An Immortal Passes

What can you say about a woman brave enough to hang one-handed off the Eiffel Tower? IN SPIKE HEELS? People say the vertiginous scope of the background is mostly an optical illusion, but I call bullshit. Tina Turner was this brave and graceful every second of her life. You can’t persuade me otherwise.

The magnificent Tina Turner died today, although it feels impossible that such a dynamo could be stilled. Like Grace Bumbry, she was an alumna of Sumner High, on the Northside of St. Louis; back then, before the redlining and the strategic disinvestment, it was a jewel of the public school system, among many.

Tina Turner performing in St. Louis, at the Club Imperial, where she and Ike and the band honed their brilliance.

Way back in 2004 I wrote a review of an Ike Turner reissue that was actually an Ike and Tina record in all but name. In it I tried to describe what made her so electrifying to me from the first second I saw and heard her. If you don’t feel like reading, you can just watch this video from 1975, from The Midnight Special show.

Ike Turner 
His Woman, Her Man 
(Funky Delicacies)

It was Ike Turner’s curse and blessing that he hooked up with Anna Mae Bullock, a teenage girl from Nutbush, Tenn. The same might be said of her. She started out as a backup singer in Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm; was impregnated by one of said Kings; and then, with a snappy new name and a starring role in the revue, married Turner two years after they met. You’ve seen the movie, so you know how great that turned out. As a husband, Turner was monstrous; as a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he was sublime. If you’re one of those either/or types who believe geniuses have to be nice people, or at least not unrepentant dirtbags, remember that Pablo Picasso, Gustav Mahler, John Milton, and countless other cultural heavies all had their moments of misogyny, too. What do we gain by striking them from the canon?

Tina couldn’t help but outshine her mentor and tormentor. Still, even though she sings lead on every track of His Woman, Her Man, this is Ike Turner’s album, not Ike & Tina’s; if you don’t believe it, just look at the CD cover. Call it ungrateful, call it egomaniacal, but allowing Ike the frontman’s spot in this instance seems less unfair when you consider the couple’s careers: Ike is a god to nerdy collectors, but the hoi polloi know him only as the crazy coke fiend who smacked poor Tina around; his ex, on the other hand, she of the killer gams and the major motion pictures and the string of second-heyday hits in the ’80s, is a superstar. Who among us hasn’t whiled away a summer afternoon pretending to be Tina Turner, baring those famous golden thighs, shaking an imaginary shock of coppery hair, screaming and sighing and strutting and signifying like a sex-starved Pentecostal? Who else could sing like that, each phrase razor-blade bright and so sharp it doesn’t even hurt at first when it slices your heart in two? 

But try to hear past Tina’s coruscating wail, the glamour that flares off every gritty syllable, and pause to savor Ike’s instrumental flourishes–the ARP synthesizer fed through a wah-wah pedal, the improbably funky “funk box” (an early drum machine), the oscillator, the countless crazy gadgets he collected at his Bolic Studio. His Woman, Her Man‘s 17 tracks were recorded there in 1970, when Ike, hoping to cultivate a bigger rock audience, began to experiment with what was then cutting-edge technology. 

The results are strange but consistently compelling. Depending on your mood, you might crave the percolating country-soul of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary (The Funky Version),” which Ike and Tina later rerecorded (the somewhat less funky version that anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies station knows by heart). Their first rendition thrums and pulses like the dirty river they’re celebrating, a long, sticky shudder of sound. Another cover, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” is as viciously sexy as anything the Stones ever recorded, and the percussion (it sounds like kerosene igniting) neatly punctuates Ike’s layers of brilliant guitar filth. 

The weirdest cover, though, has to be Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” In retrospect, the poignancy of this choice is almost unbearable (she did bleed, of course, and not just during her period); knowing that her abusive husband persuaded her to sing it, against her better judgment, makes it especially painful. 

Fortunately, the mood lifts with the next track, “It’s Groovier Across the Line,” a bouncy sex romp that’s one among many great Ike compositions here. Dig the fried-out guitars on “Brain Game” or the squealing, almost unlistenable synths on “Baby Get It On,” the aural equivalent of crystal meth and undoubtedly the best song you’ve never heard. Every listen yields a new favorite, another if-only classic. His Woman, Her Man might not absolve Ike of his personal transgressions, but it secures his status as an icon.

Copyright 2004 by René Spencer Saller
This review was originally published in the Illinois Times and later reprinted by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (along with my reviews of Wilco and Eminem, it won first place in the annual Association of Alternative Weeklies awards in 2005).