Angel in the Dark
The Posthumous Pop Noir Poetry of Laura Nyro
In Monterey Pop, renowned documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured the 1967 pre-Woodstock rock festival oozing good vibrations and California sunshine, with celebrity emcees like the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, career-making performances by Janis Joplin and the Who, and the famous footage of Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar. One artist didn't make the final cut: Laura Nyro, 20, who was booed off the stage.
It must have been a baffling and humiliating moment for the young New Yorker making her second major appearance before an audience. Laura Nyro was 17 when Peter, Paul & Mary recorded "And When I Die" two years before, and she had the attendant buzz going for her with a debut album on Verve. Her impassioned, confessional performance, bolstered by a soul band-style revue, may have been too rich for the groovy crowd. Or perhaps it was her choice of dress, an angel-like costume, filmy and flowing. Whatever it was, the hippies were not happy and heckled her.
Standing in the wings, aspiring music industry mogul David Geffen, then working A&R for Columbia Records, was watching the angel's fallen performance, and audience reaction notwithstanding, signed Nyro. Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was released the following year, and the critics as well as musicians waxed rhapsodic. On the cover of the LP, she was photographed in moody, one-quarter profile, like a renaissance Virgin Mary reborn in the Sixties. Eli marked the beginning of a 25-year association with the label, one that would last most of her life.
The princess of New York noir pop was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx in 1947 to a jazz trumpeter father and opera-loving mother. Her musical career took off in the mid-Sixties, after Carole King but before Patti Smith, Nyro being the puzzle piece that connected both generations with her mosaic of songs. She sang with a depth and maturity well beyond her 21 years, and her gospel-inflected low soprano blazed the way for P.J. Harvey, Liz Phair, and Tori Amos, all of whom owe a wave of the poetic, intellectual vamp cloak to Nyro. Any one of them might have written "you look like a city but you feel like religion to me" in the last decade, but Laura Nyro did it in 1969 on New York Tendaberry, her second album.
Confessions, Miracles, and Stoney Ends
Eli and Tendaberry were the first of a run of four exceptional albums. Like the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder, the late Sixties and early Seventies were fertile times for young talent on a roll, cultivated by labels the way studios groomed Hollywood stars of the Thirties and Forties. Those first two albums for Columbia were masterpieces of poetry in rock, rock being a catch-all term for the threads of jazz, folk, gospel, cabaret, doo-wop, and R&B Nyro wove within her luxurious material. Her songs were passionate, arty, soaring, evocative, and memorable. Labelmates Blood, Sweat & Tears made "And When I Die" an even bigger hit than Peter, Paul & Mary. Nyro was the critics' darling, but her songs found mass appeal through other performers.
"And When I Die" was followed with interpretive success by the 5th Dimension ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Sweet Blindness"), Barbra Streisand ("Stoney End"), and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming"). It was an astonishingly diverse output of hits for Nyro, all made between 1969 and 1972. Frank Sinatra, the Roches, Maynard Ferguson, Phoebe Snow, Chet Atkins, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Carmen McRae, and Linda Ronstadt would eventually record her material. It was a heady time, but Nyro still had tricks up her long velvet sleeve.
Christmas and the Beads of Sweat was released in 1970 to great acclaim with songs like "When I Was a Freeport and You Were a Main Drag," but it was 1971's Gonna Take a Miracle that distinguished Nyro as a singular artist in her own right. For this album of Sixties soul and R&B favorites sung a cappella, Nyro drew on her youthful days of singing doo-wop on street corners in the Bronx and drafted a forgotten girl group for vocal support. Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles had a hit in 1961 with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," but little career in the interim. Pairing the Blues Belles with Nyro proved a magical combination.
Gonna Take a Miracle was divinely inspired, the women's voices blending in joyous harmony on songs like "Hold Me," "I Met Him on a Sunday," and "Nowhere to Run." With four critically successful albums and a string of AM cover hits, Nyro decided to take a break. After Miracle, the Blue Belles became LaBelle and reinvented themselves as disco queens a few years later with the huge hit "Lady Marmalade."
In her quest for the pure artistry of singing a song, Laura Nyro's spiritual contemporary was not Carole King or Joni Mitchell, but fellow New Yorker Barbra Streisand. Both sought perfection in performance that was hard to re-create live, and like Streisand, Nyro's phrasing, her labored arrangements, and intense focus on songs didn't always translate well in concert.
Neither was Nyro's sabbatical good for her career. Columbia had hedged her absence by buying the Verve recordings and putting them out in 1973 as The First Songs. Three years later, when Nyro released Smile, musical trends had changed dramatically and the album received so-so reviews. That made back-to-back releases that got a lukewarm notices, despite the reissue carrying Nyro's original recordings of "And When I Die," "Stoney End," "Blowing Away," and "Wedding Bell Blues."
Season of Light, a live recording that came out in 1977, was meant to assuage fans unhappy with Smile's uneven presence. Nested followed in 1978, loved by her fans, but ignored in the wake of punk and the death of disco. Its title was a forewarning: Nyro toured for the album eight months pregnant and took time away from recording to raise her son. She returned with 14 originals on the New Age-y Mother's Spiritual in 1984, the glorious Live at the Bottom Line in 1990, and her final recording while she was alive, Walk the Dog and Light the Light in 1993. Not long after that, Laura Nyro was diagnosed with cancer.
The distinguished body of work Laura Nyro left when she died of ovarian cancer in 1997 was exquisitely rendered, at once sensual and spiritual. Released that same year, the 2-CD Stoned Soul Picnic was a grand and sweeping overview of her exceptional work for Columbia. It was an almost perfect retrospective to a career that still needed a farewell. Now, 34 years after that terrible scene at Monterey, Laura Nyro fans are getting the goodbye recording they wanted, and Nyro's restless spirit can rest peacefully, delivered of its final offering.
And When I Die
Angel in the Dark, released last week on Rounder Records, was recorded in 1995 when Nyro was undergoing chemotherapy, and she might well have chosen these songs as her way of leaving us with their timeless beauty. Sixteen tracks pay homage to her roots with loving covers of "Let It Be Me" and "La La Means I Love You," as well as Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby." These songs form the core of the album, along with standards like "He Was Too Good to Me," "Embraceable You," "Walk on By," and "Be Aware." Together, these eight tracks represent Nyro's youth in the Bronx, her precocious understanding of composition, poetry, and art, and the intuitive way she had of channeling it all into a new song like "Sweet Dream Fade" with deft familiarity.
"Gardenia Talk" is another one of Nyro's seven new gems. Its cool jazzy flavor was a highlight in her last performances, and fans who were hoping for it on Walk the Dog and Light the Light will delight in its appearance. Here is Nyro skittering around with breezy assurance and easy familiarity. Similarly, "Serious Playground" is classic Nyro ("My boss is my muse," she sings without a hint of irony). It's as soulful and yearning as the title track "Angel in the Dark," so fresh and vibrant with her own translucent harmonies overlaid, as is the equally lush "Triple Twilight Goddess."
Nyro's conscience is evident to the end: "Animal Grace" reflects Nyro's public support of animal rights and "Don't Hurt Child" is her paean for children. And the album-closing "Coda" is just what it sounds like, a patch of the title track's ending with Nyro's lonesome harmonies calling, "Come back, baby, come back." If only life were as easy as the songs, and Laura Nyro could be called back.
Laura Nyro's stars rest not in the sky, but in the glinting grit of New York sidewalks. The city was her world, and she was an acute observer of its urban mystique. Nyro embraced that in her timeless music with an exuberance "Stoned Soul Picnic" expressed so poetically in shades of red, yellow, honey, sassafras, and moonshine. It remains as good as any a self-penned epitaph for the life and love of Laura Nyro: "There'll be trains of music, there'll be music."