FURY IN HER SOUL
After an absurdly long wait, the late Laura Nyro was finally recognized by her peers, with induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. Nyro, seen above in my favorite photo of her, was sui generis. There was no one quite like her. She didn't really fit into the pop/rock niche, though she penned classic pop tunes such as "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Eli's Coming", both hits for other artists, and had a minor hit on rock stations with "Save the Country". She sang gospel and R&B and soul tunes with the best of them, exhibiting extraordinary range (reputedly that very rare five-octave range), but rarely dented the charts in those categories. She could knock out Brill-Building tunes with ease ("Wedding Bell Blues"), but never achieved the fame of her contemporary Carole King. She was a confessional songstress (not unlike the vastly more influential Joni Mitchell or more successful Annie Lennox), and she could deliver a torch song with such poignancy that your heart broke. You felt her travails in the back alleys of romance. Laura Nyro (pronounced Near'-ro) almost never made it. We've all been to a concert where an opening act is treated rudely by an audience anticipating bigger fare ( I saw it happen to Joni of all people. The audience at the Amnesty Concert at the Meadowlands was in no mood for introspective folk tunes! Randy Newman was also talked over at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel by a crowd waiting for JT). A 20-year-old Laura made no dent in the audience at the legendary Monterey Pop concert during the Summer of Love, but she fortuitously caught the eye of David Geffen. She returned to New York. Her New York. And forged ahead.
Above is Laura in 1968 as her career hit its stride with the release of the critically acclaimed LPs Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and its follow-up, New York Tendaberry. These albums are almost impossibly rich with melody, song stylings that allowed Nyro to exploit her range, from Sotto voce pleas to full-out cascades of sound--wailing, really-- both joyous and sad. Half Italian and half Russian-Jew, Laura Nigro was born in the Bronx in '47 and took to music at an early age, influenced somewhat by her trumpet-playing father. She listened to popular American Songbook standards, jazz by the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles, and Coltrane, classical music, and opera; that eclectic background no doubt sent her in many different directions with her own songwriting. As an example, let's take a look at her anti-war classic "Save the Country", recorded in 1969 and released as a single in two forms and again on New York Tendaberry. I say two forms because the four-and-a-half minute version of the song was considered practically an operetta on AM stations that preferred tracks between 2-3 minutes in length. One had to tune to FM stations (such as New York's legendary WNEW-FM--102.7 on your FM dial) to hear the full recording. A truncated version made it to AM stations like WABC and WMCA. Below is a taped television appearance of Laura performing her one modest hit, accompanying herself on the piano, about five minutes into this clip of her first appearance on television. She exhibits both the brassiness of her voice (that probably put off many listeners) as well as the soulful pleading that was her trademark. The song was written, at least in part, after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June of 1968 and alludes to the death of both Kennedys. The unedited recording follows next, embellished by horns and chorus under the watchful eye of producer Roy Halee of Simon & Garfunkel fame.
I saw Laura perform four times between 1970 and 1971, and then once more a little later. I first saw her at the Fillmore East on Christmas Eve 1970. She had a regular Christmas gig at the Fillmore during the late Sixties and early Seventies, and those shows were cherished by her fans. You'd see the grand piano on the stage and await her appearance from the wings. The audience would speculate pre-show about the color of Laura's dresses. Would she wear black (most frequent) and employ her darker palette of songs or flowing white (spirituals and happy love songs)? Or, as she did when I saw her with my friend Lenie, would she come out in a flowery red print dress and explore her romantic mysteries?
That Christmas concert was memorable because a young Jackson Browne opened for Laura. Almost no one in the audience was familiar with him, but I knew Browne as a teenage songwriter from the Southern California music scene in the late Sixties, though he did make an excursion to New York to back up Nico and the Velvet Underground. He was just beginning to get some critical attention at the end of 1970, as a potential James Taylor, but he was still more than a year away from his first hit song, "Doctor My Eyes." He did, however, capture the heart of Laura during this period, and they remained a couple while touring over the next year. Though the relationship didn't last, Browne's song "That Girl Could Sing" is thought to be a thinly veiled homage to Nyro.
My favorite album was Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, and my favorite track was one of those confessions,"Timer", which I think reflects Laura's skills best. It has a terrific melody, but an even better overarching metaphor about God and the mythical presence of Timer, an unknown but powerful presence. It is a meditation about receptivity to love and its possibilities ("now my hand is ready for my heart") about licking one's wounds and moving on ("Timer knows the lady's gonna love again"). It reflects the oblique nature of Laura's lyrics. People have speculated that Timer was a male lover, a female lover...even Laura's pet cat. Laura had a number of prominent relationships with men, and a life-long one with a woman. And, yes, she had a cat. As with the oblique lyrics in the songs of Steely Dan, it is not necessary to parse every line. The pronouns deliberately have ambiguous antecedents. Laura experimented with language and created a mysterious poetry of the heart. Listen to the original track and hear the various elements, a plaintive solo voice working the scales accompanied by a piano to start, followed by a lilting pop tune with back-up girl-group support, to a two-part harmony call-and-response, before a return to a solo plea. Great song, and like great poets, Nyro had the facility for language to create an image (like the "jigsaw Timer") that can't really be defined but still resonates powerfully. A live version follows. Then the studio recording of "Eli's Coming".
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession boasted three songs that were covered by other artists for big hits. "Eli's Coming" was a Top Ten hit on the charts in 1969 for the curiously popular Three Dog Night. "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness" went to #3 and #10 respectively for The Fifth Dimension (who made a fortune covering Laura's tunes over the years). Today it's unusual to listen to an album straight through. Younger listeners rarely even understand the concept. But Eli, New York Tendaberry, and Laura's next album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, were works that were greater than the sum of their parts. They were organic creations that transported listeners. With Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, released just before that Christmas Eve concert, Laura wove together more textural tunes but eschewed conventional hooks, so the record lacked "hit" potential. Only her cover of Goffin-King's "Up on the Roof" got much airplay. Still, her fans were mesmerized by the release. Duane Allman, Felix Cavaliere, Cornell Dupree, Chuck Rainey, and a host of other fine musicians contributed their considerable talents to her effort. Laura had no trouble earning the respect of her peers. In 1971 Nyro released Gonna Take A Miracle, a tribute to the girl groups of the previous decade, featuring LaBelle, a group comprised of the incomparable Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash. She recorded in (where else?) Philadelphia in the summer of '71, and it was clearly a labor of love. Songs like "Spanish Harlem" and "Jimmy Mack" were so much a part of her youth. At this time, Nyro fans searched hard to find the album More Than a New Discovery, later renamed Laura Nyro, which was recorded by Verve in 1966, received a release in '67 and which received a small repressing in 1969. This disc contained her earliest recordings and finally got a full release in 1973 as The First Songs. Some of her most popular compositions ("Billy's Blues", "And When I Die", "Stoney End", "Wedding Bell Blues", and "Flim Flam Man") could now be heard through her voice, rather than through the interpretations by the likes of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Barbra Streisand, or The Fifth Dimension. Below is a video clip of an 18-year-old Nyro singing "And When I Die". The recording isn't of great quality, but you can hear the gospel and the soul in a still tentative but experimental voice. It is followed by Laura's thoughts about the song. Afterwards is the song performed by a more mature vocalist at the Bottom Line in 1989. What a shift in tone and tenor!
Laura "retired" after Gonna Take A Miracle, and didn't record again for five years. She was married during much of this time, but after the union dissolved she returned to the piano, releasing an album of new songs, Smile, and going on tour. I think this jazz-influenced album contains one of her great bluesy compositions, "Money". Her recordings over the next few years were less commercial, and she was largely ignored by the general public. Still, her fans were as rabid as ever. Over the next two decades she'd release an album every five years or so, and they would sell modestly, but she was an afterthought in the business. Below is a clip of the song "Money".
Laura's final years were devoted to motherhood, animal rights activism, and her privacy. She was often coaxed to make appearances but largely demurred. She did make some live appearances at The Bottom Line and other venues in the 1990s, and word of a Nyro gig always raced through her fan base. Laura contracted ovarian cancer and succumbed to the disease in 1997 at the age of 49, the same malady that took her mother at exactly the same age. Laura's life partner for the preceding 17 years, Maria Desiderio, the subject of many Nyro songs, was with her at the end. Collections of live and studio recordings have trickled out over the years. Recognition for Laura Nyro has largely come from the many singers who have paid tribute to her influence. Much of that love was expressed passionately at the Hall of Fame induction this past spring. The most memorable Nyro concert I attended saw her at her worst. In May of 1971, Bill Graham's legendary venue Fillmore East in the East Village was just 30 days from closing forever when Laura played one of the last concerts at that site. I went with my friend Lenie, and I was disappointed that he was seeing her for the first and only time because she was so emotional that her voice cracked or she went flat throughout the evening. The show was recorded (but not released until 2004), and you can hear it in places. Perhaps it was not as dramatic a falling short as I recall it, because I had tried hard to convince Lenie of the luminosity of her live singing voice, but I winced frequently that night. She played some of her classic love songs ("Emmie"), and girl-group tunes (a mash of "I Am the Blues"/"Walk On By"/"Dancin' in the Street"), and, of course, "Timer". I'll leave this tribute to one of popular music's most singular talents with a cut from that performance, "American Dove", a love song never recorded in the studio, but a lovely piece in tribute to her soon-to-be husband, a Vietnam War vet. A beautiful song. A poignant lyric. A magical voice. Download New York Tendaberry for a good introduction, and check out Bette Midler's tearful tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction on YouTube. One long overdue.