Soul Picnic: The Passion and Music of Laura Nyro

Sheet Music

Phases and Stages

Soul Picnic: The Passion and Music of Laura Nyro

by Michele Kort

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 352 pp., $25.95 Laura Nyro (née Laura Nigro) was an anomaly as a singer-songwriter in the late Sixties/early Seventies, the dawn of feminism's rise. She wrote "And When I Die" at age 16, an unusually prescient composition for a teen, and followed it with hits ("Eli's Comin'," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Stoney End") for an astonishingly diverse number of artists, including Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, Blood Sweat & Tears, the Staple Singers, Three Dog Night, and Chet Baker. From her first release for Columbia in '68, Nyro stepped into the label's prestigious ranks and stayed there for most of her career. Yet what sounded poetic and elegant in Nyro's intensely personal lyrics became downright maudlin and fatuous by the late Seventies. Why didn't the adrenaline rush of Nyro's music last longer than those first three years? Author Michele Kort reports that Nyro had few boyfriends as a teen, leaving her songs of sensuality and passion as innocent as fantasies in a schoolgirl's diary. Reality seldom matches fantasy. Kort also details a private life as enigmatic as her song lyrics; Nyro was married to one man, bore a child by another, and spent the end of her life in a relationship with a woman. But Kort's real strength in Soul Picnic comes from her prose, especially dealing with Nyro's death in 1997. In describing Nyro's music, Kort relies on quotes from other songwriters, which often come off more like critical log rolling than insight. Still, it's refreshing to read commentary from similarly overlooked singer-songwriters like Phoebe Snow, who praises Nyro, saying, "Her music is absolutely eternal." Absolutely.

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