At 53, the amazing Tina Turner just keeps on rollin’
Dustin Hoffman looks like a dork, but he's past the point of caring. Here he is, onstage at Carnegie Hall, blissfully yawping backup vocals into a mike, grinning like the chess-club nerd who's sneaked a peek into the cheerleaders' locker room. He's flanked by James Taylor and British actor Ian McKellen. Sir Ian is whacking spasmodically at a tambourine. Now Dustin has grabbed a maraca. We have a total meltdown of masculine cool.
Arranged elsewhere on the stage: Sting. George Michael. Bryan Adams. Herb Alpert. Tom Jones? Yes, it's more than unusual. But this March night, everyone's performing at the annual concert to benefit the Rainforest Foundation. And all of these men are laboring like stevedores to keep up with one rather smallish woman. She's working the stage perimeter now, a glowing nova of female fission perilously contained in a black leather cat suit. The crowd is roaring her name.
"TEENAAAAAAH. Woooooo! TEENAAAAAAH!"
Who else can reduce Oscar winners and Shakespearean CBEs to goofy backup boys? How many divas can raise the Armani'd behinds of this hallful of swells who have paid up to $500 a seat-haul them up thundering by the mere act of shooting out from the wings with her signature stutter step? What other 53-year-old face can stare down that squad of face-lift detectives-the tabloid gossips-and leave them gasping "Oh, my God, she looks faaaaabulous"? Who else?
Her spike heels could pierce a hubcap; her voice sails over the band, the crowd and the all-boy chorus like a mighty howl from the center of the whirlwind. And the gams-those rock-solid limbs-make her the Colossus of Hose. Long, strong, planted slightly apart, Tina Turner's legs bracket rock-and-roll imagery. They straddle decades and styles, from the roughest R&B to the creamiest contemporary pop.
In fact, if there is one photo icon that fairly screams "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay," it's Steven Meisel's miles-o’-leg jump shot of Turner wearing just a silk shirt, black patent stiletto heels and fishnet stockings. Airborne, leering from under all that haystack hair, she's as vital and ferocious a rocker as has ever growled into a mike "Sometimes, we like to do things nice and… rough."
Tina Turner's trajectory is still straight up and totally on track. This month brings the opening of a loosely biographical film, called What's Love Got to Do With It?, the release of her own sound-track album and the start of a four-month, fifty-city world tour. Having spent much of the past couple of years in Europe with her amour, Erwin Bach, a 37-year-old German record executive, she says she's rested and ready. Ask about maintenance and Ms. T. will tell you, with a wide grin, that she just keeps her feet on the ground and her eyes on the prize. And if you must know, it took her years to come to terms with those legs.
"My body is an unusual one," she says. "It's a very strong body. A body that I at one time didn't like." The morning after her Carnegie triumph, she's dressed for a return flight to LA in a fuzzy white sweater, loose charcoal knit pants, thick wool socks and clunky black lace-up boots. Her voice is soft cashmere to last night's raspy animal hide. She has folded that unusual body into a straight-backed chair in her suite at Manhattan's St. Regis hotel, settling herself between a box of tissues and a wastebasket. After months in the German countryside with Bach and lazy, thyme-scented days at her own retreat in the South of France, she's finding the city to be murder on the sinuses. She taps her thighs lightly and continues.
"I just looked like a little pony when I was a girl. These long legs-nothing worked together."
Short torso, short neck-she says she sized it up long ago. Honey, you take what you were dealt and work with it. Same with your life. She's learned it's a mistake to overdress that body. And the life? Well, she just hopes Hollywood doesn't overstate it.
"HA!" It's a big, fatback laugh, shouted at the ceiling. "Oh, Tina," she says. "Get real."
Though she hasn't yet seen the film, which is being produced by Disney's Touchstone Pictures, she read an early script that gave her pause. "I felt like they took the idea of my life and sort of wrote around it," she says. "I've got to say that the script that I read was far-quite far-from reality."
Some of those gaps were closed before filming began. The biggest involved licensing fees to use Turner's seminal Phil Spector-produced hit "River Deep-Mountain High." (She did not own the rights.) Before an agreement could be reached between the principals, Disney's ever-thrifty head rodent, Jeffrey Katzenberg, became apoplectic at the cost. It was suggested that "some other song" be substituted, with a generic "Phil Spector type" as the record producer who helped change Turner's destiny. This is tantamount to saying "If we can't get De Niro, let's slide by with Don Knotts." A nasty standoff was brewing with Turner's management team, until Disney finally anted up the fees to use the song and, thus, portray a defining event in Turner's life.
Turner told her own story in her 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, and, she says, "the world was shocked" by her accounts of the beatings and other, more creative abuse meted out by her former husband and stage partner, Ike Turner. That book was the main source for Kate Lanier's screenplay.
What's Love Got to Do With It? is an apt film title, given the harrowing particulars in I,Tina. Ike's mash notes to his wife included busted ribs, a fractured jaw and swollen eyes, nose, lips. Drive-by shootings. Firebombs. The sorrow and pity in the book came from witnesses interviewed by co-author Kurt Loder. But there was nothing lachrymose about Turner's own first-person testimony, not even in the stories of being left behind by both parents in poor, rural Nut Bush, Tennessee. The former Anna Mae Bullock says she didn't tell all for sympathy. She wasn't moping. She was just good and mad. "I wrote the book because I was so tired of people being really upset that I left Ike," she says. "Like, 'How could you?' When I went out on my own, I had a hit record and people were still in my ear about Ike and 'our music.' Music? We couldn't get a hit record in those days. We didn't draw people, and he was freaking out, doing more drugs."
Laurence Fishburne, a first-rate actor with credits ranging from Apocalypse Now through Boyz N the Hood, plays Ike Turner-much against physical type. Though she had no script approval, Turner acted as unofficial consultant to the film, and she says the first polite disagreement came when the same liberated casting policy didn't seem to extend to the female lead.
"There was a lot of talk that she should look like me, have great legs, a body. I said 'Hey, we're talking about acting.'That's why I had a lot to do with the decision between Robin Givens and Angela Bassett."
She lobbied fiercely, though once Bassett got the part, the question of visuals persisted. When director Brian Gibson mentioned the need to age the actress onscreen, our diva was shocked.
"Well, Tina," he told her, "you have to have a sag here and there."
But Tina doesn't sag. You could bounce a quarter off those Cherokee cheekbones. Suddenly, it hit her.
"You think I've had work done!"
She could tell by their faces that the movie men didn't believe this was the un-retouched Tina. Look at photos of her mother, Zelma Bullock, now in her seventies, and you can certainly believe it. But Turner ended up lifting her hair to show the director that there were no staples or scars.
"I had a little nose work because there was cartilage floating," she tells me. "I had been hit so much, this stuff was floating around, and it got worse as I started to fly more. My sinuses got blocked. So, yes, they changed my nose some. But there's no plastic in my body."
This engenders a lively little discussion on the fine points of singing onstage after a beating, when hitting the right note brings on an unsightly nosebleed. "I went home, put on an ice pack, found a way to sing the next few days," she says. "Just kept going."
Heck, Oprah wouldn't let that one slide. I have to ask her: Given the current vogue for celeb shrinkage, and facing the rehash of these traumas writ large on the silver screen, are we talking some kind of long-term syndrome here? Does she see herself as a textbook victim of domestic violence? She responds with a yelp worthy of the Acid Queen she played in Ken Russell's Tommy.
"VICTIM? VICTIM! GIMME A BREAK!"
She narrows those hazel lioness peepers. "Did I say something funny?"
Reeling in my grin, I confess to her that my question is loaded, that I've been cranky as a wet cat lately about the high tide of public casualties. We're deep, deep, into the Decade of the Victim, when you can off-load boring family fights as Official Dysfunction, with Sally Jessy clucking "I hear you." We've developed a skilled cadre of victim "facilitators." Canny Oprah got Michael Jackson to confess "regurgitating" at the very sight of his abusive dad-nailed it right on the cusp of the first commercial break! Don't get me wrong-solidarity is swell. Victims' rights, victims' support groups. Absolutely. Just spare me all this victim chic.
Tina is patient, even enthusiastic, throughout my harangue. I guess I'm giddy in the rarefied presence of One Who Will Not Whine.
"Oh, I'm with you about that victim thing," she says. "It's put into our heads. It's everywhere. And I don't think it does anybody any good."
We giggle about some of the jargon the victimologists might toss at her own grim dossier. What would they say about a mother to four boys trapped in a loveless, all but sexless, marriage with a paranoid, womanizing drug fiend?
'Enabler'?" Turner squeaks. "What is that, anyhow? 'Dysfunction'? You'll never hear that out of this mouth. Maybe it's because I'm naive, maybe because I was brought up a country girl-I didn't get into all that."
But "victim" isn't a fancy, new-age term. It's as old as poor, put-upon Job.
"Never!" she says. "Some people want that title. It's an excuse. I never needed it and I don't want it, would never use it to describe what went on.
She says she reaches her flash point when well-meaning folks try to cast her as some domestic-trauma poster girl. She quietly contributes to an organization her friend Ann-Margret sponsors for battered women. But she refuses to assume that mantle herself. And don't you dare call that denial.
"Someone tells me I was a victim, I become angry!" she says. "I was not a victim. I want to talk about that. Because, okay, yes, if you tell my story to somebody who knows nothing about Tina Turner, they would label me a victim. But I was in control of everything I was doing."
She senses the next question, says she always sees it forming above people's frowns with the subtlety of a run-away freight train.
"WHY, WHY, WHY?" she yells at the ritzy chandelier.
Why did she stay so long? Okay, here it is, once and for all. Before you see the movie, listen to the woman warrior. By her reckoning, this trial by Ike was her chosen Path to Enlightenment (and into a killer tax bracket). Besides, she liked the man.
"I happen to have been a friend of Ike Turner's in those early days. I stepped in as a high-school girl just coming from Tennessee."
He was a big cheese on the St. Louis club scene, with his own popular band, the Kings of Rhythm. He gave her a chance to sing and she took it, took his friendship, too, without romance or sex, at first.
"This man was very nice and very generous to me. Way before our relationship started, I promised him that I wouldn't leave him."
Not until he had what he so desperately wanted.
"This was a producer who wanted to be a star," she says. "And he was brokenhearted because every time he got a hit record on somebody, of course they got to be the star."
Despite his serious musical chops and his snazzy revue, Ike Turner seemed destined to remain a background player. Tina says she convinced him he could sing, literally hauled him out front with her. "I was helping him," she says. "And one year into our relationship, I said, 'After I help you get where you want to, I'm not going to stay.' Because we weren't each other's type.
She was dressing her Ikettes by studying Vogue fashion spreads; she says, to this day, Ike can't make a restaurant reservation. He loved cocaine; her biggest vice was coffee.
"Everyone says to me now 'Why did you stay with him so long?' Because I promised? And there are some people, they promise, they live through that promise. Especially if they've got children. There were tons of things involved. Where was I going to go? Was I going to leave my children in that mess?"
She says she always knew she'd get out, was waiting for the right moment, which came on July 4, Independence Day, 1976. She left with 36 cents and a Mobil credit card. Nice cinematic detail, but she'd like you to pan back to the Big Picture. Just who was this scurrying creature?
"There was a mother there," she fairly bellows. "To Ike, to the children. Not this sniveling, crying, little weak woman. They had me crying in the film script, and I said 'I never cried that much in my life.' Maybe from anger, sometimes."
She says that even the judge in divorce court acted as if she were feebleminded. When she made it clear she'd walk away from the real estate, the money, the jewels, rather than prolong the agony, he called her into his chambers and asked "Young lady, are you sure?" By then she was deep into Buddhism, chanting daily. Security lay within her own thrumming rib cage-not with a Neiman Marcus charge card.
"Give me a break-it's not about leaving with money," she says. "You leave with knowledge. Inner strength. All the discipline I have to have now came from being with that man. I know that when I looked in the mirror with this horrible, swollen face that it was taking strength to stay there. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why, and I got Out. You don't step Out and do what I did with my life if you don't have some control there."
She sips some tea and smiles.
"I know I was strong then."
There's no better argument for that than Turner's new sound-track album, which contains remakes of oldies from her days with Ike, through hits like "Proud Mary" and up to her own solo, triple-Grammy winner, "What's Love Got to Do With It," as well as three new songs. Listening to the album is a bit like tracking a hurricane, from those early R&B squalls to the first hits that blew holes in the pop charts.
Turner's re-recorded versions are solid, better arranged and engineered than the older cuts; much of the phrasing is more sophisticated. But the firepower of those vocals is startlingly equal to the originals. Even at 21, she was a formidable woman. I kept listening to both versions of a personal favorite, "A Fool in Love," Ike and Tina's first major release, from 1960. Tina ripped some deep, wild, hormonal screams across the demure girl-group backup of those shoop-shoop times. There's more burn in the original, but in both recordings, she puts a keen vocal underline on a phrase that resonates: You know you love him and you can't understand Why he treat you like he do when he's such a good man.
The sun is fighting through the heavy brocade curtains; Turner is laughing now, about how she used her early training as a domestic to work off her room and board when friends took her in after her escape, how she furnished her first post-Ike home with trading stamps.
"I want to tell you something," she says about her housekeeping stint. "I enjoyed it. Because I was paying my way. What was I supposed to do, sit there and be a star? There were two things I could do. And I couldn't sing there. But I learned to clean from the white woman in Tennessee."
So many years later, it was good therapy.
"It was physical. I'd just see the closet transformed and it was wonderful. It was what I'd do in my own house. Except the house was missing."
She smiles again, the Queen of Serene, and chats about her own house in an unfashionable "very green and wet" part of southern France. She says it's a place so quiet and peaceful she swears she's seen the light of God in the rain-swept sky. "I know this sounds loony, but this comes from my stomach, this love of looking at that type of thing," she says. Walking the lanes at dusk, often alone, reminds her of the aimless walk-abouts she relished as a child. She figures that whatever inner directedness eventually pulled her to Buddhism was already making her stop and smell the collard greens at age 10.
"Listen, roaming the pastures of Tennessee, it was green and beautiful. You could never find me; I was always out there. I was in the universe, you know? It was wonderful. I would sit there and eat tomatoes off the vine or burst open a watermelon and eat it. I know what things are supposed to taste like. The life wasn't so bad. I was taken care of-not what society would call being taken care of, but there was a hand, an eye, watching over me."
Her parents had split up, then she was left with far-from-enthusiastic relatives when she was 13. She can't say it didn't hurt, but she never thought about paying $90 an hour to figure out how it affected her.
And now, at play in the fields of the rich and famous, how is the view?
"I know what I've done," she says. "Some-times I'm a little blown away by it. But I am what I am and I don't relate to what other people are saying. So when they come to me and say 'How did you, how could you?,' I say 'What else was I supposed to do?' I had to work. One must work on this planet."
"So. What is this that I've done? I've worked. I can sing and dance better than I can do anything else. I care about myself, my health, how I look. I never did drugs, drank alcohol. I never abused myself; There’s nothing I did that's so extraordinary. But people don't expect rock-and-roll people to care about themselves."
The French Regency phone trills politely. The car has been ordered, and it's time for a windup. She's pacing the room, scanning for forgotten objects. Suddenly, she stops.
"You know, I wonder when the day will come that I don't have to talk about Ike Turner anymore. I wonder."
She's musing out loud, pondering whether she ought to rewrite her book, make it clearer why she stayed. She admits a thorough Ike-orcism would be tough, considering the film, the material on the record. She's still thinking aloud.
"Will that day come? A totally Ike-less future? Lord, what decade?"
She stops herself and smiles.
"Of course it will. Of course. I can wait."
She stands over the room-service cart, looking at a plate of gooey chocolate-chip cookies that were sent unbidden with breakfast-and that she did not eat.
"No eating disorder, my dear. Just discipline."
Her final laugh is light and easy, the timbre of temple bells.