'I was meant to survive': Tina Turner on music, marriage, and her new memoir
This week, Tina Turner will publish her second memoir, Tina Turner: My Love Story, a 22-year-removed sequel to her hit autobiography, I, Tina, which inspired the acclaimed 1993 movie What’s Love Got to Do with It. In it, she reveals her many health scares of the last few years — which include everything from vertigo to cancer to a kidney transplant — as well as her successful, late-arriving romance with husband, and music executive, Erwin Bach, a man 17 years her junior. She even tells fresh stories about her harrowing time with Ike, including one concerning her wedding night that she was too embarrassed to reveal two decades ago.
After a notably unromantic ceremony, Ike took her to a whorehouse in Tijuana, which featured a stage show with an impotent man struggling to have sex with a stripper. “I was miserable the whole time,” she writes. “But there was no escape. We couldn’t leave until Ike was ready, and he was having a fine time.”
Turner also unpacks other painful memories, writing about being raised by a mother who didn’t want her, and the suicide of her eldest son, Craig, which happened just this past July.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend delves into her retirement years and there are some surprising self-critiques in the book as well. Even though she’s one of pop’s most enduring fantasy figures, Turner doesn’t describe herself as sexy, pointing to her “short neck and torso, prominent bosom, and shall-we-say, mature upper arms.”
Nutbush, Tennessee’s most famous resident candidly answered 15 questions– by email from her home in Switzerland– about her life, then and now.
Many people don’t know how many health scares you’ve had in the last few years, all of which are achingly detailed in your book. How are you feeling these days?
With every passing month, I feel a little better, a little stronger, a little more like Tina. But, beginning with my stroke, that was a really bad run. In fact, when I was working on my book it was hard for me to remember the various scares and when they happened because there were so many. High blood pressure, vertigo, intestinal cancer, kidney failure, and a kidney transplant. And I always thought I was a healthy person! Just when I would ask myself “how bad can it get?” — there was something new to deal with.
It seems like your time undergoing dialysis for your kidney ailments, and, thus, facing mortality, was a major inspiration to write this book. How has it changed how you live now?
Most people think of me as being in motion all the time, and I was. Dialysis forced me to sit still for hours, which gave me a chance to think. I asked myself questions about painful subjects I often tried to avoid — [like] why did Ike behave the way he did? What was important to me in this life? Looking back, I realized that life has a way of turning poison into medicine, bad can turn into good. Coming through all this made me believe that I was meant to survive — that I’m here for a reason — [and] maybe to share my story, so others can learn from it.
When you needed a kidney transplant, your husband of 30 years donated one of his. What did that mean to you?
When Erwin offered to give me his kidney, I started to worry about him.I tried to talk him out of it at first. Why should he take such a risk? “Think about your future,” I told him. He said that my future was his future. When we were going into surgery for the transplant, all of my thoughts and fears were focused on him and his recovery. Thankfully, he was up and in good spirits the very next day — and back on his motorcycle a few months later! Erwin and I came out of the transplant connected in ways we never imagined and our relationship is stronger than it has ever been.
In the book, you critique your body. You even say you don’t think you have the sexy legs the whole world believes you to have. Why don’t you think you’re sexy?
My figure would not have turned one head in Nutbush, where I grew up. Women were supposed to be curvy, not built like a pony, which is what I always thought when I looked at my long, dangly legs. I did the best I could with what God gave me — and the help of really good wigs and red lipstick! But being sexy was never my goal.
You write in the book that you never tried to look sexy for men on stage, but that you performed for the women instead. Can you explain?
Because we were a sisterhood: me, my dancers, and our audience, out there having a good time together. I don’t like it when performers are overtly sexual. At my shows, I wanted wives, husbands, grandparents, children, friends, everyone, to have fun. And here’s something I always understood. If you appeal to the women in the audience, the men will follow.
You write about being unwanted and abandoned as a child by your mother. Do you believe this has had a lingering effect on you?
Of course. Children need their mothers, and mine walked out the door when I needed her the most. But I never allowed my feelings to affect how I treated Muh (my sister and I called my mother “Muh,” the first syllable of the word “mother”). I always took care of her.
You write that your mother sided with Ike after you left him. Why do you think she did that?
Muh always believed that Ike was responsible for our success, and she couldn’t see his flaws even when they were right in front of her. She never wanted to give me credit for anything. It took her years — and my selling millions of records as a solo artist — to change her mind about that.
You chose not to see the movie about your life with Ike, What’s Love Got To Do With It, but you did see the play about your life, Tina: The Musical, which is currently running in London. Why were you able to do the latter and not the former?
I’m in a different place in my life. When I was ill, I made peace with my past. My story is disturbing, but I know now that it can’t hurt me. And the musical is so good that I sat there admiring the performers and all their hard work instead of focusing on the painful parts.
You write in the book about Mick Jagger “borrowing” your dance moves. Have you ever told him he owes you an acknowledgement for that?
Mick and I like to tease each other and we’re very good at it because we’ve been doing it for over fifty years, since we first went out on tour together. We know what we’ve done for each other.
You reveal in the book that you were the one who initiated sex with Erwin. It sounds like you were fully owning your sexuality for the first time at that point, in your 40s. Were you?
I felt an electrical charge the first time I saw Erwin. The funny thing is he felt it too. I never gave any thought to the words “love at first sight” before. But it happened to me on that day, with that man. You know, sex wasn’t important to me. I could live without it. But there was something about Erwin that made me want to get close to him. Childhood, never loved. Other men, never loved. My whole life, never really loved. I needed to feel that Erwin loved me. And if I had to make the first move, I was willing to do it!
It seems like you are one of the few performers who loves retirement. So, you’re not even tempted to do more work?
I have been working — really, really working — since I was a teenager. I was ready to retire long before I got sick. I wanted to spend time with Erwin and do the things that normal people do, like work in my garden, stay up late watching movies, and go food shopping. I’ve always had good timing. I didn’t want people to come to a show and think that I used to be great. “Leave the party before it’s over,” I like to say.
You tease in the book about an upcoming documentary on your life. What stage is that in?
We’re just starting, but the documentary is in good hands because it is being produced by Simon Chinn, who won Oscars for Man on a Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. I thought I was going to take it easy, but a book, a musical, a documentary…I’m busy!
In the most horrific event in the book, you write about your eldest son Craig, who committed suicide back in July. How are you managing to process that terrible event?
I miss him and I will be dealing with that every day of my life.
You write that it’s in your nature to be optimistic. Do you think that’s why you have managed to survive so many challenges?
I’m a Buddhist and have been for decades, but I guess you could say I was born with a Buddha nature. I’ve never been defeated by the obstacles in my life. I keep going. I’ve had bad karma and more than my share of struggles, but I’ve always been given the strength to endure them. When there’s a choice, I choose happiness.
You will be 80 next year. How do you feel about turning that age?
I’m looking forward to it! I’m a very curious person and I’ve always wondered what I would be like at that age. Actually, age is just a number to me. I’m a 16-year-old at heart. Turning 80 won’t change that!