nothing gold can stay
Natures first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
* * *
There's hardly a stranger case in the rock era than Laura
Nyro's. There have been many performers who said they were going to make their
statement, collect their money and get out before they were thrown out, but
Nyro really did it. She didn't quit for a few years and then stage a big, media-sweeping
comeback. She didn't wait until she'd lost her following or her record deal
and then head for the hills. She was really hot, and then she really stopped.
She's pop music's J.D. Salinger.
(Bill Flanagan, Musician Magazine)
There is a confessional, purgative, Spanish Catholic
mystery lurking in her songs that sometimes comes out as pure gospel rejoicing,
and other times it's a bit more of a secret, but she's always reminding you
that God and the Devil are at each other's throats
It's a mythic, romantic
way of looking at things, but Laura's music is always earthbound for all its
lyric elusiveness, and often it's just plain pagan. "Some people think
of my music as purely sexual, some think of it in a spiritual, religious way,
and, like, what it is, everything. All the rivers flow."
(From a Bronx Ophelia, by Michael Thomas in Eye Magazine, May 1969)
I was obsessed with her music back then. She wrote and sang deeply heartfelt urban music about sex and death and love; her limits were nothing less than fury and glory and God and the Devil.
I knew every note of the First Songs, Eli and The Thirteenth
Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and The Beads of Sweat. I used
to sing them to myself for comfort on long subway rides into Brooklyn with my
family. Even now her lyrics come into my mind at least once a week or so.
(Suzanne Vega. Liner notes from Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro, 1997.
* * *
Consider this: You are a young songwriter recording your first album. You play music that doesnt really fit into any one category. Its folk/Motown/Broadway/jazz/Muscle Shoals all-in-one. To compound the challenge, your music is written into the teeth of a hurricane of change in songwriting. Dylan is just one year removed from Highway 61 Revisited, and is only now releasing Blonde on Blonde. The Beatles Revolver is on the airwaves, as soon will be Brian Wilsons Pet Sounds-theres some good competition out there. Joni Mitchell has not yet even signed her own contract with Reprise and most every other woman in the business is singing someone elses songs. This is, after all, the year when the only women to top the charts will be Nancy Sinatra with These Boots are Made For Walking, and Petula Clarks My Love. Despite the obstacles, that first album is full of songs destined to become immense hits, songs that are melodically complex, inventive, and irresistible-the equal of anything from Goffin-King, Sedaka, or Mann-Weil.
Within five years youll reel-off four albums worth of your own songs and a fifth that is an album of soul and R&B covers. The albums-More Than a New Discovery (1967), Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), and Gonna Take a Miracle (1971)-are, truth be told, easily a match for the music of Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, or Jimmy Webb. Youre signed to your Columbia contract by your new manager, David Geffen-youre the reason he becomes a manager in the first place-and you get a $4 million advance. You do all of this between your 19th and 24th birthdays, when, soon after, you withdraw from the scene, already a legend.
As incredible as this may sound, this just touches the surface of the amazing burst of creativity that was Laura Nyros between 1966 and 1971, as brilliant a period of music-making as has ever been accomplished by a solo artist, matched only, maybe, by Stevie Wonders quartet of albums between 72 and 76-Talking Book, Innervision, Fulfillingness First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life, and he already had a decade of experience behind him by that point. To use that over-used phrase, Laura Nyro was nothing if not a prodigious musical talent, a woman possessed by a blinding inner vision of the music she needed to make. It was a muse she alone could hear, and in pursuit of this vision she was relentlessly self-critical and demanding. The evidence of that talent is there for all to hear on those albums.
* * *
I bought my first Laura Nyro record sometime in 1973
or 74. It was her first album, re-titled and re-issued by Columbia as
The First Songs. Soon, I bought the rest of her catalogue. I still have those
vinyl albums, their covers worn, with white rings on the jacket sleeves from
being pulled-out one too many times from some tightly packed milk crates. Their
covers were mysterious and exotic to me. Nyros photo on Eli was particularly
arresting-the dark hair and eyes, the full lips. When I heard the news that
she had died, it hit me like a freight train. Laura Nyros music was forever
linked to youth-hers; mine. This essay is not a retrospective of her music,
nor an attempt at biography. It is simply my own appreciation of her music,
using three songs from those incredible first albums as launch points, an appreciation
of music from one so young who, as it came to pass, died so young as well.
The album on which this song is found, New York Tendaberry, was recorded at Columbias New York studio A in February of 1969. The album was released in September of that year. The song, Gibsom Street, is as good a place as any to start our walk through her music. The song begins with the saddest of piano lines-they are the embodiment of reverence. You can almost see the snow gently falling outside on a cold New York winter night; Studio A has become a holy place, a church. Gibsom Street is a sterling example of Nyros genius. Listen to the segue from the gentle, almost hymn-like opening, to the powerful, rocking, gospel-fueled chorus, and then back again. Her remarkable voice spans the entire spectrum of emotion, from a gentle whisper to full-throttled soprano. Gibsom Street is not the work of an apprentice. Nyros music, in its dynamic range, its pageantry, is far closer to the musical Hair, or maybe Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story, or what Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber are trying to capture with their first musicals. She achieves the kind of drama that will forever elude Bacharach in his own attempts at Broadway.
Dynamic is also a good word to describe the song New York Tendaberry. Listen to how Nyro begins the song, with the quietest of whispers, gently moving over this lush rhyme:
New York tendaberry
A rush on rum
Of brush and drum.
Its how she uses the sounds of the words to draw
you in. How she lavishes attention and care on each sound, highlighting each
of them in turn, as little moments all their own. Listen to her pure voice on
the second to last line of the song-though silver tears-before singing,
in the smallest, quietest of voices, New York tendaberry, in a whisper
barely audible above the crackle of the vinyl record, whose hisses and pops
sound like rain on a sidewalk.
Wedding Bell Blues
This song, from the album More than a New Discovery is a wonderful celebration of melody, a mini tribute to every girl group of the 60s. It was recorded in 1966. The song is so familiar that even those whove never head of Laura Nyro instantly recognize the songs opening Bill .. Soon after, you realize that this isnt the Fifth Dimension (the harmonica is usually the giveaway) but you can clearly see how closely that group stuck to the template Nyro gave them. Listen to the full, easy soulfulness of Nyros vocal, the complete self-assurance and immaculate sense of timing, phrasing, and rhythm on an otherwise throwaway line like I was the one came running/When you were lonely
More astonishing is to learn that this was one of the first songs she ever wrote. Something like writing Yesterday as your first composition. As light as this song may seem, it not only gave Nyro a big hit (as songwriter), it also serves as an excellent map to her musical style: the bold piano line, the un-classifiable blues-jazz-operatic vocal (as though Joan Baez was transmorgrified with Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Spector, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield all at once), and the backing vocal using the old-time gospel tradition of the call and response technique.
All through that first album, Nyros vocal ability
is showcased. On Billys Blues Nyro blows away all of her contemporaries
with a dusky, sexy jazz vocal. On And When I Die she adds gospel
Queen Mahalia Jackson to her vocal DNA. Watch for how she handles the line when
I die/therell be one child more/when I die, at the end of the song,
the way her voice slides from the lower to higher registers, simulating the
gospel lead and choral back-up vocals in one voice-remarkable.
Elis Coming, from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, is practically an entire primer on pop styles in one 3 minute and 57 second song. The song starts with just a throaty Hammond B3 organ and a vocal from Laura that starts low and then moves into a pure high soprano. The beat then kicks in, the drums and piano driving the song forward, the brass section playing like banchees, and Nyro singing both lead vocal and backing vocals in a fast staccato, the band barely able to keep up. Nyro then stops the band cold and shifts back to the organ before settling into an easy pop beat with the strummed electric guitar for the play-out, her backing vocals whooping and wailing behind a Supremes vocal.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is an encyclodepia of Nyros vocal dexterity and skill as a composer. On Lu we hear a swinging beat combined with the doo-wop sound Nyro so loved. Listen to how skillfully she transitions from the main melody to the transition in the middle of the song which is a bizarre combination of Dionne Warwick fronting Blood Sweat and Tears, and then back out again. Emmie features a wonderfully lush vocal line that runs the gamet of the pop vocabulary --from a gentle pop ballad complete with strings and vibes that sounds like Bacharachs Alfie combined with elements of Pet Sounds (especially the use of tympani), to an ending straight from Motown or Phil Spector.
A primer all its own is the song Once it was Alright Now. She starts the song with a driving rock nroll, honky-tonk piano (like some sort of precursor to Presleys Burning Love), then abruptly changes the pace to a segment built around a musical phrase straight out of the Bacharach song book (a kind of Do You Know the Way to San Jose melodic phrase and vocal), and then, quick-silver, she changes the pace again and is off and running on a doo run run beat. The doo run run beat morphs into the honky tonk piano again-she rides the beat good and hard, growling out the lyric-and then just when you think shes gone off to hang out with Jerry Lee Lewis and the good ol boys, she changes direction again. With a high soprano she moves into an R&B beat-like something from Aretha Franklin meets the Temptations--and then, she winds it down again. You hear her high soprano over a gentle trumpet and vibe(!) combination that sounds like a childrens nursery rhyme. Its a mindblowing 2:58 of pop.
* * *
Theres a famous photograph of Laura Nyro, taken sometime around the recording of New York Tendaberry. It shows Nyro seated at her piano, talking to Miles Davis. She had asked Davis to sit in on one of the sessions, to contribute something to a couple of her songs. Its said that after Davis heard Nyro run through the song-Im not sure which one-that he turned to her and said: I cant play that; youve already done it all. That pretty well sums up just how good Nyro was.
Nyro retired from the eye of the storm. She had nothing to prove, and she didnt make music for fame. Maybe the muse left her for a time-well never know for sure. In that disappearance she achieved a kind of mythic status among musicians and listeners, a status only slightly dimmed by the relative disappointment of her later albums. She became a kind of Bobby Fischer of music, the young prodigy who appears out of nowhere, dazzles the world, and then vanishes. Forevermore, her admirers dreamt that she would return, like some sort of female Arthurian legend, to sweep aside the pretenders to her throne. Her rare public performances were proof of her skills. On any given night she retained the ability to be as captivating a performer as she so desired. From the moment she took the stage, she did make a lot that came after her seem like so much filler, like chaff to the wind.
Now, Nyro is truly gone. But as long as those records are played, we will be reminded of how Nyro managed to capture lightning in a bottle. How many of us even dare dream of such things?
* * *
Sources and References.
For the casual listener, one need not go any further than the 1997, 2 CD compilation package, Stoned Soul Picnic--The Best of Laura Nyro (Columbia/Legacy C2K 48880), which brings together cuts from across her 25 years with Columbia. She approved the final selection of tracks before she died (although not before having to wrangle with Columbia). It was nice that she had a chance to do that, knowing, as she did, that the cancer would probably prevail.
All the early albums mentioned in this essay are still available. Her later albums tell a different story. Of the 6 she released after she first stepped back from the spotlight in 71, only 2 are still in print through Columbia (a third, Season of Lights is available only from Columbia/Japan). One of the 6 albums was rejected by Columbia: 1989s Laura-Live at the Bottom Line was released through a small independent label, Cypress/A&M.
A fan-operated website is a source of a lot of basic and not-so-basic information. Its address is: www.LauraNyro.net