Schnipper’s Slept On

October 20, 2009

Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Nina Simone’s At Newport LP. (Though Slept On usually covers more recent releases, this is a record Schnipper discovered he was sleeping on in his own collection.) Listen to "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," buy the album (cheap!) and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.

My friend Simon said he cried when he listened to Robert Wyatt. You could call him a sissy if you want, grossly sentimental over the browning voice of an aging man. Or you could give his emoting your blessing, see eye to eye with his rumpled passion. He says the only music that ever made him cry before was John Lennon, and he got shot. That’s got to conjure tears, or at least ease their summoning.

I don’t know the last time music made me cry. If I did, I probably wouldn’t tell you. Luckily for me, like a bad witness, I can’t remember if Nina Simone ever made me cry. I remember when she died most people I know thought she was already dead. My friend Daniel had turned me on to her music, playing me “My Man’s Gone Now” from a greatest hits compilation. I remember the scene, if not the specific moment. He lived in a rickety but beautiful house’s attic with an ancient computer, no power outlets and 50-year-old damp air. A tree later fell into that house, a summer of depressing rain loosening its giant roots. One of the branches crashed through the attic but nothing broke except the window. They were renters, anyway, so not their problem.

It was around that time I began to buy Nina Simone records. I started with a lucky purchase of Nina Simone Sings the Blues, which has a beautiful cover, close-cropped photo of her face with jazzy ’60s text in blue overlaid. “My Man’s Gone Now,” was on there, and it was then I realized the song was from “Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin’s opera. I’ve since kept a parallel line, as thin as it may be, between Sidnier Poirtier’s Porgy and Nina Simone’s Bess. They are a dream couple. It took a long time until I listened it past or prior to that song on Sings the Blues, didn’t find testing perfection’s limits a priority. But eventually my ear wandered and I heard “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Wild is the Wind,” her churchy cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and her pissed off protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn.” On the live version of that, she is gurgling. 1964 was an emotional time. Maybe all the years of her life.

A year or two after I became familiar with her, Nina Simone died. Most everyone I talked to thought she had already died. I was in college, taking a class on music, and the professor asked me to talk about her music. I must have made it clear I was a fan. I brought Sings the Blues in to the class and passed it around. Most of the other students had never heard of her. I am sure none of them remember that day. I can’t remember if I played them her music but I hope I did.

At some point I bought up Nina at Newport. I never listened to it. Or if I did, I don’t remember. I know I’ve had it some time now, but that’s all I know. I could have hauled it north from DC to my parents’ house and then down to New York, or could have bought it three years ago on a bored day walking around the city. Either way, it’s been shelved unused. So when I decided to move and sell a lot of my records, I trimmed out this album. I have seven or eight others records of hearty velvet soul. My attitude has always been “What’s one more?” but I want to shift it to “What’s one less?” My roommate hangs his seven shirts on hooks from his wall. It took him twenty minutes to move in. On the flipside, I own a couch, but the streamlined ease is appealing. And if that airy convenience can be aided with less albums (and lord knows I have plenty), let it be so.

So I pulled out all the excess. No more aggressive German hardcore, no more early Ministry, no more Yusef Lateef experimental flute, no more Betty Davis with scratches. Piles of records sat in my hallway for a week like my own personal antique shop, the cumulative offering of many years of collecting. But it’s the journey not the destination—right?—so out with the old and, hopefully, never in with the new. But why did I never listen to that Nina Simone record? I put it on on Saturday when I was going through my clothes, one of the other collections to go. It sounded like Nina Simone, typically touching and easily majestic. There is no disputing her endless worth, but that record could fetch me like seven bucks and I’m strapped and full up with Nina Simone Live at Carnegie Hall and Nina Simone Live in Europe. Enough with the fancy recorded performances. Except, it turns out, I’d been listening to the wrong records. This was the best. Specifically her version of Cole Porter’s song, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” which, if I was going to cry for a Nina Simone song, would have been this one.

Before she was a singer, Simone was a pianist, and she wrings the keys on this song. It’s manipulative, beginning softly and alone before teasing in the hollow guitar. She doesn’t start singing until three and a half minutes of focused topsy turvy before she slides her voice in, tight fitting and subtly warm.You’d be so nice by the fire, she says, but swallows it, half audible. The piano gets dimmer and louder and then she just wails, lets herself have it. The liner notes of this song say “Sooner or later, most of Cole Porter’s songs end up as standards, and ‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To’ is definitely one of them. It is smooth and easy, a wonderful blend of Porter, Simone and [her backing] Trio.” That is copy for a Starbucks commercial. I wonder if we were listening to the same song. It’s impossibly frustrating that something this devastating existed on a shelf, always passed by on the walk from my bedroom to the bathroom, and I never bothered to pay attention. So what happens now? I’m down four hundred records, but up one I actually like. I'll never remember what genius I potentially got rid of. The purge did get me to pay attention to something. Not the worst bargain.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Schnipper’s Slept On