233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’

Posted by jeff on Mar 6, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (furious – June 20, 1970)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (jolly – March 13, 1976)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (resigned – July 12, 1978 Early)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (minor – December 25, 1993)

Laura+Nyro++with+Gil+BianchiniThis week we’re going to talk about the meaning of life.
But don’t worry, there’s some great music in there, too.

Two events have been spinning my mind these past few weeks: my friend A. became a father (of twins) at 57; and a big pile of previous unknown Laura Nyro live recordings surfaced.

My relationship with A. is rather formal. We know each other through work, and though we have a lot of respect for each other and not a little affection, he’s (unlike me) not a gushy guy.

12744565_1333673769992046_2378058619088773401_nWhen we first got to know each other, a couple of years ago, he said to me, “I’ve never been married, don’t expect to be. I’ve come to terms with the fact that some people aren’t cut out to be part of a family. I’m an individual, and I’m cool with that. I do have this friend who’s 42 and is saying she might decide to have a kid, so maybe I’ll help her out with that. We’ll see.”

Fast forward two years: twins, cohabitation (in the meantime) and shared responsibility. And lots and lots of smiles. And behind closed doors, some tears.

A. confided in me that after almost a month (there were lots of really complex logistics surrounding the birth and the new group’s arrival home) he suddenly found himself alone, at home, surrounded by quiet for the first time in weeks. And he broke down crying, out of happiness, out of a release of tension I guess, out of recognition of the momentousness of everything he’s been going through.

mqdefault“It’s great,” he says. “If I’d known how wonderful fatherhood was, I would have done it at 55.”

Well, joke away, A. But I’m guessing that you’re struggling to grasp that your whole being has been rocked by the quantum change in your status in this here universe.

What does having children mean, on an existential level? Well, procreation. Fulfilling that biological imperative. Just think of how much energy God and Darwin and all those guys instilled in us to make sure it happens. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Think of the intensity with which you stared at Arlene Kaplan’s pink cashmere sweater in the ninth grade. Think of the Helen, the Trojan War, Marlowe’s “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”.  Think of Phil Spector’s production of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.

fuller-geoghegan-newborn_51431I’m 21st century enough to realize that a lot more people are choosing not to procreate, both by choice and due to circumstance, and yet lead happy and productive and full lives. For example I was recently moved by Oliver Sacks’ deathbed essays, collected in “Gratitude”. A fuller and more meaningful life than his is hard to fathom.

But when I think on the people I’ve known who do not have children, there’s a pinch in my heart. A discord. An arrhythmia. A missing link. Sorry, I’m a child of OzzieandHarrietLand. If we don’t contribute a link to the chain of life, what was it all for? What is it all about?

maxresdefaultYou’ve written a poem or built a building or just gotten through your fourscore years relatively unscathed and without wreaking too much havoc on others—standing before the pearly gate, it’s hard for me to conceive of someone holding more dear any mark he’s made on the world than the progeny he’s left behind.

A wise old lady in a play I once saw tells a 16-year old girl, “Why do you think a person has children? Because he knows that in his life, he did some things right, and some things wrong. And he wants just one more chance to correct all the mistakes he made the first time. Because now he knows better. But he can’t live again– so he makes a child. And he wants that child to do well– more than anything else in the world. He wants it so badly– that it drives him crazy. And then he drives the child crazy. Out of love. Out of wanting the child to do well. You see? Because of the love of parents for children, we have a crazy world.”

1927893_10205897796545051_7828271431273868310_nDoes life have inherent significance or not? I personally have no idea what the answer to that conundrum is. If any of you out there do, please to drop me an email!

In the meantime, I’ve been mulling over the answer provided by an extravagant, eccentric 16-year old, one Laura Nyro (1949-97). It’s as convincing a statement about procreation as any I’ve encountered.

I’m not scared of dying and I don’t really care.
If it’s peace you find in dying, well, then let the time be near.
Just bundle up my coffin, ‘cause it’s cold way down there.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

How is is possible, you ask, for a teenager to write that? Laura once said, “I think that song has a certain folk wisdom that teenagers have.” Most of the teenagers I’ve known have displayed a whole lot more hormone-choked stupidity than folk wisdom, but who am I to question Laura Nyro, one of the great and most underappreciated artists of our time?

For 50 years now I’ve been shouting Laura’s praise to whomever I can get to listen. She is a great artist. If you don’t know her, you’re denying yourself. Joni is craft; Laura, inspiration.

lnfharjew9489fslka999Peter, Paul and Mary gave Laura her break (at 17) by recording her song ‘And When I Die’, as the lead track on their very fine album “Album”, August 1966. And a very respectable treatment it is.

My troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well.
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell.
Swear there ain’t no heaven and pray there ain’t no hell,
But I’ll never know by living, only my dying will tell.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

PP&M’s version does more justice to the song than Laura’s own recording on her first album (February, 1967), which contained great songs (‘Wedding Bell Blues’, ‘Stoney End’, ‘Flim Flam Man’) but suffered from an infamously insensitive production. I won’t even link here the criminally vulgar hit version of ‘And When I Die’ by David Clayton-Thomas and Blood, Sweat and Tears (December, 1968).

lauranyro3But fortunately we have about a dozen performances of the song by Laura among the various live recordings that have cropped up over the years (official and bootleg) – including 6 in this new batch, among the over 80 newly-emerged Laura Nyro tracks from six performances from four dates in 1970, 1976 and 1978.

Laura gets it. You fight off the devil with music. As I maintained when missiles were falling on my fair town daily, Laura’s music can fend off ground-to-ground missiles. So the devil’s no big challenge, right?

Give me my freedom for as long as I be,
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

At one of the lowest points in my life, when I was on the very cusp of being beaten by the devil – I mean it was really hanging in the balance – I calmly resorted to the only weapon I really understand. I put on “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Know what happened? I lived to tell the tale.

Why thefantasy-jesus-vs-satan-arm-wrestling-wallpapern is the biological imperative incumbent upon us millenials? Haven’t we evolved past poopy diapers?

Laura has a whole arsenal of answers to confound Satan.

She can laugh in his face, as in this jolly version (March 13, 1976). You can work your devious works all you like, Mr Lucifer – I’m gonna die, but I made a kid. So there!!

Or she can just step outside the arena of nose-to-nose confrontation, as in this mellow, resigned version (July 12, 1978). You can’t touch me, she shrugs. We might want to remember that Laura’s real child, Gil, would not be born for over a year.

eba9a074ec2ef11f5d10ed27b1d2bde4The same text serves her in 1993 (her son now a teenager, two years before she is diagnosed with the cancer that would end her life at 49) – in a minor scale, bitter in victory. Yeah, I won the game, but I’m still going down into that cold, cold grave. “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound/My echoing song.” Interestingly, this is the interpretation that Billy Childs and Alison Krauss chose to follow in the recent tribute/revisiting album “Map to the Treasure”. Even more significantly, every time Laura performs the song in minor she omits the line “And all I ask of dying is to go naturally” from the last stanza. It would be too speculative of me to suggest a reason, but I sure am thinking about it a lot.

But if I get my druthers, I’m going to go for Laura’s fuck-you answer (June 20, 1970, when she’s a mere 21 years old). Here Laura digs in, takes on the devil face-to-face, unflinching. She grapples, she wrestles him to the ground, and she cows him with her utter fury, vanquishes him.

Photo by Elaine Mayes

Photo by Elaine Mayes

You. Will. Not. Defeat. Me.
I. Am. Stronger. Than. You.
I have defeated death. My blood, my genes, my hair color, my predilection for dried apples—they shall live on in my child.
Fuck you, Mr Devil.

Laura 1, Lucifer 0.

So A., Laura and I both get why you’re a bit overwhelmed by the moment of what you’ve just done. You’ve just stood up to join the human collective – your ancestors, those around you, and now your descendants.

What does it mean? Believe me, I have no idea. It’s just a sort of existential game. But I do know that you made a courageous, joyous comeback deep in the second half.

A. 2, Mortality 0.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’

182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’

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

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073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’

Posted by jeff on Nov 13, 2014 in Classical, Song Of the week

I had a visitor in my brain this week, Erik Satie. He drops in every few years, probably during October, though I haven’t kept any statistics. He’s like an old peripheral acquaintance, not an intimate friend, there’s much about him that’s just a bit boring, and he has more to say than I care to listen to.

But he always brings with him this one particular vignette of sound that reminds us why we’re so glad he’s appeared again at our door—a unique piece of music so emotionally precise, so descriptive of a certain autumnal ennui, a state of mind and being, a very particular and fraught set of internal meteorological conditions, wholly irreplaceable, wholly unmistakable.
I first encountered Monsieur Satie on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ eponymous, shallow, lamentably over-popular, first post-Kooper LP. It was as shallow and derivative as it was commercially successful (veryveryvery). The first and last cut on the album were a piano piece by an obscure French composer arranged for guitar, two flutes and bells by BS&T trombonist Dick Halligan.

It took me several years, but as is my wont, I eventually got around to the original by Erik Satie (1866-1925), a French cabaret pianist and avant-garde composer.

Satie was also a creator of hoaxes (an announcement of the premiere of his new anti-Wagnerian opera, which he never wrote), his own compositional system, his own one-man religion (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ, for which he wrote a Grand Mass). He maintained a secret hobby–on small cards he would draw pictures of imaginary buildings made of various metals, and publish ads in local papers offering them for sale. For a number of years he dressed like a priest.

Portrait d’Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

He had one intense love affair in 1893 with model, painter and trapeze artiste Suzanne Valadon. He reputedly never touched a woman (or man) after that.

He was associated with Rosicrucianism, radical Socialism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada. At various points in his life he hung out with composers Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, as well as artists Cocteau, Duchamp, Picasso, Braque, Man Ray, Breton, dancer Diaghilev and film director Rene Clair. But none of these lasted very long, neither the ideas nor the movements nor the relationships.

He seems to have annoyed most of them; no one entered his apartment for the last 27 years of his life. After his death, 84 identical handkerchiefs were found in his wardrobe.

A joiner and a loner.

He wrote spoofs, ‘melodramas’, humorous miniatures for piano, and a sort of ‘liner notes’ for his compositions. They became better known than the music, and he eventually was forced to demand that they not be read aloud while the music was being performed.

Satie and Debussy (Photo: Igor Stravinsky)

Ironically, Satie’s reputation has done very well in the last half-century. He experimented with what he called furniture music, meant to be in the background rather than listened to.  Here’s a very fine example, the unspeakably beautiful Gnossienne No.1 (Rogé).

This is considered a forerunner to minimalism, which became a dominant approach to classical music throughout the 20th century, and as such has achieved no small degree of repute (from proponents such as John Cage) and popularity (thanks to the jump-start of good old Blood, Sweat & Tears.) Cage performed Satie’s composition ‘Vexations’ (performed here by Aldo Ciccolini).

The manuscript bears the inscription: “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” (“In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”) Cage interpreted as an instruction that the piece should be played 840 times straight. Who knows what Satie really meant? In 1963, it was premiered by a team of pianists in New York. The audience paid $5 to hear some part of the 18-hour marathon. Only one person stayed the route.

Satie by Jean Cocteau

Be that as it may, Satie’s greatest hit is without a doubt the ‘Gymnopédies’, a series of three short compositions published around 1888. These are three variations on the same theme with barely perceptible differences. The effect is somewhat like walking around a sculpture, viewing it from several angles. The first of them is the one we’re offering up as our Song of The Week. It’s performed here by Pascal Rogé (after carefully considering a number of performers–there are few classical works in which I’m so picky about my preferred version). If you really need to, you can read about the various hypotheses regarding the meaning of the name of the piece, but they’re not conclusive, and I sure didn’t feel any better after reading them.

I do, however, feel a whole lot better after listening to the Gymnopédies, a massage for an aching soul.

On the one hand, it’s a landmark piece for proponents of Ambient music such as Cage, Brian Eno, Phillip Glass and Stephen Reich. Ambient music is a genre that stretches from early 20th century minimalism right up to the New Age pap of today. It “focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an atmospheric, visual” or “unobtrusive” quality–what Satie called furniture music, what is today sometimes called airport music. (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”—Brian Eno.)

But ‘Gymnopédies’ is not the bland background music it may sound like from that description. Less is more, and this particular ‘less’ is a whole lot. It touches me very deeply, in a very tender place in my being. It’s evocative, hypnotic, haunting, and if you listen to it not 840 times, but just a few, don’t be surprised if it becomes part of your musical landscape, and comes back to pay a very welcome visit when your soul needs some breathing space.

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046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

Posted by jeff on Jan 1, 2014 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

This is one of those cases where I didn’t find the song of the week – it found me.

By a certain confluence of happenstances, the four living subjects in the picture here have been in contact with each other this week, some of us for the first time in 40 years. Sweet Mitty, the Great Pyrenees, lives on in our hearts and in that Great Kennel in the Sky.

The photo was taken in the winter of 1969-70. Those weren’t ordinary times, by any criterion. Just after Woodstock and Mai Lai, just before the breakup of the Beatles and Kent State. Those glorious, heady days of the Woodstock Generation just before the floor fell out.

Four college buddies, waxing nostalgic, practicing ‘collective memory’ not in the Halbwachian sense of that which is “shared, passed on, and constructed by the group or modern society,” but in the sense of the four of us trying to piece together our fragmented recollection of the seminal events of our lives. “Hey, do you remember when Sandy took us to that hotel gig as pranksters, you rented an Indian chief’s costume…”; “Ah, it was Sandy who got us the gig? I always wondered how that happened, but it was you who was the Indian chief, I was an Indian with a dot. But do you remember what happened with you and the model who was getting her body painted?” “Oh, jeeeez…”

Some of us hadn’t spoken for 40 years, so there is some serious and uncomfortable catching up to do. How do you start talking to someone with whom you once shared so much, and now today–perhaps–so little? Or perhaps we’re still the same people we were back then, just playing out our lives along our disparate paths. One leads a celebrity-laden self-help foundation; one writes adventure novels; one took an expatriate refuge in religion; one is looking for a job. Roots and routes.

Those got-the-world-by-the-balls smiles not withstanding, not too long after that picture was taken, each of the four of us touched a very low place. To tell the truth, all five. I just learned that Mitty was traumatized by an intruding thief. Most of us reassembled the pieces, or reconstructed ourselves by inventing for ourselves replacement parts.

Which brings me to James Taylor, and our Song of The Week. James is half a year older than me, and at the time our bathtub picture was taken, he was in rehab for drug abuse and paralyzing angst. He recorded his first album for Apple, which brilliantly and harrowingly documented the deepest and darkest corners of his soul. And mine. But for our SoTW, we’re going to skip forward to 1988, 20 years on, for his look back at those days, and his own bathtub friends. The song is ‘Never Die Young’ from the 1988 album of the same name, but I find the arrangement there way too glitzy and glib. Here it is in the 2007 “One Man Band” version.

We were indeed ring-around-the-rosy as children, and circles around the sun in the summer of Woodstock. Have we given up? Have we slowed down? Well, I’m sure there’s a substantively different answer for each of the four of us.

There’s a statement by Hank Thoreau (if my memory serves me well–a tenuous postulate at best–the redhead with the beard in the black and white photo read him religiously), part of which is famous: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Well, James and Hank, all four of us inside the tub are still kicking. “With the song still in us”? Well that’s ambiguous. Three of us have written books, so I guess you can’t say we haven’t achieved self-expression on some level. I won’t speak for the others, but I like to think of my life as one of ‘quiet inspiration’. For me, very much informed by the music from The Day. It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t from that generation just how integral a role the music played in our lives. How each Dylan and Beatles album charted new courses for our minds and spirits. ‘The song’, in that sense, remains in me, and I assume in my four rub-a-dub hoodlum friends.

“Never Die Young”, for me, is the multifocal prism through which I squint at that past. In this live version, James himself says he has no idea what the song means exactly. I think I do. It contains all the love and pain and hopes and disappointments and optimism and disillusionment that our lives have traversed. In that, I suppose, we’re like all golden boys grown old. But we were fortunate enough to be children of a very special time. As always, James puts it best:

But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

We were ring-around-the-rosy children
They were circles around the sun
Never give up, never slow down
Never grow old, never ever die young

Synchronized with the rising moon
Even with the evening star
They were true love written in stone
They were never alone, they were never that far apart

And we who couldn’t bear to believe they might make it
We got to close our eyes
Cut up our losses into doable doses
Ration our tears and sighs

You could see them on the street on a Saturday night
Everyone used to run them down
They’re a little too sweet, they’re a little too tight
Not enough tough for this town

We couldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole
No, it didn’t seem to rattle at all
They were glued together body and soul
That much more with their backs up against the wall

Oh, hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Prey to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all

I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big baloon
Take the sky, forsake the ground

Oh, yes, other hearts were broken
Yeah, other dreams ran dry
But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’
050: The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Kent State)
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’


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175: Traffic, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

Posted by jeff on Jun 21, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (album version)

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (excellent live performance)

Winwood, Capaldi

July, 1970, two full years after Traffic’s eponymous psychedelic jazz-rock opus magnum, the band disbanded, and world-weary 22-year old Stevie Winwood in the studio alone trying to record solo to fulfill contractual obligations. But he got stuck and needed a little help from his friends. In came drummer/singer/songwriting collaborator Jim Capaldi. In came reed and woodwindist Chris Wood. Out came “John Barleycorn Must Die”, Traffic’s third LP. 


The American version had only six cuts, and to be frank – despite my opinion that Stevie Winwood was the finest vocalist and multi-instrumentalist of the time, and frequently one heck of a songwriter, it was an underwhelming effort, at least in comparison to “Dear Mr Fantasy” and “Traffic”. But we come not to disparage the album, but to pay tribute to the title track.

There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try.

And these three men made a solemn vow: John Barleycorn must die.
They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in, threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow: John Barleycorn was dead.


Winwood, Capaldi

Oh, those three men. I know them, portending something momentous, they are, be it epiphanous or foreboding. Here they’re riding a vehicle dating back to the 16th century, a Goode Aulde British Ballade. A Scottish poem with a similar theme, “Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be”, is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. (In case you were wondering, a ‘broadside’ was a single sheet of disposable paper printed on one side with an advertisement, news or a ballad. They were one of the most common forms of printed communication back in those old days.) 

They’ve let him lie for a very long time, ’til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They’ve let him stand ’til Midsummer’s Day ’til he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John’s grown a long long beard and so become a man

So what do we have here? An allegory (a rather disreputable literary genre in which characters or events directly represent ideas and concepts; think “Animal Farm”) in which The Three Men are teetotalers (promoting abstinence from alcoholic beverages), ‘respectable society’; and John Barleycorn, the personified grain, represents demon alcohol.


They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee.
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist serving him most barbarously.
They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that for he’s bound him to the cart.

 Except that the respectable ones are portrayed as barbarous, vicious, delighting in outdoing one another in the pain they wreak upon poor John. There are even those who have found in John an emblem of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, apparent death, and wond’rous rebirth.

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn.
They’ve hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that for he’s ground him between two stones 

John Barleycorn

Poor little John, the archetypal Innocent. You want to watch out for those innocents. We all know who gets the last word, and just how un-innocent that word so frequently is.

 And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last.
The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

133: Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood), ‘I’m A Man’
038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’


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