036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by on Apr 8, 2010 in Rock, Song Of the week |

I had an epiphanous listening experience today, of the type that make all that training and preparation and drudgework worthwhile.

I had a playlist for the day of things I wanted to get through: Don Friedman (a fine Bill Evans-styled pianist), the 5 CDs I own, because he’s coming to town next week, and I’m planning on seeing him; a new one by Liz Story, a youngish Californian Bill Evans-styled pianist who impresses me greatly every time I listen to her; and ‘At Last’, recorded in 1959 by cool bop clarinetist Tony Scott, backed by the very young, um, Bill Evans himself. Now, it’s true I start my listening most days with Bill Evans and 2 cups of brewed coffee, to ease my way into the real world. But by 9:30 I’m usually awake enough that the grey matter is beginning to stir, and I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I’m going to have to activate it at some point. That’s when I put on something a bit spicier than Bill Evans. Pick up the tempo. Add a saxophone or a singer.

But today Messrs Friedman and Evans and Ms Story held me in this very elegant, very gentle groove till way into the afternoon. So by about 4 o’clock I was ready to rip the roof off. And I’d been listening to new music, so it was time to allow myself my daily portion of the familiar. If I ever have rocking hours, it’s those.

And what did our fancy fall upon? One of our 10 Desert Island Rock Albums. Now, that’s a special occasion because, believe me, folks, no balanced person walks around listening to his DIRAs regularly. You gotta save them for the DI, right? You don’t want to wear them out. But the catch is how did they become DIRAs? Because you’ve known them and loved them and listened to them so hard and for so long that they’re often consigned to the same box in the back of the attic of your mind as the security blanket you slept with until you were six. Or fourteen.

So it’s 4:30, and we’re on the treadmill at the gym, and thank heavens there’s no one there and I’ve put MTV on mute, plugged into my Zen Creative, and–whoosh, my old aural lover, Laura Nyro’s “Eli and the 13th Confession”.

I had to pick one song to present you from this almost uniformly sublime album, no easy choice for me. So we went for one that’s fairly well known, “Sweet Blindness“, a paean to getting drunk on wine. But it just as well could have been ‘Luckie‘ or ‘Lu‘ or ‘Eli’s Coming’ or ‘Timer‘ or ‘Stoned Soul Picnic‘ or ‘Emmie‘ or ‘The Confession’.

How much do I love Laura Nyro? Well, enough that at the time my friend Mike and I intended to drive from Ohio to NYC to tell her how just much we loved her. (The pilgrimage fell through when Maybelline, my 1962 Triumph Herald, broke an axle.) She accompanied me through the darkest night of my life. And I’ve been listening to her for, well, 42 years now, and my admiration and enjoyment haven’t diminished a whit.

A lot of people don’t love Laura Nyro (pronounced ‘nero’). She was booed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She was affected, eccentric, at times self-indulgent and annoying. Her voice could put a banshee to shame.

But she also wrote a more than respectable list of hits embedded in the public’s ear: The 5th Dimension’s “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary’s “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)”.

But of course that’s not the music I have cared about so deeply and so long.

She was born Laura Nigro in 1947 to an Italian musician father and a Jewish mother. Grew up in NYC, listening to ’50’s and ‘60’s girl groups, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, Mary Wells, Dusty Springfield, and the early Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs of Dionne Warwick, Leontyne Price, Ravel, Debussy and Persicetti, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Laura always “adored” the music of Van Morrison.

Her writing is a unique blend of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes and rock.

Her first album (1967) included a few enduring gems despite a disastrous recording session: the divine, ebullient “Wedding Bell Blues“, the prescient “And When I Die“. She was considering an offer to become lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears after Al Kooper split, but was dissuaded by her new manager and close partner David Geffen.

“Eli & the 13th Confession” was released Feb 15, 1968. It was her second album, it had a perfumed lyric sheet insert (at a time when lyrics were not yet being printed), and it made her a cult heroine upon its release. That’s no small achievement, considering that at that time it was competing for attention with The White Album, Beggar’s Banquet, Astral Weeks (in my mind, always Eli’s soul brother), Music from Big Pink, Bookends, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Cheap Thrills, Child is Father to the Man. Pretty heady company, huh? And it takes a back seat to not one of them.

Then the fine but less-than-divine follow-ups “New York Tendaberry” and “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.” Then in 1971 a very funky album of covers with Labelle, “Gonna Take a Miracle”. Then she married a carpenter and retired from the music business at the age of 24. Then in 1976 she got a divorce and made her first of several comebacks, accompanied by a handful of lackluster albums over the next 20 years. Then in 1977 she began a life-long relationship with painter Maria Desiderio. Then she had a kid. Laura Nyro died at 49 in 1997 of ovarian cancer.

During these last 20 years, she wrote and sang songs about her pregnancy, animal rights, the unjust relocation of the Navajo people, and her menstruation cycle – you don’t believe me? “The descent of Luna Rosé (dedicated to my period)” from her 1993 CD “walk the dog & light the light”.  But that doesn’t diminish what she did in 1968.

Joni Mitchell owes her a great debt musically. The influence on Rickie Lee Jones can’t be overstated. She’s been praised most highly, and her impact acknowledged by the likes of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Bob Dylan (who reportedly went up to her at a party and said “I love your chords”). Alvin Ailey choreographed 5 dances to her music.

In recent years, Laura has been widely promoted as a lesbian voice. Well, that’s fine, I suppose. I do think that interpreting a song such as ‘Emmie’ (‘You were my friend, and I loved you’ as a Sapphic statement is creatively rewriting history. In any case, I’m sure not going to get passionate about any music or musician because of his/her/its sexual predilections.

So why do I have this intimate, passionate relationship with “Eli & the 13th Confession”? It’s a pageant of bright lights and fierce emotions. It’s gospel and doo-wop and a spiritual carpet ride through sex, love, the elation and deflation of relationships, drugs, God, the devil. The entire gallery of experiences of an eccentric, passionate, spiritual, loving person. She embraces her lover like a god, her God like a lover. It’s a trip.

Her words: There’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone, Walking on God’s good side. A little magic, a little kindness. God is a jigsaw timer. Time and wine, red yellow honey sassafras and moonshine. The natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo. Super ride inside my lovething.

Catch the lyric—insisting that she “Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking”, and then she does just that: “Wine of wonder”. Listen to the ebullient vocals, lead and backing. Laura’s wonderful blue-eyed soul piano. The terrific, brash, brassy New York studio musicianship. The shifting tempos (check the humor and funk in the ritardando when she segues from the intro into the opening lyric, and then shifts back a tempo in the refrain.

Oh, Jeff, shaddup already and let them enjoy this great, glorious music.

Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, get happy.

Down by the grapevine, drink my daddy’s wine, get happy, happy.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a bit of a shade hung over.

Come on baby, do a slow float, you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

 

Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning.

Down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning, morning.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Please don’t tell my mother, I’m a saloon and a moonshine lover.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

 

Don’t ask me cause I ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking,

Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking, ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking–

Wine of wonder, wonder, (by the way).

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

and ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

Now ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Van Morrison SoTWs
SoTW 28: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’
SoTW 66: Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Skeletons’

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5 Comments

James goodmam
Dec 11, 2011 at 12:11 am

Nice tribute. Not booed at Monterey btw urban
Myth later corrected by pennebaker.


 
Al Regal
May 18, 2012 at 4:45 am

If you check out the youtube video of her singing “Poverty Train” at Monterey there was an audible cry of “beautiful” when she finished.. maybe it was misheard as a boo? Either way “Eli” is an absolutely stunning work of art. I agree “Christmas” is less impressive, but I think NY Tendaberry is just as good… maybe because it’s the first Nyro I heard, but I think it deserves the same praise. Just my opinion. Thanks for posting about Laura.


 
John Hagen
Jun 8, 2012 at 8:06 am

New York Tendaberry is a deep emotional world. I bought my copy the year it was released (1969); it sounds as fresh and compelling to me now as it did then. There is an absence of the pop music hooks which are essential to many of Ms. Nyro’s best known songs. No hooks are necessary here. She sings and plays with explosive dynamics – I am reminded of the ballad playing of Miles Davis.


 
Recruiting Animal
Dec 6, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Blood Sweat and Tears were lucky she didn’t join. Here keening voice wd not have worked well on that famous 2nd album.


 
glumm
Jul 10, 2014 at 12:22 pm

i love “blackpatch” since I was a kid. Thanks for this, from Gemany.


 

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