R.I.P. Laura Nyro

Published April 11, 1997 6:21PM (EDT)

the announcement Wednesday that Laura Nyro had died of ovarian cancer started
some fires on the Internet and in the street: hot coals of shared musical memory
stoked by the passing of this exotic, erratic, original talent. It was only a
month ago that Columbia/Legacy released "Stoned Soul Picnic," a best-of
collection chosen by the singer-songwriter herself, and her songs have been
filling my Brooklyn living room since. "Stoney End," "And When I Die," "Eli's
Coming" -- they were songs anyone listening to the radio in the '60s knew
(they were covered by Barbra Streisand; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and Three Dog
Night, respectively), but Nyro's originals remain a revelation. She was 19 years
old when she recorded those songs and she sang them with the emotion and
conviction of a woman twice her age. There was no easy way to get to where she
was coming from. She blew in from all over the map.

Nyro was born of Jewish and Italian parents in the Bronx in 1947. Her
father was a jazz trumpeter and even outside her home, music was a
constant visceral presence, like air or electricity. "I would go out singing, as a
teenager, to a party or out on the street, because there were harmony groups
there, and that was one of the joys of my youth," she wrote in the liner notes
to "Stoned Soul Picnic." The doo-wop and girl-group rock that filled the streets
of New York then informed her songs (an influence paid homage to in the '71 release
"Gonna Take a Miracle"), but so did the jazz she grew up with, the folk she
heard in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, gospel, show tunes, soul music
-- Nyro's music was like the polyglot city from which it sprang, rich and
surprising with an odd hint of danger.

Image-wise, Nyro never quite caught on. She was like the East Coast
answer to Joni Mitchell, darker and more Mediterranean (Ricki Lee Jones later
combined the style of both, as if she'd been going through their closets), with
Old Testament undertones in her songs that didn't play so well with some
hippies. She was famously booed off the stage at Monterey Pop in 1967, and
though her gossamer-winged outfit must have seemed precious, the crowd might
have been equally put off by her soul-revue style band -- not to mention her
Cassandra-like intensity. In "Eli's Coming" her lover is an avenging angel, and
in "The Confession" she hears her daddy speak from his grave -- heavy, man. As
Robert Christgau wrote of her sensibility, "She was born 150 years too late."

Nyro was nothing if not sensitive: She retired twice in her career, the
first time at the age of 24. Her private life was just that, though her
relationship with manager David Geffen was more than your average business deal.
She is survived by a grown son and a female companion and countless invisible
fans who will miss the warmth of her spirit. Though her songs got more prosaic
toward the end ("Walk the Dog and Light the Light" was the title of her last
studio album), her empathy was undiminished, embracing children, women, animals
-- the devil himself, at times. "I got fury in my soul," she sang in "Save the
Country," an unabashed anti-war anthem, "Fury's gonna take me to the glory."

Amen, sister.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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