Music News

Laura Nyro

Love letters from the past: Stuffed inside the LP sleeve of my precious, battered copy of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession -- the 1968 debut from a young New York singer-songwriter whom Columbia Records impresario Clive Davis had signed practically as she was walking offstage following a controversial performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival a year earlier -- is a review clipped from a September '68 Rolling Stone.

Begins then-critic/future Springsteen manager Jon Landau, "I wasn't at Monterey. Consequently, I don't really know what Laura Nyro did there that turned so many people off. She must have done something, because the word was so thick that it convinced me that there wasn't any point bothering with her first album. It took a lunatic friend of mine, barging into my apartment a couple of weeks ago, frothing at the mouth about the record, to get me to listen to it seriously. All I can say is I'm glad he did."

Me too. For a 13-year-old in the pre-Napster days, casually conversational, first-person reviews in rock mags were my only reliable conduits of musical exposure. Trusting Landau's subjective juju, I subsequently fell hard for Nyro, who, despite penning massive hits for Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, the 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand, never hit the Top 10 herself.

Just the same, by the time she died prematurely at 49, of ovarian cancer in April '97, she'd deeply touched three generations' worth of fans and musicians. Undoubtedly, this dark-eyed, raven-haired thrush, emanating mystery and oozing femininity the way candles flicker light and drip wax, paved the way for today's crop of assertive/eccentric/nurturing chanteuses such as Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette -- to say nothing of being an early influence upon prior icons like Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Stevie Nicks.

Columbia/Legacy previously issued, in '97 prior to Nyro's death, a superb two-CD career overview, Stoned Soul Picnic, which continues to sell extremely well. The newly remastered Time and Love distills the best from that best-of, adds a handful of selections unique to this anthology, and focuses on Nyro's late '60s/early '70s golden era.

So what made Nyro unique? In a word (or three), naked, liberated passion. Plus an astonishingly liquid mid-soprano and songs sophisticated enough to attract old-school Tin Pan Alley and show-tune aficionados, yet sufficiently stylish and hip enough to woo and win the affection of the love beads-and-Earth Shoes crowd (initially skeptical over Nyro's traditional/mainstream style, the hippies were eventually won over by her musical eclecticism and Earth Mother aura). As liner notesman Stephen Holden rightly observes here, "Nyro's piano-based songs went everywhere at once. The intimacy of doo-wop collided with the sophistication of Broadway; the shape-shifting rhythms of jazz met the impassioned cry of gospel. It was all delivered with an operatic intensity."

And for a certain young kid from Small Town, impossibly heavy stuff. But like her voice itself, absolutely liberating. In Nyro, I earned a firsthand musical education while getting my first glimpse of the era's intellectual-feminine ideal. Certainly, the feelin' groovy Manhattan soul of "Stoned Soul Picnic" made me twitch like a mutha; I had no idea what Nyro meant when she licked her lips (or so she sounded) and inquired, "Can you surrey?" but in my blossoming pubescence, I was prepared to surrey down at a moment's notice. In the tragic, swooning girl-group R&B of "Gonna Take a Miracle," the most improbable of culture transfers occurred: gorgeous Jewish princess mentors a Southern peach farmer's geeky kid in the ways of the Dark Continent's descendants' sounds. Elsewhere, while the full import of the obtusely titled "When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag" eluded my grasp, I sensed that behind the tune's chipper piano-and-horns arrangement beat a heart that'd been crushed more than once, and it turned out to be the right song to have around during those periods when mine, too, lay shattered on the floor. Oh, and "Eli's Comin'" -- how could a song born of deep gospel roots evolve into such a decadent, churning-lust delight, complete with orgiastic shrieks from both singer and chorus? Three Dog Night? Never heard of 'em.

Live From Mountain Stage was recorded in November 1990 for the long-running Public Radio program Mountain Stage. At that point, Nyro, despite occasional touring, was largely out of the public eye; her last studio album had been in '84, and she wouldn't record another one until '93. But for this concert, performing both solo and accompanied by a small band (rhythm section, guitar, keyboards, backing singer) on a handful of tunes, Nyro was clearly energized. Unveiled here on disc, she sounds as powerful and full of nuance as ever, shifting deftly between early material (a wonderful "And When I Die," empathetically rearranged for nylon string guitar and piano; the tender, celebratory piano ballad "Emmie") and more recent numbers (in particular, a bouncy, mesmerizing jazz piano tune, "Roll of the Ocean").

Nyro closes her Mountain Stage set with a heartfelt reading of Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud," which somehow segues into one of the most luminous versions ever of "Dedicated to the One I Love." The final sound you hear is Nyro caressing the word "love," letting it stretch out toward infinity -- then she's gone. Tragically, all too soon.