Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jewish Soul Sister



by Ariella Stok

My identification and admiration for Laura Nyro, the hugely influential singer songwriter, began almost instantly upon learning about her. But to actually enjoy her music, and to find a place for it in my heart, I had to work for it. My first breakthrough in coming to appreciate (and now love) Laura Nyro's music came after reading her response to a question about her influences in a 1970 Down Beat interview:

When I was 15 years old, I used to drink bottles of cough medicine and … lie down with my jazz records ... put them on, drink cough medicine and dig people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane all night. They’d take me up and they’d bring me down, sweep me up ... [jazz] is very painful music, but it’s not a harsh pain at all, it’s like a little flower, or something.

Her music, challenging in its unusual arrangements, weird chords, abrupt shifts in tempo and dynamics, that make many of her individual songs feel like suites unto themselves, became easier for me to understand, when I began to hear it as jazz seen through the eyes of an odd, yet immensely gifted teenage girl without formal training, tripping on cough syrup, just digging the music’s pain. That experience, combined in the crucible of her singular imagination with other endemic influences from being a Jewish girl from the Bronx growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The cabaret sounds from her summers spent in the Catskills at her musician father’s gigs on the Borscht Belt, Broadway show tunes, Burt Bacharach, Carole King and Brill Building pop, Puerto Rican harmony groups that sang on her Bronx corner, and the R&B and soul music that she heard on the radio, all helped to create her musical vocabulary.

The other revelation that helped me to get Nyro was watching footage of her performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, only her second live performance ever, in which it was said she was booed off the stage (an erroneous rumor likely propagated by the notoriously performance shy, perfectionist Nyro, herself.) If anything, the audience seems baffled, not sure what to make of the deeply soulful, sophisticated, unconventional music pouring out of this beautifully fragile 19-year old white girl. It’s a spiritual performance. With her dark features receding into the blackness of a dimly lit stage, she seems possessed by the song, clenching her fists, eyes rolling back into her head, with a momentary smile flitting across her face, giving way to a furrowed brow and a pained expression, as though she’s about to burst into tears. The song ends, and drained, she shrugs her shoulders and sheepishly mumbles, “Thank you.”

She's frequently described as exotic. People thought she was Puerto Rican, or maybe Persian. Fellow Jewish songstress Janis Ian, with whom she attended New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, described her classmate as an immensely talented (yet oddly ignorant of musical terminology) girl who resembled Morticia Addams. Those who only heard her voice were often surprised to learn that she wasn’t black. As soon as I saw her, I knew, she was a Jew. That moment of recognition, of perceiving her beguiling otherness (whether it was attributed to her ethnicity or some other inner turbulence), is a key event that hailed her followers, a small, but worshipful cult of fans, whom she called her “tribe.” Scene reports from her rare, but legendary shows at places like New York City’s Bottom Line describe college-age girls camping out on the sidewalk outside the venue, playing her songs on tape decks and lighting candles.

Not least among her supporters were her fellow musicians, those who would go on to have hits recording covers of her songs, and those who were her admirers. Todd Rundgren, who has said that hearing Nyro changed the way he thought about and composed music, wrote a song about her on his 1970 Runt LP, "Baby, Let's Swing." Former lover Jackson Browne, wrote "That Girl Could Sing" about her. Other Nyro disciples included Blood Sweat & Tears (from whom she turned down an offer to take over as lead singer after Al Kooper left the group), Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder. Miles Davis, who in his autobiography manages to talk shit about almost everyone he ever met in his career, has only glowing things to say about Nyro. When she asked him to sit in on some of her songs for New York Tendaberry, he attended the recording sessions, but after hearing the music, told her that she didn't need him - it was already perfect as it was. Future Dreamworks mogul, David Geffen was so moved by her (almost to the point of obsession, calling her the “second coming of Christ”) that he signed on to become her agent and devoted himself to her career, a partnership which yielded his first major success in the music business.

Like many of her fellow Jewish songwriters, she was much more likely to sing about Jesus, and draw from Christian themes, than her own background: “And When I Die” and “Stoney End,” hits respectively for Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Barbra Streisand, recorded when she was just 18 for her 1966 debut More Than A New Discovery, her gospel-inspired third LP, Ely and the 13th Confession, and her fourth album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (which features an all-star cast including Duane Allman and Alice Coltrane, the wife of another childhood hero.)

However, more than anything she was defined by being a New York City girl. In the title track from New York Tendaberry, a tribute to her home town and named in reference to her Bronx accent, she says of New York, “You look like a city, but you feel like religion.”

Nyro’s powerful voice and feeling astoundingly stands up against the commanding singing of Labelle, with whom she recorded her fifth album, Gonna Take A Miracle, a departure from her previous work in that it features only soul and r&b covers. By the force of its inventiveness, it transcends categorization as mere blue-eyed soul, and is revelatory in demonstrating how the songs she loved, like Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” became refracted through her peculiar prism into a classic Nyro original like “Stoned Soul Picnic,” which she recorded for Eli and the 13th Confession, later to become a hit for The Fifth Dimension. The opening track of Gonna Take a Miracle, “I Met Him On a Sunday,” features Nyro trading acapella verses with the dynamos of Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) over a backing of their finger snaps, functions as a feminist manifesto, paying tribute and redirecting weight upon the heavy influence that r&b girl and melody groups had on the history of music.

Laura Nyro, in addition to being a profoundly influential songwriter, redefined the sound of the modern pop song and became an unlikely diva. Think of her as a hip Barbra Streisand. There wasn’t a proscribed slot in the pop pantheon for Nyro, the poor little meeskite from the Bronx with the idiosyncratic compositions and black voice, but she made one anyway. Much like Hanukkah itself, sometimes miracles happen.


Download:

"Stoned Soul Picnic" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1968.
available on Eli & The 13th Confession

"Wedding Bell Blues" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1966.
available on More Than A New Discovery

"When I Was Freeport and You Were the Main Drag" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1970.
available on Christmas & Beads of Sweat

"Stoney End" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1966.
available on More Than A New Discovery

"Timer" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1968.
available on Eli & The 13th Confession

"Save The Country" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1969.
available on New York Tendaberry

"New York Tendaberry" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1969.
available on New York Tendaberry

"I Met Him on a Sunday" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1971.
available on Gonna Take a Miracle

"Nowhere to Run" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1971.
available on Gonna Take a Miracle

"And When I Die" mp3
by Laura Nyro, 1966.
available on More Than A New Discovery

********************************

This is the second of eight posts at the Boogie Woogie Flu, in which eight Jewish writers will discuss the works of other Jewish artists for eight consecutive days in celebration of Hanukkah.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Was she robo-tripping (DXM)' or getting her lean on (codeine)?

Hickory said...

sweet portrait. Thanks.

Rob Sevier said...

Laura Nyro > Randy Newman

You saved the best for second. Happy Hanakkah.

kaminski said...

This takes me back to the days of Jensen speakers and Dual turntables and albums stacked up on a home-made wall units of boards and cinderblocks. City apartments with exposed brick walls, the smell of Columbo gold, and staring at album covers for clues into the inner mind of songwriters and rock stars.

The great songwriters have this in common: the mysterious combo of unique and familiar. And for great singers, like Nyro, it's simply soul.

As for the Jewish part...well, we was the niggas of Europe for a long time, baby. Which is why Black American music speaks to us so profoundly, I think.

Peace.

arlequinlove (Eli) said...

i love this entry.

Anonymous said...

instant fan. thanks for opening my eyes - i love the way she is portrayed in this piece. really drags me to want to hear everything she has done...right up my alley

Anonymous said...

After these heartfelt comments, I almost hate to bring this up, but...

Wasn't "And When I Die" covered by Blood Sweat & Tears?

Craig Baldo said...

Thank you for making this goy's Hanukkah the best one yet! Well done Ms. Stok.

Anonymous said...

Count me among the grateful, dear Sir!

Anonymous said...

todd seems worthy of her but browne? ick