Perfect Sound Forever

The Black Christmas of Laura Nyro

Photo by Glen Stegner

by Jorge Luis Fernández
(March 2003)

In a Joni Mitchell interview published by MOJO, in 1998, the legendary Canadian songwriter recognized her debts to the recently departed songstress Laura Nyro. Hugely talented and overlooked in equal measure, Nyro wasn't just 'an influence' for Mitchell: she 'took some direction from her,' and on her account 'started playing piano again'. Sorely, it was a late adjust to history. But then it was revealed: the big lady's first steps were inspired by someone who (a sin even at Aquarius Age) rejected both of her sex and color.

Under the influence of Brill Building and female composers like Carole King or Ellie Greenwich, Laura Nyro started writing songs that found best fortune in the hands of pop stars like Barbra Streisand and The Fifth Dimension, among others: "Stoney End,” "Wedding Bell Blues,” "Save The Country,” "Blowing Away,” all of which were songs that were also recorded by herself. But luck and good timing were never by her side. After all, it wasn't easy to hear Laura, bisexual in sunny California, singing 1966's "Stoney End”: a sing along tune with controversial lyrics. "I was raised in the good book of Jesus, 'Til I learned to reed between the lines." Nyro included the song in her first record, but it became instead an anthem for hundreds of people thanks to the version of the good-natured The Fifth Dimension.

Besides, Laura was one of the first musicians who challenged the myth of authenticity. While listening to her voice, most people believed she was black. But no, Laura was white; more precisely surnamed Nigro, of Italian descent. Though she wished to be black, that was out of question. And she expressed her frustration with strong piano staccattos. And a powerful, unpredictable voice always fluctuated between tenderness and violence.

All that was conveniently swept aside. It was instead her talent for balladeer composing, and her unusually gifted vocal delivery that made her unique. Soul-tinged, orchestrated, addressing both Kurt Weill and Gospel choirs, her songs were the songbook for various rock stars of the seventies -Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Todd Rundgren, above else. At the times and contrary to her desire, Laura Nyro (like Miles Davis or John Coltrane) made music of musicians, not for the big public. The hippie audience adored Joan Baez, and Melanie descending from a helicopter to inaugurate the Isle of Wight Festival. But Laura Nyro was booed and forced to quit the stage when she appeared at Monterey, due to the uneasiness of her performance.

Towards 1968, her style evolved. Still relying on the piano as her main interpretative tool, Laura incorporated rhythm changes, modal scales, unheard-of timbres, and extended the conventional song structure with internal developments, doing to the ballad something similar to what The Incredible String Band was doing to the folk rock domain. The seeds of change were seen in the last track of her second album, Eli And The Thirteen Confession. "The Confession” starts as a usual Nyro ballad: richly textured and stylized, but permeating rage and passion through the pores. Clocking at two minutes, the song proceeds to subvert every law of the palatable Carole King's song theory. The rhythm accelerates, incorporating a syncopated accentuation. Laura gets agitated and "The Confession” ends with a circular and beautiful motif at the piano. But curiously enough, the song never seems to be in process of a radical transfiguration. While being a little bit far out, it remains an exquisite ballad.

With New York Tendaberry (1969), her new style was firmly established. In the short span of a song, a variety of arrangements flows with ease, and her vocal delivery is astounding. With probably the most carefully intonations of the time, Laura pronounce every phrase punctuated by a subtle piano or harsh attacks, depending on how soft or powerful she sounds. Timpani, keyboards, woodwinds, and strings were also devices to emphasize her expressiveness. Unusually, she was giving paramount importance to textures over harmonic arrangements, something that could explain the cult status the album acquired over the years (other fine contemporary records like Todd: The Ballad Of Todd Rundgren were obviously influenced by Tendaberry). Laura also made studio tricks with vocal overdubbing, and was evidently eluding a constant pattern in the songs. But architecturally amazing as it is, Tendaberry still sounds gentle to the ears. The true revolt came in the aftermath of the Black Panthers trials, the upheavals and shootings of Kent State, and the Charles Manson murders. It was then that Laura proclaimed the demise of the hippie movement with her fourth record: 1970's Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat.

The record (whose title is a figure about Vietnam's rosary of blood) became premonitory in several issues. On one hand, it's a mournful farewell to flower power, resenting the turn from tribal gatherings to individualist, confessional songwriters (the so-called Me Generation). On the other hand, it's a nihilist premonition of the new right's advent of the seventies. Surely, Richard Nixon and Edward Heath were giving her a clue about what to expect: a bleak future. No future -rock culture will have to wait another six years to be aware of it. In this context, Christmas translates its songs to a ghostly, isolated area. And right from the start, Arif Mardin's string arrangement depicts an elegant blank page for Laura (and a dream team of musicians including Duane Allman and Alice Coltrane) to write her haunting visions.

An exemplary aspect of her innovative work is "Been On A Train,” a heartfelt rendition of a slowed-down paced blues, compressed to two tones. Disquieting silences abound, randomly conducting the piece, and Laura sings as if her life depends on it: "He said, 'I got just one thing gonna soothe my pain'. No, no, damn you mister, and I dragged him out the door. He died in the morning sun, and I won't go north no more." Her singing accumulates and releases tension as no one else had before, and probably Peter Hammill took note of this. This is just one of her unprecedented signatures on rock music. In "Beads Of Sweat,” Laura rocks rapturously, with Duane Allman's cutting licks stealing the show. And with its modal flirting, "Upstairs By A Chinese Lamp” is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful tracks ever made. Alice Coltrane has a stellar guest appearance with her harp in "Map To The Treasure," where Laura alternates between whispers and cathartic cries, and a sublime interlude of minimal piano gives evidence of the mutual influence that Meredith Monk and Nyro then had. On the other hand, Coltrane's crystal glissandos are the perfect painkiller for Laura's tortured soul.

The climax came at the end of the record, with her voice overdubbed several times, reproducing a heavenly choir tarnished by mournful bells. "I love my country as it dies, in war and pain, before my eyes. I walk the streets where disrespect has been the sins of politics, the politics of sin; the heartlessness that darkens my soul on Christmas (...) Black Panther brothers, bound in jail; Chicago Seven and the justice scale; homeless Indian of Manhattan Isle. All God's sons have gone to trial, and all God's love is out of style on Christmas."

I always loved Christmas not just for its beauty and uncommon vision. I also love it for the clarity of its message, and because it's clearly the work of someone desperately searching her own vision. As a female rock artist, seated in between genres, only Annette Peacock (whose groundbreaking I'm The One saw the light of day at almost the same time) was as daring, innovative and uncompromising. And more than thirty years later, Laura's music still seems poignant, with her cries preserved as fierce as a lion caged. Undoubtedly, this is the best way she deserves to be remembered as: a woman who made beauty through anger. And, while being a product of its time, Christmas remains a timelessness masterful piece of art.

Afterwards, Laura's provocative stance subdued. Her follow up, a collaborative effort with black female group La Belle entitled Gonna Take A Miracle, was a retreat into conventional soul music, covering such staples like "Spanish Harlem,” "I Met Him On A Sunday” and "You've Really Got A Hold On Me.” Following the same steps, 1976's Smile was even more disappointing. Though jazz and R&B were always at the core of her compositions, her idiosyncratic style was definitely missing. From then on, Laura herself revealed as a compromised feminist and an amiable musician. But it's true to say that she laid the ground for the compelling developments of women in the seventies. Or at least, without her pioneering recordings, womens' place in music wouldn't be the same.

Several years after Christmas, other artists would release equally honest works (Patti Smith's Horses), or ambitious (Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns; Kate Bush's The Dreaming), but none of them were made from the perspective of a real outcast. Laura Nyro lived a life full of contradictions. She wanted to be Patti La Belle, but forget to shave her legs. She adhered to rock's rebellion, but was the first artist signed to then novel impresario David Geffen, now a big tycoon of entertainment business. Assumed a homosexual in the sunset of her life, Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer in the arms of her lover, Maria Desidero, at the age of 49. It was April 1997. Coincidentally, that was the same that year Joni Mitchell was inducted at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and further assumed immortality.

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