Album of the Week: Nina Simone’s Emergency Ward! (1972)

The great Nina Simone has several lauded live albums, but Emergency Ward! stands out for two key reasons. First, there are are only three songs on this full-length LP. Second, only the first half was recorded in front of a live audience.

The live A-side, “My Sweet Lord / Today Is a Killer” was performed on November 18, 1971 at the Town Theatre in Wrightstown, NJ (just outside of Fort Dix). Noted political activist Jane Fonda (remember when she starred in an experimental political comedy by Jean-Luc Godard?) organized the event as a continuation of the vaudeville/variety anti-Vietnam War FTA tour. A transgressive performance, it allowed the soldiers stationed at Fort Dix the “chance to rail against the army”. Good thing Fonda was a Nina Simone fan.

The Fort Dix performance is electric. The band gets right to it: drums, tambourines, handclaps, bass and a choir quickly develop a rollicking groove to back up Simone on piano and vocals. Audience cheers and the timbre of the recording perfectly capture the live atmosphere of the theater. David Nelson, a founding member of The Last Poets, contributed the poem “Today is a Killer”, which Simone brilliant splices into George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. The album refers to the piece as a medley, but it’s really more of a new song, a lighting-in-a-bottle creation that was thankfully recorded by RCA technicians at the performance. Which, at 18 minutes on the album, is one of those tracks that sounds way shorter than it is. In fact, the only complaint I have about this release is how quickly this opening track fades out. Surely the live show was longer, but as listeners we can’t be sure what happened.

The last two tracks were recorded in-studio. “Poppies” is a lush song that RCA billed as a “poignant tribute to a drug victim” (see the ad below), though it probably has as much, if not more, to do with war. Then another George Harrison cover (again from his debut) in “Isn’t It a Pity”. If you’re a Galaxie 500 fan like me, you probably think that their version (which closes On Fire) is the best one. Unless you’d like it more sombre and less Beatles-y (Beatlesian?), Simone’s 11-minute rendition won’t change that. But it is lovely and intimate. The reissue/streaming version also adds “Let It Be Me”, culled from the Fort Dix performance.

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Somewhat strange RCA promo for Emergency Ward! Source: trunkworthy.com

The George Harrison connection isn’t all that strange if you know that her preceding album was Here Comes the Sun, which began with the titular track (written by Harrison). In addition, the concert she performed before the Fort Dix show (October 10 at Lincoln Center) featured a cover of another track from Abbey Road, “Come Together”. Thank god we don’t have to hear an 18-minute version of that. Apparently, Harrison was inspired by Nina’s take on “Isn’t It a Pity”, but I’m not sure the two artists ever met, let alone recorded together.

This period of Simone’s career was marked by frustration. Between the late 60s and early 70s, she had a strained relationship with RCA and America as a whole. Amidst label disputes, sociopolitical unrest and Simone’s increasing mental health issues, the fact of Emergency Ward‘s existence at all is kind of a miracle. This is an anti-war album, largely recorded (by RCA) at an anti-war event, and released (by RCA) with a collage of Vietnam-related news clippings (like Bombing of North Termed Highly Effective by U.S. – Accurate Laser Guided Bombs Believed Freely Used) on the album cover. But you probably won’t find it in your parents’ record collection. “While Nina remained proud of Emergency Ward, essentially a concept album, the commercial payoff was minimal,” writes Nadine Cohodas in her Simone biography Princess Noire (2012).

The next decade of Nina Simone’s career would be markedly less prolific than the previous one. In 1973 she moved to Liberia, then three years later to Switzerland. ”Switzerland is the only place in the world where I am at peace,” she told the Times in 1983. ”The people live in peace, and they don’t steal, and no one’s crazy. When the Swiss see fat tourists from America, they laugh as though it’s a circus and say it’s not possible for people to look like that. The Swiss have protected me. They know that after every visit to America I would always have to go to the hospital to recover.”

Not exactly high praise for the USA, but I can’t blame her. I’m just glad that today, as a time-capsule of a uniquely tumultuous period in American history, we have this magnificent album.

Listen to Emergency Ward! on Spotify.

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