It is springtime and there is a presence in the room. There, lying sprawled under a lilac tree, I can see Nina Simone pouring her heart into a secret recipe – one that she hopes will transport her back to her lost lover. On Lilac Wine, Simone’s singing and hypnotic timbre is perhaps the most haunting rendition of James H. Shelton’s 1950 original composition. With gently pulsing chords and piano flourishes, her delicate, almost masculine vibrato pierces the air, thick with an audible haze. Infused with passion and tempered with melancholia, Lilac Wine could be a B-side from the New Testament’s Song of Songs (if the New Testament was crooned in a smoky jazz club in the concrete bowels of Paris). For more than a minute into the track I am drawn into Simone’s world by an attractive, unsettling quality as she sings how she surrendered to a ‘strange delight’ on a ‘cool damp night’, under a lilac tree. What has she given herself to? Perhaps she speaks of something in the room, whose presence seems to create a vast reverberation on the track. Simone transitions, lithe fingers forming major chords and the ballad ensues. The confused, almost hallucinatory lyrics remain the same as Simone spins, singing how her wine is ‘sweet and heady, like my love’. Then, as if the lyrics reflected her own personal battle with bipolar and the violent mood swings that made her such an astonishing and tragic figure, Simone utters, ‘listen to me, why is everything so hazy? Isn’t it he, or am I just going crazy, dear?’
In my decidedly non-rebellious youth, my father was always introducing me to weird music. And his choice of music was befitting of the eccentric, displaced Belgian lost in the southern United States that he was, and still is. One day, he introduced me to something so far beyond his typical King-Crimson-meets-Mott-the-Hoople-meets-Lord knows what aesthetic that I blurted something that was equally befitting of my aforementioned non-rebellious youth. ‘Holy Buckets of Glory,’ I think it was. My father turned up the decibels, and my ears opened to Jeff Buckley’s Grace (1994) for the first time as he ached out his own version of Lilac Wine. Buckley’s vibrato seemed impossible for a man, and that song in particular held me in a strange, pre-pubescent state of staring and mouth breathing. That last bit, I can assure you, can only be reflected upon many years after the fact. Having properly discovered Nina Simone since those days, when my dad was still carting me around to music shops in his embarrassing puke-green junk on wheels (my father lovingly called this automobile the ‘green bomber’), I now understand that Simone’s version of Lilac Wine is forever more potent than Buckley’s. Simone’s version is also infinitely more tortured.
Simone’s album Wild is the Wind (1966), on which Lilac Wine appears, comes more than 30 years before Buckley’s work. While Buckley’s Grace sandwiches Lilac Wine among other lovesick power ballads, his album is largely composed of originals. Listening to Wild is the Wind, however, is like listening to someone else’s work. In fact, the album’s eleven tracks is almost entirely the work of other artists, save for a traditional entitled, Black is the color of my true love’s hair, and Four Women, which is Simone’s only original track on the whole album. I get the impression that Simone clings to Lilac Wine, as if it is all she has. It is just such a pity that she did not write it. This small detail does not stop her from singing as if it is her own. With a sultry defiance she defends it with her beautiful bellows and tender piano chops.
It has recently occurred to me that Nina Simone’s nine year passing falls on the same day that I land at the Raleigh Durham International airport on April 21, 2012, after spending the longest year of my entire life as an aid worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is something in Lilac Wine, and in Simone herself, that makes me search for parallels between my own life and hers. Born in Tryon in 1933, she became angered by the cutting racism she experienced in America during those years. Simone abandoned North Carolina and her country of birth for her musical migrations throughout Europe and parts of Africa. Later in letters to her brother, she scathingly referred to the US as the ‘United Snakes of America.’ Born and bred in North Carolina, I too left my home state in 2008 – though for wholly different reasons. I too have journeyed through countries in Europe and Africa, and the Caribbean. I am reminded that there is a part of me that thought I would never return for more than a few weeks at a time. I have spent the past 4 years in self-inflicted humanitarian exile, and now I think of myself as ‘reintegrating’ into a strange society that only existed in my memories until recently, as I swatted malarial mosquitoes in the clear-cut wastelands of Haiti and the jungles of central Africa. In many ways I feel like Simone. I am just stumbling out of a haze of my own. Somewhere behind the slight, warm crackle of the microphone and the echo in the pauses, in Lilac Wine I hear a homecoming anthem.
Born Eunice Kathleen Wymon in Tryon on February 21, 1933, Nina Simone is not just another native North Carolinian. She is the global godmother of jazz. Spanning a long career as one of the world’s most prolific artists, her dozens of studio and live albums have incorporated and shaped the genres of jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, folk and pop.