Tears after the dance: Of Tina Turner, fame and pain

Tina Turner

Singer Tina Turner in Hamburg, Germany, on October 23, 2018.

Photo credit: Christian Charisius | dpa | AFP

“I built a life… A happy one. Until the day my five-year-old daughter died suddenly from a virulent form of strep, and in that instant, nothing was the same… my world became the walls of my bedroom. Beyond it lay too many painful memories. Sparkles from Grace’s (my dead daughter’s) art projects still littered the floor. Her laundered clothes waited to be put away. The contents of her backpack — a book, a paper on which she’d counted by tens all the way to five hundred — and her shoes tossed by the door and her ballet bag and her lunchbox,” so wrote American writer Ann Hood in her true story entitled, Manhattan, always out of Reach.

In this, we can see the pain of a bereaved mother still haunted by mementos from the life of her departed daughter. Oh, what pain! Lost for words, the mother decided to turn her pain into a narrative.

“It’s often much more difficult to put pain into words, which is one of the big problems with pain,” said Allan I. Basbaum, then editor-in-chief of Pain, the medical journal of The International Association for the Study of Pain. “You can’t articulate it, and you can’t see it. There is no question people often try to illustrate their pain.” Therefore, painters, writers and musicians try to “illustrate their pain” through their creative works. From great musicians like Mozart to writers like Maya Angelou and Marcel Proust, artists have turned their pain into riveting works of art.

Many great works of art (from music to literature) have been forged in heaven but created in hell — artists have had to turn trauma into triumph.

I thought of this after the death of Tina Turner on May 24, 2023. Feisty and dazzling like a peacock, Tina Turner sang sounds that carried a lush beauty that was otherworldly — deep ballads that addressed love lost, love found, love remembered — tear-stained and heart-breaking with the forlorn cry of a distant seagull, unspeakably sad, its familiar call mutated and then muted, shortened by the wind, causing a swell of sadness inside her listeners, and carrying them to a blissful world.

When listening to great music, one travels as they step back from their own mundane days, from the fragmented imperfect linearity of their time. It’s much like reading a novel, the events and people become allegorical and eternal — transporting people to a place of no hardship, loss, regret, tears, pain, or death.

And Tina Turner knew what pain was. Her first marriage to Ike Turner was a violent one. Writing in the book, Heroes for my Daughter, Brad Meltzer fittingly summed up Tina Turner’s miserable marriage: “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 (vouchers issued by the American government exchangeable for food). And yes, it’s incredible that Tina Turner built her career back from nothing”.

Writing in her 2018 memoir, My Love Story, Tina Turner reveals that she attempted suicide in 1968: “I knew I should leave, but I had no money and didn’t know how to take the first step. At my lowest, I convinced myself that death was my only way out”. However, she picked herself up, reinvented herself and became a music legend — winning three Grammys, and selling a staggering 2 million copies worldwide, all that from one song.

One major lesson from Tina Turner’s life is that we should not give up, no matter how high the odds are stacked against us. She once condensed her life philosophy to Oprah Winfrey: “My legacy is that I stayed on course from the beginning to the end because I believed in something inside of me that told me that it can get better, or you can make something better and that I wanted better”. That should be the spirit: recreate, reinvent, and rise again after every setback. Let’s turn our pain into art.

As someone said, “When you’re struck with a difficult emotion, like loneliness, anxiety, or heartbreak, sometimes the best remedy isn’t a pill or herbal potion, but poetry”. Writing (especially personal journals), reciting or singing about our pain could reveal a perspective we have never seen, expose a lingering feeling that has dumbfounded us, or crystallise something we need to communicate with others for our healing. The voice of Tina Turner has been hushed in death, her microphone hangs untouched, and her grave is silent. But she taught us a valuable lesson — how to turn setbacks into comebacks — to become the best of the best.