Archive for the ‘Obituary’ Category

Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

The Roaring Current of Change   Leave a comment

The Roaring Current Of Change

August 1, 2016

Working with successful musicians for three decades, I learned a great deal about the changing nature of music and technology. For instance, when I began marketing music, I entered a record  industry that was dominated by the LP vinyl record.  By the time I began teaching grad students in 1998, the music industry was in another transition: CDs to digital downloads.

One of my lectures to those students at New York University focused on technological change, and how to recognize change,and then adapt, adopt, or ignore it. Between the start of the recording industry (1889) and 1950, consumers had two choices: cylinders (through the 1920s) and discs; the latter became those heavy 78-rpm records our parents or grandparents owned. In post WWII America, the pace of change began to accelerate. During the next 50 years the recording industry went from mono to stereo to multi-track, and consumers had more than 20 choices including vinyl singles and albums, a variety of tape formats, then DATs, compact discs, DVDs, and MP3s.

As I began writing my first book* I recalled attending a lecture some twenty years earlier where I first heard of Alvin Toffler. (The author died June 27th). Toffler, in his 1970 book future_shockFuture Shock picked up a cue from economist and futurist Kenneth Boulding, and put forth the idea of the accelerated rate of change in society, and its impact on the human race. Although written half a century ago (and mindful of we who travel at a slower intellectual speed than Toffler or Boulding,) I present his illustration. Toffler wrote that the Twentieth Century

“‘. . . represents The Great Median Strip running down the center of human history. Thus [Boulding] asserts, ‘The world of today . . . is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar’s. I was born in the middle of human history. To date, roughly, almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.’

This startling statement can be illustrated in a number of ways. It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. ZOMBIE 54d1c448004ee_-_esq-ape-man-dwiqis-zombiesOnly during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively from one lifetime to another—as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.”

In the 1970s Gordon E. Moore put forth a theory that became an accepted axiom in the tech industry: Moore’s Law. The shorthand version is this: “Computer processor speeds or overall processing power will double every two years.” When we use a computer to search the internet, or to save a document, or to copy a data file, or to connect to a network, speed is almost everything. For those who remember the days of dialing up Prodigy, CompuServe, or AOL while using a 1200 baud modem, we learned to be patient. Then we upgraded to a 2400 baud modem and thought, “Holy shit, this is soooo fast.” It really wasn’t but in relation to that 1200 baud modem it was almost Star Trekian. Now consider the 2400 baud modem compared with today’s basic DSL broadband connection. Using DSL, a 20mb (megabyte) data file will download in about 9 minutes. With a 2400 Baud modem the file would download in 18 HOURS. Moore was proven correct, at least for the next thirty years.

News media, social media and online discussions have not been immune to the impact of speed. More and more people can find information, and find discussions in which to participate. In 1990 Michael Godwin developed Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” He makes the point that the Nazi/Hitler reference occurs regardless of the discussion’s topic or scope. And ultimately the comparison shifts from an online discussion and goes mainstream. On December 8, 2015, the New York Daily News, not a fan of Donald Trump, ran a story by Shaun King titled “Donald Trump Has Gone Full Blown Nazi On Us”.  King’s opening paragraph got right to the point: “As Donald Trump’s lead in the polls continues to grow, so does his bigotry, sexism, xenophobia—so bad, in fact, that major media outlets have taken to comparing the billionaire blowhard to Adolf Hitler, another narcissist who managed to make millions of people feel increasingly unsafe.” Clearly, more people having access to a discussion does not necessarily assure an elevated level of discourse.

In the 1960s, anti-drug efforts included the phrase “Speed Kills”. It was used to warn people about the abuse of methamphetamine hydrochloride, best known by one of its trade names, Methedrine, aka “Speed”. Decades later safe driving advocates adopted the same phrase to encourage drivers to slow down: “Speed Kills”. The message today is not as literal or as oblique as some might think. In theory, a fast internet requires less time for us to sit on our hands and wonder what we’ll be reading when the page finally finishes loading. Today the pages load quickly, if not instantly. All of that increased internet speed provides the time to help reinforce one’s core beliefs, since it’s easier to quickly find people with whom one agrees. Far too many people enter an informed myopia. For example, observing the crowds adoring a self-aggrandizing ass like Donald Trump speaks volumes about how all of that increased internet speed helps many buy-into the snake-oil Trump is selling: xenophobia, religious bigotry, sexism, race-baiting, misogyny, birtherism, racial profiling, jingoism, and more. Google, Facebook, and other social nets develop algorithms in an attempt to “please” their users by giving them primarily (or only) information that the computer determines is “what they want to know”.

Social media strategist John McElhenney put the echo-chamber like this: “We’ve heard it called many things: Confirmation bias. Influence bubble. Like-minded people flock together. Some interesting data is being pulled from the clouds to determine the linkage between us and our political views. And even more data is being organized and sold to allow businesses to sell you more products and services. Ad infinitum.” Make no mistake. Politicians and political organizations are selling something and they hope you’re buying.

Senator Ransom Stoddard, in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, comes clean to the local newspaper editor about the shooting of the outlaw Valance but the editor decides to not print the true story. The senator asks him, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” to which the editor replies “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Many people in this information age may get more information from more sources, but they tend to select or are guided to like-minded sources. Inevitably, rumors and lies become fact and truth, reinforced within a noisy echo chamber. It’s all part of what Toffler called the roaring current of change. And it’s up to each of us to stop look and listen. We must get outside of our bubble, outside of our comfort zone, and engage.

David Steffen

©2016 David Steffen

*From Edison To Marconi: The First Thirty Years of Recorded Music

 

Remembering Steve Backer   Leave a comment

A Letter To Steve

May 1, 2014

Dear Steve.

It’s been more than a year since we last spoke on the phone. That’s my fault. Last time you called me and after a lengthy conversation I then promised to call you. But I let working hard in California (and my distaste for email) leave a silence all this time. I apologize for that. You have been an important part of my life for thirty years. And you still are.

Last time we spoke we did some reminiscing about how we became friends through the music. During the 1980s I was with A&M records managing sales and distribution from Los Angeles, and as part of that responsibility I was the liaison with Windham Hill, which is how we met.  You were helping Windham Hill Records develop some new artists, and together we found that our musical tastes weren’t too dissimilar. After Windham Hill, you worked with RCA Records, creating the Novus series, and we reunited when I joined BMG in 1990 and moved to the east coast, working (like you) in New York City.  Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t speak during our individual transitions as our friendship was way beyond a business association. And I was pleased that we’d be working together, again.

l-r: David Steffen, Carmen McRae, Steve Backer

Post Concert with Carmen McRae, ca. 1993 New York City. David Steffen (l), Steve Backer (r)

When I moved, in 1996, to Universal Music to manage GRP/Impulse Records, we once again shared ideas on projects, artists, musicians, and writers, where you contributed as a consultant and independent producer. It was you who directed me toward Impulse recording artist Michael Brecker, a musician whose music and reputation I knew, but a musician I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. We had a mutual respect for other artists on the label, including Eric Reed, Diana Krall, Danilo Perez, Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, and so many more. Your relationship with independent producer Michael Cuscuna and members of John Coltrane’s family contributed to some of our most amazing reissues and as importantly, our most amazing dinner conversations. The Live at Smalls project, though I’m sorry to say not embraced by some at GRP/Impulse, was a wonderful example of your ability to generate ideas on working with new, young talent. Your friendship eased my first days, weeks, and months at GRP/Impulse, helping me get to know the artists, and transitioning into my new job in New York. You told me to trust people like Hollis King whose creative touch helped redefine the artwork for the Impulse, GRP, Commodore (and other) recordings we released. You, knowingly or not, provided the imprimatur that helped make the difficult job of turning GRP around a little easier.

Away from the office you have always been a rational sounding board to help clarify (or properly identify) the wheat and the chaff. You never suffered fools from those within the music industry or in daily life itself and your clarity was welcome. Our shared lunches, dinners, bottles of wine, (oh those bottles of wine) and concert performances we enjoyed together are vivid memories. A favorite photograph I’ve kept since it was taken more than 20 years ago shows us backstage after a performance by Carmen McRae.

The accolades you’ve received over the years have been the perfect musical bed to drown out the noise from the occasional “colleague” with whom you could, would, and did disagree. Shortcuts and corner-cutting were never strategic options for you. Each artist you signed, each recording you made, each reissue you helped bring back to the public was treated with respect and dignity. For you, quality on all fronts wasn’t a sometimes thing. It was a necessary component of the process. Artistry has been an all-encompassing concept, and part of your mantra. The dignity of the artist is not to be lost in the process as long as you are in charge.

I received an email from Gail Boyd recently alerting me to an article about you in the New York Times. The article was titled, somewhat mysteriously, “Steve Backer, a Force for Jazz at Major Labels, Dies at 76”.  Why would they profile your wonderful career and then apply that title to the piece? The Times has been wrong before and I can only assume that some other guy named Steve Backer died and they didn’t check the facts. You may or may not know this or acknowledge this but you’re a legend in our music community. Our lives have traveled somewhat parallel paths (although I’m not legendary), as we spent a decade or more working at other companies before finally meeting in the 1980s. I’m just glad our lives did, in fact, cross. The music has been as central to your life as it has been to mine.

Let’s clear this other thing up. You’re not dead. Your here, with all of us right now. Your music continues to play on. And what you’ve contributed to all of the lives you’ve touched is not some amorphous, ephemeral thing. It’s tangible, real, valuable, and not to be casually discarded. You’ve made a difference and I’m pissed off that anyone could actually think you’ve gone and died. Until I see you again, consider suing the Times; then once this dead thing is straightened out, let’s meet for a great bottle of wine, at one of our favorite spots in Manhattan. We’ll reminisce, laugh, shed a tear or two, and toast the music.

Love you.

David

© David Steffen 2014

 

So Long Steve . . . .   1 comment

October 8, 2011

. . . . and thanks for all the bytes.

I was 15 years old and a fan of a television show called Shindig. One evening in 1963 the Righteous Brothers were the featured performers. Instead of one of the nuggets from their repertoire of blue-eyed soul, they performed something different. Still bluesy, yet melodic in a new way for them, with production values that they had not previously incorporated into their recordings. The song was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the record was produced by the still infamous Phil Spector. The next morning I went to the one record store in the city of Milwaukee that I knew would have it, and there it was. I bought it, took it home, and still have that single. It became the biggest hit for the Righteous Brothers, one of the most played recordings ever on American radio, and to this day is a great listen.

Almost twenty years later I was living in Newhall, California, the city now known as Santa Clarita. In those days it was an L.A. bedroom community just off Interstate-5. Lyons Avenue was the main drag, and Newhall’s rural nature was reflected in the age of the city. It had a college (California Institute of the Arts), classic old construction and newly created tract-house subdivisions. There was a large major park, a legacy of the 250+ acre estate owned by early film star William S. Hart. When we moved to Newhall it was more old California—read that as “tired”—than nouveau. But it was friendly, comfortable and more importantly, it was affordable. We stayed there 13 years.

About a half-mile from the interchange where I-5-met Lyons Avenue stood one of many strip-malls, and in a small retail space on the east end of the strip was something I had never entered before: a computer store. I walked in and became fascinated by this new concept, displaying numerous small personal computers, including something by this company called Apple Computer, and the computer I looked at was dubbed the Apple II. (I never saw an Apple I.) I bought an Apple II that day.  I then spent some time trying to figure out what I could do with, what was for me, a great leap forward. I had all the needed peripherals (although that’s not how I remember they were described.) These extra gadgets included a dot-matrix printer, a floppy drive (5″ variety), and a monitor. I wasn’t a computer geek or nerd, but I was thinking about what this new electronic device might actually contribute to my life.

A few years later, in 1983, I heard about the impending launch of a new computer from Apple and I heard the company would be running a special one-minute ad on the upcoming Superbowl. As 1983 turned into 1984, the football season came to its usual conclusion on January 22nd, with Superbowl XVIII. And beyond the Oakland Raiders whipping of the Washington Redskins, Apple’s new computer, the MacIntosh, was launched with the now famous “1984” ad, directed by Ridley Scott. Like the Righteous Brothers’ performance twenty years earlier, I was once again motivated to go and buy something. Unlike that hunt for the Righteous Brothers new single, all I could do was look at the MacIntosh as they weren’t yet in my local store. I put a deposit down. I wanted one. And when I finally got it home, I knew that this was an entirely different idea in a home computer; obviously it was a success.

I still have that original Mac on my bookshelf. Every couple of years I plug it in and test it. It still works. About 1985 I migrated to a Mac at my office—part of one of a few small Apple-islands in the middle of many IBMs at A&M in Hollywood. I also had a 1993 Powerbook 160 (kept that one too), at least three desktop Mac’s, a G4 Powerbook, my 2007 MacBook, plus an iPod. All of this is simply part of my little homage to Steve Jobs. I can’t fall in lockstep with most of my other Mac friends and suggest that everything Jobs or Apple did was great. (Think Lisa, or Cube.) But even the post 1997 failures were aesthetic successes.

My purchase of Apple products wasn’t, isn’t, about blind devotion. Rather they reflect my appreciation for well-designed, high quality, adaptable ideas, albeit at a higher price. Jobs’ mantra included a concept of design that essentially says, give the consumers what they want before they know they want it. His private nature, limited wardrobe, mercurial personality, were only a few manifestations of the genius of Jobs. He was very much like the best record label owners and producers I had the pleasure of working with during almost three decades in the music industry. They had an ear for great songs and great performers and an ability to anticipate where music was going. Jobs had an eye for great design and had a similar vision, although on a far grander scale. This week people have made numerous comparisons to Apple.  I’ve heard the names Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as examples of other, ostensibly, successful companies that compare to Apple. Profits aren’t the same as vision. A fusball table, a free massage, or organic food in the cafeteria don’t a culture make. Everything Google, Facebook, and Twitter are attempting to sell us is derivative. When they are able to lead the market with unique successes, for 20 or 30 years, call me. Until then, stop the comparisons. And Steve, rest easy and stay foolish.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

Posted October 7, 2011 by Jazzdavid in History, Obituary, Technology, Uncategorized

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The Missing Music: Closing Reflections on Ten Women in Music   1 comment

September 28, 2011

The Lost Music:  Ten Talented Women Who Left Us Too Early

Here’s hoping you had a chance to read one or more of the pieces in this series. (Links to all of them are below.) These ten women were selected with the emotion of a music lover. I started a list of all the female performers that I’ve appreciated through the years, all of whom are included in the vinyl albums, vinyl singles, cassette tapes, and CDs I’ve warehoused in Milwaukee, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Connecticut, or Minnesota, and now in Northern California. Unfortunately, there was one characteristic shared by all ten: death before their time. This wasn’t a bunch of teenagers who died in some collective accident. How and when they died was an individual event; and the women crossed musical styles and genres, shared no birthdays, experienced their own generational boundaries, and each left some lasting impact, large or small, on American popular music. And they all have a place on my desert-island list.

Each woman made a significant contribution—in my opinion—to the lasting greatness that is music-as-art. The more I thought about my list, I knew there was something special within the story of each one of these women: Patsy ClineJanis JoplinTammi TerrellSandy DennyMinnie RipertonKaren CarpenterLaura BraniganKirsty MacCollEva Cassidy, and Laura Nyro. If you’ll allow me (and at the risk of too much drama,) I’ll take some additional time to talk about their deaths.

Like any person who has shied away from Shakespeare since high school or college, I recall the opening passage from Hamlet’s “Soliloquy”—”To Be or Not To Be”—while another phrase from that piece had long disappeared from my consciousness: “The Undiscovered Country”. It was refreshed some years ago when a large number of movie fans and most Star Trek fans—myself included—heard that phrase as it was appropriated for one of the better feature films in the Star Trek series: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. As the debates between the principal characters—whether Klingon, Vulcan, or Earth—progress in the film, the reference to the quote from Hamlet takes center stage. The use of “The undiscovered country” in the title is the future, which in fact, is true enough. But in a focused and far more literal sense, the Bard was talking not about the future in general, but about death:

“Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of?”

These ten women, musicians, and legendary performers are all gone. They’ll not return, but one way or another we’ll join them. Until that moment, we continue to have the pleasure of their music. It enriches our lives, stimulates our psyche, captures our emotion, and provides each of us with something to share; with our lovers, our friends, our families, our co-workers; with anyone who’s interested in discovering or sharing music. Wherever they are—Cline, Joplin, Terrell, Denny, Riperton, Carpenter, Branigan, MacColl, Cassidy, and Nyro—may they know the joy they brought to us and the joy that they will continue to bring to millions long after we too have gone on to the undiscovered country.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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

The Missing Music: Eva Cassidy   3 comments

September 26, 2011

Part 9: Eva Cassidy: The Lost Songbird

This is the ninth 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.

Eva Cassidy (1963-1996)

I was a late arrival to Eva Cassidy. So late, in fact, that any of her music that might have been playing on the radio or as mood music in a local restaurant must have blended perfectly into the background. Ambiance personified. My fully conscious introduction to Cassidy was via music selected for the film Love Actually. The version of her recording of “Songbird” was one part of a brilliantly-selected group of songs for use in that film. And consistent with most of Cassidy’s recorded works, it wasn’t an original Cassidy composition. Instead, Christine McVie, the often unsung—my opinion—vocal, keyboard, and songwriting talent within Fleetwood Mac, wrote “Songbird” which, along with “Don’t Stop”, “You Make Loving Fun”, and “Oh Daddy”, was included on the wildly successful 1977 Rumours album. Cassidy, as the best vocalists and musicians must do, made the song her own.

Eva Cassidy’s gifted vocal performance and the placement in Love Actually lifted her profile considerably, albeit seven years after her death in 1996 from melanoma. She also benefited from her recording of “Over The Rainbow”, which British television used (a few years before Love Actually,) and predictably, it too broadened the fan-base. For obvious reasons there isn’t a giant catalog of recorded material by Cassidy, who was as prolific as a graphic artist as a recording artist. But like Vincent Van Gogh, who sold but one painting while he was alive, Cassidy’s recordings weren’t discovered during her life by a vast audience clamoring for more. Absent commercial success, there was no organic marketplace providing the impetus for more recordings. At least the recordings Eva Cassidy did have time to make have found an audience today. With her death at age 33, one can’t help but wonder where producers or arrangers would have taken her with more time. But time is a luxury she didn’t have.

Prior: Kirsty MacColl

Last: Laura Nyro

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

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