A Second-Hand Indignation

 

HERE IS HOW the fight started: “I Idolize You,” by Ike and Tina Turner, came on inside the bar, a place where we were lingering longer than our friends because it was raining out and we, unlike them, didn’t have little kids to go home to. We smiled at each other in our booth, enjoying the song, and each took a sip from our bottles of beer. “It’s really too bad,” he told me. “You smack Tina Turner around a couple of times and everyone forgets what a genius you are.”

I made a face. I understood what a fan Matt was (is) of Ike Turner’s music; I knew too that Turner’s legacy of songs is redoubtable. Lastly, I knew he was ninety percent just trying to be funny, probably repeating something he’d heard years ago. But it was said in the character of someone willfully ignorant of domestic violence, someone who sympathized with Tina’s husband so much that he might have been the one to smack her around. I said, “I don’t like that. Don’t say that.”

“I just think it’s unfair,” he continued. “All these people saw that one stupid movie and they just know him as a wife beater, not a musician.”

“The movie was relatable to millions of people who’ve gone through that themselves though,” I said.

“I know, but people now don’t even know who he was besides that.”

What Matt objected to was the nation’s ignorance about the history of rock ‘n’ roll—not any idea that violence against women is exaggerated, or that its perpetrators should be let off. Even so it bothered me to hear this from my boyfriend, who is caring and peaceable and whom I adore, not to say ‘idolize.’ It seemed like he absolved Ike of the beatings because he liked Ike’s music and didn’t like Tina’s super-famous solo records from the Eighties. So I defended the film What’s Love Got to Do With It, which I’d never seen.

My not having seen the movie gave me a shakier foothold in our argument than I would have liked; he could maintain that it was stupid and I couldn’t disagree. But my main point, actually a formula, remained airtight: Where x equals people who have been beaten up by their husband/lover and y equals people who give a shit about Phil Spector, x is greater than y. His position, a testament to how important music is to him, was that the statistic should be reversed. Mine was, Well it isn’t, so suck it up. Even in my anger I realized that this was one of the first serious arguments I’d ever had with a person, face to face, about feminism. I also knew, however drunkenly and awkwardly my case was being made, that I was right.

No doubt he was confused that this offhand remark should upset me so much. The legend of Ike Turner’s abuse is firmly ingrained in the consciousness of hip people; Matt almost might as well have told the one about Helen Keller and the waffle iron. I’ve always laughed at the Ike Turner joke that ends with “battered chicken”; I would later check out clips from What’s Love Got to Do With It on YouTube, and enjoy its biopickish melodrama. Laurence Fishburne glaring past the wall-of-sound orchestra from the couch, the next beating brewing inside him like a tempest, while Angela Bassett, triumphant, records “River Deep, Mountain High” without him. The two of them kicking and punching each other in the back of their limo, without damage to her clean white suit. The line, “Anna, you can’t keep hiding black eyes from us, pretending nothing’s happening! We know!” But that night, I couldn’t bear that anyone might feel this way, might say Ike Turner was wrongly condemned as a wifebeater when that’s exactly what he was.

We were in a stalemate, so we finished our beers silently and, by the time the next round came, had changed the subject. The idea still rankled, though. Were strict music fans like him so myopic as to consider themselves an oppressed group on par with the victims of spousal abuse? Did certain men’s fascination with R&B from the Fifties and Sixties also betray their fondness for the gender politics of that era, and was he one of those men? (No, I thought, but maybe he wasn’t above cozying up to them.) Most likely this was just another instance where men could claim women didn’t understand them, and vice versa. Not so disturbing, until my refusal to buy into Matt’s complaint meant that I, due to being a woman, didn’t appreciate music. Or, more accurately, I didn’t appreciate music enough because I seemed to believe that not hitting a woman was more important than making a record.

I live happily in a time and place where most people see me as everything I am, not merely female. I write and publish and get to explore my love of music by collecting it and working as a DJ. I hold myself to high standards; a bad segue or a record accidentally played at the wrong speed have fueled sleepless nights. In my circumstances, I don’t think I’m a perfectionist because I need to try that much harder to compete with men—I’m lucky to have been given a level playing field on which anyone needs to be a perfectionist, regardless of gender, in order to succeed. If Matt gets hired for more DJ gigs than I do and makes more money at them, maybe it’s because he has more experience, knows more people who might hire him, knows his market a little better. Maybe it’s because he’s just better at it than me. It’s not because my gender commands less respect than his. At least, that’s what I tell myself, because to imagine otherwise might break my heart.

Album titles like "So Fine" or "It's Gonna Work Out Fine" and "Workin' Together" seem to belie a darker truth

Tina Turner, the former Anna Mae Bullock whose husband changed her name and micromanaged her career for decades, is so unlike me that I almost feel comfortable mocking her from my perch. Except that it’s not much of one. I don’t have an abusive husband, but hell, I also barely have a career. Just last week Matt and I were talking about the Ike and Tina song “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” which Ike didn’t actually sing—for reasons unknown, guitar legend Mickey Baker filled in for him and gave him the credit. I wondered aloud if this was because Tina and Ike were fighting too gruesomely to be in the same room together that day. “But it’s OK,” I joked, “I’m sure Mickey beat her up too.” Matt laughed, but was my joke sour grapes? Or, did I sacrifice womankind in that moment just to make him laugh? I’m tempted to say that given Baker’s own ex-pimp reputation, it may have been true—and there I’d be throwing Mickey Baker under the bus instead.

In considering all this, I’ve found comfort in two different notions that I keep revisiting. First: artistic talent, as it applies to an artistic career, is a false construct. Having talent means next to nothing; what you need is the combination of talent and hustle, plus that intangible moment in time when the world receives you. Ike Turner had that in the Fifties. Tina had it more in the Eighties. Though it may be fun to debate whether “Rocket 88” is a better song than “Private Dancer,” the question of who deserves more fame is moot. Personal taste varies infinitely, and we’re free to love or hate any art we choose to. We may grouse about who gets famous for it, but it’s still the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, not the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Quality.

Second: someone’s art, if done correctly, expresses the beautiful part of them, no matter what terrible things they’ve done. It’s sad to find out about the misogynistic, violent, or otherwise evil side of someone whose music you love, but often you’re able to keep loving the music anyway. Often you can’t un-love it even if you try. There are plenty of Ike Turner fans who know he was an abusive fucker—proportionately more than the fans of Jackson Browne, Axl Rose, Bing Crosby, and way too many others, but it’s true for those guys too—and can say, “Wow, I’m sorry he was such a prick, because this is an incredible song.” There’s something godlike about that, about being able to admire one thing and vehemently reject another in the same person. Because after all, he’s only a person.

I still think it’s fine for Turner to be identified foremost as The Guy Who Beat Up His Wife. Maybe it’s too bad that this object-lesson wasn’t made of a lesser music figure, meaning someone whose output wasn’t as good or who didn’t shape the landscape of popular music as much, but that problem is a minor one at best. That thing people say, the thing my boyfriend said, about beating Tina up is bullshit, and for one more reason: not only does it discount the years of terrifying abuse Ike inflicted on her, it suggests that he’d have gotten away with it if he’d chosen a different woman. If you’re going to attack your lady friend and send her to the hospital, just make sure she isn’t Tina Turner—one of the toughest people in the history of showbusiness—and your name will remain unsullied. This is not a compliment to her so much as an insult against the rest of us. I mean all of us, regardless of race, nationality, privilege, fame, talent, toughness, or the degree of love we receive.

Since the disagreement began, several months ago, I’ve struggled with many ideas and am dismayed to find that the more I think of them, the less satisfied I am. But it didn’t end badly for us that night after we left the bar. It was still raining when we got into the cab that would take us home. Beads of water, lit by the traffic lights, trembled outside and I leaned sideways to put my cheek against the window. “Honey,” Matt said, “Listen, I’m sorry I said that about Ike Turner.”

His sincerity raised a lump in my throat; I reached for his hand. “It’s okay,” I told him, and it really was. He didn’t take his shoe off and bludgeon me with it, and not for a second did I want to scratch at his eyes or kick him in the nuts to defend myself. In fact I felt grateful, not for the first time, to be with someone who would never hurt me.

Two pictures of Ike and Tina....

 

 

 

Amanda Nazario

About Amanda Nazario

Amanda Nazario is a writer and radio host born in New York City. Her work has been published both in print and online in Harpur Palate, failbetter, Alligator Juniper, New South, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.
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12 Responses to A Second-Hand Indignation

  1. Greg says:

    Love this, Amanda. Most people know that Hitler was an aspiring landscape watercolor painter, but I found out recently that Stalin, as a young man in Georgia, was a published poet and an accomplished boy tenor. The tradition of running the Olympic torch to the host country was started by the Nazis. Wagner was an anti-Semite, Rousseau beat his children, and don’t get me started on Roman Polanski, whose incredible person loss (parents to the Nazis, wife and unborn child to Manson) and brilliant artistry do not grant him the right to have sex with passed-out 13-year-olds. That great beauty and great evil can live in the same person is one of the great paradoxes of human nature.

    • Samuel Sattin Sam says:

      I’m with you, Greg. I’ve always been interested in whether or not it’s possible to separate art from its creator. There are plenty of people (writers, mostly) I’ve met who are lovely people, or at least adequate. But some are, you know, terrible, venomous, violent, sexist, etc. There’s one incredibly famous author I know of right now actually who is a mentally abusive womanizer and generally a piece of garbage as a human being. But still, his work is phenomenal, and thus heaped upon with accolades.

      • Greg says:

        I forget what this quote is from, but someone was discussing the sacrifices (including being a criminal or a dick) one makes for art, and the quote is: “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of dead grandmothers.”

        • Moe Murph says:

          Ho Ho! That’s William Faulkner in “The Paris Review”

          Just for giggles, exact quote is “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

          (Pretty obnoxious but I’m still more cheesed off about the Tina Turner comment) :)

          • Greg says:

            You’re right! How embarrassing for me. I’m usually really good at recalling this stuff. My memory has really been failing me lately.

            Thanks, Moe, for reminding me, and including the actual, and of course much better, quote.

  2. Amanda Nazario Amanda says:

    Thanks for the insights and the thoughtful read, both of you! This was hard for me to write — less because of the art vs. artist conundrum than because of the man vs. woman one, as well as nebulous race issues that must (or at least should) be considered in thinking of black artists in that era. In addition, the problem creeps into my personal life and a relationship that’s very important to me, as you can see. As I progressed I realized that if I had a few years I could turn it into a dissertation… fortunately, I had only a couple of weeks. Your response is touching and means a lot.

    • Greg says:

      It’s all there, in the piece, Amanda…very very complex and complicated. And fascinating.

      But I think one thing we can all agree on is that Laurence Fishburne was amazing as Ike Turner.

  3. Moe Murph says:

    Well, coming from my worldview, older and much more ornery, don’t think I’d be as fast to give the benefit of a doubt in a parallel situation. I remember how much I wanted to think my boyfriend/husband had the same basic values and points of view as I did. Things are always at their rose-tinted best when couples are young and free, and you are still “idolizing” someone.

    With anyone who enters your life, please treat experiences like this as a red flag, No “joke” lacks a kernel of truth at its core. I find words powerful, especially spoken when the inhibitions are down a little (after a few drinks) and the phrase “you smack Tina Turner around a couple of times” bothers me. It is very quick to minimize and discount. And also, they are always “sorry” after, that’s the bait on the hook.

    Go with your gut instinct! Intellectualizing and rationalization can be very dangerous when hormones are high; the desire to believe what you want to be true and discount what is discordant is a part of our nature. Go with your gut instinct! You suspect someone is getting more jobs than you, or more pay simply because they are male? That someone you love is happily aligned with a those that devalue women and their basic worth? It could very well be true. Go with your instinct when you are p.o.’ed. Go with your instincts and ACT!

    Finally, if you’re not called “the B word” at least several times a year, you’re interests are likely not being amply put forward in the world! :)

    Good luck to you; love your writing style but felt from the heart I needed to share my point of view.

    • Amanda Nazario Amanda says:

      Thanks, Moe! This is one of the things I was afraid of in publishing this piece: that he’d be seen as a bad guy. Though I was right to get mad, his comment was merely insensitive, not malicious. Those who know him would agree. I’m not that young myself and have loved a fair amount of people; in our years together this dude has treated me with unusual respect, honesty and kindness that I try not to take for granted.

      That said, I am grateful for your words of advice for others who might have such a “red flag” moment and be troubled by it. There are a lot of us.

  4. Michael Koenig says:

    You could probably write a dissertation about all the problems built into any discussion of Ike Turner (and I’m sure many people have). He was such an asshole, and his ex-wife went on to become so famous–in part based on a narrative of overcoming his horrible treatment of her–that he has become the poster boy for the kind of inhuman behavior that has been pretty common in musicians over the years, especially musicians in that era, where spousal abuse was often dismissed jokingly, or thought of as a private matter. If not for the fact that he was such an asshole, and so unrepentant, he would rightly be seen as one of the giants of the early rock era. Why do we celebrate James Brown, for instance, but not Ike?

    The racial issues are really interesting. Whenever I talk to a black musician of the fifties and sixties, I feel like I’m talking with someone who grew up on a completely different planet. I can’t fathom carrying around a roll of toilet paper in the back seat of your Cadillac because you might not be able to find a public toilet that you’ll be allowed to use, or getting your skull beaten in by the cops like Sugarboy Crawford was, or selling the rights to your music forever in exchange for a shiny new Cadillac.

    It sounds as if Matt has the same kind of sense of humor and I and some of my friends have: say a horrible thing out loud in order to try and defuse its power over you. None of us really know what to say in the face of such cruelty, except god, that was awful. And that doesn’t seem to be enough.

  5. Pingback: Ike and Tina: A Second-Hand Indignation — The Good Men Project

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