30 Albums, 30 Stories: The Essential Nina Simone


This November, I’m telling 30 stories about 30 albums. The albums on this list are not necessarily my favorite albums, but they are the ones that are instantly associated with a time and place. All of these albums represent a chapter of my life. This is the story of those albums, and by extension, the story of me, presented mostly chronologically.

Album 24: The Essential Nina Simone by Nina Simone.

Los Angeles is not an easy city. There are so many people who come here to realize their dreams that it’s cliché. The city only accepts the determined; it shakes off everyone else. For instance, the person that my best friend and I stayed with when we first arrived ended up moving away not long afterward.

My friend and I didn’t want to be movie stars; we just wanted a blank canvas. We were determined. Neither of us could go home again. The first year was impossibly hard. We found a loft in an old paper mill downtown Los Angeles a decade before downtown Los Angeles was cool. The only grocery store was in East Los Angeles a few miles away.

My friend had a part-time job, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. I was unemployed. We were illegally living off of my meager unemployment compensation from Boston. It was enough to cover rent, but not much else. A friend in Boston graciously filled out and mailed in my bimonthly unemployment cards. Had Massachusetts known that I was in Los Angeles instead of Boston, I would have been cut off entirely.

We ate ramen noodles and cheese quesadillas from big bricks of what we called government cheese, but it wasn’t even that since we had to buy it ourselves. It wasn’t really cheese anyway. It was labeled “processed cheese food product.” Never trust anything that has to be labeled as “food” lest it be confused with something inedible.

We were broke, but we still had our priorities straight. Nina Simone was doing a rare live show at the Hollywood Bowl. We had to go, no matter what. We scrimped and saved and starved just to see her, and it was totally worth it. She sat at her piano and intimately spoke to us as if we were the only people in the room.

It ended up being her last live performance in the United States. She died in the arms of her lover in Paris a year or two later.

To me, my best friend, and generations of women who’ve been in untenable situations in a man’s world, Nina Simone is a beacon. I will always love her. She got us through some really tough times.

Favorite track:

my back is strong
strong enough to take all the pain
that’s been inflicted again and again