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NYT
 

 The Divine Miss N

 
An essay, a memoir—by Peter Rocheleau                    
      

 Assistance: Francine Eisner

                   
    






SWOON

Laura Nyro died in April 1997. I started writing my piece on Nyro in October 1998. I never planned to write it. Some sentences came to me one afternoon—and it went on from there. My friend Fran Eisner created a quasi-website for it in 2003. She uploaded it to the quasi-site. And there it remained—for approximately 8 years. I got lots of letters (emails), over time. Across 8 years: hundreds. Then I grew tired of it. (Fran forgot to pay the bill.) The quasi-site was taken down in 2012. But since 2012—I’ve received many requests via email to restore it. (Three requests.) Herewith below the essay—with some changes. And so I could almost say (and on a very small scale): back by popular demand.

I had set out to encapsulate her, to describe her well, to sum her up. I didn’t succeed. Most of what I read about Nyro isn’t very good. Sometimes (perhaps once a year) I will come across a bit of writing about Nyro—and it is very, very good. The author—it will seem—has captured her—in, say, 6 paragraphs. Whereas I could not in 60. “Yes yes yes,” I will say to myself. “The author has done it!” The essay that follows is (in my judgment) good in places, not good in others. It is a flawed piece—with virtues. Le comte de Mirabeau I believe said: “Paris is a sphinx, I will drag her secret from her.” Nyro is a sphinx. I now know: I will never hold, or grasp, her secret—the secret, or key, to comprehending her. To comprehending her even a little bit. (I’ve more or less given up.)

Let me say parenthetically: I am not at all convinced that it is even right—morally right—to “celebrate” someone’s talent in the (almost shameless) way that I have. I suspect it isn’t. Im sure it isn’t. But this item—the writing of it at least—is a fait accompli at this point.

 I had titled the piece Laura Nyro: Enchantress. The “Divine Miss N” title is irony—or an attempt at irony. At the same time I’m saying it with a straight face as it were. Nyro was the antithesis of all that: the antithesis of the professional celebrity, the flamboyant woman star, the diva (sharing word origin with “divine”). And yet, a little weirdly, the epithet is apt. There is of course a divine aspect to talent like Nyro’s. (And I’m atheist.) Simone Weil said—every work of art of the first order is a communiqué direct from God.

There was, and there is, the divine Miss Midler. Callas was “the divine one.” As was Sarah Vaughan. As was Michelangelo. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri was originally just Comedia, named Divina by posterity. “The Divine Miss N” title reverberates, reflects back on itself, has competing implications. She was just the opposite—yet she (paradoxically) rises to the level of it.









SWOON TWO

THE MAGNIFICENT LAURA NYRO was one of the first singer-songwriters. She was more than a greatly talented singer-songwriter. She was a prodigy, a phenomenon. She was a brilliant singer, pianist, composer, and poet: she is, arguably, the only human being who has ever lived in whom all of these came together. She was possessed of extraordinary musical instinctsof which one hears “evidence” everywhereat the centers of her creationsand way over at their extreme peripheries.

She was one of the all-time great melodists (altho’ the creation of beautiful melodies is inseparable from the creation of beautiful harmonic progressions—and there is perhaps no such thing as the mere writing of tunes). Nyros best compositions were—sublime.

 As a singer she lacked nothing. Her voice was sometimes thrilling in live performance. Her voice was beautiful and powerfulsometimes piercing. (Maria Malibrans voice, they said, was both beautiful and powerfula combination once deemed anomalous and inherently contradictory.)

 So... she was part Maria Malibranand part Vincenzo Bellini. (Bellini and Malibran rolled into one?)

 We will not, in our lifetimes, again see the likes of her.

 Laura Nyro died in 1997, at age 49.

 

 

Peter Rocheleau lives in New York City.
Email: redlon4@yahoo.com


Author Note:
I am not now nor ever have been (nor ever will be) a Facebook
user.

I am not that Peter Rocheleau. I am not part of Facebooknot part of X/Twitter, not part of Instagram, not part of MyLife, not part of LinkedIn. And have never been. Nor would they have me, possibly. The Internet, per se, is all the social media platform I want. In the United States presently there are 5 or 6 or maybe 7 Peter Rocheleau’s. As well 3 or 4 Pierre Rocheleaus. Someone put me onto Facebook (created an entry, or a page, on my behalfperhaps someone could help me out with the terms) in 2010 and I was listed as being from Westbrook Connecticut. If I were to have uploaded my information onto a Facebook serverI wouldve got the state right. I am not from Westbrook Connecticut. I have trouble in saying it. It is mean-spirited. Je trouve ces plateforms dégoûtantes, répugnantes, affreuses. 

 











  NYT













First of all, before anything else, there was that voice. There are few gorgeous voices, as there are few gorgeous persons. Laura Nyro’s voice was gorgeous. A recording of Nyro is the auditory equivalent of a photograph of the young Ava Gardner.
Nyro’s recording of “Spanish Harlem,” for example, begins with fifteen or so seconds of vocalizing. The sounds she produces radiate beauty. Laura Nyro had no need to be a raving beauty as her voice was that.

                                                                                                         NCX  


Singer-songwriters often cannot sing. Within this great genre, singing is the least part of the equation. The writing’s the thing, and a beautiful voice might even be met with hostility, in some settings, or be regarded as painting the wrong picture. Most commonly singer-songwriters sing adequately—well enough to cover the territory. Nyro wrote songs of the very first order and she sang like—like some great Italian opera singer of the twentieth century (Lucia Valentini Terrani perhaps). Of all the rock ladies of the 1960s and 1970s, Nyro had the best voice. Weirdly she never got credit for it. To say that she deliberately ran away from big success is only a partial explanation of her relative obscurity.


Laura Nyro struck a kind of glass ceiling early on, for reasons I’m still trying to fathom. She never got credit (not really) for any of the particulars within her smorgasbord of musical gifts, although a few of the obituaries did touch upon the fact that she was underrated and underrecognized. In one Ms. Nyro was an “unsung hero.”


In my view the obituaries generally missed the point. She was portrayed, first and foremost, as a songwriter to the stars. During the days and weeks following the announcement of her death, I read every word written about Nyro that I could get at. The judgment was near unanimous: this connection she had with performers on the A-list was the better part of her claim to fame. In some pieces it (her links to Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears, et al.) was virtually her sole claim to—noteworthiness. In some of the write-ups her songwriting gift—in and of itself—unconnected to big name musical artists—was given a bit of coverage—and then as evidence of that gift, lists of the recording stars who had recorded Nyro songs were provided. The reportage was venerative, but it contained an unfortunate subtext: that she was a very fair-to-middling performer of her own songs, that established stars were able to supply the je ne sais quoi that she herself lacked. (This was not at all the case.) She was portrayed, secondarily, as a woman of great “passion” who revealed herself, bared her soul, and so on (but via her lyrics, it was emphasized). She was often described as a trailblazer for women singer-songwriters, and hence sort of a feminist pioneer. I became a tad weary of reading about Ms. Nyro's “passion” and about her having “paved the way.” That she was an individual (forget that she was a woman) possessed of spectacular musical giftedness was nowhere conveyed.


So, the great Laura Nyro stood way in the background while, simultaneously, artists of slender musical talents (indeed) were having accolades rained down upon them. Pretty much
! And isn’t it petulant and contrarian of me to be making the statement in the first place. She wasn’t always underrecognized of course. I am obliged to mention that this behind-the-scenes shrinking violet is a woman who performed—many, many times—before whistling, screaming, adoring crowds. Who gave sold-out Carnegie Hall performances (in 1969, 1971, and 1976). Whose albums have sold at a steady rate for 5 decades. Who could occasionally move fans and even entire audiences to near ferment. That’s recognition and public endorsement enough for anybody. That’s fame enough for anybody. I was at concerts at which she received stupendous ovations. At all those Bottom Line concerts, during stage exits and entrances, she would sometimes get the kind of ovation that the audience might have used to welcome Maria Callas returned from the dead. Accordingly it would seem that she was lavishly recognized and reverenced.


But I don’t think I’ve contradicted myself. In interviews she sometimes spoke of her “tribe” coming out to see her. She had her own tribe, certainly. And the members of that tribe raved about her while the rest of the population didn't know who she was. She was admired, acclaimed—and unnoticed. All of the above. Her early fans (hard core ones) went apeshit over her, suffered Nyro-mania, called her
goddess and “genius.” They daydreamed about her, gaped at photos and record jackets, wrote poems about her (and so on). Her fans deemed her—the great musical artist of her era. At the same time she was music’s stepchild. (Of course there were those who had some knowledge of her work and were simply indifferent to or impervious to her particular brand of enchantment.)


Many who had heard of her—they knew of her 
“slightly,” or “faintly,” or “vaguely.” “Name recognition,” for Nyro, was always smallish—at every timepoint. One hears all over the place that an artist, or an art form, or a work of art, is “not commercial.” I guess Laura Nyro was not. Despite her non-use (or miminal use) of the huckstering tactics that are simply part and parcel of career advancement in the domain of popular music, she should have been more well-known. That she was so often and so variously music’s forgotten woman her ardent fans will always consider injustice.


In respect of top level fame: if anyone had the goods (or the chops), it was Nyro. (Top tier fame is a mixed “blessing.” It is a well guarded secret: big fame is harmful and toxic [to the organism], it should come with a severe warning label, and so on.) But big fame exists—for some musical performers. And if anyone in music should have had it, it was Nyro. What exactly was the problem? Some fans of Nyro (and some non-fans) have opined—she wasn’t beautiful enough. Actually—I don’t think she “aged well,” and this may have had to do with her illness. Nyro was not beautiful in middle age. As a young woman she was beautiful aplenty.





PARASOL

Criticism of Nyro has generally been gibberish, and has sometimes veered toward vacuity.


Some said her voice was the problem. They said it was shrill, they said it was strident. It is my experience that a kind of generic dislike of the feminine voice (on the part of women as well as men) is reasonably common. It is also my experience—that women as well as men, in more or less equal numbers, will express their displeasure at “high-pitched women’s voices.” Men’s voices are a different ball game somehow. In the past I’ve noted: women in groups will sometimes expound on their weakness for, their soft spot for—men’s voices. Would the reverse of that statement ring true in any way? Do men in groups sometimes express their partiality toward women’s voices? I’m sure it has happened—but for the most part no. Some women and some men are rather uncompromising in their dislike of the soprano voice. (Nyro was probably a mezzosoprano.) Rossini is supposed to have hated the tenor voice. Masculinist writer Marguerite Yourcenar once boasted: “[M]y unbearable physical antipathy for soprano voices remains total.” She also boasted—that hearing a soprano singing high notes always made her want to vomit. [!]


Soprano vocalizations—and urges to vomit. Freud posited the repudiation of the feminine (initially) as a cluster of motives or motivations in men and boys and a “bedrock” of male psychic landscape. The repudiation of the feminine (related to Alfred Adler’s masculine protest) was per Freud “nothing less than a biological fact.” Masculinity of course required the repudiation of the feminine. Then the real insight came: the repudiation of the feminine was as much a series of motives in women and girls—as much a feature of feminine psychic development. Thus the repudiation of the feminine is a universal phenomenon. I theorize that the repudiation of the feminine as an underlying psychic “reality” was (however circuitously) a causative element in Nyro’s underrecognition. Of course the repudiation of the feminine would have impaired the advancement of other female singers. But of Nyro’s more so (in my view). As Nyro was female to the second power (also in my view).


Many of us who could be counted as among her ardent fans watched on perplexedly as, year after year, she was omitted from pop and rock music anthologies
(print anthologies, recorded music anthologies), rock encyclopedias, coffee table books, Rolling Stone magazine, top 100 and top 500 lists at Rolling Stone magazine, awards ceremonies, various halls of fame, FM airwaves, and bubbly magazine essays about the female corps of popular music. December 16, 1974. Making the cover of Time magazine: “Rock Women—Pride and Passion.” I remembered the essay as I was starting to write this one and decided to look it up. Interesting and even amusing to reread it after 40 years. That these women are superwomen who do it all, have it all, make their own decisions—and even write their own songs is the angle. The article is mostly about Joni Mitchell. But it is also about Carole King, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Wendy Waldman, and others. Not the teensiest mention of Ms. Nyro. No mention of Nyro? She had been called the inventor of the genre. This is the woman who made what a few have said is the best and most brilliant rock album of the 1960s—Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. The latter statement sounds exaggerative. But the album is brilliant throughout (brilliant in each measure), which is—let’s face it—unheard of.


I will say in passing: persons staunchly and even committedly amusical should perhaps in general be recused from the judging panels of Rolling Stone magazine top 100 lists.





                    TANDEM                               

She has virtually always been less renowned than Joni Mitchell, although there was a moment in history when they were perhaps of near equal standing. During the period 1968—1972, roughly, Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell were twin divinities, a twin godhead—that is on college campuses tenanted by sons and daughters of the white middle classes and in the rarefied milieux of art-minded white twenty-somethings. (Carole King and Carly Simon were empresses of AM radio at around this time and hence slightly déclassé.) For a brief moment Nyro and Mitchell were unchallenged, serenely unchallenged, in their exalted position. They were not rivals to each other—not palpably and I think not in fact. I have read, and to a slight degree was even able to observe, that each admired the other. They did seem pretty dissimilar at times. Mitchell tried to be funky on occasion (for example), with only partial success. For Nyro funkiness was instinct—something she couldn’t hide.


I was a great Joni Mitchell fan ca. 1970 (who at that time was not?), but I always believed underlyingly that Mitchell, very simply, wasn’t quite Nyro’s peer. The majority (the “great beast”) decreed that the converse was true. I had mild problems with Mitchell as a singer, for one thing. Her voice was thin and watery I thought—the ultimate white girl voice. Her high notes always sounded as if they were being sung in falsetto. But maybe it was me. Perhaps best to say she had a “folksinger’s voice” and leave it at that. I liked her poetry—save for the occasional line of poetry that would (arguably) go on for too long and contain vastly too many syllables. And, I thought, there were occasional goofy spots. Again, this was my problem and nobody else’s. In any case fault-finding along these lines is unnecessary and certainly impolitic. I have learned over the years that criticism of Mitchell is sort of a no-no, as well as liable to get one in very hot water. And it is a little absurd. Mitchell’s albums are masterworks. (My personal favorite is For the Roses.) Let us say for argument’s sake that Nyro and Mitchell were equally good and of equal virtuosity. It is interesting then that Mitchell has been the much more renowned, and it is worthy cause for conjecture. (I have a few hunches.)


I attended eleven Laura Nyro concerts—and I would generally take note of my surroundings. I would peruse the crowd and so forth. At several of the concerts I gleaned (or thought I did) that the attendees, my fellow concertgoers, believed themselves to be in the presence of a very great star and venerable institution. (Factor in of course that these were members of the tribe.) The faces sometimes radiated respect. Respect is not a good word (let me say in passing). It is one of those problematic words, like courage, whose meaning is not only imprecise but also confounding and paradoxical. The word should possibly be jettisoned from the language. And yet respect it was—that seemed to flow—from these people and toward the stage in great big waves. As if we had been sitting in an auditorium and paying homage to Mandela (or something like that). One could make the statement perhaps that although she was not greatly recognized—there was almost no performer and recording artist who was more respected than Ms. Nyro. This would have had to do with her artistry and musicianship—but I think it also had something to do with the simple factlet that she was not showy. People respect this somehow, perhaps even subconsciously. And I think that these people (and myself) were on some level aware: she got a small return on a gigantic talent, instead of a gigantic return on a small talent. The latter is more familiar to us and naturally less inviting of our esteem.


A statement I’ve heard perhaps hundreds of times: “I’ve never heard of her.” So many times during the last several decades I have been part of a musical discussion (if you will) and been asked about my tastes, my preferences in music. I might have asked others about theirs. So many times I have hurled her name into a conversation, only to be met with dismay on the part of my interlocutor(s), who were apt to say, wide-eyed: “I’ve never heard of her.” There is a story, versions of which have even appeared in print, of Sandra Bernhard (a card-carrying Nyro fan) taking a reluctant, naysaying Madonna Ciccone to a Laura Nyro concert in Los Angeles, ca. 1988. Before the concert, Ms. Ciccone saying: “I’ve never heard of her.” After the concert: “Dancers. Her show needs dancers.”


I was at the concert Ms. Nyro gave at the Bottom Line (July 1978) when she was 8 months pregnant. She looked 10 months pregnant. When she walked out onto the stage, a roar of cheering went up. For a split second I thought it was Marilyn Monroe stepping out to entertain our boys in Korea. But it was Laura—in maternity evening gown and funky high-heeled sandals. And she was wearing that Mona Lisa smile that I believe may have been a reflex—her reflex response to billowing applause. She appeared from nowhere and walked to her piano. There were no musicians on that night (no back-up musicians). Laura and a grand piano were it.


I sat at one of the front tables, and for almost two hours my eyes were at a level with her ankles. My view was less than perfect but I got to observe some mean damper pedal action. I never witnessed her getting applause like the kind she got at that particular concert, never before and never after. I saw her at Carnegie Hall in 1976 and she didn’t provoke anywhere near the same response. (I guess people are politer in an opulent setting.) In some ways the 1978 concert at the Bottom Line must have been a sort of apogee for Laura Nyro. On that sultry night in July (now long ago), young men stood on chairs, and on table tops, and cried like wolves. She left the stage a number of times (there were three encores). And with each return to the stage the cheering was more turbulent.


She didn’t make grand entrances I recall. (Audience response may have been big—but she didn’t milk her entrances.) They were modest—all things considered. (I am speaking primarily of her post-1977 cabaret appearances.) There were perhaps a few “grand” stage entrances. I don’t think there were many. If memory serves: she would (at least in some venues) walk onto the stage with the members of her back-up band (if there was a back-up band), and they would take their places together. She would enter without fanfare and sometimes without announcement. She would appear suddenly. At some performances she would be halfway across the stage before the audience realized that that was Nyro. Stepping over cables and other acoustic paraphernalia she would (almost matter of factly) make her way to her piano bench. And what exactly to make of that Mona Lisa smile? Maria Callas once said of uproarious applause, “I can’t say that I like it. It makes one feel like one of the damned.” Did Nyro like it? I couldn’t say. I suspect not. The Mona Lisa smile just added to the inscrutability. She would seat herself at the piano and say nothing to the audience. When the commotion had subsided she would say a few words—typically a single phrase or sentence. At the 1978 Bottom Line concert (after the uproar) she said into the mike, resonantly and intensely: “Thank-you for your love.” That was it. Her speaking voice was of a middle register and engaging, but her manner of speaking (or her manner of speaking from the stage) was slowed down and idiosyncratic. (Actually Nyro was always a bit weird to some observers, even to some of her fans. It was said again and again, during her heyday—that Nyro was “weird.”) There would be applause all over again and, finally, silence. She would flip her hair back past her shoulders several times, perhaps as a nervous thing. She would place her fingers on the keys. Then the sorceress would begin.







  ELI


In the year 1971 (as a senior in high school) I decided I had to check out the recorded music oeuvre of the woman who, as a group of friends and acquaintances were having it, sang better than Barbra [sic] Streisand. I supposed that this was high praise indeed, and it was—although in 1971 Streisand’s singing was already beginning to travel southward.


I remember my first time. In January 1972 I was standing in the well-appointed home of a (rather privileged) friend from high school. He had a very good “stereo” and what seemed to me were hundreds of albums. Without my requesting it he said he was going to play Laura Nyro. From his collection he pulled out Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. With great attention and precision he lowered the needle onto the moving record. For a long time I stood rooted to the carpet, a statue of mystification. I was immobile—save for facial muscles that became spasmodic. And lest this seem hyperbolic: I’ve listened to Nyro partisans describe similar first encounters, using similar language, similar phrases.


Todd Rundgren for one. Rundgren—that veritable exemplar of songwriting art—has said he left the band Nazz because he “wanted to write songs like Laura Nyro.” He said of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession: “She put out an album called ‘Eli and the Thirteenth Confession’ and it just blew everybody’s mind. Everybody’s mind. It blew my mind, but it blew everybody’s mind—that a girl this young was singing with this much soul, and the songwriting... was hers, it wasn’t like anybody else’s songwriting.”


The album (Nyro’s second) was in stores in the spring of 1968. March 1968: little pockets of great enthusiasm spring up immediately—but the album is pretty much ignored. Sales are very modest. But the album sells at a steady rate. After two years the album is continuing to sell. The album is not much promoted. (No Nyro record has ever been.) As with so much art that is particularly worthy: the good news is spread by word of mouth, among overlapping networks of friends. And that is enough. Nyro is beginning to acquire a following that tends toward the worshipful. (Laura Nyro is 20.)


And tho’ it gets lost—in narratives of every kind—and was never emphasized in any shape or form (in 1968 or after): the record is a signal achievement for Laura Nyro. Rundgren’s words just above point to the record’s originality. The record was strikingly original—in every direction. From the jacket: “Laura Nyro: writer, composer, voices, piano, and witness to the confession.” There was even, in 1968, in small pockets, a shared sense of: disbelief. One girl did this? Well—she did have help. Arranger and record producer Charlie Calello helped her. Jazz great Zoot Sims played on the record. (Calello, a modest type, said later—that virtually all credit for the landmark record should go to Nyro;
that the greatness of the record was owing to the “brilliance of the songs.”) The “experience” of the record (for first time listeners) can be daunting, and perhaps humbling. Playing the record: music pours out—with a kind of force and even aggression. The record experienced in its entirety is a fast moving freight train.


The songs that make up Eli and the Thirteenth Confession are of varying moods and “personalities”—and across the 13 songs Nyro takes on quite a range of sexual personae—from St. Theresa of the Little Flower all the way to horny bitch. (Sorry.) Speaking of horny bitches. Ten years or so ago I came across a statement posted to a Laura Nyro fan website (by an obvious fan) and it stayed with me. To paraphrase: Having listened to the song “The Confession,” he conjectured—Barry White received his entire training in musical orgasm from Ms. Nyro.





The making of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was a genial and gratifying affair—for Nyro and the supporting players. Or it was the opposite. Take your pick. Fact is always elusive—perhaps nonexistent. Factlet and factoid are always elusive.
(Per quantum science, fact is nonexistent—at the quantum level. Per quantum science there is strictly speaking no such thing as fact.) From Michele Kort’s book:




Calello remembers a certain electricity in the studio during Nyro’s recording sessions [for Eli and the Thirteenth Confession]. “Of course we redid her vocals later, but I’ll never forget how the musicians were so blown away by the music that you could see them hanging around after the sessions.”





Kort suggests that elements of fun and even silliness were sometimes in evidence during the sessions
(for Eli and the Thirteenth Confession)that it went down nicely, even swimmingly. Nyro, very much pleased apparently by one session result, is supposed to have said (of the result): “Charlie and I sat there crying, it was so beautiful.” But Rundgren avers: “I learned from her that she hated the process of making ‘Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.’ She felt rushed. She felt like things didn’t get done the way she wanted them done... [S]he hated the experience of making it.” So she more or less despised the experience of making the record. Or not.


The album is a rock album—with un-rock and anti-rock ingredients. In printed copy about Nyro it recurs again and again: she collapsed boundaries, she was sui generis, her art was sui generis, she was “hard to pigeonhole,” she defied categorization. Of boundaries she may have helped to collapse: that would include the (figmental) boundary that separates high art and low. Nyro is one of many artists who subverts our understandings of music categories. DJ Felix Hernandez has cited her as a paradigm of “blue-eyed soul”—itself a genre (or close to it) and a label that suggests a collapse of boundaries. Forms and styles she is credited with having absorbed and combined: folk, jazz, spirituals, gospel, R&B, 1960s girl group music, “soul,” “Broadway.” From a single Google search:


  ■ Nyro fused Tin Pan Alley, spirituals, and jazz ...

  ■ [Nyro] combined nearly equally Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, folk, rock and roll, the blues, and breezy pop.

  ■ Nyro [blended] Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building.

  ■ [Her music] drew from R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, Brill Building pop, and Broadway show tunes.

  ■ Nyro was a combination of Tin Pan Alley, pop, folk, gospel, and especially soul.




But all this having to do with the disintegration of boundaries means little. One doesn’t set out to collapse boundaries. And virtually all music making and virtually all music performance down to the least of it equals hybrid formation. Mere performance of, a cover of, someone else’s tune equals hybrid formation. Music style is quicksilver. It gets trickier. Of genres she absorbed: each by itself represents a fusion. Consider jazz: supposed to be almost pure fusion—of black and white ingredients. Another form generally understood as a hybrid form—and again a hybrid of black and white: rock and roll (and its harsher, unkinder offspring, rock music). Rock and roll has sometimes been understood as a virtually entirely black form—subsequently repackaged and rebranded for a white market. Consider show music (of the 1920s and 1930s—the era of “Showboat”): nineteenth century Anglo-Irish song convention with a supra-layer of East European Jewish weltschmerz—perhaps.



The first Nyro track I ever heard was “Timer.” When my friend played Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in his well-appointed home so many years ago: it was an era in which records had two sides and for some reason he began with side 2. “Timer” is a song that will stop you in your tracks (I would almost guarantee it). It may pin you to the mat. The song “Stoned Soul Picnic” has many admirers—other songwriters among them. (Nyro was and is a songwriters’ songwriter.) Jerome Kern would have gone apeshit for the song. Stephen Sondheim has said of “Stoned Soul Picnic”: “[I]n economy, lyricism, and melody it is a masterpiece.” Eli and the Thirteenth Confession has—highly original songs (which were “all hers”)—songs that have lots of surprises lets say, very good and very self-assured singing (for a 20 yr. old), vocal harmonies that make you think for an instant you’re in heaven—and economy, lyricism, and melody. And a mesmeric photo.





  FADE2


A word about the jacket. Nyro is sphinxlike in the photo. Her expression as inscrutable as that of the famous bust of Nefertiti. Her face, like her voice, suggests sensuousness and Mediterranean basin origin (perhaps). No “skinny-lipped virgin with blood like water” that.


Over at Columbia/CBS Records Inc. they knew. Even in 1968. That Nyro was one of their prestige artists. That all her projects were prestige projects. That she was a giant talent in their, what
s the word, stable, of artists. They didn’t know it thoroughly or entirely—but they knew. She hadn’t proven herself yet at Columbia but in her case it mattered less. And up to a point they strove to give her what she wanted during the making of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. They said no however to her wishes for the album cover (allegedly). As per a fragment of scuttlebutt that made its way to me in 1972: she wanted no printed word or words (no words of any kind) on the front cover. Not one word, not one letter of the alphabet. She started to insist. She wanted art—not advertising. (She sort of got her wish. See photo, just above.) There was a compromise solution: there would be a “lyric sheet” containing the artist’s name positioned artfully in the record package. The artist’s name would be in full view.


She wanted perfume—and this they gave her. (Altho’ perhaps apocryphal stories these.) I believe it was the lyric sheet that was supposed to have been scented. I never happened to get my hands on a scented copy (back in the day)—but I’ve had conversations with persons who remembered or claimed to remember a product with fragrance. It makes a kind of sense: Columbia would accede to her demand for foo foo water (as it would cost them next to nothing)—but they could not and would not release the record minus the artist’s name in an obvious spot (there was no getting around it—it would injure sales).


Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is I believe her best known and best remembered and best loved album. (It competes with Gonna Take a Miracle in these regards.) It is also the album that is most representative...


One more attempt. In Ms. Nyro were fused
the talents—the talents of Maria Malibran (nineteenth century powerhouse and powerhouse singer) and Vincenzo Bellini (composer of sublime music, that “jeweler in music”—and Malibran’s colleague). Which sounds exaggerative and a little foolish—and is to a point.












PAI

I wish my baby were forbidden
I wish my world be struck by sleet
I wish to keep my mirror hidden
to hide the eyes that looked on Gibsom Street




Getting back to components of the Nyro oeuvre that are less known and less written about: Nyro’s lyrics were gorgeous (a word I don’t like but will use 3 or 4 times in this piece). Her lyrics were unlike other pop song lyricswere rather a different ball of wax (50 years ago). What they were not:





you’ve got to get up every morning
with a smile on your face
and show the world all the love in your heart
then people gonna treat you better
you’re gonna find yes you will
that you’re beautiful as you feel




winter spring summer or fall
all you got to do is call
and I’ll be there yes I will
you’ve got a friend


 

It is I think surpassingly difficult to write song lyrics that are unpretending and not platitudinous, not banal. So many pop and rock song lyrics are ineffably bad—or just plain bad. Forty-five years ago a Nyro-admiring friend of mine used to say, lamentingly and throbbingly: “No one can write words... no one that is except Laura.” I didn’t agree. I thought there were others who could, and did. (My friend thought most pop and rock song lyrics were pretty lousy, obviously.) Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has said of Nyro’s lyrics: “She spoke in a kind of code that I found very beautiful.” I’ve loved some of her words over the years—over the long haul. My all time favorite:





MOA

Emily
you’re the natural snow
the unstudied sea
you’re a cameo





Her lyrics were sometimes enigmatic.






LOA

there’s gold in you darlin’
drew gold
when I woke her
she’s an ole chain smoker
grace and the preacher
blown fleets of sweet-eyed dreams
tonight





As to the cryptic lines and phrases—there were lots of others (other poets)... English language poetry of the last 75 years has tended toward the cryptic and enigmatic. She would name “poetry” as one of her influences, was an avid collector of poetry volumes and was almost throughout her entire life an avid reader of poetry.






SHOA

he gives to me
buckles off shingles
and a jangle from a Congo love chase
early bloomers made of earth and love lace





Nyro played with language—in the ways poets do. She invented words: snowbell, lovewell, flameride, lovething, footslippin’, tendaberry. She would use words sometimes for their aesthetic (phonesthetic) and rhythmic effects—as well as for their more obvious semantic effects. Or phonesthetic effect would supersede everything else. A rush on rum of brush and drum. Where phonesthetic aspect prevails in the use of language: that’s two-thirds of what poetry is. Children sometimes play with language—and sometimes (deliberately or indeliberately) invent words. Disinhibition and playfulness in respect of language use have puerile features. Literacy in high degree will dampen the poetic gift.


The lyrics themselves sometimes had a puerile sound, a puerile aspect (you’re a good-lookin’ riverboat) and—more or less oppositely: sometimes a maternal character. (“From every conviction will extrude its opposite.”) Motherhood and motherly solicitude: not often subject matter for pop and rock music songs! Mothers calling out for their kids, kids calling out (or crying out) for their mothers—appear again and again in the Laura Nyro song catalogue.






NELL

mothers pull the night time in
calling their children
with spoons in the wind



 

Nyro’s lyrics were sometimes American Southinflected: the American South of the civil rights era, even the antebellum South.





CHER

come on people
come on children
there’s a king at the glory river
and the precious king
he loved the people to sing
babes in the blinkin sun

sang “we shall overcome”
!




Laura Nyro was a strong black woman. Michele Kort said somewhere that Laura Nyro—whose formative years were spent in environments that were anything but “whiter than white” and who felt quite bonded to the persons who populated those environments—thought of herself as a woman of color. I laughed out loud when I read that one.


An expression. Not enough Africa. I’ve heard it spoken: “the problem with” many whiter-than-white white guys (Tory types let’s say) is—there’s “not enough Africa [in them].” A fairly vapid colloquialism—spoken by white hipsters about other whites (in my experience). Nyro would be a negative example of not enough Africa. I’ve mentioned “blue-eyed soul.” She is cited often as a foremost exemplar of blue-eyed soul. In printed copy on the subject—in which artists’ names are given—she’s usually right up there (with Dusty Springfield and Hall & Oates).


“And When I Die” (composed when she was 17she may have been as young as 14) reminds me to a degree of a slave song. One listens to it and says: these are not the musings of a 17 yr. old. To me the song could be a companion piece to “No Mo Auction Block for Me.” Slave song, work song, work chant, Negro spiritual: the genres are overlapping. Slave songs are not sorrowful. They’re about the defeat of sorrow. “And When I Die” is hardnosed—as opposed to starry-eyed. Starry-eyedness is the likelier “position” of 17 yr. olds. Lou Nigro told me: he thought that some of his daughter’s earliest compositions were “morbid”—and that he told her so at some point (as a kind of reprimand). In general—her lyrics were darker and deeper than those of her songwriting contemporaries.


The designation “black music” is too amorphous and too vast. And yet Laura Nyro understood big swaths of it—in ways that some whites do not and cannot. She was simply close to it, by instinct.


The words from “Save the Country” given just above are near perfect (or they would be, if song lyrics could be that). They are phonesthetic. They are near perfect metrically. Words and music dovetail, song meter and word meter align.





MARY


She teamed up with Labelle in 1971—and it rather made sense. “Labelle” was the rebranding of “Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles” (female doo-wop singers who achieved a kind of prominence in the early 1960s). It was a fortuitous partnering and a fortuitous combining of voices and personalities. A gathering of sisters. A byproduct of their coming together was Gonna Take a Miracle. Perhaps needless to sayon the recording the sistahs get down. On it Nyro keens, wails, throbs, whispers. Likewise Patti LaBelle. Patti LaBelle’s vocal outpouring (sometimes) is a weapon, the blade of a knife.






 CLETUS

Her piano work was sometimes gorgeous. Laura Nyro at the piano: she is once again an original. Her chords identify her. Her piano work and her sound at the piano—are unmistakable. They cannot be misidentified. Her sound at the piano cannot be duplicated. Listen for example to the brief piano intro to “Someone Loves You” (recorded in or around 1973 but released posthumously). It sounds like she’s doing some ordinary rock & roll thing—but one knows instantly (at the first chord) that it is she and no one else but she. Nyro is said to have invented chords for piano. Joni Mitchell by the way is said to have done the same for guitar. Some years ago a pianist friend of mine used to suggest that Nyro did not invent chords for the piano: she used “old” chords but gave them new voicings—having to do sometimes with the re-ordering of pitches in a chord—or perhaps the insertion of a non-chord pitch. (Actually a chord with a new voicing is a new chord.)


She used slash chords. A slash chord has an added pitch and is likely to have a jazz sound. Charlie Calello said her chords werechords not used in popular music. Calello (to Michele Kort): “Laura would come up with these alternate, substitute chords. His statement sounds banal enough on its face. Butcoming up with a quasi-system of alternate chords? Sounds like invention at the genius level perhaps, to my ears. Per the Kort bio her musician colleagues said often enough—her chords were idiosyncratic, weird. So no one was doing exactly what Nyro was doing at the piano. And yetsome said her piano playing was dull. Kort quotes writer and musician Don Heckman [1969]: “[H]er piano sounds dullingly impressionistic with its continued emphasis on open fourths and fifths.” There are competing schools of thought centering on her skill as a pianist. There are enthusiasts and detractors. I would lean toward enthusiasm—in part as she was inventive at the piano. Invention counts.


More than once I was able to watch her hands at the piano. I’ve watched her play very rapidly (and very accurately). I’ve watched her pound at the piano. Playing molto aggressivo and pounding at the piano: things she did (sometimes) as a young performer. Her piano playing was relatively laid back during latter performances I believe. One gets to eyeball a snippet of her piano playing—at YouTube: the (suddenly famous) Kraft Music Hall clip [1969].
I have watched her—seated before a particularly massive looking open-lidded concert grand piano. I’ve watched and listened to Nyro playing a tinkly sounding, almost juvenile sounding electric piano (in concert). Go figure that one. I am told she liked the sound.


I asked my jazz pianist friend to listen to a number of Nyro recordings (most of them from New York Tendaberry) and to comment. His comment as follows:




I’m flabbergasted to learn that she is self taught as that kind of flies in the face of my overall impression of her. First of all, she is not shy when she approaches the piano. She is very percussive and rhythmically active on the keyboard. Her approach to the piano sounds “orchestral” to me in that she is aware of stacking certain things, harmonically speaking, and she is completely unafraid to employ its full range and think of things like an arranger would. She also understands diatonicism (a fundamental underpinning of jazz) and immerses herself in it to the ultimate degree. Her time is absolutely impeccable. She sounds to me as if she received formal, classical piano lessons in which she played along with a metronome, ad infinitum, which instilled within her physical being almost perfect time, as they say. She sounds like a classically trained jazz pianist in that she is using many jazz-like voicings in her playing that are deeply rooted in the diatonic framework. People with that kind of knowledge and facility have nothing to constrain them when trying to create art in the moment. They are close to being completely free.




The complete freedom referred to in the last statement: that would be (a sense of) freedom
on the part of someone seated before a piano—not complete freedom in a general sense I believe.


I should mention—almost in passing: she is in extraordinarily fine voice in the “He’s a Runner” segment (the Kraft Music Hall clip). It starts out a tad awkwardly perhaps. When she gets going: it is (to me) an amazing sound. Clear, strong, even-toned, beautiful. My own response would be: how does one listen and not get bowled over? One hears from time to timethat a singer of renown wishes to emulate the sound of a particular musical instrument. At several points, in “He’s a Runner,” Nyro’s sound is in my view not entirely human. At several spots her vocal apparatus is a clarion trumpet. On the evidence of this performance: one might judge her one of the finest voices one had ever heard.


As a pianist and song performer Nyro had fun with tempi (and other time parameters). The studio recording of “Time and Love” has seesawing tempi. In the recording she is everywhere—virtually at each moment—futzing and fatootzing with the tempo. It’s kind of fascinating when you listen for it. The word rubato means more or less—a transient disregard of tempo. It literally means stolen, or robbed, and it used to be said—160 years ago: what is stolen (in music performance) must be paid back. Now an antiquated view.


In the studio recording of
Save the Country (or for that matter the performance of Save the Country from the Kraft Music Hall show) she is changing the rhythm (and tempo) every 2 to 3 seconds.


There were rhythms she would use... She’d get going with these seductive and even beautiful syncopated rhythms—and then slow them way down or pause them or stop them dead. She’d make all kinds of time modifications (virtually all songwriters and song performers do the same). Beat, rhythm, and tempo are discrete yet entangled phenomena. A change in one begets simultaneous modification of the other two. It is sometimes understood—sometimes by music instructors—that rhythm and tempo reside in two distinct airtight, water-tight compartments. That a change in tempo in song performance (a mere shift upward or downward) leaves rhythm absolutely unchanged. That is not always correct. At any rate
virtually all song performances (to my ear) contain time variances aplenty. Nyro is a bit famous for weird time variances. All or virtually all pop music songwriters have been fairly profligate in respect of time (or time-related) variances (including changing time signatures) for 130 years.


Time variances in a performance such as—such as the studio recording of “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry” (which has a consistent rhythm for the most part) are not profligate, they are orgiastic. Where my friend said he thought Nyro sounded as if she had played along with a metronome “ad infinitum” during her formative years (crediting her I believe with a kind of flawless sense of timing): I guess you have to know the canonical form before you can know how to muss it up.




No song left behind. I’ve said often enough: every Laura Nyro song has something—there are no exceptions. Even “The Japanese Restaurant Song” has something. There are no duds, no failures. Some of her compositions are inescapably joyful. A few are sublime. I mentioned it above, I am atheist. Listening to some of her compositions I think I can see God’s smile. (Simone Weil saying that the beauty of the world, the experience of something beautiful, is “God’s tender smile for us coming through matter.”) Across the years her compositional faculty never flagged. It is as a songwriter that she has (sometimes) been recognized. (Never as performer, never as singer.) Some of the obituaries recognized her songwriting brilliance.


Her awareness of chords and diatonicism enhanced her songwriting skill, obviously. And as per a journalistic item I perused decades ago (and never forgot
): another thing that enhances songwriting skill is possession of a real singing voice. I was hesitant at first—vis-à-vis the assertion that vocal ability enlarges songwriting ability. A number of times I’ve tried to trace out just how it would work, or how it might work (cognitively), and I now take for granted—her giftedness as a singer informed and expanded the songwriting. And of course vice versa: the songwriting ability added something to the vocal ability.


Needless to say it is not consensus—that her compositional ability never failed or flagged. Some Nyro partisans insist that her compositional output was dual: there were the brilliant early albums—and there was the latter output. The latter period begins—let’s say in 1975. And after 1975 (per the narrative, or per one narrative) the compositions are exceedingly bland. I would agree that the finished product was different after about 1975. Just about everything (in the creative life of Laura Nyro) was different after 1975. One thing wasn’t different. The songwriting genius remained. Todd Rundgren has said of her “second phase” output: “It wasn’t as if she didn’t still have all those elements of her songwriting in there. I just don’t think she was selling it in the same way.”

It’s not always clear—which songs were written when. Most of the songs that turned up on New York Tendaberry were written prior to the recording and release of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. Most of the songs that turned up on Smile were written well before 1976 (the year of its release). One of the songs (Man in the Moon) that appeared on Mother’s Spiritual [1984] was written in 1970 I believe. (The 1984 recording is a later version of the song.) It actually happened (a small number of times): she would write a song—and put it on an album a decade later. So it’s not so easy—to imagine the songs as falling into two groups and as belonging to two discrete periods. And a statement such as “songs coming after ‘Christmas and the Beads of Sweat’ are treacly”—is going to be problematic. Sometimes—songs that came after actually came before.


Also making categorical statements difficult: some of the reportedly, or reputedly, second-tier songs (introduced to the world after 1975) are songs of the very first order. “Mother Earth,” “Crazy Love,” “Springblown,” “The Sweet Sky,” “The Nest,” “Man in the Moon,” “The Brighter Song,” “Mother’s Spiritual” (the album’s title track), A Woman of the World, “Don’t Hurt Child,” “Serious Playground”: each is masterful (or close to it), like a Fabergé egg, and brilliant. Not treacle these.


“Serious Playground” (the song itself, words and music, come scritto) sounds to me like an early phase piece, it sounds like pure Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. It would have integrated well with what’s on that album. I don’t like the way she sounds on the recording (from Angel in the Dark, released 4 yrs. after her death). I understand she was under stress and under siege (and ill) when the recording was made.


Many of the songs introduced to the world in the late 1970s and beyond were recorded poorly (were recorded cheaply). They were recorded in Nyro’s garage. (Almost.) They were recorded in the studio she set up at her home in Danbury Connecticut. Had the songs named just above received the full treatment, had they been recorded with the kind of care and punctiliousness (and outlay) that were given to the recording of New York Tendaberry, they would be esteemed pieces of the oeuvre as good as, or better than, anything that made its début on—on the albums that will live forever (the first 4 albums). 


I wouldn’t entirely disagree that the finished product is altered and a lot tamer after the first 4 albums—or let’s say after the first 5 albums. There are few thunderbolts launched after 1975. But I think Rundgren was dead on: the songwriting genius remained.


I will not mention the artists who recorded her songs. That has been more than adequately reported. And what would be the point exactly? Her fans are apt to say things like: no one could do a Nyro song like Nyro. Nyro’s own recordings of her songs were always 50 times better than the respective covers—it seemed. (I guess that’s arguable.) But listen to Nyro’s studio recording of “Time and Love” (it is brilliant and brilliantly performed), then listen to anybody else’s recording of the song.
Go to YouTube. Listen to that old warhorse—“Stoned Soul Picnic.” Listen to Nyro’s recording, then listen to anybody else’s. Or listen to anybody else’s, then listen to hers.


What else about her that is relatively unarticulated? In respect of Laura Nyro as singer—her diction was faultless. Unmannered, naturalistic, unselfconscious and (for lack of a better word) plebeian. And having a hint or perhaps more than a hint of New York accent. Some singers are coached—and they are told to enunciate and to enunciate severely. It has the unintended effect of making the finished performance sound stilted. Tom Wolfe I believe coined the term “débutante-speak.” He was referring to speech and not singing. But Laura Nyro lived and made music at the farthest possible remove from débutante-speak. Naturalism in speech or singing—is what the ear actually wants, what the ear craves.


A sound wave (actually a wave packet) made by human vocal cords has multiple frequencies. A voice tends to blend very nicely with itself. Overdubbing is a technique that enables singers to sing backup for themselves and to harmonize with themselves. Nyro herself did all of the vocal arrangements on the recordings. Her use of overdubbing was practiced, accomplished. On some of the recordings she overdubbed her voice multiple times—creating virtual choirs—sometimes (exquisite) 9-choirs-of-angels effects.






PRI  NIR


New York Tendaberry: despite all the encomiums—another album that’s pretty much ignored.


It is released a year and a half after Eli and the Thirteenth Confession—in September 1969. It is the Nyro record not for everyone. Non–Nyro fans are apt to respond badly. I have across the years recommended New York Tendaberry to a large number of persons—a few of whom got back to me that they found it “unlistenable,” and “unbearable.” Many years ago I would play the record for disinterested and unbiased others: results were poor. (They were not amused.) I recall a New York City–area radio DJ saying with a hint of disdain on the air (ca. 1973) that he did not “get” Laura Nyro—and did not get New York Tendaberry. Acquaintances of mine who knew of my fondness for the record and witnessed my repetitive playing of it would say to me (also ca. 1973): “She’s nuts. Please get some help.” They were immovable in their judgments that Nyro was making every effort—but the poor girl was simply not very good. I remember someone saying “if only she sang a little better... ,” and I remember I was flummoxed.


New York Tendaberry is edgy, offbeat (pun not intentional), often anxious. Nyro is intense on the album—something not greatly desired or welcomed by most music consumers. She wails on the record—in a way that makes some listeners clench their teeth. On Tendaberry she wails, beats her breast, has tantrums, hurls a few thunderbolts.


It has been said of Wagner opera, of Puccini opera... of operas by Richard Strauss, of operas by Alban Berg, of verismo (and sometimes of workers in 21st century workplaces): characters are put into grim situations and then pushed and pushed to extremes of emotion—to where they can be pushed no further. In respect of singers in operas: to the point at which singing threatens to give way to screaming, or shrieking. In a number of spots on Tendaberry Nyro seems almost at that point.


It is Nyro’s dark album—altho’ I don’t find it all that dark. (The album has its bright spots and joyful moments.) A song I’m fond of is “Gibsom Street.” If I listen to it having not listened to it in some time it rivets me. “Gibsom Street” is dark. Or it’s dark enough.
Sections of it are chock full of minor seventh chordspart of the reason people say it’s dark. The song is noir-ish. But it’s a hodgepodge of musical conventions—only some of which tie in with darkness. It has a noir-ish kind of tone, a big band sound in one segment, some big band chord voicings, very syncopated segments, some great minor chord progressions, bluesy riffs, key changes, key signature changes.


The song is enigmatic. There is not perfect agreement—as to what the song is about. Some have suggested it is about abortion—someone’s seeking one or having had one. (I didn’t get that vibe.) About 10 yrs. or so ago I would visit an online Laura Nyro forum/message board
rather often I seem to rememberand look at postings. More than once “Gibsom Street” was the topic of the hour. Some contributors posted—they thought the song was about heroin addiction. That is possible in my view (altho’ heroin addiction by the way is not something she ever experienced). A larger number of contributors said the song was about—being held in sexual thrall. A thesis not necessarily astute. (Aren’t most pop songs about that?)


Gibsom Street the place, the fictional place, is where “they hang the alley cats.” The image is lurid, startling, disturbing. The song’s authoress wants to evade her mirror—to “hide the eyes that looked on Gibsom Street”—suggesting shame and perhaps forbidden pleasure, forbidden knowledge. At the song’s end a man, phantomlike, who “knows where [she’s] going” enters and gives her a strawberry.






IZ

there is a man he knows where I’m going
he gave me a strawberry to eat
I sucked its juices never knowing
that I would sleep that night on Gibsom Street






Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae [1990] writes that “sex is a dark and turbulent power”—a sentiment that appears everywhere in that massive volume, in some form on every page. She describes sex as a “brutal power.” Paglia writes soberingly of sex and sexuality. Some statements (in that volume) are exceptions to this rule perhaps, but in general her attitudes vis-à-vis sex and sexuality are hardnosed—as opposed to starry-eyed. Paglia, appearing to be the ultimate party pooper, writes hardnosedly about sex:





Sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted. Behaviorist sex therapies believe guiltless, no-fault sex is possible. But sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges. I call it an intersection. This intersection is the uncanny crossroads of Hecate, where all things return in the night. Eroticism is a realm stalked by ghosts. It is the place beyond the pale, both cursed and enchanted.... Sex is daemonic. This term, current in Romantic studies of the past [fifty] years, derives from the Greek daimon, meaning a spirit of lower divinity than the Olympian gods.... The great daemons were not evil—or rather they were both good and evil, like nature itself, in which they dwelled. Freud’s unconscious is a daemonic realm. In the day we are social creatures, but at night we descend to the dream world where nature reigns, where there is no law but sex, cruelty, and metamorphosis. Day itself is invaded by daemonic night.




 

Whoa. Realms cursed and enchanted. That sex is a dark and turbulent power—is in my view not a “theme” but a sentiment that lies at the exact center of “Gibsom Street” (and much of New York Tendaberry, the album). 


Is sex a dark power? For the most part not (perhaps). For some persons (or couples), instantiations of sex (sex as instantiated in individual human minds, the experience of sex) are likely to be dense with meaning, to reverberate with meaning—to be flooded with meaning as it were. They, these persons, in a sense insist upon it. For other persons instantiations of sex are virtually bereft of meaning—nor would these persons want it to be otherwise (for yet other persons it would not occur to them that it could be otherwise). Where instantiations of sex (in human minds) are perfunctory and about as meaningful as a sneeze: far enough from darkness. Where instantiations of sex move toward peak human experience: they are exemplified and characterized principally by their sweetness and a kind of relaxation (arguably perhaps). And not “excitement” but a freedom from it. Where sexual relations are about as good as they get: they are of a distinguished sweetness. In these scenarios sex is not darkness, it is light—almost pure sunlight. And not to mix metaphors. But there is the other side of the coin. In our world there abounds: prostitution, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, rape, aggravated rape, pornography (libertarians say pornography is art—so the half of it that isn’t art), sadomasochism (all or most forms of), sexual abuse, domestic sexual abuse, the sexual abuse of children including children under the age of 5, sex crime, horrific sex crime, sex murder (also known as sexualized murder). They too are sex. When one ponders on the relatively more holistic view of sex (one that takes in the greater number of varieties of sexual experience) one feels he is at liberty perhaps to make the statement—yes it is a dark and turbulent power.
 




So I think New York Tendaberry is about sex and its mayhems (with which 21 yr. olds tend to be familiar). It’s supposed to be a portrait of New York, a “paean to New York City.” But only two of its compositions (“New York Tendaberry,” “Mercy on Broadway”) center on New Yorkor mention New York or point to New York even obliquely. Michele Kort and others have said—New York Tendaberry is to a point a unified work, a concept album. Albums of course tend not to be that. (I would agree to a point. “Save the Country,” described as “political” generally, isn’t much of a piece with “Captain for Dark Mornings”—yet the songs on Tendaberry have their thematic and other commonalities.) Across most of the album sex and sexuality are the place beyond the pale, both cursed and enchanted. In “Captain for Dark Mornings” and “Captain Saint Lucifer” sex is a dark power—but it is also pure sweetness and light, and in the recordings the latter “persuasion” perhaps outweighs the former. The title “Captain Saint Lucifer” catches the eye. (Saint Lucifer?) It is a double and triple oxymoron. There’s the marriage of heaven and hell—right there in the title.


Am I reading too much into New York Tendaberry? Am I seeing there more than is there—or something distinct from what’s there? Yes. All interpretation is overinterpretation—therefore all interpretation is partial misinterpretation. (I guess the thing that saves me is the word “partial.”) G. K. Chesterton said—interpretation usually consists of “saying about an author [or his creative product] those things that would make the author jump out of his boots.” We might say—that would make the author spin in his grave.


Lou Nigro by the way really dug the song “Captain Saint Lucifer.” I met Mr. Nigro in October 2000—and we talked about a bunch of things. I believe it was I who brought up “Captain Saint Lucifer”—and he said immediately, he almost blurted it, “Now that’s a song!”—his face shone for a moment. Gilda Nigro, Nyro’s mum, by the way loved “Emmie,” from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.


In “Tom Cat Goodbye” sex is the marriage of heaven and hell—and marriage (cohabitation) is the marriage of heaven and hell.
She, Nyro, or the main figure in the fictional text, is not a well woman on the recording. “Tom Cat Goodbye” delivers up in large amounts the daemonic will and inner turbulence of an emotionally labile 21 yr. old (let’s say). The studio recording of “Tom Cat Goodbye” is an astonishing and dumbfounding performance. Yesone is struck dumb and struck numb. It never fails: when I listen I say: how in hell did she do it? Talk about her “not being shy at the keyboard.” It is brilliant songwriting, has brilliant and very rapid piano work and brilliant vocals. It resembles nothing else in all of music. It is one of her songs that cannot be performed by others. I think the piano part can be duplicated (I’ve done it—almost). It is the singing part that cannot. My statements sound fatuous—but the song performance has literally the power to dumbfound.






SCH 


Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a masterwork. New York Tendaberry is Laura Nyro’s masterpiece. She spent ten months working at actual recording. Roy Halee worked with her as “producer,” Jimmie Haskell as “arranger”
: somewhat nebulous job titles—and jobs not fully defined and sometimes overlapping. I believe Geffen brought in Halee and Halee brought in Haskell. Haskell joined the effort with a then recent massive hit under his belt: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Bobbie Gentry: another raven haired, abundant haired singer-songwriter, around the same age as Nyro.


Nyro was an admirer of Haskell before they were brought together. Where I grew up—“Ode to Billie Joe” came in like a tidal wave. In my former environments (in an era in which truly vast numbers of Americans listened to the same music) its sudden all-presence was almost dazing. And yet I thought it was just another pop song (around the time I was starting high school). I would hear it years later and say: I never knew. I never knew
it was so good. Ten years ago “Ode to Billie Joe” was cited in a posting to the aforementioned Laura Nyro forum/message board and a “member” responded: “It was Jimmie Haskell who arranged that masterpiece!” (Lots of masterpieces afoot—at every timepoint.) Nyro admired that masterpiece. She said circa 1968 (of the famous recording): “You could hear the crickets and the bugs.” Haskell was an exceptionally fine arranger of strings (as evidenced by “Ode to Billie Joe,” and all of New York Tendaberry).


Nyro and Haskell were a fortuitous partnering. He was appreciative of her (musical) idiosyncrasies and actually encouraged them. For that matter Nyro and Halee were a superb partnering. Halee understood her and what she was up to.


I had written in the past about Nyroshe recorded New York Tendaberry twice. The first effort, orchestral, done with instruments, generated a very “produced” sound and she tossed the whole thing. But it turns out: another bundle of factoids (centering on Nyro) that needs to be deep-sixed.





In a Life magazine profile of Nyro published in 1970, writer Maggie Paley reported that Nyro had actually made New York Tendaberry twice. “First she recorded most of the album with a band backing her up, and threw the whole thing out. She started again, exactingly taping her voice and piano performances and then adding what she calls the colors.” Halee—who came to the project in great part because Nyro admired his work with Simon and Garfunkel—doesn’t remember it that way. From the start, he says, “my intention was to record just Laura and the piano ... Just capture her and that piano and you’re home free.” [emphasis added]






The immediately preceding from liner notes by David Fricke to the Sony Music Entertainment reissue of New York Tendaberry [2002].


Nyro began in earnest in November 1968. It was more or less her project for 1969. In general she suffered an aching perfectionism in the studio. Michele Kort said that. Todd Rundgren said that. In 1983 Rundgren traveled to her Connecticut studio to give her a bit of an assist with Mother’s Spiritual (on which all progress had stalled). She drove him mad he has said. Rundgren has told the story: she did 35 takes of a song and found none satisfactory. Roy Halee has said of the New York Tendaberry sessions: the pace was slow.  





PPF

  
Nyro wore gowns to the sessions. She traveled to work in a hansom cab if you please. She traveled from 79th and Columbus to 52nd and 5th (part way at least) via horse-drawn hansom cab. She liked the (syncopated) rhythm of horses’ hooves on pavement. Reading the Kort bio it’s clear enough: Columbia Records indulged her during the making of New York Tendaberry. Kort says it outright. (Altho’ Kort also mentions—Columbia at some point put the squeeze on, when they came to the conclusion she was taking too long.) Halee said years later he didn’t remember there had been a budget—an odd thing perhaps for a producer not to remember. “I don’t think there was a budget, because we just went in and went in and went in and kept doing it.” That it were possible he could lose sight of all budgetary restriction—bespeaks indulgence on the part of the record company.


She came prepared. She arrived at the sessions carrying notebooks. Kort quotes Lee Housekeeper, “Nyro’s aide-de-camp and road manager”: “As much time as Laura spent in the recording studio she spent in preparation. She had extensive notebooks and knew exactly what she was going to do.” Like Floria Tosca she lived for art—for about 9 months in 1968 and 1969.


Michele Kort, speaking of Nyro’s standing at Columbia Records at around this time: “[S]he gave the [record] label credibility and clout.” 
(Nyro is still new to the firm.) Contrary to expectation perhaps her status at Columbia was exalted—in the absence of visible successes and in the presence of enduringly tepid record sales. Kort even contends—Columbia was able to attract and sign other artists because Nyro was a part of it, and Geffen was able to attract and sign artists because of his proximity to Nyro. I’m repeating myself—but just about everyone at Columbia had a sense of her by this time substantial reputation as an artist. Inside Columbia Records she commanded respect. At Columbia, and in other environments, her status at this time was a kind of covert status. “Covert status” sounds absurd (at first hearing). Status very often has everything to do with everything thats the opposite of covert.


New York Tendaberry was released at the end of September 1969. Nyro herself compared the release of the album to her giving birth. It was worth the wait and effort and expense. Reviews of the album tended to be very positive (and congratulatory)—not a small number were raves. (It was a succès d’estime if there ever was one.) But rock music albums were big business in the late 1960s and all things considered the album went nowhere. (It went to number 32 on the Billboard magazine album sales chart.) The culmination of her 9 month labor of love perhaps was two sold out Carnegie Hall performances, given Thanksgiving weekend 1969. The shows were sold out—in 24 hours or in an hour—depending on which urban legend you prefer. She walked onstage to a standing ovation. The gown winsome, ethereal
with aspect of slutty. Rock music writer Vince Aletti said of this evening: she came onstage “looking like an Italian housewife whore.” (Italian housewife whore?) Nancy Ehrlich of Billboard reported: she “communicated her very personal vision of the world” in “a voice as gentle as a razor.” Actually I’ve heard she was in fine voice that night.


Mood of course is a pitiless tyrant—and one is in the mood to listen to a particular something or one isn’t. I have listened to New York Tendaberry in its entirety and been rather bored by it. I have listened to it in a state of perpetual (moment-to-moment) astonishment—that a very young woman possessed musical gifts of such magnitude. Nyro by the way is someone who frequently had genius ascribed to her. Not by movers and shakers, not by world beaters generally speaking—but by persons at a certain remove from spheres and positions of influence, generally. Cumulatively they are legion, according to my experience and extrapolation—those who have called her “genius.” Not that that means much. Not that the term itself means much. (It does not.) Going to a Laura Nyro concert at the Bottom Line in New York in summer 1988, I arrived early, around 7:30 P.M., to find three young women camped out on the West 4th Street sidewalk. These women had been there for hours (recall: in respect of seating it was first come first serve at the Bottom Line), were seated on the hard pavement, and played Laura Nyro cassettes on a small cassette player. As the machine sent Nyro music into the air, they closed their eyes and shook their heads—one girl saying a few times: “She’s a genius!” Somewhat forlorn-looking (or bedraggled-looking) they were, each carrying a red rose I believe. At the very least they ascribed genius to her. In 1975 I read in a British music magazine a prediction—that Laura Nyro (along with George Gershwin) would eventually be counted as among the great American composer/musicians of the twentieth century. (At that time to get an assessment like that you would have had to go to England.) Like Brahms or Beethoven, Nyro is an epochal musician. She is now a woman for the ages. I believe that New York Tendaberry is one of the finest pieces of music ever recorded.









IAN


The Divine Miss N
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