The Laura Nyro Incarnations
I’m gonna take a day off from hating America — I’ll be back on the job tomorrow — and, instead, rhapsodize about Laura Nyro. I was inspired by a performance I saw this past week at the Sellersville Theater of “One Child Born,” a one-woman play/performance about Nyro and the effect she had on her fans, starring Kate Ferber. I highly recommend it.
When I was coming of musical age in the late 1960s I was swimming in the sea of Laura Nyro. As I listened to my mother’s records and read the covers and credits I kept seeing Laura Nyro’s name. It started with the Fifth Dimension (“Sweet Blindness,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic”), progressed to the Blood Sweat and Tears (“And When I Die”) and Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin’”) and was capped off one day when mom came home from work with the 45 of “Stony End” by Barbra Streisand. There was Laura Nyro again. What a well-traveled wise-woman genius Laura Nyro must be! But I still hadn’t heard Laura Nyro herself. When I finally heard her I could see that nearly everyone who covered her tamed her — they pulled back from the idealism and passion that she leapt into.
In 1962 Nyro exclaimed to her Aunt Esther, “I’m fourteen years old, and nothing has happened to me yet!” And then the rains came. At age 22, on the same weekend she sold out Carnegie Hall, three songs she had penned as a teenager (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “And When I Die”) were in Billboard’s Top 10 by other artists. By then she had already been offered and turned down the lead singing job of the Blood Sweat and Tears after Al Kooper left. By then she had been flirted with by her idol Miles Davis, sought out at a party by Bob Dylan who told her, “I love what you do, I love your chords” and bowled over by an up and comer named David Geffen who became her manager. She was an early influence on Todd Rundgren and Elton John (check out “Burn Down the Mission”) and garnered kudos from jazz pianist Billy Childs who cited her as his favorite composer. There was a private piano duet with Stevie Wonder, and don’t forget yoga with Joni Mitchell, who would later tell music magazine Mojo, “Laura Nyro you can lump me in with, because Laura exerted an influence on me. I looked to her and took some direction from her.”
At age 20, a week after Bobby Kennedy got shot, Nyro wrote and recorded the wail of “Save the Country.” At age 19 she wrote “Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” the relentless “Eli’s Comin’” and counseled the world that nothing cures like “Time and Love.” In the vicinity of age 17 or 18 she was going down the “Stony End” when she wasn’t “Blowin’ Away” on the high of love or pleading with Bill to get on the ball and marry her in the “Wedding Bell Blues.” And at age 16 she looked death square in the eyes and wrote “And When I Die” and at age 14 “Nothing has happened to me yet!” So there I am, 13 years old, watching Laura Nyro’s name spin around a turntable, probably taking a pen and making a spiral on the red Columbia label as I was wont to do. The sexy sensitive powerful joyous well-traveled wise-woman genius — this dream female — who could send ecstatic shivers up my spine and make me cry without me ever knowing exactly why… was a teenager! Just like me! Well, not really. Not at all, actually. Were we on the same planet? The idiosyncratic words and phrasing, the changes in tempo, the dropped beats, the hail mary beats, the masterful dynamics, the four minute Shakespearean dramas, the incredible imagination and artistic maturity, the fusion of a visual artist’s eye with a poet and a great singer wrasslin’ with love and justice and sexuality, all of the brilliance was right there at age 16. She influenced legions but she herself was never compared to anyone.
I’ve always felt that Nyro did something that no one else has ever done and not really gotten the recognition for it: she wrote more great songs as a teenager than anybody, including Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Stevie Wonder. Those guys went on to conquer the world and I love their work, but they didn’t come remotely close to doing in their teenage years, even collectively, what Laura Nyro did. She was on fire. And those songs listed above were just the hits — there were plenty of other songs of beauty and daring, including “Buy and Sell,” “Goodbye Joe,” “I Never Meant to Hurt You,” “Poverty Train,” “Woman’s Blues,” “The Confession” and “Emmie,” considered by some the first lesbian pop song. By the way, none of those guy gods ever wrote a song as wild and exciting as “Eli’s Comin’,” with its different horns each playing in different rhythms. The teenage Laura Nyro was one of the greatest concentrated bursts of imagination that the world has ever seen.
I’ve read a lot about her, her musical family, singing in the subways and on street corners of NYC but nothing adequately explains her for me. She still seems like a big anomaly. She did well financially but she also turned her back on much more money and fame (as well as big city living), “retired” at 24 and went to live in the New England countryside, married, had a son, divorced, released albums sometimes five years apart, toured occasionally and lightly, and spent the last 17 years of her life with painter Maria Desederio, with whom she frequently traveled America in a camper. She died in 1997 at 49 of ovarian cancer, the same age her mother died of the same disease. Michele Kort’s biography of Nyro, “Soul Picnic: the Music and Passion of Laura Nyro,” provided most of the quotes for this article.
Let’s hear several more of those quotes. Here’s Phoebe Snow, commenting on a Nyro performance at a songwriter’s roundtable: “She was touching God. Her voice was pristine and perfect… The tears were streaming down my face. Laura came back for, like, four encores: we wouldn’t let her leave. Everyone in that room had sort of a communal moment where we all knew that this was as good as live music gets.” Critic Ian Dove, after witnessing a 1971 Long Island performance: “She maintained the religious feeling right to the end and it was a surprise to see her walk off the stage rather than levitate.” And Melissa Manchester: “I just never heard anybody running down the hallways of their soul, just running and running and running and running, trying to outdistance some devil. I worshipped her music… She was the muse.” If you think that the young Laura Nyro can’t or won’t get any higher, louder, bolder, bangier or more thunderous, you’re happily wrong — she always goes there.
But facts aren’t so much “stubborn things,” as somebody said, as they are tedious things. So in the spirit of not-entirely-baseless speculation, hold out your hands, readers, because we’re going to do a reading. I don’t think Nyro’s talent and the tremendous effect she had on people can be explained without resorting to hocus pocus. As nothing is beneath me, I will now step into the world of God and the Devil and the unseen and say that Laura Nyro was the reincarnation of several great adventurous romantic and poetic spirits. Please join me in this virtual (!) seance as we try to call up Laura Nyro’s past lives, the pertinent ones that karmic astrology says we all bring to this lifetime to help us grow and learn. Freedom is great but, as Americans know, free is much better — so there will be no charge for today’s reading.
Ommmmmm, um, ahhhhhh, I’m now seeing the specter of poet John Keats join us… Don’t cough on me, nightingale boy, just have a seat! Can you feel the vibe of Keats in Nyro’s work and, especially, life? Like Nyro, Keats wrote his most phenomenal work in a tiny period of time, nearly all of it in 1819 when he was 24, especially the spring when he wrote five of his great odes: “Grecian Urn,” “Melancholy,” “Psyche,” “To a Nightingale,” and “Indolence.” That year also saw “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Hyperion,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and the “Ode to Autumn.” Keats had the desperate foresight to know he had to take some time off to pour out his soul because soon he would have to “earn a living” to help support his brother George and from whence there was no coming back alive, dead at age 25 of tuberculosis.
How might the spirit of John Keats come back into the world to finish its business, this person who wrote his beloved Fanny Brawne: “I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.” How else would new lessons be taught to the sickly fevered TB-wracked Keats but to be born into the fires of spring of Laura Nyro whose soul is always “raging” and in a “fury”? (But in a good way.) Keats wouldn’t have come back in late 20th century America as a poet because he would have been scrupulously ignored (again.) But he would have come back as a pop musician and singer. Keats was derided by the literary critics during his life but his spirit would have learned what love and adulation were like in the form of Laura Nyro. His one champion was Percy Byssche Shelley whose last four stanzas of “Adonais,” his elegy on Keats, are my favorite lines in the English language.
With Keats incorporated inside her, informing her, Nyro was free to learn that recognition and even creativity itself are not the be and end all. Fame didn’t faze Laura Nyro because she always thought of herself as famous even when she was a child — that’s why she was momentarily perplexed at age 14 when nothing had happened to her yet. I’m not comparing Nyro’s words to Keats’ words because only Shakespeare is in Keats’ league. What I’m saying is that Nyro can be likened to Keats because she seemed to have no progenitors. Nobody put words together like Keats and nobody put songs together like Laura Nyro — the daring mixture of styles within a song, her march to the non-beats of invisible drummers, her rich suggestive language. Not to mention her pioneering influence on other artists and the depth of feeling she conveyed and aroused in her listeners. Nyro is what Keats would look like in the late 20th century .
(Otherworldly aside: I’m not well-versed in Robert’s Rules of Reincarnation but I believe we are allowed to bring previous lifetimes with us into this lifetime even if those previous lives were contemporaneous with each other. You just can’t be someone that you’re contemporaneous with — that’s because a competing group of psychics will label you dysfunctional and make a bundle treating you for a long period of time called “progress.” To use a musical analogy, you’d be a record royalty: every time your craziness plays, they get a little somethin’. So be sure that your incarnations have the good form to be dead before you were busy bein’ born.)
Given the above, it makes sense that I’m also seeing the apparition of Keats’ contemporary, Shelley, joining us now as one of Nyro’s past lives. This is very strong. The anti-war, anti-monarchy, pantheist, defender of the downtrodden, vegetarian animal libber Shelley pretty much had no place to go in 1822 with his revolutionary ideas — he had to get off the planet for awhile. Poet Matthew Arnold dismissed Shelley as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” But the beat of Shelley’s wings carried for 150 years: his advocacy of nonviolent resistance in “The Masque of Anarchy” would influence Thoreau who would influence Gandhi who would influence Martin Luther King who, as Nyro sang in “Save the Country,” was at the “Glory River” and “who loved to sing in the sun, ‘We shall overcome.’” Shelley would have loved to be mingling with his friend Keats in the corpus delectable of vegetarian Laura Nyro. Shelley wrote ringing defenses of vegetarianism, saying, among other things, “It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust.”
A rap on Laura Nyro is that she “dropped out.” Here’s what happened when she “dropped out”: she embraced and wrote about motherhood, feminism, environmentalism, the struggles of Indigenous peoples, vegetarianism and animal liberation. She was expanding the scope of who she loved from Eli and Emmie to Miss Piggy and Elsie and the gardenias and the sassafras trees.
Since you didn’t ask, and since ass-kissing male rock music critics won’t tell you, I’ll tell you who dropped out in plain sight: the comfy rock gods who would bob and weave and feint but never actually name the names and hit any targets that mattered. Instead, music critics would explain and parse the gods’ coded cagey nebulous words and thoughts while the world burned before our eyes. When the smoke cleared, this is where we ended up: last March Bob Dylan had the Presidential Medal of Freedom hung around his neck by the Master of War, the drone and death squad lover, the extinguisher of due process and habeas corpus, the deus ex machina for saving HMOs and Wall Street thieves and CIA torturers, the kidnapper and the false imprisoner, the keeper of secret prisons, the cool killer that liberals love, another rotating head of the Great Satan and, coming in January, the eviscerator of Social Security – the American President, Mr. Chump Change, Barack Obama. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ smoke up your ass, the answer is blowin’ up your ass…
Fuck that shit. Give me the directness of Laura Nyro who told the real 99%, the world of speciesist bigots, that hunting, meat eating, zoos, circuses and fur-wearing were wrong. Nyro responded to the rising concern for non-human beings by writing “Lite a Flame (The Animal Rights Song)” and dedicating her 1988 tour to the animal movement. That rising concern over the last 30 years for non-human life, and the deleterious effects animal exploitation has on human beings and the entire planet, has apparently been of no interest to male rock gods even though large segments of the capitalist class and their congressional errand boys are so interested that they’ve enacted a host of special laws that criminalize the dissent, investigative journalism and nonviolent protests of animal activists. (You’d be surprised at what happens when people, let alone the gods, conquer their taste buds and stop eating animals: they quickly and vocally have the religious experience of seeing the wrongness of zoos, circuses and rodeos.)
Animal and environmental activists are rotting for years in supermax prisons for nothing more than property damage. They are political prisoners. They’ve never actually hurt a person — they’ve hurt money, they’ve committed crimes against money which, of course, makes them quite treasonous. These brave people alarm the ruling class. The rock and roll gods don’t bother the ruling class in the least — they’re just trophies that you hang a medal on and get your picture taken with: “I, Barackus Obombus Caesar, with the impunity vested in me, now bestow this trinket on Bob Dylan who, 50 years ago, would have written a scathing song about even the offer of this trinket, let alone its acceptance. But I conquer — just like I used my Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to diabolically diss Martin Luther King and justify my wars. I just bagged another icon! Facebot friends, consumers, homelandians — my sheeps — come and join the evil, ‘cause even the Fucker-in-Chief sometimes must have to stand naked.”
The American ruling class doesn’t hate “radical” animal and environmental activists and foreign suicide bombers because of their “destructiveness” — it hates them because of their integrity, the fact that they can’t be bought off. People who give their freedom and lives for a purpose higher than money scare the hell out of the well-protected warmongering cowards in Washington, DC and, of course, they’re incomprehensible to the comfy-corrupt American populace. Oops, went off on a little busman’s holiday here, hating America. I love vacationing! Thanks for being so patient, Keats. Shelley, I’m sure you get it. Back to Laura.
(When Bette Midler inducted Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this past April, she mentioned Nyro’s social consciousness about the “peace movement” and the “women’s movement” but failed to mention anything about her concern for animals. People like Midler fancy themselves as “getting” Laura Nyro but Nyro is still light years ahead of any group of people who would feel the need to “tame” her again, in death, by not mentioning the chief concern of the last 15 years of her life — just because it’s of no concern to them. Hence, they weren’t sincerely honoring her. Everything has to be safe and smooth for coward country America, nobody must be made uncomfortable or be faced with anything they disagree with. That, in fact, is the state of rock and roll. Had she been alive, I bet Nyro would have put “Lite A Flame” in the audience’s face with the same aplomb as she played the gritty anti-drug “Poverty Train” to the drugged-up 1967 Monterey Pop Festival audience. Why Patti Labelle wasn’t chosen to induct Nyro is a mystery, as Labelle knew her early on and sang with her many times.)
With Shelley as a guide we get closer to what Nyro’s life was really about — it wasn’t about singing or art or creativity. It was about lining up your actions with your beliefs — popularity be damned. It was about finding a balance between the outer world and the inner world, about staying involved and fighting injustice without being overwhelmed by it. It was about being stronger than cruelty. It was about not looking away. It was about changing yourself if you were part of the problem. I don’t think it was an accident that the specific focus of “Lite a Flame” (which also makes connections between racism, sexism and speciesism) was the plight of elephants in zoos and circuses, as a younger Nyro once insouciantly ate canned elephant meat. “Lite a Flame” was an attempt at redemption. On the live acoustic version of “Save the Country,” it wasn’t just Nyro’s pure voice that choked people up, it was the striving of a soul to be better, the hope that we could all be better, and a conscience that didn’t “choke.” Nyro’s idealism, righteousness and compassion must seem like bizarre artifacts to today’s jaded, entitled, conformist young people.
Some critics called Nyro’s later work “didactic,” which is dog whistle for: “She said something true about me that I don’t like. When she says something true about someone that I don’t like, that’s speaking truth to power.” She wasn’t didactic, she was matter-of-factic. She was successfully synthesizing what it meant to be a red diaper grandbaby and being one with the trees — there was no contradiction.
In astrology, Nyro’s “final signature” — the combination of qualities (Cardinal, Fixed, Mutable) and elements (Earth, Air Fire, Water) that gives an overall feel to a person — was “fixed fire” or Leo, like the August 4 born Shelley. Nyro was a peacemaker, a diplomatic Libra Sun but people didn’t get it at first how stubborn she was, and that’s Leo, the fixed fire. One of the strongest themes of Kort’s book on Nyro is how Nyro stood her ground and prevailed over some of the most powerful male producers, musicians and executives in the music business. Ever civil, she kind of wore them down with nonviolent resistance.
Wow, after all that with Shelley, I feel like I need some drugs. And look who’s come to our party: the old absinthe and hashish user, French poet Arthur Rimbaud. This enfant terrible was a celebrated and influential poet who abandoned poetry at age 19. His big 1875 “fuck you” to the world of art and creativity is sometimes used as a marker for the decline of the artist and the individual in society and the rise of the machine. He had a tumultuous affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine then became a wanderer on three continents, taking mostly menial jobs until he died at age 37. Not knowing how to get along in the “civilized” world, he eventually engaged in gun running, smuggling, slave trading and ivory dealing (Laura’s penance for pachyderms again.)
I hear the libertine Libran Rimbaud whispering in Nyro’s ear: try everything, love everybody, man or woman, break down all barriers, drink that bottle of Robitussin when you’re a kid listening to Miles and Coltrane, drop that acid, toke up, take a hit, see what you feel like, even better if you feel like nothing at all. I see Rimbaud speaking and writing in colors, using them as verbs and vowels, and Nyro speaking in terms of textures and colors when rehearsing musicians. As Janis Ian said, “She’d tell the musicians, ‘Play more purple, more like that chair.’” “Bring in some blue horns,” she would say, and she once described the instrumentation on a song as “a warm pale blue with a few whitecaps on it.” I see Rimbaud running wildly through Nyro’s veins, saying: tour like crazy, dazzle everyone you meet, burn out, die young, and Laura saying, “Whoa, Rimbaud!”
I see the jaded Rimbaud hitching a ride on Laura Nyro’s birth, looking forward to more gypsy life and drugs and then being stunned by one thing after another: drowned by the torrent of Laura’s black loves Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane and, most of all, Miles Davis whose work she felt so close to that she said: “I feel that somehow he got lost in my blood, he got mixed in somewhere inside.” Rimbaud probably thought he’d experienced it all when he ended up harmonizing with Patti Labelle on “Save the Country.” All souls moving, all the time. But Rimbaud wasn’t done. His debauched isolated “Drunken Boat” self, gladly seeking oblivion in the 19th century, was instead grabbed up by another teenage genius (he thought he was grabbing her — but this was Laura Judo Nyro we’re talking about) who changed course and set sail for pantheist transcendence.
But now the spirits are flickering a bit and my powers are waning. Most of Laura’s incarnations, of course, aren’t famous poets, they’re just ordinary people. With no planets in the grounded earth signs in her horoscope, Nyro definitely had an impractical naive incarnation that was destined to be a Geffen-magnet, the kind of incarnation who would materialize later and, upon finding out the day of a show that her piano would block the view of people sitting too close to the stage, ask the promoter, “Could you lower the stage?” Informed that this was impossible, Nyro earnestly asked for more impossibility: “Well, could you raise the audience?” I can see Nyro in 1871 Paris at the barricades with fellow communards, perhaps tending the wounded or lifting spirits with a song of liberty, fraternity and equality, come on people, come on children, perhaps being listened to by the self-seeking adventurer Rimbaud who was rumored to have joined the Commune for a brief time, the kind of incarnation who a century later would tell a journalist: ”At a certain point music and business are opposed to each other… I’d sooner be looked on as a comrade than a star… The star system perpetuates the economic system.” Now I’m seeing the “spiritual but not religious” Nyro as being nailed by organized religion in a previous life, perhaps a witch at Salem drowned with her precious cats. There goes Laura Nyro, fading out, perhaps going down the tantalizing “Stony End” as the adulteress on the road, looking for a Christ who wasn’t there — or the kind of world, a kind world, where you didn’t need a Christ because everyone, more or less, was a Christ. There was nothing like her, but she’ll be back.
I’m signing off now but you should surry on down with Rimbaud and Shelley and Keats into the Fifth Dimension and partake of the Sweet Blindness and the derangement of the senses at the Stoned Soul Picnic. If you don’t know how to surry, I bet Rimbaud can show you, I bet he whispered that word in Laura’s ear to begin with. You’re in good hands. Make sure Keats parties also. I don’t think absinthe could make his heart any less fonder. Ask Shelley what’s on his mind because in 200 years it will be on everyone’s mind. Trust, strive, believe. Later at night, if you’re awakened by broken hearts dropping on the stairs and a pounding at your door, and you’re wondering what your own racing heart would sound like smashed, don’t be surprised if Eli’s Comin’, the one you’ve been warned about, and don’t be surprised if you open the door anyway. And if it turns out to be Barbra Streisand, grab your lucky crystals from the night stand and threaten her with a New Age stoning if she keeps not doing Stony End in concert or doing half-assed versions of it or dissing the words. As you send her away, tell her that people don’t need “People,” they need Stony End. Then imagine how you’ll Lite a Flame in the hearts of your comrades to do the right thing and Lite a Flame in the womb of your partner to do the nice thing because it’s all one and the same, the fucking and the enlightening, sometimes you get to be Laura and sometimes Emmie and sometimes, if you’re really Luckie, you get to be the unconditional love curled up at the foot of the bed. And if your love is away, just Walk the Dog and Light the Light until they return, though it may be in another lifetime. But you never know for sure, so light the light. Then get a good night’s sleep because tomorrow you’ll be schlepping your Keats and Shelleys and Rimbauds, and all those other furies in your soul, onward to the glory goal, as you head out to Save the Country, because you’re optimystic, you know it can and will be done, just like Laura knew. That, in fact… it’s done already. Somewhere. Play more purple.
Randy Shields can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.