"Other people had hits with her songs" was the sentence just beneath the headline in USA Today that announced musician Laura Nyro had died. She succumbed to ovarian cancer at the age of 49.
This was the most depressingly predictable of epitaphs for Nyro, whose flirtation with media celebrity flared and flickered during the last three years of the '60s. Three Dog Night ("Eli's Comin'"), The Fifth Dimension ("Wedding Bell Blues"), and Blood, Sweat and Tears ("And When I Die") had scored hit singles with her compositions, but she was considered a rung above craftsmen like Lieber and Stoller--so Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra could put their pipes to her words and melodies for that classical yet contemporary vibe.
In addition to being a so-called "singer's songwriter," Nyro played a unique music-industry role as perhaps the first artist whose eccentricities weren't just accommodated, but exploited to create publicity, which in turn increased the zeroes in major-label contracts. As chronicled in Fred Goodman's definitive West Coast '70s rock chronicle The Mansion on the Hill, DreamWorks mogul David Geffen made his first big chunk of money signing Nyro to Columbia Records in 1967; she, in turn, became one of the first recording artists to get rich on reputation alone. With scant live performance experience and zero radio play (of her own versions of her songs, anyway), Nyro became a hot property at the age of 18.
But when the artists with chart clout stopped covering her songs, Nyro was abandoned by the critics who'd heralded her (The New York Times compared her to Gershwin). In fact, many had always held a certain contempt for her vocal pyrotechnics (once described half-cynically as sounding like the singer was "on the verge of spiritual orgasm by the end of every song"), her long black dresses and purple lipstick, and her poetical mini-sagas of dopers, dreamers, and adulterers. It's easy to mug a mystic, which is exactly what the audience did when it booed her Wagnerian doo-wop revue (multiple backup singers and Nyro at the piano dressed as a black angel with one wing) off the stage of the Monterey Pop Festival.
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Ultimately, her career disintegrated from apathy. Her offstage life proved to be sweetly goofy (she was obsessed with cats and thrift stores) but undramatic; there were no dalliances for Rolling Stone critics to diagram and award her "Old Lady of the Year" a la Joni Mitchell.
There was, in other words, nothing to talk about but her music, whose apolitical lyrics suggested an individual looking inside herself instead of at the hot-button issues music writers of the day cared about most. The neglect was premature, but eventually deserved: By the mid-'70s, Nyro's worst lyrical instincts had taken over, perhaps the natural result of being as inexperienced a live performer as she was. You got the sense Nyro wrote only for herself, scarcely believing that anyone else was listening. What eventually turned precious and predictable would first blossom--over the course of three lovely albums--as the voice of a highly original American pop-music visionary.
Sit back and let the earthy elegance of The First Songs (released by MGM-Verve as More Than a Discovery in 1967), Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), and New York Tendaberry (1969) sink through your ears, into your cranium, and down your spine with the warm, tickling rush of a shot of Knob Creek. Nyro's whispers and wails, the wild gait of her piano, and her folk-tinged arias with their constantly changing time signatures stroke and poke at the same time. Rickie Lee Jones is Nyro's most obvious goddaughter (The Magazine is practically a tribute album), but Kate Bush, Jane Siberry, Sheryl Crow, and Joan Osborne were also baptized in her shadow. All these women share a sense of the album as storybook, with great watercolor strokes of instrumentation for color; a cast of characters who sometimes recur from song to song; and overriding themes pitched at operatic volume. The male equivalent can be found in Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen.
With a couple of exceptions, music writers have been more than tolerant of Morrison's sails into the mystic, but his spiritual desires are more politely expressed. Nyro pounds the ivories and sends her torchy vibrato hurtling into the stratosphere hot on the heels of her lyrics. For all the moments that bubble over with romanticism, Nyro's first three albums deserve consideration alongside the best singer-songwriters, male and female, who were her contemporaries and her descendants.
Nyro sounds like a time-tested romantic with stardust on her eyelids combing the ragged acoustic-guitar arrangements of Eli, until you're startled by the realization that all this was written, sung, arranged, performed, and co-produced by the teenage daughter of a Bronx piano tuner. The childlike elements--the rousing jump-rope melodies, the group handclaps, the constant refrains--step in and scramble your impression of Nyro as a seasoned, if slightly moony, survivor. "Luckie," the strutting, horn-laden opener, is half show-tune, half gospel song about Luckie (God) and Naughty (Satan) and celebrates being born again ("Devil can't get outta hand/Cause Luckie's taking over/And what Luckie says goes") with playground bravado. Three songs later, she turns around and teases a drinking buddy ("Come on, baby, do a slow float/You're a goodlooking riverboat") in "Sweet Blindness," a corker of a wine song.
Nyro may have looked like "a pudgy Morticia Addams," as Fred Goodman describes her Jewish-Italian physical demeanor, but she comported herself musically as sexual healer and destroyer, sort of like Anna Magnani crossed with a Jesus freak. She invites a new lover to "take a super ride inside my love thing" in "The Confession," which appears to be about a young woman who parlays her dead daddy's encouragement ("'Of all the daughters/You were born a woman/Not a slave'") into a thriving career as man-eating heartbreaker.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession is a lush, complex prelude to Nyro's masterpiece New York Tendaberry, a darkly beautiful cycle of 11 songs that etch bleak portraits of the spooky, sexy New York of Nyro's feverish adolescent imagination, a place that "looks like a city/But feels like religion" to her. Whether she's stoking gospel fervor with roof-raisers like "Time and Love" and "Save the Country" or whispering about her loneliness "when I sleep without him" in "Sweet Loving Baby," she is a colossal mistress of ceremonies for this Weillian cabaret of yearning.
At the age of 17, when I was thrilling to New York Tendaberry through the headphones of my Walkman, I didn't realize that Laura Nyro was a peer, so to speak. She sounded like a middle-aged woman to me, but with more passion than I'd ever heard an adult express before. After I pop New York Tendaberry into my CD player today, I'm still playing catch-up, trying to feel the breadth and depth of her personal mythology as intensely as she does. She leaves me breathless.
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