Sunday, February 12, 2006

Apricot Juice and Buttered Toast

You need your headphones. You need a slowed-down pulse and a langurous attention span. You need a moment alone in the car, a seat on a park bench with the iPod, an uneventful afternoon with the shades drawn. After the party guests have left the driveway, while leaning back on the kitchen sink, a last swirl of wine in the glass, this:

"I Don't Want Him (Anymore)" by Nina Simone.

It's from Nina Simone at Town Hall, 1959. At first, it's not the right tempo for this meditative moment -- too perky, really, the ivory tickle smacking of Broadway histrionics. But stand by. Stay near. This is one of the greatest performances ever put on tape. Even on a Monday morning in the subway, all brightness and practical anxiety, this drew tears to my eyes. It's so full of unexpected poetry. And it's precisely because it begins with the flip confidence of a Broadway number, an establishing romantic posture in which Ms. Simone has given her man the sack with bravado -- I'm afraid I never loved him -- that she can now proceed to unravel for the next three minutes, lyric by lyric by lyric.

All I wanted to do was
Run my fingers through his curly locks
Mend his underwear and darn his socks
Fetch his slippers and remove his shoes
Wipe his glasses when he's read the news
Rub his forehead with a gentle touch
Mornings after when he's had a little too much
Kiss him gently when he cuddles near
And give him babies, one for every year
... so you see ...
That I don't want him, you can have him
You can have him, cuz I don't want him
Because he's not the man for me.

When the catalog of lost intimacy finally overwhelms the false bravado -- his favorite breakfast, apricot juice and buttered toast, is the final straw -- she has to let out a long, slow, painful moan, an aching loss of words where lyrics are supposed to be. It's unbearable.

If there's any question of the intensity of this performance, the ending gives it up. Freed from the final note, as if suddently aware of the spell she was under, Nina is ecstatic: Yeah! Oooh boy! Ah ha ha! Oh! Yeah!


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