August 22, 2016
Released In 1972
Released By RCA Victor
No explanation is needed. It’s probably out there if you want it, but with Nina Simone, it’s not needed.
There is a loud crowd chanting “We Want Nina!” and we know they won’t stop until they get what they want. An announcer voices relief in the nick of time introducing the High Priestess Of Soul, and the crowd goes positively bananas. The cheers are cut off mid-sentence. They just vanish, and no explanation is needed, because the band has begun. The band does not ease into being, instead they have jumped out of the car and are running full speed. Because they know what’s coming. We know what’s coming. Nina Simone is coming.
Why did the crowd vanish? Why do we not know if this is a real live album or not? Why does Nina’s daughter’s voice creep into the opening track? In the presence of a smaller mountain, maybe an explanation would be needed, or maybe we’d be given the time to care.
No matter what happens, the element of surprise is on her side. Unpredictable is the wrong word, even though it might feel right. Rather, Nina Simone is meteor shocking through Earth’s atmosphere, burning apart, changing every split second. She is in fact predictable because we can predict that every performance will be novel and different. Every instinct in melody, harmony, power, fear, passion, aggression, sadness, and courage will be constantly adjusting to the present moment.
It is the easiest thing to forget that she is playing the piano and singing at the same time. It’s what we in the business call fucking unbelievable. The touch and drive in both of her voices are constantly on the move, piercing the present tense with dynamic and spontaneous choice.
It is the easiest thing to forget that she is commandeering a George Harrison song. One that you couldn’t imagine anyone else performing until this 18 minute opening juggernaut drops on your head. But the true gut punch comes from “Isn’t It A Pity” later on. Why have two of the songs on a four song record be George Harrison compositions? We don’t need the explanation. But if I had to hazard a guess, it would be because she is Nina Simone, and whatever she says goes, and wherever she goes we are lucky to be under the sky lit up by it all.
Emergency Ward! was possibly released in the face of the Vietnam War. But every split second since it’s come out, there is a new pile of a pain we can direct these songs towards. Far from home or beneath our own skin, the predictability of Nina Simone’s service to every single moment is one of the only truths on this planet that I feel comfortable counting on.
In her own words, let’s go.
The unparalleled High Priestess of Soul.
Nina Simone has always had a very special place in my heart, especially after I started creating my own music many years ago. Some artists, like say J Dilla or A Tribe Called Quest, have an endearing ability to inject fun, love, happiness, and joy into their music. Their songs make you feel good. Their songs make you dance. Their songs make you smile. I’ve always envied that. I’ve envied that ability because so much of my music is based in pain. It’s aggressive. It makes you want to fight. Instead of smiles, it makes people make ugly faces (a great reaction, nonetheless). And you know what? I’m okay with that, mainly because of artists like Nina Simone who showed me that it’s okay to make people feel the bad stuff. Your bad stuff (read: my bad stuff). And often, to the right person it’s actually more powerful that way. Secondly, for hip hop producers that sample, Nina Simone’s entire catalog is, to borrow the phrase, required reading. Personally, I hang on every note, knowing that her proclivity for dark, minor chords and spooky vocal phrasing is a potential goldmine. In this respect, listening to Simone records are extremely fun for me, and Emergency Ward! is no different. For instance, “Poppies” is butting sections just begging to be sampled from beginning to end. Trust me, I’ve already saved it to my trusty “Sample This” folder on my desktop. Ugly faces on the horizon.
Before Beyoncé was sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and creating visual albums around the work of Warsaw Shire, Nina Simone added David Nelson’s poem “Today Is A Killer” to her hand-clapping, revival-esque performance of “My Sweet Lord” on the live album Emergency Ward!, a three (or four, depending on your version) song masterpiece very ahead of its time. I am not very familiar with the post-Beatles output of George Harrison, but clearly Simone thought of him as a kindred spirit — Emergency Ward! features two Harrison covers (the aforementioned “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It A Pity,” both originally from his 1970 work All Things Must Pass) and she had previously recorded a phenomenal version of “Here Comes The Sun.” Simone, more an interpreter of songs than a songwriter (though she did write the extraordinary “Four Women“), covered songs by Randy Newman, Sandy Denny, Leonard Bernstein, and others, but her interest in Harrison is particularly fascinating to me. What drew her to his work? I think they both believed in the transformative power of music, which they often imbued with their own spiritual and political passions. Harrison wrote “Isn’t It a Pity” about a relationship that let him down (The Beatles, societal conventions), but in Simone’s interpretation, she feels civil rights did not bring all that was promised ten years before. Her version inspired him to write the codas to “The Answer’s At The End,” which pleaded tolerance and understanding, a few years later. Simone’s work is so rich and culturally significant that even within a thirty minute album, there is probably a dissertation’s worth of other things to discuss and explore.
The opening chants of “We want Nina!” echo as Miss Simone’s Emergency Ward! starts up. She then delves into an incredible 18-minute medley of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and David Nelson’s poem “Today Is a Killer.” Having Nina belt it out is incredible enough. But to add the backup of South Jamaica, New York’s Bethany Baptist Church Junior Choir is a stroke of genius. On that track alone, it’s like we’re just hanging with Nina as she effortlessly moves from crazy antics to mellow and somber words. While the album itself is only two songs and a medley, it still feels like an epic that we get to experience.
The original context I had for Nina Simone was Bridget Fonda’s character in Point Of No Return (which is basically an American remake of La Femme Nikita, which I have not seen). Throughout the film, Fonda’s Maggie continually references Simone as her favorite musician. I remember thinking as a teenager sitting in the theater watching, “Why haven’t I heard of this woman before? If she’s important enough to be referenced this extensively in a movie, I should know her work.” However, at no point over the past 20 years since then have I really done a deep dive into her work. She’s remained someone that I understood as an important figure, and whose music I always enjoy when I come across it. Yet she was always someone else’s favorite, never my own. It’s nice to finally be given an opportunity to understand her work more directly, to fully immerse myself in what seems to be one of her more important albums. I’ve definitely heard her version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” referred to as the definitive one, and as a classic Simone track. Having now heard it several times, I can totally see both of these things. While I feel like “”My Sweet Lord” is the Harrison cover given a more prominent place on this album, it’s “Pity” I keep returning to, playing over and over. There’s so much meaning invested there, so much of Nina herself coming through in this performance of a song she didn’t write. The part where she sings her own lyrical additions to Harrison’s original words, in particular the “We take each other’s minds / and we’re capable of taking each other’s souls / We do it every day / just to reach some financial goal” passage, hit very close home for me. The way she spits out that key word, “financial,” as if it leaves a bad taste in her mouth… yeah, I get that. That’s my life right now too. But there are other tracks on this album too, though maybe less than you’d expect. The 20 minute first side is taken up entirely by a medley of Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and poet David Nelson’s “Today Is A Killer,” which brings the funk and rhythmic groove that was the side of Simone’s music I heard most often in the past. It sustains itself across such a sustained running time by locking into a trancelike vibration that never really lets up. But again, it’s the soulful, jazzy emotion of side two that really sticks with me — not just “Isn’t It A Pity,” but also the relatively short “Poppies” (the only song here that takes up less than 10 minutes — and it’s less than 5!). This tune interjects some incredible upbeat jazz/funk choruses into what otherwise feels like an elegiac, soulful hymn. I keep using a bunch of these different genre terms over and over — soul, jazz, funk — and it’s tough for me to tell at the end of the day just which one is most correct to describe the actual genre in which this album fits. But honestly, maybe it should fit into all of them. What’s more important here is the human core of this music, the way Simone opens her heart and expresses true, deep feelings through her music, seemingly with nothing standing between herself and the listener. Reaching across the decades since its release, reaching beyond the topical conditions that apparently spurred its composition, Emergency Ward! is here to connect with you. Open your heart to it. It will enrich your life.
As someone who loses the strand of his own spirituality more and more frequently, I am breathlessly enthralled when an artist can get me to a higher place through their work. It happened earlier this year with Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, and I was moved to a similar headspace with Emergency Ward!. But where Chance was working in a distinct the-world-is-a-mess vibe, Nina Simone sees the world as a mess, but also sees endless possibility for perseverance. God dominates the record, with the “My Sweet Lord” ushering listeners through the church doors on a blindingly bright Sunday morning. It is a thrilling rollercoaster of praise with each snare perfectly hit timed to explode and each sonic fade-out priming listeners for the next rapturous rise. But God is not let off the hook, as Simone beautifully works in the poem “Today Is A Killer” and follows it up with “Poppies” (the album’s most blatant and brutal Vietnam moment) as if to say that a higher power is at play in both tragedy in triumph. Simone then proposes that the true power of the divine resides in us. Through an extended cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity,” she pictures humanity as the solution to its own ails, if only we can transcend material pettiness and become something more. It’s a moment that’s properly contextualized within the record, as to avoid any sort of Kumbaya simplicity. The extended version closes on “Let It Be Me” as Simone pledges to take the first steps towards unity, towards self-improvement. It’s a moment that the listener gets to share in, having spent the last 40 minutes having a cosmic experience, examining heaven and earth and finding a space in the middle, in which they can belong.
The monument that is her live presence can be felt through any speaker at any volume. Just one of many traits that make her words and music truly eternal.
For me, Emergency Ward! is defined by what it isn’t — discursive. That word keeps coming to mind when I listen to her takes on two of George Harrison’s masterworks, takes that soar past the originals’ running lengths. So often, when you add several minutes while covering a song, it’s an exercise in abstraction — you’re drifting away from the source material. Not here. Nina Simone drills down deeper. She finds the spiritual core of “My Sweet Lord” by wrapping her words around his, adding expressions of hurt and desperation, vastly broadening the song’s emotional range. She’s not changing the subject or taking the song in another direction — she’s extending the root structure to make it even stronger. More grounded. That approach is even more pronounced in “Isn’t It A Pity” — she practically sits the song down and has a come-to-Jesus chat with it, ad-libbing lyrics like “I don’t think that’s applicable to me” and “That’s not quite true.” Simone really seems to take exception to the idea that tears make it impossible to see beauty. Her life was filled with more than her fair share of pain — racism, domestic violence, mental health issues… the recent What Happened, Miss Simone? documentary is genuinely hard to watch — yet musical beauty poured out of her. That’s a huge part of why her voice is so commanding here — you know that the notes and words are only the tip of the iceberg, that her struggles, marriage, and politics are all being funneled into what she’s singing and playing. These covers may top the 10-minute mark, but I have no doubt she could have done 30-minute versions that would feel just as vital and focused.
The opening song of this album is an 18-minute medley of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and a David Nelson poem called “Today Is A Killer” and it is one of the most breathtaking pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It never gets old, it’s never a trial to listen to. It feels like meditating, in a way. I can just let the music wash over me until Ms. Simone reels me back in and re-centers me with our shared mantra (“…My Lord”) as she does at various points throughout the song. The image of meditating with this song is odd, since in this interpretation, she has removed all mention of Hare Krishna and returned it to the spiritual roots of “Oh Happy Day” that Harrison claimed to have used as inspiration when writing the song, while also subconsciously ripping off “He’s So Fine.” It’s my favorite song on the album and if it had instead been the entirety of the album (split into two parts a la Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips” to accommodate the vinyl format, of course), I would have been 100% okay with that. I know that would have disrupted the juxtaposition of feeling that her cover of the other A-side from the “My Sweet Lord” single (“Isn’t It A Pity“) provides, but, when it comes to the church of that first track, I never want the service to end.
Not many artists would have the balls to release a three-track live record, where two of the songs are new arrangements of classic songs. But Nina Simone is no ordinary artist, and Emergency Ward! Is far from a standard live album. It would be a waste of time to talk about Nina Simone because is there really anything else I can add? She was incredible; a visionary and a pioneer with that unforgettable voice. There are very few artists in history that can match her talent, a talent that was truly one of a kind. Emergency Ward! is an extraordinary experience. It hits you like a gut punch in your soul and doesn’t let up for 34 wonderful minutes. Listening to it knowing that it is most likely her statement on the Vietnam War only adds to the flavor. Those flickers of sadness and anguish in her voice, this was an artist affected by one of America’s greatest mistakes. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Isn’t It A Pity,” which is truly a masterpiece. Just put it on and listen to an artist at the top of her game. I could go on and on about how great Emergency Ward! is but to be honest, just go and listen to it. It’s a window into the astonishing talent of Nina Simone and a record that truly deserves your time.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Outside of John Frusciante (Issue #15!), the musician I feel the most connected with would probably be George Harrison. I can vividly remember taking summer walks soundtracked by the guitar alarm on “Taxman.” I spent countless hours late at night dissecting the brooding genius of “Someplace Else.” Hell, “Got My Mind Set On You” actually played at my wedding right after my wife and I were pronounced mister and missus while we boogied down the aisle. All Things Must Pass is a favorite of mine (and by far the best Beatles solo record), so going into Emergency Ward!, I was pretty stoked and it exceeded all expectations… in typical Nina Simone fashion. The way she knocked down the walls on these songs and expanded them beyond Harrison’s simple construct is nothing short of brilliant. It’s overwhelming at times, especially in the opening medley where you constantly find yourself without a sense of time or even direction. The only downfall here is that knowing Harrison and these songs so intimately, my mind keeps jumping to conclusions about the message she intended by using them. I know, I know — it’s pretty foolish of me to assume what Nina Simone meant to say with this music, but I can’t help myself. Every time a lyric gets omitted or adjusted, my mind points to something which in turn leads to something else entirely. The original “My Sweet Lord” is famously about desiring an open relationship with God, regardless of religion. Nina’s version though is rooted in finding God in these troubled times, and the disillusionment she and others must have felt while searching (which explains the “killer God” in “Today Is A Killer“). “I really got to see you, Lord,” she declares pushing this forward to me. There’s no time for “Hare Krishna” in her search. She has to find God the only way she knows how — forceful gospel music, even if she gets lost in it. Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” is much more focused on careless personal relationships, while Nina’s version seems more concerned with worldly accountability for the trying times. These ideas come quickly, but my mind is still connecting the dots. Picking two songs from All Things Must Pass, is she taking the title literally and trying to convince herself that this pain is only temporary? That better times are around the corner? Did she not choose “Beware Of Darkness,” another heavyweight song from that Harrison record, because nobody heeded the original warning and it was too late? Going farther, is Harrison viewed as a slight metaphor for the black community at the time: forever overlooked, even as their worth became clear and tangible? I swear I don’t get into conspiracy theories — and this talk is distracting me from the fleeting genius that is “Poppies” — but the theme of George Harrison and the musical contrasts that follow all speak to a bigger picture on Emergency Ward!, making a truly unique record that much more fascinating and mesmerizing and making Nina Simone that much more of a lofty monument to musicianship.
Forty-four years and not much has changed. As the sixties were wrapping up so were The Beatles, but their catalog’s influence and solo work were still pushing the message of peace forward. Nina Simone, among others, were able to reinterpret Beatles songs and re-direct the message to help fight for civil rights and protest the war in Vietnam. On November 18th 1971, Nina performed at Fort Dix, which notably had built a mock Vietnam village to help train new soldiers before deployment. The Weather Underground had planned to “bring the war home” by attacking that same fort the year prior, but their plot failed when their nail bomb exploded in Greenwich Village killing several members. I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to book her, but I’m guessing they were not expecting an epic performance of “My Sweet Lord / Today Is A Killer.” All of this was leading up to what is perhaps the most eerie similarity to 2016, the election of 1972. Senator McGovern ran an anti-war campaign, but was seen as an extreme outsider and received limited support from his party. Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon, emphasizing a growing economy and successful foreign affairs including the near end of the Vietnam War, won 60% of the popular vote and carried 49 states. Emergency Ward! reminded me a lot of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues which was released the same year. It’s based on the events of September 9th, 1971, two weeks after George Jackson was killed in San Quentin when prisoners demanding political rights and better living conditions rioted. Attica was known for having openly racist officers that often assaulted prisoners with batons which they called “nigger sticks.” Given the thick atmosphere of the time, it’s obvious Nina knew exactly what she was doing, not just on this performance but by winning the hearts of people before injecting some perspective and knowledge. This is her artistic legacy. While clearly Beyoncé is filling the much-needed role of modern-day Simone, I think it’s important to acknowledge other torch-carriers like Kendrick Lamar and Prince for their work too. We still have a long way to go.
Few artists have ever expressed anger, pain, and disbelief so vividly as is done on this record released during turbulent times.
“We want Nina! We want Nina!” A charged-up crowd chants at the start of her partially live album Emergency Ward! – but which Nina did they want? The theatrical/show-biz Nina? The angry, political Nina? The pierce-your-heart interpretive genius Nina? In truth, I like her best when her sum is greater than those parts, which is mostly what we get on this set. She starts with a loosely swinging gospel/Vegas take on “”My Sweet Lord,” into which she interpolates a poem called “Life Is A Killer,” turning George Harrison’s original into an extended showcase for her and her mini-choir. Next up is “Poppies,” a preachy anti-drug number by the otherwise unknown songwriting duo of Bleecher and Wind, which becomes transcendently blissful halfway through when it hits a Latin groove and the strings start to soar. You’ll wish it went on for twice as long! Next, she plumbs the depths of another Harrison song, “Isn’t It A Pity,” which becomes an almost interior monologue, letting you know she’s lived those “break each other’s hearts” moments, maybe even more than George. Finally, on a bonus song for those more ambitious, she introduces her brother and let’s him bring down the house on a duet of “Let It Be Me,” which can be a schlocky song but here is soulful — and imperious, much like Simone herself. While she wasn’t a master arranger like Isaac Hayes, there is a touch of his fascinating deconstructiveness on Emergency Ward!, which is yet another reason why we still want Nina. P.S. George Harrison was once asked what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been in The Beatles. “I probably would have been a much better guitarist,” he drawled. But he wouldn’t have been half the songwriter — and then where would we (and Nina and so many others) be?
In the darkness of my living room, my arms full of my younger daughter, I twirled around next to a few good friends, all of us singing Gin Blossoms. So many nights this summer have led to friends, whiskey, and ’90s tunes cranked up over the speakers, reverberating too loudly down my quiet street, and here we were yet again. Abandoning the lightning bugs in the yard, my older daughter suddenly appeared after being uninterested in the dancing of her goofy mother, and requested “Indian Moonshine,” a Zumba song played during P.E. periods when it is too cold to play outside. Smilingly, we obliged, touched by her earnest appraisal. Standing apart, on the fringes of the lamplight, my eight-year-old began swaying as the exotic strands filled our ears. Eyes closed, she moved with an unpracticed grace, aware and uncaring of our gaze, performing alone for herself, with such a sweetness and fullness that we could only stop, fascinated. Listening through the part live, part recorded, three-song album Emergency Ward!, I found myself standing alone again, moved but separate from Simone’s spectacle. So many elements of this complicated, shifting exploration normally act to pull in a listener; a chorus sings behind her in the 18-minute “My Sweet Lord,” for example, and the gospel inspiration throughout the album brings to mind the solidarity that hymnals can produce. Knowing that the album relies heavily on a mix of George Harrison songs and a David Nelson poem doesn’t change the singularity of performance either, as Simone’s dedication and honesty throughout renders the collaborators unequivocally secondary. We can sing along, clap through “My Sweet Lord,” but never become as immersed as Simone, staying a welcome, fascinated listener to her heartfelt, aware but uncaring, performance.
Certain instances of art present a well of depth beyond what appears at face value, and to plumb that depth one must let it soak, seep into your consciousness. To describe that state is daunting at best and so we shall have just a bit of dancing about this architecture. Presented as an emotive response to events in Vietnam, Emergency Ward! is one of the most captivating and empathetic pleas to humanity and beyond I could possibly imagine. Every breath, every note from Simone’s lungs bares such longing and pathos that it’s not just the words, but her timber that drive them deep. It’s a call to reflect — no call to arms here. She paints a beautiful and harrowing picture the human condition with an undercurrent of destructive substance and escape on “Poppies.” So intense is the moment her spirit infuses George Harrison’s words with even more weight on “Isn’t It A Pity” — searing the letters C-A-R-E into your core. A recording like this is a refreshing reminder — especially in these tense times — that compassion and contemplation are integral to dealing with life’s struggles, something so opposite to aggression and so necessary to civility. So here is a thing to consider. Bring yourself to it and allow it to bring what it may to you.
I’ve never listened to Nina Simone. It sort of feels like I’m getting some dark secret off my chest. The vague details I knew of her — her presence, her voice, her inescapable magnetism — made themselves immediately apparent on Emergency Ward! I’m not sure I know of any artist who can grab your attention and hold it completely in the way I was transfixed by the eighteen minute epic “My Sweet Lord / Today Is A Killer.” For most of the song, it’s a hypnotically repetitive gospel chant, but the way it winds and wanders into different arrangements, transforming throughout those eighteen minutes is something to behold. That first reduction to just Simone’s voice and the piano at the six-and-a-half minute mark is truly arresting, and then we’re yanked right back into the high speed gospel chant. The second song, “Poppies,” is a delicate chamber-pop ballad that, while not as grandiose as the other two tracks, is the perfect contrast for what comes before and after. The final piano ballad, “Isn’t It A Pity,” is a wonderful song throughout. But the moment that floored me, and will probably stay with me as one of the most awe-inspiring deliveries of a lyric I’ve ever heard, is the climax, where Simone repeats “givin'” four times — each more filled with emotion and hope and vigor and life than the last. With one word, Simone seems to present her whole being to the listener. It’s unforgettable.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Emergency Ward! accomplishes quite a number of feats over the course of its thirty-eight minute length. Nina Simone was more than just an unbelievable voice. She was the voice of those that needed to be heard, a fact on full display in her civil activism. No wonder this live record is a reflection on the Vietnam War. Over the course of four songs (five in the extended version), Simone sends a clear message. By incorporating the lyrics of “Today Is A Killer” from David Nelson of The Last Poets, she brought focus to a contemporary voice that sized up the issues facing any person of color. It felt like Simone wanted to make it perfectly clear that music should allow everyone to escape, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the realities any person faces. One point that is usually brought up on Emergency Ward! is considering the inspiration to include two unique versions of George Harrison songs. With any listen to the originals and Simone’s take, you see that these songs exist in their own sonic parameters when she takes over. “My Sweet Lord” adds a gospel energy to the proceedings that felt like a plea in 1972 to have faith in some future where we weren’t surrounded by the atrocities of war. And “Isn’t It A Pity” was the mesmerizing antithesis that offers a gloom stare at the personal and universal tragedies everyone faces and wondering when change will begin. There is still one question though. Why choose Harrison? The Beatles were universally beloved and their music is a language of its own. It brings people together and it makes the world feel a bit more united. After the tumultuous sixties and what appeared to be a repeat in the decade to follow, Simone’s plea to the universe was one to unite and try to bring a broken world back together. It’s an honest plea and one that echoes throughout Emergency Ward!
Frisbie by Heavy Vegetable
Chosen By Laura Burroughs