The Curmudgeon: Nina Simone - The Woman in the High Castle

Music Features Nina Simone
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The Curmudgeon: Nina Simone - The Woman in the High Castle

The officer got off on the 22nd floor of the headquarters in Manhattan and strode into the obergruppenführer’s office. He stiff-armed his open palm upward, his swastika tie pin glinting in the chandelier light, and barked, “Sieg heil.”

“Sieg heil,” responded John Smith, the commander, with a half-hearted salute. “At ease, lieutenant.”

“Sir, we’ve just received some intelligence that I thought I should bring to your attention immediately.” He paused.

“Yes, what is it?”

“Our agents in the Confederate Sector have learned that the Man in the High Castle may not be a man at all.”

“How can that be?” Smith snarled. “Who’s leading the resistance then? Joan of Arc?”

“There’s more, sir. Not only is the Man in the High Castle not a man, he’s not even white. He’s a black woman.”

“Oh, come on,” Smith said.

“There’s more, sir. The Man in the High Castle isn’t spreading the word by books or movies, as we thought. He, I mean she, is doing it with 45 rpm records.”

“Have you actually seen one of these records?” Smith skeptically inquired.

The lieutenant swung his leather pouch around to his stomach, pulled out a cardboard slipcase, extracted some white tissue paper, unfolded the paper and pulled out a seven-inch record with a doughnut hole. Scrawled across the white label in a purple felt-tip pen were the words “The Man in the High Castle: Mississippi Goddam.”

“OK,” Smith said resignedly. “Let’s hear it.”

The lieutenant went to the door and snapped his fingers. Soon a young corporal scurried in with a phonograph, gently placed it on table by the window, plugged it in and carefully placed the record on the spindle.

The room suddenly filled with an insistent piano vamp, and woman’s deep voice spoke the introduction, “A couple of weeks ago, four little girls were killed in Alabama, and at that time we got the inspiration to do this song. I mean every word.” The piano quickened and her alto purred, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset; Tennessee made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi God Damn.” Her voice roughened from cabaret to blues, however, as she reached the later verses and growled, “Oh but this whole country is full of lies; you’re all gonna die and die like flies. I don’t trust you anymore.”

Smith’s forehead creased with worry. “This isn’t good,” he muttered. “How many of these things are there?”

“Our agents keep finding them,” the lieutenant replied, “but we feel like we’re just skimming the surface.”

“OK, here’s what we’re going to do,” Smith declared decisively. “Keep looking for these records and destroy them—and destroy the record players in the houses where you find them. Assemble one team to find this woman singer and another team to find the plant that’s pressing these records. We’ll stop this before it goes any further.”

The next morning at 8 a.m. sharp, Joe Blake was in Smith’s office. “At ease,” Smith said wearily. “You’re not going to believe this, but it seems that the notorious Man in the High Castle, the messiah of the resistance, isn’t a man at all; he’s not even white. What kind of resistance is that? Led by a black woman? It’s hardly worth the effort of crushing it. Listen to this.”

Smith put on the 45. Blake, a young man with complicated feelings about his father, the late Reichsminister Martin Heusmann, and about the government he served, found those emotions stirred by the music. His independent streak was stimulated by pull of the rhythm and the freedom of the vocal, but his ambition was stoked by the opportunity for a promotion if he found and captured this singer. He kept a poker face until the song ended.

“If we weren’t going to arrest her for treason,” Joe joked, “we should arrest her for crimes against music.” Smith belly-laughed in agreement. “She sings like a cat in heat and plays the piano as if she were using her elbows rather than her fingers. And all she does was complain about those four pickaninnies wandering too close to a bomb going off. Let me go get her. I studied Negroid culture in college.”

Smith eyed him warily for a while but finally nodded. “You be careful down there,” he told Joe. “The Party leaves most of the work to the local officials, because they’re harsher than we are. Watch your step around them; they’re so brutal they give Nazis a bad name. Like that stupid bombing in Birmingham. What did that accomplish? But I would start there, because this girl singer seemed to know an awful lot about the explosion.”

The following morning, after one more night with his girlfriend Nicole, the filmmaker from Berlin, Joe had the keys to a black sedan and was driving south on Route One through New Jersey. The road circumvented the radioactive blast area that had been Washington and crossed the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry.

As he left the American Reich’s Union Sector and entered the Confederate Sector, Joe noticed the difference immediately. More of the streets were pockmarked by potholes; more of the storefronts were unpainted. Open sewers ran in front of wooden shacks, and barbed wire was stretch atop the fences surrounding the big estates. The cops patrolled on horseback, brandishing rifles; Negro prisoners shuffled along the roadways with chains shackled to their ankles. It may have been 1963, but it felt like 1933.

When he got off the bus in Birmingham, Joe checked in at the sheriff’s office and pulled out his orders from the obergruppenführer. “Do you know where I can find some Negro drug users that I might squeeze for some information?” he asked the sheriff. The lawman laughed and pointed the visitor to the south side of town.

After dinner, Joe changed into some grubbier clothes, mussed his hair, half-closed his eyelids and walked down the sidewalk. He found a dozen black men leaning against the boarded-up windows of a former five-and-dime store. Joe pantomimed sucking in on a marijuana cigarette. The first 10 men ignored him, but the 11th nodded toward the nearby alley, and Joe followed him there.

The man pulled out a paper sack of dried, chopped-up leaves and mumbled, “Five dollars.” Joe sniffed the contents and pulled out a five. As soon as the man accepted the bill, Joe grabbed his wrist, twisted his arm behind his back and slammed him against the wall.

“That’s right,” Joe snarled, “I’m a cop, you dumb fuck. But I’m not an Alabama cop; I’m a Reich cop. And you’ve got a choice: I can turn you over to the local rednecks here or you can give me the information I want.”

“I don’t know anything,” the man whined.

“OK,” Joe said, “let’s go down to the station.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. I just got out of prison, and I can’t go back. What do you want to know?”

“I’m looking for the Man in the High Castle—or maybe it’s the Woman in the High Castle.”

“Never heard of him—or her.”

“OK, let’s go down to the station.”

“Alright, alright. Follow me.”

It was nine o’clock at night, and the pot dealer led Joe past the closed-down doctor’s office, past the barbecue joint, past the church leaning to one side, around the corner, through an alley, into a housing-project courtyard, past the clotheslines, through the laundry room to a door that opened to let in a negro couple and to let out the sound of a female singer and piano. Joe expected the bouncer to be shocked by his arrival, but apparently he wasn’t the first white person to find his way there. Joe turned to the pot dealer and said, “Come on in; I’ll buy you a drink.”

They found an empty table in the corner with two mismatched, rickety folding chairs. Christmas lights were strewn across the exposed rafters in the low ceiling in October, but they provided more mood than illumination. A waiter brought them two shot glasses of dark liquid of dubious origin and accepted a dollar in return.

Once his eyes adjusted to the shadows and thick curtain of cigarette smoke, Joe spied a woman sitting at an upright piano next to a drummer and an upright bass player. She was dark-skinned and oval-faced framed by a neat perm and a neater black dress. She sat with straightened dignity on the bench and her long fingers danced across the keys. She was half-singing, half-moaning something called “I Love You, Porgy.”

Joe recognized the title from his reading about the banned Jewish/Negro musical Porgy and Bess, but of course he had never heard the song before. Something about the flattened notes in the chords and ache in the vocal got under Joe’s skin. He knew dozens of songs about unrequited love, but none them sounded like the real knot in your stomach that accompanies such frustration. This one did. It seemed impossible that this Negro lady was saying what he felt about Juliana Crain, his ex-lover now somewhere in the Neutral Zone, but she was.

The pot dealer started clapping and singing along when the High Castle singer chanted the lyrics to “Sea Lion Woman,” a strange nursery rhyme about alluring female sirens on the shore. She took a piano solo on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and seemed to be equally seductive and threatening when she sang “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Was that romantic or political? There was no such question about the final two songs: “Jim Crow” and “Mississippi God Damn.” The crowd was on its feet egging her on as she belted out the words.

Joe went up to her after the show and sat down at her table. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded.

“I work for the Reich and I’ve been sent down here to arrest you,” he said. She slapped him hard across his left cheek. He reached back under his sports coat, pulled out a Luger pistol and slammed it on the table.

“The only reason you’re not dead or in handcuffs now,” Joe told her, “is that I have a deal to offer you.” He felt a shotgun muzzle nuzzle the back of his head.

“And the only reason you’re not dead,” said a tall, thin Negro man cradling the shotgun, “is that I’m waiting to hear what kind of deal you have in mind.”

Joe had been in these situations before, and he knew how to remain calm. He didn’t even glance at the gunman behind him but kept his eyes on the singer. “I don’t know why,” he told her, “but I really like your music. I’ve never heard anything like it, and I really want to hear it again. The problem is this: If I don’t arrest you, they’ll send someone else who will. So here’s what you need to do: You need to create another nightclub with a piano, some booze and a record-pressing machine that I can raid next week when you’re not there. And you need to give me some more records, so I can report that I’ve uncovered new evidence.”

“Don’t trust this cracker,” said the gunman.

“Put down the gun, Stokely, and you too, Mister,” said a shorter, rounder Negro who had come up to the table. “We can work this out.”

“Hush up, Marty,” the singer said. “You too, Stokely. And put away those guns. You’re making me nervous.” She silently stared at Joe for two minutes, though it felt like ten. “OK, I’m going to take a chance on you. Meet us back here in 48 hours and come alone. If there are any unusual white people in the area, we won’t show up. If the coast is clear, we’ll give you an address then. And Marty here can get you some records now.”

“What’s your name?” Joe asked.

“Nina,” she said, “Nina the Man in the High Castle.” She laughed loud and long and disappeared behind a tattered curtain. Stokely followed her, and Marty said, “Follow me.” He led Joe up three flights of stairs in the housing project and along the concrete balcony. Marty rapped on the door and whispered a password; chains slid away and the door opened to a cramped apartment full of little kids. A man led them to the back bedroom and a closet stacked high with 45s. Each was in a plain white sleeve with a name and title scrawled on the white label.

Joe sorted through the discs. He saw “Jim Crow” by the Man in the High Castle, “A Change Is Gonna Come” by the Kitchen Cook, “Alabama” by the Coal Train, “Change of the Century” by the Coal Man, “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Mo’ Debtta and “We Shall Overcome” by Burning Ray Gun. “I’ll take two of each,” Joe said. “How much do I owe you?”

“That’s six dollars,” the record man said. “Why two of each?”

“One for my boss,” Joe replied, “and one for me.” He bought Marty a coffee and pie at the Negro restaurant around the corner from the projects. “How’d you get mixed up in this?” Joe asked him.

“I was a preacher,” the man with the neat mustache said, “but the law here didn’t like my sermons. So I decided to go into the record business. The boss man can stop our sermons, but he can’t stop our music.”

“Do you really think you can defeat the Reich with guns?”

“No,” Marty replied, “you’ll always have more guns than us. But the white folks down here haven’t done any real work in a long time. Everything around here depends on Negro workers. If we stop showing up for work, the whole shebang will grind to a halt. Then we’ll be able to make some changes.”

“You really think that will happen?” Joe asked.

“It will take time,” Marty said, “but our people are really fed up. And these records are letting them know that they don’t have to take it anymore.”

Two months later, Joe was back in Obergruppenführer Smith’s office. The boss was not happy. “I thought you said this whole Man in the High Castle nonsense had died out.”

“It did, sir,” Joe said. “We destroyed half a dozen nightclubs and several thousand records. The woman herself disappeared, and our sources say she died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

“Then how do you explain this damn strike by the Negroes in Alabama?” Smith thundered. “They don’t show up for work, and they won’t explain why. Even when we rough them up a bit, all they say is, ‘We shall overcome.’ What the hell does that mean? Is that from one of those records?”

“There was a record with that title, sir.”

“The Germans aren’t happy with the situation, Joe. They’re sending some of their hard-ass agents to deal with this. When they arrive next week, you’re going back south with them, and we’re going to end this once and for all. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“By the way, Juliana Crain is back in New York. She said she’d like to see you.”

Joe was at Juliana’s hotel room within the hour. When she opened the door, she put her finger to her lips to indicate the room was bugged. They went outside and took a subway to Brooklyn where Joe kept a secret apartment. When they got there, Joe knelt by the bed, uncovered a safe and spun the dials back and forth until a final click opened the door. Inside was a pile of 45s. He put “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Man in the High Castle on the phonograph and lifted the arm onto the grooves.

“Listen to this,” he whispered. “Have you ever heard anything like it?” She hadn’t. She was so overcome that her jaw hung open in wonder. When the song finished, Joe lifted the arm back to the beginning, took Julianna in his arms, and they slow danced in the narrow space between the bed and the kitchen. “Music like that,” he said, “makes you feel like everything you’ve been told is a lie.”

Later, when they woke up again in bed, he told her, “I can’t keep leading this double life. If there’s going to be a war, I want to be on the side of this music. Can you smuggle me into the Neutral Zone?”

She smiled and said, “Only if you bring those records with you.”

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