Tornado. Treasure. There Was Nobody Like Tina Turner.
After her divorce became official in 1978, she hit the road and pushed more boulders. In 1982, the boulder stopped in Onoway, Alberta. My friend James is from Edmonton, and Turner’s death on Wednesday shook loose a childhood memory of the time his parents drove to Onoway to see her play the Devil’s Lake Corral. He sent a video. It’s a mind-blowing feat of acrobatics, precision, adrenaline, heft, costuming. In other words, the usual. Turner is drenched before the halfway point. But the reason to bring this show up is how it starts.
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?