Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: “Like poison that turned to medicine”

“There will never be another like Tina Turner. The voice, the legs, the energy — unmatched. My heart goes out to her family and all who loved her. You were able to overcome the worst of life and create the best of life.”
Nancy Sinatra

For sixteen years, her husband beat her.

But on this night, Tina Turner washed the blood from her face, wrapped a cape around her bloodied clothes, covered her eyes with a pair of sunglasses, and placed a wrap on her head, because the swelling was so bad, she couldn’t wear her wig.

She ran out of the hotel, hid among the trash cans, and then ran to the Ramada Inn, where she begged for a room.

All she had was thirty-six cents and a Mobil credit card.

But after sixteen years of cruelty, she finally walked out on Ike Turner.

To be clear, it wasn’t easy. She was so worried about her safety, she stayed with friends, paying her way by keeping house. It got so bad that Tina Turner—the Tina Turner—had to use food stamps.

And yes, it’s incredible that Tina Turner built her career back from nothing.

But what’s even more incredible is the battle cry she repeated inside her head—the battle cry that gave her strength: “I will die before I go back.”

Never forget it: No matter how deep the hole is, you can always find a way out.

In their divorce, Tina Turner gave Ike nearly everything. All their money. And the publishing royalties for her compositions. “You take everything I’ve made in the last sixteen years,” she said. “I’ll take my future.”

—From Heroes for my Daughter by Brad Meltzer

It seems almost redundant to again trot out the chronology of a life that was chronicled in no fewer than three memoirs, a biopic, a jukebox musical, and the well-received 2021 HBO/Sky joint production Tina, which drew the best TV documentary ratings since the Michael Jackson expose, Leaving Neverland. At one time Turner, like God, seemed to be everywhere, whether it was her face staring back at us through record store windows, or the woman herself strutting across stage in one of her trademark black leather miniskirts and gravity-defying wigs. In the end, she also had the good sense to retire gracefully, rather than to suffer the indignities of other elderly performers going through the motions one more time with their corsets and dubious hairlines. Like professional sport, rock music’s standard currency has always been one of aspirational fantasy, not nuanced reality, and Turner understood the need to preserve her audiences’ image of her better than certain other marquee acts of her era.

The basic facts of Turner’s life can be quickly recalled: born in the one-stoplight town of Nutbush, Tennessee, where her churchgoing ideals were soon compromised by her secular interests, she moved to St. Louis as a teenager, in short order meeting her future husband — the saturnine, guitar-playing Ike Turner – and becoming the only female member of his band, the Kings of Rhythm. It proved a musically fruitful, if personally fraught — and ultimately violent – relationship. “My life with Ike was doomed the day he figured out I was going to be his moneymaker,” Turner wrote in her last autobiography. “He needed to control me, economically and psychologically, so I could never leave him.”

In the end, she did leave, literally running away from her husband following a fight en route to a show in Dallas, with just thirty-six cents in her pocket, setting the stage for an unlikely and prolonged second act as a solo artist. Turner’s musical highpoint during her years with Ike was 1966’s Phil Spector-produced “River Deep — Mountain High”, as well as some notably energetic dates in support of the Rolling Stones, among others. Her personal legacy from the divorce was less impressive: two secondhand cars, and the rights to her stage name.

Turner’s ultimate comeback wasn’t quite as seamless as recalled in one or two of her instant obituaries. She recorded three unsuccessful albums in the late 1970s, but then hit the big time again with 1984’s Private Dancer and its ubiquitous hit single “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” which between them won four Grammy awards, including Record of the Year. One or two churlish critics found they could resist the song itself, with its pedestrian tempo and somewhat cheesy synthesized harmonica solo, but it undoubtedly afforded Turner a new lease on life. Over time she would become a model of endurance in an industry that tends to jettison even its more successful female artists in early middle age. Turner announced her eventual retirement shortly after she turned sixty in 2000, although in true show business fashion she then returned with a farewell tour marking the fiftieth anniversary of her career, synchronized with the compilation album Tina: The Platinum Collection. After that she was content to settle down to a Swiss retirement with her German-born husband Erwin Bach, although it was said that she still sang at her local Buddhist temple, and eventually appeared on four largely chanted albums by Beyond, an all-female group of fellow devotees.

How should we best measure the success of a public entertainer? In Turner’s case, the box denoting sheer scale — she sold over 100 million records worldwide — clearly gets a tick. The style box gets ticked as well, because of the nonstop oomph of her live performances, with their generous quota of flashing video screens, fast-changing lights, lashings of dry ice and other effects, along with the skimpily glittering outfits favored by the artist herself. Also to be considered is sheer resilience: whatever you may think of Turner’s music, it took guts for her to bounce back to the top as she did in her mid-forties, quite apart from her inspirational example to other domestic-abuse victims.

Perhaps in the end we should remember a different Tina Turner to the high-kicking performer with the big hair. She was something much more universal than that: a survivor.

—Christopher Sandford, The Spectator

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