Rolling Stone Magazine, October 1984.
Tina Turner: Sole Survivor
For almost two decades, Tina Turner was battered and brutalized in one of the most famous marriages in R&B history. But she's put those years behind her. Now she's the hottest female act on three continents.
By KURT LODER
Posted Oct 11, 1984 2:30 PM
At three o'clock in the morning, in a hotel room high above still-glimmering Montreal, Tina Turner is plugging into the universal buzz: nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, nam — myo — ho — renge — kyo, nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo. The words are Japanese, but shaped by that dark, burnished voice, now pulsing with reined power, they sound like some plaintive native-American lament — an effect perhaps subliminally suggested by the dramatic sweep of Tina's high, part-Cherokee cheekbones. As the words gather speed, her voice rises slightly to a smoothly rippling alto drone, then winds down. The demonstration is done. She raises her head — wigless at the moment and casually wrapped in a white shower towel — and a smile crinkles her otherwise unlined features. The chant, she says, is a Buddhist invocation of "the mystical law of the universe. I'm saying a word, but it sounds like hmmmnnn. Is there anything that is without that? There's a hum in the motor of a car, in the windshield wipers, your refrigerator. An airplane goes rowwmmmnnn. Sometimes I just sit and listen to the sounds of the universe and to that hum that is just there."
This chanting — plugging into the universal buzz — has lent spiritual structure to Tina's life. These days, you might say, she is like an electric lamp, summoning power and illumination at the twist of a switch. Before, she suggests — back in the dark years — she was more like a candle, self-consuming and finally benighted. Not to mention trapped, battered and generally brutalized in one of the most famous marriages in R&B history. But that's all part of the very painful past. And the past is something Tina Turner has little time for anymore.
Two night ago in Ottawa, Tina performed the last shitcan gig of her career. Another McDonald's convention. For seven weeks, McDonald's, the fast-food chain, had been rounding up its highest-grossing regional burger merchants for pat-on-the-back brain-fry junkets to centrally situated hotel ballrooms around North America. The Ottawa bash seemed typical: intensive hooch transfusions for the sales hotshots, a swank feed, some semihysterical corporate rah-rah from a presiding exec and then, with more than a few celebrants on the verge of 'facing out into their fruit sherbet, a show — the show being Tina Turner. One last time.
Many months ago, you see, when she really needed the money — a common situation over the last seven lean years — Tina contracted to play fourteen of these functions. At the time, she hadn't the remotest inkling that her comeback single, "Let's Stay Together," would become a Top Five hit in Britain or that her startlingly strong comeback album, Private Dancer, would top the charts in Australia and Canada and sell more than a million copies in the U.S. Suddenly, Tina Turner found herself the hottest female act on three continents. Yet in Ottawa, there she was, headlining some fast-food fiesta on a stage framed by two sets of glowing golden arches. Eeesh. She had attempted to bow out of the McDonald's deal, but the burgerdomos were adamant, and the shows went on. Ottawa was the fourteenth and last of them, and the tech crew and the six-man band were audibly relieved. After hearing eerie massed chants of "beef-steak! beef-steak!" and watching a fiery-eyed burger exec whip the assembled franchisees into a froth with the go-get-'em ethos of "our leader" — the late McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc, author of that tantalizingly titled memoir, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's — guitarist Paul Warren blinked his eyes unbelievingly. "This is like Jonestown," he said.
Tina herself, however, remained uncomplaining. A total pro, she knew the drill and accepted it. Taking the stage, she noted the usual ocean of half-capsized banqueteers bobbling before her in ambiguous anticipation. What would this crowd be expecting? How much might it remember? "Proud Mary"? "Nutbush City Limits"? Maybe even "River Deep — Mountain High"? Surely, these people wouldn't recall "A Fool in Love," the first record by Tina and her former husband, Ike Turner, an epochal R&B hit in this same month of August exactly twenty-four years ago. Perhaps they'd remember hearing about the glitterized solo show she'd taken to Vegas and Tahoe a few years back — the one with the boy-and-girl dancers and the big-deal disco interlude. In which case, maybe they were prepared to embrace the inevitable: for what else can one normally expect in the ballrooms of American commerce but the last pathetic flickerings of faded and irretrievable fame?
Imagine, then, the instant of lip-flibbering surprise when Tina's band — which is a real rock & roll band, not some has been backup crew — whipped out the wild, synth-riddled riff to "Let's Pretend We're Married," a song by Prince, and Tina shimmied out onstage in tight black-leather pants and a punk bouffant so bushed out you almost expected to see breadfruit come tumbling down in mounds around her stomping, stilettoheeled feet. Kick-stepping up to the microphone at center stage, she snapped the sucker off its stand, and with a smile on her face the size of a sweet new moon and a voice that could fuse polyester at fifty paces, she began to sing. To soar, actually. The effect was electrifying — this was no Vegas act. "What you've heard about me is true," Tina chanted. "I change the rules to do what I wanna do." She didn't write the words — she rarely has — but, as always, she made them her own.
And from that moment on, the whole potentially hohum gig took an entirely different tack. Because Tina in transit across a stage knows only one velocity — flat-out — and as she kicked, shimmied and soared through most of her album and into a withering rendition of ZZ Top's neoboogie hit "Legs," the burger folk first rose to their feet, then up onto their tables, and finally into the very air, leaping and hooting and flapping their napkins overhead as this fabulous woman with the wraparound legs and the flatware-rattling voice proceeded to grind out an exhilarating hour-plus of artfully adult, but undiluted, rock & roll.
And Ottawa was it: the light at the end of the comeback tunnel. Tina Turner had outlasted her past. Now she could look strictly to the future: Her next single, "Better Be Good to Me," would be released as soon as her current hit, the reggae-spiked "What's Love Got to Do with It," could be pried out of the top spot on the U.S. singles chart, and several other tracks off the LP seemed likely candidates to follow. Six sold-out shows in Los Angeles were coming up, and after that she was off to Australia to confer with director George Miller, who's been waiting for two years to feature her in the third of his celebrated Mad Max movies (she'll play a kinkily costumed creature called Entity and may do a tune over the titles). Then it would be back to New York in September for the MTV Music Video Awards and the release of her pal David Bowie's new album — on which she harmonizes a haunting reggae track called "Tonight" — and then ... well, who knows? If all of this could happen to a woman who didn't even have a U.S. record deal a year ago — who in fact not all that many years ago was feeling so slapped down by life that she almost bought out of it with a bottle of sleeping pills — well, then maybe there is a universal harmony. Whatever that buzz is, it's Tina Turner's theme song.
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