My Love Story: The Autobiography by Tina Turner — diva and survivor

The Times
By Clive Davis

“Is this a happy ending or what?” By the end of her first, justly acclaimed autobiography, I, Tina, published in 1986, Tina Turner had every right to feel content. Her traumatic marriage to the violent, cocaine-raddled bandleader Ike Turner was finally over and, against all the odds, she had built a new career at an age when most pop stars are heading for the chicken-in-a-basket circuit or the golf course. She even had a role in a Mad Max film.

There was more success in the years that followed. The book was turned into a film, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, the stadium tours stretched towards the horizon and Turner became the role model for a new generation of self-confident female artists. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you perform,” Beyoncé told her at a tribute concert in 2005. “I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fierce.”

Does that mean My Love Story is a stroll through the sunlit uplands? Not quite. True, there are plenty of anecdotes about her luxurious, designer label lifestyle in her adopted home of Switzerland. And the romantic interest is supplied by the German music executive Erwin Bach, 16 years her junior, who becomes the soul-mate that Ike assuredly never was. Ike’s idea of a wedding night treat for his new bride was to take her to a sex show. In contrast, the wedding ceremony with Erwin resembles a Hello! magazine feature come to life. Ike was brutal, self-centred and bad-tempered. Erwin is gentle, considerate and ever-supportive — so much so that when Turner recently suffered serious kidney disease, he gave her one of his.

Physical frailty becomes one of the leitmotifs of My Love Story. Now 78, Turner was one of pop’s most energetic performer; her onstage gyrations made her old friend Mick Jagger look like a valetudinarian. She had her share of illnesses when she was younger (Ike being Ike, she could find herself forced back to work before she was anywhere near fully recovered). Yet even at the moment when she marries Erwin in 2013, she begins to sense her health is failing. Soon afterwards she suffers a stroke, which requires a long period of rehabilitation. Kidney failure and intestinal cancer follow. Turner’s Buddhist faith provides some sustenance as her thoughts turn to euthanasia.

Thankfully, Erwin’s offer of one of his kidneys provides a solution. The transplant is a success and the narrative seems set to close on an emotional high as Turner oversees preparations for the musical based on her life that opened in London this year.

Another cloud casts its shadow, though. In her postscript, Turner describes receiving the news this summer that her eldest child, Craig (the son of another musician), who had long been fighting his own demons, had shot himself in Los Angeles at the age of 59. Turner has to summon up yet more reserves of courage. It’s an almost unbearably poignant moment.

Ike Turner’s death in 2007 had caused no such trauma. “When I realised that I didn’t feel anything, I understood that I had truly moved on,” she explains. Long sections of the book are devoted to a demure retelling of the ill-fated partnership with the guitarist who became her husband and captor. Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939, Turner was raised in a loveless home in rural Tennessee (her township’s name would later be immortalised in her hit song, Nutbush City Limits) and got to know Ike, who was already a local celebrity, when his band were playing at a neighbourhood club. He was an astute craftsman and musical pioneer; Rocket 88, a song he recorded in 1951, is regarded as one of the first rock’n’roll records.

Soon he had given Anna Mae a new name, and the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, formed in 1960, eventually began to attract a following. They were not even a couple at first. Theirs was more of a brother-and-sister relationship until they drifted into a deeper relationship. While Ike was not conventionally handsome, his hold over women acquired legendary status.

 “Having sex was practically his full-time job,” Tina writes. “An interviewer once asked me how I felt about sex with Ike (which was actually a pretty forward question, now that I think of it). Was it all that? she wanted to know. I answered candidly. I really didn’t like Ike’s body, but I acknowledged that he was ‘blessed’, so to speak, when it came to being endowed. Did that make him a good lover? ‘What can you do except go up and down, or sideways, or whatever it is that you do with sex?’ I told her. I wanted affection. I wanted romance. I would have settled for common decency and respect. Sex with Ike had become an expression of hostility — a kind of rape — especially when it began or ended with a beating.”

The violence became part of everyday routine. Any perceived infraction, even an innocent glance, could provoke a pummelling. Sometimes, especially after Ike became addicted to cocaine, he did not even seem to need an excuse to start the beatings, using a shoe, or anything else that was available to keep his hands in shape for playing his guitar. Tina would become a regular visitor to hospital emergency rooms, using make-up to disguise the bruises on stage.

Ike was a martinet, embarking on endless tours and rehearsing Tina and the backing singers, the famous Ikettes, to the point of exhaustion. By the early 1960s the band were acknowledged as one of the sharpest R’n’B acts around. Increasingly, though, it was Tina who was seen as the star, a point underlined by the producer Phil Spector’s decision to use her — without Ike — on perhaps his most famous “wall of sound” recording, River Deep – Mountain High in 1966.

By the 1970s the partnership had long since become a marriage of convenience, although Tina knew that any attempt to leave would be met with violence. In 1976, however, she finally ran away and went into hiding from her enraged husband. With little money or backing, she slowly began to build a solo career, playing in cabaret clubs before clawing her way back to the top in the early 1980s.

As awful as Ike was, there remains the nagging thought that the R’n’B he made with Tina had more fire and energy than the anthems that brought her a huge following from the 1980s onwards. Tina takes a dim view of her early work in her first autobiography. Who can blame her for feeling jaundiced about it? But will posterity come to the same conclusion?

It’s ironic too that a singer who has become a rock goddess is so self-effacing about her looks. Beneath the exotic wigs and leather minis lurks a much quieter creature:

“I was — and I am still — amused by the constant attention paid to my legs. I truly don’t get the fuss. Did you ever see a pony’s legs when it’s just born? Long and spindly? That’s what my legs always looked like to me. When I was young, I used to think, Why do I look like a little pony? My short torso is hooked onto these two little dangling legs, but I’ve learned how to wear clothes to flatter them. In Nutbush, no one would have looked twice at my legs. Black women who were full and curvy were considered beautiful, but my body, which was just skinny and straight, never turned any heads.”

My Love Story is a decent read, but lacks the passion of I, Tina. The first-person narrative has a bland, ghost-written quality, whereas the earlier book, which blends contributions from other musicians and witnesses — including Ike — allows people to speak their own salty language.

You cannot fail to be moved, though, by Turner’s reflections on her sense of isolation as a child. As she explained in her first book, she always felt unloved by her mother, whom she nevertheless took good care of until her death in 1999. This volume has unflattering descriptions about “Muh’s” churlishness. And Turner adds, tellingly, that the old lady always took Ike’s side in the domestic disputes. “Muh was ‘Team Ike’ until my success was too big for her to ignore. Then, she really went on that Tina Turner trip because, more than anything, she loved being the mother of a celebrity. If we went out together, she had to sit at the front table so everyone could see she was with Tina. I wished she had expressed that kind of love for Anna Mae.”

It’s an almost callous paragraph. Yet, given what Turner has been through, are we in a position to judge her too harshly? There is one final twist too: the gun that her son used to kill himself had once belonged to Muh. Perhaps we can never really escape our past.

Tina Turner