington. Once you start opening that up it’s more time, effort and energy. That doesn’t get told in the 101 version of that story. I don’t know what the 101 version of Nina is. I don’t think there is one. And that’s why she doesn’t have that same sort of visibility and that same sort of presence.

It’s great that the movie was there to resurface all of that stuff, that it’s here to look further into. I think of that exchange she had with Bowie. She takes Lisa to go see Bowie at the Garden and she goes out that night to some club, and Bowie comes in with his entourage. She sees him, and he calls her over and sits with her. He says, “can I call you?” and calls her at 3 in the morning. He calls her every night for a month at 3 in the morning. And then he eventually goes over to the house and hangs out with her.

It’s this huge moment of validation for her, because he says, “Don’t let them tell you that you’re crazy. They’re going to tell you that you’re crazy and you’re not. You’re an artist. You need to do this. I’m not, I want to be a rockstar, so I can navigate all the rest of this stuff. You’re an artistic genius and nobody’s going to know what to do with you. But don’t let them scare you, because this what you’re here to do.”

She says it was the most profound thing. He told her, “Where you are, there’s not many of us out there.”

How Journalist Alan Light Wrote Nina Simone’s Biography in Reverse