Singer-Songwriter Laura Nyro Gets Long-Overdue Recognition
Well, it took long enough! Several years (decades, to be exact) after she became eligible, the directors of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Laura Nyro. The Cleveland, Ohio, institution has been caught in controversy before for its choices -- especially its absences.
Donna Summer, for example, is another artistic giant who was forced to cool her heels. At least she was able to enjoy her prestige; Nyro died 15 years ago at age 49.
Nor did the humiliation end with the announcement of her induction. A string of damaging emails reveals how her only child, hip-hop performer Gil Bianchini, was forced to pay his own way to Cleveland and had to buy his way into the ceremony.
The Hall of Fame backtracked, and Bianchini accepted the award, while Bette Midler paid tribute. But the Hall of Fame claimed that Patty Di Lauria was Nyro’s surviving partner, when in fact, she was given powers of executor when Gyro’s actual partner, Maria Desiderio, died. That there is bad blood between her and Bianchini is well known.
While we remaining devoted Nyro fans should be grateful to the Hall for finally recognizing her genius, it’s also the ultimate frustration. For us, there’s no argument that, with Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney, she’s the greatest singer-songwriter to have emerged from the ’60s, the Golden Age of rock Da Vincis.
I came to Nyro early and probably indirectly (it’s fuzzy now). Unlike the other four mentioned above, Nyro achieved most of her success through covers by other artists, notably the Fifth Dimension. Barbra Streisand’s rendition of "Stoney End" and Blood Sweat & Tears’ "And When I Die" are far more famous than Nyro’s far more low-keyed interpretation. (She differs from Carole King in that King labored anonymously as one of the Brill Building hit makers until she burst into public consciousness with "Tapestry.")
Long before she came out, Nyro (whose most famous straight relationship was probably with another great singer-songwriter, Jackson Browne) was idolized by feminists and lesbians. Her sensitive, pinpoint, often-ironic musical testaments to the burdens of just being a woman became anthemic to many.
The problem the Hall of Fame had with Nyro was what contributed to her neglect among the larger public during and after her lifetime. Nyro’s music was notoriously hard to pigeonhole. And her artistic temperament all too often worked against her professional success.
Nyro was discovered by a budding young talent agent in her native New York, David Geffen. The man who would eventually become the most powerful (and feared) out-gay mogul in Hollywood also ended up as the first in a succession of "suits" ultimately frustrated with Nyro’s wild mood swings and passion.
During her lifetime, certainly there were critics who recognized her genius. Many consider "Eli and the 13th Confession" a landmark album on the level of the Beatles’ "St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" (although for me, "New York Tendeberry" remains her consummate "concept" album). Her later work, especially after her commitment to feminism was brought more to the fore, however, was dismissed as too earnest.
Nyro’s problem was that she was her work was truly sui generis, unique. She combined nearly equally Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, folk, rock and roll, the blues and breezy pop. Janis Ian, another later-in-life out-singer-songwriter, knew Nyro from their days studying at Manhattan’s famed High School of Music and Art (the "Fame" school), summed up the paradox facing Nyro’s listeners when she wrote that she found her music "oddly inarticulate." (If she were around now, some forward-thinking Broadway producer would probably give her a show to score.)
It wasn’t only her music that perplexed critics. Her rich word phrasing employs juxtapositions superior even to Dylan’s and compare favorably to Emily Dickinson. Just a few examples: "Oh sweet blindness/A little madness/A little kindness ... Four leaves on a clover/I’m just a bit of a shade hungover"; "Run like a chicken from the pan"; "Where is the night luster/Past my trials"; "Upstairs by a china lamp/They talk of love/In the pale moonlight"; "Market in the cool white morning’; merchants sell while ladies buy/Milk tobacco soap and matches/Sweep the floor while the dishes dry."
Even her song titles are richly evocative. Has anyone ever written anything that describes female desire as well as "Map to the Treasure"?
By the time she released "Mother’s Spiritual," her twin causes of environmentalism and feminism had come to dominate her writing. Something was gained, perhaps, but such forthrightness left behind the gorgeous mystery of songs like "Upstairs By a China Lamp" and "Midnite Blue," not to mention genre-breaking narratives like "Eli’s Coming," "New York Tendaberry" and "Christmas in My Soul." (She may have been an ardent feminist, but she remained classically feminine: I doubt if she was ever seen in anything but a dress -- not a skirt, a full-on dress.)
I’ve been trying to get through "Soul Picnic," the excellent biography by Michele Kort, but it’s depressing to read how much she had to fight the prevailing wisdom to fulfill her artistic vision -- especially damaging in an era when every release had to be put into the proper bin at the record store.
I had the privilege of seeing Nyro perform twice, once in Cincinnati early in her career when she opened for James Taylor; and much later, at the legendary New York folk club the Bottom Line.
Seeing her twice in the span of decades pointed up the differences in her style. When the very young Nyro walked onstage, dressed like Morticia Addams in a black gypsy gown, single red rose in her jet-black, long, flowing hair, her presence was palpably electric. She was obviously shy and nervous, but when she sat down at the piano, she gave what remains for me one of the best sets I’ve ever experienced by any singer in any medium.
When she played the Bottom Line, it was as a much more seasoned performer. She bantered with the band, was affable, friendly and loose. As good as she was, it’s the uptight woman, still very much a girl, who remains fixed in my memory.
Nyro stands between Ian and Dusty Springfield. Neither as folky as the former, or as breezy as the latter, her work stands as the most outstanding example of eclecticism in rock. Only the Beatles, I believe, can match her for the breadth of her musical knowledge. It took the Hall of Fame far too long to get there, but welcome, Laura, into the pantheon of greatness.