You either get Laura Nyro or you don’t. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t really even try, because you’re going to find her stuff overly precious, politically strident, way too sincere, blah blah blah. If you’re one of those haters, you probably even believe the old rumor that she got booed off the stage at the Monterey Pop Festival — she didn’t — and you won’t certainly have the patience for this two-disc live set. So you’d better hit the back button and read something else, because we’re talking to the true believers here. (Pause.) Okay: they’re gone. Let’s talk about our girl Laura.
I’ve loved her songwriting since before I even knew who she was. Before the 8-track player was stolen out of my family’s wood-paneled station wagon in 1974, my family listened to the 5th Dimension’s Greatest Hits on Earth way too much, and it was a virtual Nyro-fest: “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Save the Country” rocked my little second-grade world, and I came to think that “Wedding Bell Blues” was the greatest song ever recorded, an opinion that time has done nothing to dispel. I mean, have you ever heard the damned thing? The verses and the chorus and the bridge are all part of the same melody line, and the title doesn’t come in until the end of the song, and it’s sad and funny and wistful and proud and forward-thinking and hopelessly retro at the same time and . . . oh, hell, I love that song. Nyro wrote it.
And my mom’s collection was chockablock with Streisand, so I got to know “Stoney End” and “Hands Off the Man” and “Time and Love” and “I Never Meant to Hurt You.” Somewhere along the way I stumbled across “Time and Love” by Labelle (so different from Babs’ version!) and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ version of “And When I Die” and Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming,” both of which were cool and spooky; it wasn’t until later that I found out that one woman had written all these songs. And when I finally got some disposable income at my first job after college (which happened to be located next to a used record shop), I kept finding albums by Laura Nyro: New York Tendaberry, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession . . . well, I won’t talk about these records. It would take me years — and some other lucky bastard already got to write about their re-released versions recently.
But I lucked out and got this one. Laura Nyro was in the habit of performing a show at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village every year on Christmas Eve, and Live: The Loom’s Desire features the 1993 and 1994 shows. Sadly, tragically, there were to be no more shows–she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer of 1995, and died of it in 1997. It’s hard to separate this out from the music on these sets, but she didn’t know she was sick when the music was recorded, and she certainly doesn’t sound or act sick. She sounds like Laura Nyro: confident and bold at the same time that she is introspective and cryptic, mysterious and exuberant, the whole package of life wrapped up in one tiny woman who wrote some of the greatest songs of our time.
But who knew she was such a great interpreter of other people’s music? The 1993 show starts with a version of the Phil Spector/Hank Hunter obscurity “Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby,” and it sounds like wobbly heaven. It’s Nyro and her piano, backed by her six-piece “harmony group,” and it’s the saddest/happiest piece of music I can think of. Melancholy doesn’t even come close to describing this performance; maybe better is the Brazilian/Portuguese concept of “saudade”, the happiness that arrives when you realize you’re just about as sad as you can be. Nyro’s alto is maybe a little shaky and perhaps a touch flat, but it’s as expressive as all hell, and when it floats on the fluffy cloud provided by the backing voices it sounds like a blueprint of someone’s soul.
There are a number of other wonderful covers on this 1993 disc. “Dedicated to the One I Love”, which is certainly in the list of Top Twenty Most Beautiful Songs Ever Written, gets a similar reading, with each line stretched out just as far as it can be stretched, and sometimes even farther than that. It’s a much more gospelly version than her doo-wop version of “Wind” or her torchy gut-wrenching solo take on “Let It Be Me”, which closes things out. As a singer — even afflicted with a cold, which she chucklingly acknowledges — she coulda been a contenda.
But Laura Nyro was, first and foremost, a singer-songwriter, and it’s here that she really shines. “Walk the Dog and Light the Light (Song of the Road)” pretty much shows Tori Amos where she went wrong; this atmospheric piece has soul for miles as it explains (finally!) how hard the life of a musician — or anyone who has to travel for a living — can be when you’re a parent; she sings to her daughter, “I’ll see you on Sunday / Cause I’m workin’ on Saturday night”. She follows this up with the gorgeous “To a Child” (which my son recognizes from a CD they play at his pre-school), and also essays her hilarious piece “Japanese Restaurant Song,” which perfectly captures the embarrassed/defiant feeling a parent gets when her kids start wilding in a public place: “The cook he told me, ‘Your children aren’t exactly well-behaved’ / I said ‘Well you can’t have it all’ / And who really cares / When the magic plum wine / Is dancing on the paper walls?” Maybe people without children won’t like this song — but I happen to think it’s genius, even when she turns into a geisha “with an uppity feminist bent”.
Nyro isn’t afraid to take on the big hits, either. She introduces her classic “And When I Die” as “one of the first songs I ever wrote”, and then slams through it like it’s straight out the notebook: “Swear there ain’t no heaven / I pray there ain’t no hell / But I’ll never know by livin’ / Only my dying will tell”. She makes all of us faithful wait until the last part of the set for “Wedding Bell Blues”, and disposes of it in about two minutes — but nothing could ruin this song, and the reintroduction of the harmony group would send chills down anyone’s back. (Okay, maybe not Noel Gallagher’s back. That seems pretty impervious.)
The 1994 disc starts off with one of her newest songs, “Angel in the Dark”. This was the title song on her last album, but this version is so slow and soulful that it’s nearly indescribable. “I can’t live no more / Without an angel of love” becomes a mantra in the face of all the bad things in life. Her voice is in much better shape here than on the first disc, as she demonstrates here and on the other new song, “Gardenia Talk,” which is endearingly goofy. The harmony group here is cut down to only three members, which makes the vocal interplay on songs like “Louise’s Church” and “A Woman of the World” really pop; while the former suffers a bit from boilerplate feminist doctrine (which I happen to agree with politically but just sounds clunky here), the latter is one of Nyro’s greatest pieces. A serpentine chord pattern and a soaring vocal line frame the story of someone who’s learned a lot and is a better person for it: “If I was a foolish girl / Baby now I’m a woman of the world”.
As a vegan, I appreciate “Wild World” and its anti-meat anti-zoo anti-fur message, the same way that I love “Lite a Flame (The Animal Rights Song)” on the first disc, but if you’re afraid or allergic to stuff like that, Laura Nyro might not be your cup of organic herbal tea. She was who she was, a fiercely independent soul with sharp views who was not just a singer and songwriter (and the friend who helped Patti Labelle through her own cancer scare) but a leftist and a mother and a human being who cared deeply about things. Sure, she had squishy tendencies and went too far sometimes; witness “The Descent of Luna Rosé,” which is about how great menstruation is, or “Broken Rainbow”, which was commissioned for a documentary about Native Americans. Both these pieces are way-PC and so far left-wing that they’re almost right-wing. But they’re both so damned lovely that you can’t hate them for long. If you’ve made it this long, you’ve earned your Nyro Badge.
We get to medley time by the end of the concert. “Blowin’ Away” melts right into another version of “Wedding Bell Blues” and makes them both sound like they were written by a force from beyond, though the mystery of why there’s no crowd noise when the latter begins will have to be solved by better detectives than me. And “Trees of the Ages” works perfectly as a lead-in to “Emmie”, a song written about Nyro’s mother which also appears on the first disc. This is not Nyro’s best song, but it was her favorite, and she reads it gracefully in doo-wop style.
And then, when you didn’t think she had any more tricks up her sleeve, she comes out for an encore with a slow sexy cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby”. Words fail me. This is certainly the best non-Smokey version of this classic I’ve ever heard, and might even rival the original. It’s a perfect way to bring this set, this album, to a close.
Pretty crucial, perhaps.