Distancing #51: Emergency Ward


I think I stole Emergency Ward from the best roommate I ever had, when we lived in our first apartment in Oakland, on E 16th right off the lake. That was about ten years ago. I’ve been thinking about it lately because of how urgent life feels right now. How high-stakes, all in the middle of so much waiting. Waiting for a vaccine, for some sort of political leadership, for justice. 

Ten years later and I live about six blocks from that apartment where we’d hear helicopters every day and night during the Oscar Grant and Occupy protests. Ten years later and there are helicopters all the time—hovering above the daily protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade—for the countless Black lives taken—or heading to the hospital about a mile in the other direction. 

How do I start writing about this album? It’s overwhelming. It’s like opening the door to a gust of wind, and suddenly you’re just pinned against the threshold, hair a mess. The door slaps itself open over and over. Everything you were holding is gone, strewn in every direction. You don’t know what to do but wait, because how often do you encounter something that feels like communication—like an act of God?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the jacket. Emergency Ward is plastered with headlines from 1972: the war in Vietnam, protesters attacked by the police, the closing of ports, so many bombs, state violence, political hand-wringing. According to the liner notes, it’s Nina Simone’s twenty-fourth album. Despite the cover’s boast of being “in concert,” only side A was recorded live. Side B consists of “Poppies” and a rendition of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” both solid studio tracks. But side A is Emergency’s Ward‘s main event: an 18’29 medley covering Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” that transitions into “Today Is a Killer,” originally a poem by David Nelson of The Last Poets. It was recorded at the Bethany Baptist Church with their Junior Choir in South Jamaica, New York, with vocal support by Sam Waymon and polyrhythms by Simone’s daughter, Lisa Stroud (now Lisa Simone Kelly), age nine. 

The entire medley is about waiting. Even the record starts by making you wait. The audience chants “We want Nina!” until a man eventually interrupts—Now, brothers and sisters, the high priestess of soul, Miss Nina Simone—and the crowd cheers and the band starts and we’re on our way. It’s joyful and quick and all of a sudden Simone’s telling us how she’s been waiting all night to see the Lord. I’ve got to be with you.

Anyone who listens to a lot of Nina Simone, or even a little, knows her divine penchant for covers. Simone doesn’t just rehash songs, she transforms them. She becomes a conduit for their undercurrents, for all the stuff the white dudes who originally wrote them couldn’t or didn’t express. And so her arrangement and performance of “My Sweet Lord” takes an already great song—a sincere, meditative, pop-rock prayer—and stretches it out into something beyond. Under her prowess, the song is a series of peaks and valleys. I want to call it a sermon. I want to call it a manifestation of anticipation and longing.

Where Harrison’s pursuit of God is earnest, maybe even a little defenseless, Simone’s is urgent. Her repetition changes throughout the song: I really wanna see ya. It goes from bold to pleading to bargaining to angry to manic to defeated and back again. Nobody taught us any patience. Any patience, Lord. And it’s about too late. Sometimes it levels into confession. It’s a live concert recording but her voice is close, intimate, like we’re alone with her at her vanity. Like she’s looking in the mirror, touching her face, talking to herself: Can’t get close to nobody no more, no matter how much you try, you can’t get close to nobody no more. 

The song pivots and continues: But it takes so long. Here Simone draws out the word, draws out “long” a little further each time. So long. It takes so long. It’s in that space where we wait with her in that eternal breath, with the choir behind her. And that’s it. It takes so long. And we’re still in it. 

— Jordan Karnes
Oakland, day 110

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