Monday, February 27, 2012

Triple Goddess Twilight

So this post has absolutely nothing to do with divorce...
But it has everything to do with creativity and recognition and, above all, passion.

I posted it two days ago on

When Alicia Keys sang “Send Me An Angel” at Whitney Houston’s funeral, her emotions throwing her pitch off and sending her tone into the raw zone, ( I realized (even more than I previously had) why I’m such an Alicia fan:  I hear Laura Nyro in her.

I don’t hear Laura in too many artists.  In fact, although she’s influenced countless musicians over the past four decades, I can’t think of anyone, save Alicia, who has Laura in them. That intensity.  Her incredible songwriting talent, the astonishing lyrics, a powerful 2 ½ octave voice in her heyday, her reliance on no one but herself to provide piano accompaniment-- and above all, that oft-cited, miscited and misunderstood intangible called soul.

Let me get the info dump out of the way: Laura Nyro was born and bred in the Bronx, half-Jewish and half-Italian, trained in NYC’s famous High School of Performing Arts, managed by David Geffen and mentored by a young Clive Davis (later, Whitney Houston’s mentor). Wikipedia has all the dull stats, mostly correct.  She was strongly influenced by early Motown - Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson, two of my most beloved r&b artists (“People Get Ready,” “Move On Up,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby” etc.) were among her favorites - as most clearly evidenced by her joyful collaboration with Patti LaBelle in 1971 (Gonna Take A Miracle).

Laura’s best known songs are her earlier, more pop-like tunes, which were tossed into the mainstream by the successful commercial artists who covered them – like “Stoney End” covered by Barbra Streisand, “Eli’s Comin’” covered by Three Dog Night, “And When I Die” covered by Blood, Sweat and Tears, and “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” covered by the Fifth Dimension.   Here’s a hilarious comparison: “Sweet Blindness,” covered by the Fifth Dimension with Frank Sinatra, in sparkly 5D regalia, piping in and Laura: ((sorry about the creepy ad on You Tube)

By the early 1980’s, Laura became an ardent feminist, breaking sharply from the heterosexual adventures that had formed the crux of her musical forays through 1976’s Smile.  And she became very agenda-oriented by the mid- to late 1980’s, writing songs about animal rights and the injustices suffered by Native Americans.  A recluse by nature, Laura died in 1997 at the unripe age of 49 of ovarian cancer.

Info dump over.  So, does Laura Nyro – finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in December 2011 after being dissed for at least a decade - ring a bell with you now?  Hope so… 

Laura circa 1970 was approaching the height of her musical prowess.  In live performances, she surpassed the quality of her studio work in terms of both her passion and her vocal virtuosity. E.g., and   (I’m not sure when this was recorded, but it sounds like early to mid-70’s: - I’m sticking it in here not only because I love her cover of this Dr. John song, but because she sounds so damn great.) 

I was just a kid back then, hanging with a bunch of badass kids from the wrong side of the tracks. We spent most of our free time (and we made sure we had a LOT of free time) singing and harmonizing with our record players spinning 45’s  – not just Curtis and Smokey, but the Staples Singers, Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, the Temps, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Supremes, Jean Knight, the Jackson Five, Isaac Hayes, the Stylistics, Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers, the Delfonics… Lord, I miss those artists from Stax and Atlantic and Motown...

It wasn’t until 1973 that I discovered Laura, and she quickly became my personal goddess.  Not a difficult musical leap for a white girl with a deep-rooted love of 70’s soul.  I remember the first time I heard “Poverty Train” on Eli and the Thirteen Confession with its wailing beginning- “Last call……..,” slipping into a strong, syncopated ¾ blues tempo directly following a long “yeahhhhhh.”  I was hooked. And since my vocal and piano skills were somewhat akin to hers, I practiced and performed her music throughout high school and college – her music was and is as much a part of me as those early soul singers ever were. 

I’ll never forgive myself for not seeing one of her famous Bottom Line shows in NYC until the early 90’s.  By then, her voice had been vanquished by too many years of cigarettes and hard living.  She was obese, puffed over an electric (yuk!) piano, struggling to reach any note above an A (the one above middle C, where she and I both switch to soprano mode).  The audience fawned over her every note anyway, indifferent to her shocking vocal missteps and limited piano skills.  Me, I was horrified and bitterly disappointed.

But I digress as usual…

Laura’s debut album was followed by a trilogy of what I believe to be among the most brilliant, mind-bending, gut-wrenching, personal collections of songs ever assembled: Eli and The Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and The Beads of Sweat (which has a superb cover of Carole King’s “Up on the Roof”). I could write volumes about each album.  Instead, I’ll simply quote one song from each:

Kisses from you in the flames of December’s boudoir
They fill me like melons
Touch me with chivalry
“December’s Boudoir,” from Eli and the Thirteenth Confession

New York tendaberry, blueberry
Rush on rum of brush and drum
And the past is a blue note inside me
“New York Tendaberry,” title track from New York Tendaberry

Merry boat on the river, freedom
Fresh dreams to deliver freedom
Over and over and over and over I call out your name
God’s standing on the brown earth
“Brown Earth,” from Christmas and the Beads of Sweat

The harmonies on these albums, usually on the chorus, are all tracked over by Laura, and their excitement and joy is palpable.  (In the 70’s and 80’s, she sometimes had a “harmony group” accompany her in concert, but the vocalists never matched the intricacies of her own harmonies done in the studio.) 

Then came Gonna Take A Miracle, a collection of covers from Smokey (the title track), Martha Reeves (“Dancing in the Street” and “Jimmy Mack”), Aretha (“Spanish Harlem,” definitely one of my least favorite tracks since ain’t nobody who can do Aretha) and others.  You wanna sing along to fun fun songs at the top of your lungs? This is the album. (sorry about the stupid embedded lyrics).

Laura’s later albums – Smile, Nested, Walk the Dog and Light the Light, Mother’s Spiritual – had one or two songs that matched her early brilliance.  Maybe it was the agenda-oriented lyrics, rather than the pure sex and passion that permeated her earlier work, that made these subsequent efforts less than inspiring from a musical standpoint.  Or her  greatly reduced vocal abilities.  And as her creative output lessened, and the compilation albums increased, the worst thing – again musically -  happened: a series of live albums were issued, and Laura’s vocal problems became magnified.  I still cringe when I hear her sing “Sweet Blindness” live on Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro.

My musical goddess had unraveled.

But the heartbreak wasn’t over.  In 1997, the year in which I was diagnosed with MS, Laura died. 

This essay should end right here. 

Except for one thing:  After she died, Angel in the Dark, recorded while she was suffering from the cancer that killed her, was released.  And Laura’s soaring voice was resurrected.

Triple Goddess Twilight, slow down. Feel the land, violet everywhere, I'll meet you there.
“Triple Goddess Twilight,” from Angel in The Dark



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