Turner blows onto the stage wearing a sandy top and tights that would be a big deal in the town of Bedrock and a silky golden wig that looks like a Shih Tzu’s rear. Her first song isn’t her redefinition of “Proud Mary” or her in-the-trenches urgent undoing of “Help” (stick around). Her first song is Rod Stewart’s wife-murdering nightmare “Foolish Behaviour,” and Tina rips its head off. Presumably, the Devil kept to his lake that night.
More ingredients: chutzpah, irony.
That energy could work a crowd, get it to say “yeah” and “oh” and “ooh” just for her, get it screaming back at her. Tina was an average height — 5’ 4”, maybe. But here’s where a scale fails. Put her in an arena, she scraped the sky.
I’ve seen the footage of what happens when thousands of people take her in at once, often mostly white people — in London, in Osaka, Sweden and L.A. I’ve heard them on “Tina Live in Europe,” from 1988. And I cry. They just lose their minds over her, this Black woman raised in the hollows and back roads of Tennessee, in Nutbush. It’s something — to witness her enthrall masses, to rock them; to see an “Oprah” audience go bonkers with awe, as if she were a wonder of the world.
What is that? It’s the survival — of poverty, of Ike, of tuberculosis she didn’t know she had. It’s the hard-won freedom. It’s the way the songs promised she’d survive: “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” But there’s more: She loved herself, loved being herself. We wanted to catch ourselves some of that. Page 133 of “I, Tina”: “I got to thinking that maybe I was such a mixture of things that it was beyond black-or-white, beyond just cultures — that I was universal!”
Arena Tina, Universal Tina, is the Turner I got: “Private Dancer,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” Tina. The first time I saw her was probably “Friday Night Videos” when I was 8. And here was this long-looking woman in a leather miniskirt, stockings, heels, a denim jacket and hair as imposing as a lion’s head. Little me wanted to be her strutting down the street in that “What’s Love” video, one leg almost completely crossing the other. She looked bad, certain of her badness, strong — but also soft, the way she’d lean back into a dancer and shimmy with his buddy then shimmy with another dude. When she won all those Grammys in 1985, I wanted to sound like the woman accepting them. Was it continental-southern? Caribbean-showbiz?
This was a new Tina, polished, spiritual, with a devastatingly elegant repossession of image and voice. Her renaissance constituted a statement of command — those weren’t wigs up there, they were headdresses. That energy — it had been reinterpreted as wisdom, wisdom that snarled, wisdom that would rule Thunderdome. The lava had cooled some. The smooth fire in this new life and sound of hers — rock ’n’ roll with pop’s synth sheen — had a musical point: “Show Some Respect,” “Better Be Good to Me.” So we did, so we never stopped.
It just occurred to me what else “I, Tina” is. I’ve read this book ratty, but I’d really never thought about that title. It’s a declaration, yes, the staking of a claim. It’s also the beginning of a vow. To live, I think. To live so fully, so galactically, so contagiously, with so much daring, candor, zest and, yes, energy that no one is ever going to believe it when you die.