Later seasons they were to remember, to chronicle, seasons informed by the each and every time that she, herself, stressa, would mount the boards, made up from assorted paint pots at a table mirror ringed in merciless bulbs ablaze and heap upon music a variety of disguises, none of which could ever hope to equal or to obscure what she was in her immutable self.
James McCourt, Mawrdew Czgowchwz

In the middle of Nina Simone's rendition of "My Way," Stephen Holden leaned over and said, "This is like Frances Faye." He was referring to the way she declaimed the song over triple-time congas, but I thought the comparison had to do with the tacky song choice. I half expected her to grind to a halt and say, "I can't, it's too wild" or to introduce her band as "My ex-husband on the bass...my ex-husband on the drums..." And imagine what Frances Faye might have done with the singalong Nina Simone led on "Color Is a Beautiful Thing" (and I quote): "Color is an I Ching chang/Fo' sho'/Ding dang!" The difference is that Nina Simone doesn't have a camp bone in her body. When she sings "My Way," she means every word of it just as much as when she slams the piano on "Pirate Jenny," stares down white America with serene implacability, and hisses "That'll learn ya!" She's not a pop singer, she's a diva, a hopeless eccentric like James McCourt's fictional "oltrano" Mawrdew Czgowchwz, who has so thoroughly commingled her odd talent and brooding temperament that she has turned herself into a force of nature, an exotic creature spied so infrequently that every appearance is legendary.

Nina Simone's four-show engagement at Swing Plaza June 3 and 4 was just such an occasion, and for many years Simoniacs will exchange stories about the night she muttered, "Porgy is a cripple, I don't like cripples" and the night she gave in and sang the damn song for which she is best-known. There is always a question of whether she will sing at all. She has been known to collapse from nerves and to launch half-hour tirades about not getting paid. There's also the danger that the IRS will collar her for back taxes; Saturday night the Feds did show up and confiscated most of Simone's take for the weekend. Wonder if they got the $5 contributions to the Society for the Preservation of Nina Simone, which was in the lobby.

Late show Friday she was brilliant and bizarre. The things that stick are the physical details. She arrived through the audience waving a bouquet, wearing a one-shouldered cotton flowered-print gown with matching pants and a blossom in the topknot of her cornrowed hair. Onstage she sat painstakingly separating the roses from the baby's breath like Jack Smith fiddling with the curtains and then pulled off the heads of the roses, strewing the petals on the floor and kicking the stems offstage. In the middle of songs she would drift from the microphone to the piano bench, stopping to raise the piano lid, once even lapsing into a weirdly beautiful and muscular interpretive dance. Between songs she flitted into the wings or sat at the piano mute and statuesque, paralyzed between anger and terror at the audience, at the world, at life.

Anger and terror likewise fueled her singing. She opened with "Alone Again (Naturally)," rewriting Gilbert O'Sullivan's jaunty, insipid hit into a crisp, chilling documentary of her complicated relationship with her father. She takes secret glee in his deterioration and then, when he's dead, the bitter joke turns on her: "The day he passed away/I drank and smoked all day/Alone again, naturally." She dipped into her uneven-as-usual new album Fodder in Her Wings (recorded in France), a brooding documentary of her complicated relationship with her fatherland, celebrating the exile's ambivalence in "Liberation Calypso." And she scattered pop standards ("Bill," "How Deep Is the Ocean") among her staples ("Ne Me Quitte Pas," "Pirate Jenny"). Her singing was crude as always, almost inarticulate, as if the lyrics were unconscious utterances (shades of Nico), communed with the piano like a swimmer in water or an appliance connected to its current. She heaped upon music a variety of disguises -- African incantation, European classicism, American evangelism -- that never obscured the primacy of her immutable self over her material.

In the presence of such eccentricity, you become unbearably aware of time. Things seem to go on forever, and then a moment's pause startles in its boldness. How long has she been on, how long will she play, how long can you take this? You can get angry at her self-indulgence -- her confusion of suffering and self-destruction, neurosis and illness -- but it's also terrifying. You may admire or jeer at someone who burns up her talent with temperament, but you are forced to remember that soon enough you, too, will cook.

Village Voice, June 21, 1983