NINA SIMPNE

I hadn’t been working at Elektra for very long in the Winter of 1992 but it had been many years since I’d had a proper break. I cobbled together my three weeks of vacation time and all of my paid sick days to go back to southern France. I flew directly into Nice on the Côte d’Azure. Goodbye Old Man Winter! I’d gone through Gîtes de France to book a place to stay. It’s an agency run by the government. Anyone can list their home. Wonderful operation. I settled on a small townhouse in a mountain village called Castellane. It was about 25 miles north of Nice and was well placed for day excursions. Going to or from the coast you drove through Grasse, the town known worldwide for its perfume production. The main thoroughfare into this part of the French Alps was the Route Napoleon. It’s twisting, steep and potentially treacherous layout was further complicated by the attention grabbing vistas of the fields of Provence stretching out into the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s part of the same roadway which Princess Grace of Monaco had plunged off of to her death. Arriving in Castellane I went to the villages “Marie”, or mayors office, to sign the rental contract and pick up the keys. It was about 2pm. The Town Hall was shuttered as it was siesta time, although a Spanish custom (who’s border was less than 100 miles away), the traditional extended break in the day is observed throughout the coastal Mediterranean. Guess who just learned that. This guy. Welcome to Provence. Time to put my American ways away. Walking through the Square I found the local tavern and went inside. Now, I don’t speak any useful French but I got across to the stunning barmaid what I was doing here. I had obviously piqued some interest upon my arrival in this ancient hamlet. Even the dogs seemed steeped in generational pride. They sniffed at my trousers with an almost disdainful aloofness before moving on. I ordered a Campari and soda. Apparently drinks in Europe are served without ice so I asked for some. Two cubes. She put two cubes in the glass and ya’know, that was the perfect number. By now I’d gotten her name. Elise. Petite, about 5’5″ with glistening coal black hair that went to the top of her shoulders. Mid-twenties. Tiny dynamite. Her family owned this place. One of her brothers is the towns Baker and her other one runs its cheese shop. Her uncle was the Mayor. Elise and her Mom owned a millinery store in Grasse. She made hats. It was closed today so she was helping out her tired Dad by running the tavern that she had grown up in. Unmarried, she still lived above it with her parents. She spoke very good English which had a trace of the British accent imbued by the public school teacher. Most Europeans speak pretty good English having learned it compulsorily in schools. The French take four years of it. I’d noticed on my trips before that if you start off by trying to communicate in their language then most will often show appreciation for your effort by letting you off the hook and responding in English. We talked for the next hour about anything and everything. She was enjoying being able to finally put all of those lessons into practicality. I was picking up some more conversational French but I was also falling in love. The nape of her neck and the exposed midriff had me mesmerized. She wore no perfume but her own pheromonal scent. Finally at about 4 o’clock I said that I was going back to their Marie to get the keys. Elise reached into the cash register, pulled out a set of keys and said: “No need, mon Cheri Terri, I’ve got them right here. You can sign the lease when my uncle comes back tomorrow. Come on, I’ll show you to it” She left the half a dozen patrons to themselves on the honor system. I woke up the next morning to the smell of breakfast being prepared downstairs perfumed with strong notes of coffee. “Mothers already gone into the city. I told her that you’d drive me in. OK?” “Sure” I scooped up her hair and butterfly kissed her neck. I dropped her off and met her mother. Every hat in the shop was made by Elise. Amazing creations. Everything was done Old School. No artificial fabrics. She had made plans for us to go into Nice for dinner that night. I couldn’t make out most of what those two were talking about but I did pick up on her telling her mom that she wouldn’t be in to work that week. I walked around Grasse. What an absorbing place. I came across a perfumery museum that gave tours. The two hour education was fascinating. The history of scents is entwined with the civilization of Man. It’s not merely sensual but political and economical as well. Had no idea. There are people who can recognize thousands of individual aromas. This person is called a “Nose”. It’s a skill set that is highly prized. In Renaissance times, capturing an opponents Nose was once as important as capturing your conquests King, Bishop, and General. Over dinner we (well, Elise) made plans for us to drive down the coast to San Tropez. “It’s the off season. I know an excellent cheap hotel right near downtown” As if I needed any convincing. We loaded up the Citron the next morning and sailed down to the shore. We were back in Castellane a few weeks later after whistle stopping throughout Provence. The Mayor brought me a message from my office. Elektras CEO, Bob Krasnow, had called. I called him right back. “You’re in Provence, right?” He asked “Yup, sure am, Bob. On VACATION as a matter of fact” “Whatever. Look, Nina Simone called. Says she needs more money to finish her album. We’ve already given her $200K. Haven’t heard a track yet. Been almost two years” I reminded him: “Nina’s not on my roster, Bob” “Whatever. You’re there. You work for me, right? Or at least you still want to, right?” “What’s up, Boss? Tell me what you want me to do.” “That’s better. Nina lives in Provence. I’ve already talked to her and she’s expecting you. What do I want? I want you to find out what fucking stage the recording is at. If you come back here with a track or two, that would be stellar. I’ll make it worth your while if you dedicate and afternoon of your goddamn month long fukin VACATION to the cause, OK? Oh, and bring me back a couple of boxes of Cubans” Hangs up. Phone rings. It’s Bobs gatekeeper, Ruth Rosenberg. She’d been with him for decades and was the one who translated his thoughts into expression. Ruth was his synapse. She gave me all of the tools and details. I realized that I was T H I S F U C K E D as soon as I hung up the phone. Back in NYC, man like, we were in awe of Nina. We were also simultaneously scared shitless by her. When she did choose to have contact with us we’d clamor into his office and listen to her elucidations on his speaker phone. Her voice didn’t just carry down the hallways, it careened down the stairs to the next floor! Basically he always just wound up saying: “Yes, Ms. Simone” and he’d send another check. Elise was game. She already knew who Nina was and was familiar with the town where she lived. I was expected to be there in three days. Specifically on Saturday at 10:45am. I told Elise that she had to come with me. At least someone was excited about this. Elise had blown out the engine on the Citron (long story) so early on that Saturday morning we set off in the brand new Volvo replacement rental. Not even 200 clicks on the odometer. I’m driving from now on in. Regardless of how much regional vintage grape juice had been imbibed. We got there with a couple of hours to spare. Nina’s place was about a half hour outside of town. I rented us a hotel room. We walked around some Roman ruins and then rode out to Gîte de Simone. Nice place. We parked at the end of her driveway which was about 50 yards from the old two story stone house. It was in the center of fields of wildflowers. Out here you could see the semicircle of mountains that cradled the valley. A persistent breeze channeled down their slopes tossing the flower tops to and fro. Kindalikea flock of birds when they’re all flying patterns in unison. Just like the flocks were doing overhead right now, seemingly on cue, making it difficult to delineate the Earth from the sky. Vincent Van Gogh’s world (whirled). In front of us the heavy old oak front door opened. As we grew closer we both began to hear the tinkling of piano keys. They harmonized with the rustling foliage and the flapping of bird wings. Arriving on the transom we hesitated, looked at each other, then I took the one small step for man onto hallowed ground. “Come in. Come in. Come in!” I recognized that voice from the speaker phone immediately. She was startled that I wasn’t alone. “Which one of you would be Terry?” She was genuinely puzzled. I raised my hand. “Guilty, Ms. Simone” Although she expected a man I could tell that she was kinda disappointed. “I need to check myself. I’m not disappointed that you, Terry, are a man but because I allowed myself to assume that you would be a man” I wanted to hug her. “What is your name, madam?” Apparently Elise had temporarily lost her command of English and answered that her name was Elise in French. They broke into a rapid fire dialog that was way too fast and peppered with local dialect for me to comprehend. It was as if they’d known each other like, forever. I just stood there and smiled when I heard my name. More like floating in space. She never stopped playing the piano throughout this exchange. I didn’t recognize the tune but it was entrancing. After most of an hour, Nina addressed a question to me. In French. “What’s a matter, Terry, no parlè?” “Not really. Elise and I have been working on it” “Good. Keep trying. Most beautiful language on Earth. I just may sing my whole new album in French. What do you think?” She instantly went back to talking to Elise in French. “I don’t think that it matters what I think, Ms. Simone” She heard that and looked at me. “I might like you, Mr. Terry” She continued with Elise in French, then got up from the piano bench and walked out of the room. Elise stood up, grabbed my hand and told me: “Come on. We’re going outside to have lunch” She pulled me down to kiss me on my nose. Did I mention that Elise was tiny? About 5’5″. We walked through the kitchen and out the back door. It was the first time that I noticed there was anyone else in the house. A woman in her 30’s draped in a solid French blue apron toiling away over the wood fired stove. I flashed on an old wooden bowl filled with fruit. It looked just like an antique still life oil painting. The faint but distinctive aroma of freshly cut vegetables mixed with the thick scent of lavender that was drifting in through the out doors. Nina and Elise babbled and giggled along the worn stone path through a field of lavender. Along the way Elise would hesitate for a moment. Bending down to grab a branch, a flower top or some other bits. We got to the rustic table and chairs and sat down. Elise was busy with her hands under the tabletop. After a few more moments she sprang up and presented us with an amazing hat that she’d fashioned out of the items she had gathered along the path. It was beautiful! Nina was floored too. Elise offered it to her. She took it from Elise’s hands and studied it intently. She took a hold of Elise’s hands. “You’ve taken something beautiful that I see everyday and transformed it into an even more wondrous thing” and put it on her head. Fit perfectly. She said this in English so that I would understand every word. Then she said it again in French which imbued it with a sound that was even more loving, respectful and lavish. The housekeeper materialized seemingly out of nowhere with a tray of dishes. A young man was coming up behind her with beverages and a local wine. I really wasn’t bothered that everyone continued to speak in French. The food was humble peasant fare. Simple but sumptuous. Everything was locally produced and had never seen the inside of a supermarket. Some of the grapes from Nina’s property contributed to the wine being served in unmarked bottles. We drank a lot of it. Being Winter, the Sun sets early behind the mountain range and it gets cold fast. Back in the house, we settled into her living room. Nina returned to the piano bench. She gradually started to direct an occasional question to me. Things like if I played an instrument (I don’t), where did I grow up, what I thought about my Mother or President Clinton and what music means to me. Elise had fallen asleep on the plump and inviting old couch, her head in my lap. “I guess that we’d better get going back to town. We’re obviously tired” I said. “Oh no, you can’t. I won’t have it. I’ve had the spare room prepared. You’ll stay the night” She commanded. “Sounds great” I was pretty drunk and relieved. I gently stirred Elise. Nina showed us to our room and said: “I enjoyed having a conversation in English. It’s been awhile. Good night” We got a group hug. Elise and I sank into the big, old four-posted bed and turned out the lights. Nina had returned to her piano and was playing more music. Gentle and beautiful, I didn’t recognize any of it. We drifted off to sleep. I was the first person up the following morning. Just in time to make some coffee and step out front to watch the Sun break over the mountain peaks far off in the distance. Man, a cigarette never tasted so good. Her piano playing wafted outside. I could hear the pots in the kitchen. Bread was being baked and more coffee was being brewed. The birds began to chirp out their dawn songs. Inside, Elise was sitting on the piano bench next to Nina. They had their hands crossed one over each other. Gosh, Elise plays piano like an angel. What else don’t I know about her? They were obviously having a great time. I went into the kitchen and sat down at the ancient butcher block table. Warm croissants, apple butter, strawberry jam and darkly roasted coffee blended with heated half and half tried to crowd one another out. Sometimes you’re able to grasp a moment in your life and appreciate it’s every nuance just as it’s unfolding before all of your senses. This was one of those times. By that point I decided to not bring up her new recordings unless she did. Elise and Nina came in and gathered around the kitchen table with the housekeeper and I. Elise sat in my lap. “Thank you for bringing this angel into my life, Terry” Nina said. “I wasn’t sure how’d you’d react so I just went with my instincts” I said. “You have rare instincts. A treasure” Nina said. Then she asked: “So what do your instincts tell you about my new music?” Apparently I looked confused. “Is that what you’ve been playing since we got here?” was my best guess. “Yes, but without the vocals. I haven’t finished all of those yet” she said. I tried to explain: “Ms. Simone, I’m unable to verbalize how peaceful you’ve made me feel from the moment I heard it. I’m flying back to New York in a few days. I don’t know how much more money you’ve asked for but I’m going to tell Bob to cut the check immediately upon my arrival” “So you know, you know” Yeah, I knew. Later that afternoon we were to part. She walked us down to the car park. I thanked her for her generous hospitality as I opened the car door for Elise. “This isn’t England, Terry. The driver’s seat is on the left hand side” Nina said. “I know. I was opening it for Elise” “Oh, she’s not going back right now. I’m keeping her for awhile” Just seemed so perfectly right. “I know you’ll enjoy her company as much as I have, Nina” She hugged me and Elise joined in.  

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