The Missing Music: Laura Nyro   Leave a comment

September 27, 2011

Part 10: Laura Nyro: At Peace Among The Blossoms

This is the tenth and last of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Laura Nyro (1947-1997)

Laura Nyro was an unusual songwriter. To some her image was that of a folksinger. She wasn’t. To others she was just another pop songwriter. Wrong again. Perhaps Laura Nyro simply looked like a stereotypical folksinger, or some counter-culture performer. What’s interesting to me about Nyro was that she could fall into more than one catchall category, but most likely, enigma.

Nyro had some musical genes in her family tree. But I’m not one of those that believes the gene-pool guarantees talent from one generation to the next (nature). At least not all by itself. Her songwriting was clearly influenced by the times in which she came of age (nurture).  Born in 1947, she was 20 years old when San Francisco celebrated the summer of love and college campuses were moving along a road of unrest that would lead to Kent State. Maybe that’s the connection. Her songwriting could be conflicted. Feelings within one song, even the title of the song could suggest one outcome and Nyro would surprise you with another. Take “Wedding Bell Blues”. The suggestion is a less-than-happy ending. Yet, the song is about love, and belief, commitment, and the story-teller’s tenacity:

“Bill, I love you so I always will, I look at you and see the passion eyes of May

oh, but am I ever gonna see my wedding day?”

It sounds like a lament, but the reality is that it’s full of hope. By song’s end, there’s a playful quality to her plea, and you can almost hear Bill cave and ask her to marry him: “oh but Bill you know I wanna take my wedding vows, come on Bill, I got the wedding bell blues”.

If “Wedding Bell Blues” was about private hope, then “And When I Die” was about inner peace. Nyro dealt with heaven and hell, and life and death, all in the same song. She doesn’t ignore or deny the inevitable, but rather emphasizes the balance in living and dying; you can hear her exercise some subtlety as the lyrics deal with the fight for civil rights alongside an aversion to war: “Give me my freedom for as long as I be . . . All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me, and all I ask of dyin’ is to go naturally.” She then continues to her repeated conclusion: “when I die, and when I’m gone, There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on . . . .”

“Stoney End” was another of her songs to chime in about the realities of life and love, and in this case hit them both in the opening lines of the song: “I was born of love, and my poor mother worked the mines, I was raised on the good book Jesus, ’til I read between the lines, now I don’t believe I want to see the morning . . . .”  There’s a bit of the why bother in her lyrical analysis (which is a theme Lieber and Stoller and Peggy Lee addressed in “Is That All There Is”. The difference is they suggested that it’s best to ignore it all and move on.) Nyro wanted a mulligan, a do-over. In the refrain she asks “Mama let me start all over, cradle me . . . .”

Other Laura Nyro songs move through love, life, death, and life after death. In “Eli’s Comin'” Nyro warns the romantic listener at the outset: “Eli’s comin’, whoa you better hide your heart”. In “Stone Soul Picnic” what opens up like a call to a more leisurely time in America, seems to move to a Nyro-esque version of “People Get Ready” as she writes: “There’ll be trains of blossoms, There’ll be trains of music, There’ll be trains of trust, Trains of gold and dust, Sweet trains of thought, Can you surry?” If we use her spelling but assume she’s referring to surrey it makes perfect sense, since a surrey is a four-wheel carriage usually associated with a 19th century view of America, real or not. Nyro’s surry/surrey is a romanticized vision reminiscent of the train that’s coming in Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics. (Mayfield’s song “People Get Ready” predates Nyro’s.) And taking one more of her songs—”Save The Country”—again I find a Gospel-like theme inside: “I got fury in my soul, Fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal, In my mind I can’t study war no more. Save the people, save the children, save the country.”

Nyro’s word and song paintings bled across the canvas of 1960s topicality. Native Americans in “Broken Rainbows”; animal rights in “Lite A Flame”; and intoxications in “Sweet Blindness”. Other songs emerged from her 1960’s songwriting and recording: “(Hands off The Man) The Flim-Flam Man”; “Blowin’ Away”; “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle”.

Nyro continued to enjoy great success as a songwriter, and some success with her albums. She was a constant sales success with her albums, but at a somewhat “under the radar” level. Her albums spent an average of  three months on the charts, reflecting a dedicated following; her singles were almost invisible: “Wedding Bell Blues” and “It’s Gonna Take  A Miracle” were Nyro singles that never made Billboard’s Top-100; another single spent two weeks on the charts and disappeared.

Although none of the songs Laura Nyro wrote would become her pop hits,  Nyro’s first album More Than A New Discovery, released in 1967, was mined for repertoire by a variety of artists who enjoyed far more commercial success (defined as singles and album consumer sales and chart success) than Nyro: “And When I Die”, a hit for Blood, Sweat, and Tears in 1969; “Blowing Away”, became a Fifth Dimension hit in 1970; and “Stoney End” and “(Hands off The Man) The Flim-Flam Man” put Streisand on the charts twice in 1971.

In 1968, her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, once again provided no hit singles for Nyro, but plenty of material for other artists: “Stone Soul Picnic” was a hit for the Fifth Dimension in 1968 as was “Sweet Blindness”; “Eli’s Comin'” was a hit for Three Dog Night in 1969. Her third album, arguably her best, was covered the least. “Save the Country” was recorded and released as a single by both the Fifth Dimension and Thelma Houston.

Nyro enjoyed almost three decades of songwriting and recording success, yet human instinct—the artist’s or the audience’s—often wants more. When Laura Nyro died, noted music critic Stephen Holden wrote an obit for the New York Times. His comments, on April 10, 1997, included the following:

As a recording artist, Ms. Nyro never had a gold album or a hit single, but many of her songs were hits for others. And her albums, especially her 1968 song suite ”Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” (Columbia), a sometimes impenetrable mosaic of fragments, reflections and fantasies with a Southern gospel feel, was one of the most influential pop recordings of the late 1960’s. . . .

Never comfortable in the limelight, Ms. Nyro married and retreated from the music business to lead a secluded life for the next three years in a fishing village in Massachusetts. After the marriage ended in divorce, she returned to recording. . . . [within her body of work, including her later recordings] her songs gave increasingly direct expression to the pantheism that had always lurked in her writing. But if her later songs exalted pacifism, feminism, motherhood and animal rights, the emotional turmoil of old was never far from the surface.

Although already keenly aware of her illness (ovarian cancer) Laura Nyro was personally involved in the selection and design of a 30+ song, two-CD retrospective titled The Best of Laura Nyro: Stoned Soul Picnic, released shortly before her death. In “And When I Die” she addressed a time after she’s gone:  “There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on”. We have all carried on since 1997, but we would have given her more than 49 years if we’d been able to. Her songs enriched our lives. We can hope she’s sitting in that surrey, among the trains of blossoms, music, trust, gold, and thought, and in peace. Surrey on Laura.

Prior: Eva Cassidy

Next: Closing Thoughts

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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