What Happened, Miss Simone? by Alan Light – review

From her raging, handwritten letters to late-night phone calls with David Bowie, this biography gets up close and personal with the tempestuous Nina Simone

Her handwriting rages across the page, its strokes straight, its tone unmistakable. “I love you – but you make me sick – cause you’re dead … You don’t even love me – you worship me but that’s a far cry from love, motherfucker.” This is Nina Simone’s voice in the ink, blazing, harsh and direct, far from the deep, soulful sound that soars out of her records.

But both voices are Simone. The tumultuous life story of the extraordinary musician has been documented before, most notably (and erratically) in her 1992 memoir, I Put a Spell on You. Autobiographies aren’t always reliable things, especially when their subjects have struggled with drugs and debilitating breakdowns. But that’s not to knock Simone’s powerful personality. As determined as she was fragile, as intelligent as she was sometimes submissive before men (although that’s her husband-manager, Andrew Stroud, being annihilated in that handwritten note), capturing her on the page is a challenging task.

New York Times journalist Alan Light was given that job by the company who made the Oscar-nominated 2015 Netflix documentary of the same name. Sensing there was more gold to be had from the material they’d gathered, they gave Light access to Simone’s letters, plus the ear of her only daughter, Lisa. In a recent US interview, Light talked of wanting to leave no “unanswered strands” to Simone’s story, but his main sources were unreliable and long dead. “It’s a frustrating story and a frustrating read,” he admitted of his book, rather bravely. He’s right. What Happened, Miss Simone? is a question fighting for an answer that never comes over its 300-plus pages.

Watch the trailer for the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?

Still, for those who don’t know Simone’s story, it’s a good primer. Its facts flame for themselves. The sixth of eight children born to a methodist preacher mother and a handyman father becomes a child prodigy on the piano by the age of three – that’s an opener. However, Light overeggs this pudding by claiming Simone knew what musical notes were on paper by the age of six months – an even tougher thing, one imagines, to verify. He is better when interrogating Simone’s belief that she was denied a classical music scholarship to the Curtis Institute because of her race, noting that a black woman was already studying there. He explores the huge impact she made for civil rights through her music, as well as her activism, nevertheless.

Light is also good at cherrypicking anecdotes that reveal Simone’s strangeness from the first days of her fame. There’s the night in 1960 when she arrives on stage at the Apollo theatre and spreads out her fee on the top of her piano before playing. She then tries to take it backstage, before falling flat on her face. Later on, he recounts her month of night-long phone calls with David Bowie, who repeatedly tells her she’s not crazy. He also documents from multiple perspectives the violent beating and alleged rape given to Simone by Stroud on the night of their engagement, and how Simone sees two psychiatrists afterwards to see if should still marry her fiancé. Unbelievably, she did.

Light’s admirable approach often gets in the way of conveying the glory of Simone’s career, though. The artist’s confusions about her sexuality, bankability, political clout and art are fascinating areas to mine, but the music in them is often muted by the fact-checking. The shimmer comes back when Light includes a few images of her letters and telegrams, or quotes directly from her diaries. As she writes in 1969: “It’s amazing to me how I can feel the tension & sickness leaving – last nite I cried – I knew the ‘Black Bird’ is clean inside.” Blazing, direct and unforgettable: we need that extraordinary voice.

What Happened, Miss Simone is published by Canongate (£20). Click here to buy it for £16


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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