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271: Laura Nyro, ‘Walk on By’ (Bootleg Collection)

Posted by jeff on Sep 20, 2017 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

It’s Erev Rosh HaShana, the eve of the Jewish New Year. I’m (supposed to be) all geared up to stand before my Maker, give account for whether I’ve been naughty or nice during the past year, and to pray very very very hard for a positive review in the book of life for the upcoming year (ה’תשע”ח, 5778 by our count).

To tell the truth, it’s a bit hard to be writing about rock music as that Book of Life is being dusted off, the Celestial Inkwell refilled, the Quill of Fate sharpened. I need to write a posting about Penitence (you’d be surprised how impenitent rock stars tend to be), the Cycle of the Year (b-o-r-i-n-g), or at least Jewish peoplehood.  And y’all people were so nice about the piece I posted a few weeks ago about Laura Nyro’s stunning live bootleg version of ‘Stoney End’. So here goes:

Spring, 1970, Kent State. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Bill went Westwards. Mike went south. I went to the East.

I became tribal. We all needed a belief to cling to. 1970 was a seller’s market, and a lot of new beliefs, cults, religions were hitting the shelves. I decided to go for The Hoary. I figured if my direct ancestors had been practicing our particular breed of ritual and practice and deportment for 3000 years, that was a good enough starting point for me. So I chose to strap myself to the Jewish tradition, all the way from Adherence to Zionism.

So I tend to perceive the world through Jewish and Israeli eyes (and in our case, ears). I’ve been doing my bi-annualish Laura Nyro binge on her early years (nothing new there), her first album (excavating treasures from underneath the layers of mucky arrangements), and especially the bootlegs from that period.

And I’ve been listening to Laura as a 19-year old Jewish girl pounding the piano and singing her Jewish heart out. As far as I know, Laura ignored her ancestry (she was ¾ Jewish, only her paternal grandfather was Italian), as did most of the other Jewish girls I knew in 1968 (including Carole King, Janis Ian, Carly Simon, Lesley Gore, Bette Midler, Cass Eliot, and Barbra Streisand).

That doesn’t stop me from retrospectively listening to Laura through parochial ears. I would think that even a Martian observer would detect a certain irony here—so many people ignoring or denying how much their common ancestry has informed them. To be perfectly honest, perhaps the galvanizing moment of my life was sitting in an SDS meeting (as a beer-carrying observer), listening to Messrs Klein, Rothman, Blackman, Cohen and Steinberg bashing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Laura has a Jewish soul. Not a solely Jewish soul. Soon we’ll get to her Motown in My Soul. But the passion, the compassion, the drive to describe and define and analyze—I see these as part of the Jewish character.

So I decided to present you this week with a Rosh HaShana gift – a collection of live bootlegs of Laura performing songs which never appeared on her official studio albums (maybe for Vol. 2 we’ll  – all covers, mostly Motown-ish, garnished at the end with a few standards. The order is chronological. For my ears, and I hope for yours, this is a treasure trove of obscure delights:

1. ‘Walk On By’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dionne Warwick. SoTW 034 tells the whole story.

2. ‘Up On the Roof’ (Fillmore East, June 20, 1970 )

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Drifters. I told the whole Carole King story in SoTW 234: Carole King, ‘Up On the Roof’ (Live, 1971). Someday maybe I’ll write yet another post about why I think Laura owns the song more than The Drifters or even Carole King herself.

The only song in this collection which did appear on an official album (“Christmas and the Beads of Sweat”), I believe the only cover she recorded other than “Gonna Take a Miracle”. I cheated. Sue me.

3-4. ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing’/’Natural Woman’ (Fillmore East May 30, 1971)

3 Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

4 Written by Goffin/King with Jerry Wexler for Aretha Franklin.

5. ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. The whole story is in SoTW 182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

6. ‘Come and Get These Memories’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland for Martha and the Vandellas. SoTW 062 tells the story of another hit of theirs.

7. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (Japan, 1972)

Written by Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

8-9. ‘I’m So Proud’/’Dedicated to the One I Love’ (NYC, June 27, 1990)

8 written by Curtis Mayfield for his group The Impressions.

9 written by Lowman Pauling and Ralph Bass, made famous by The Shirelles and The Mamas and The Papas.

10. ‘Baby, It’s You’ (“Late Sky”, unreleased studio recording, 1994-5)

Written by Carole King/Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles. Later recorded by The Beatles.

11. ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Burt Bacharach/Hal David for Dusty Springfield.

12. ‘He Was Too Good to Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart in 1930, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Chet Baker).

13. ‘Let It Be Me’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Composed by Gilbert Bécaud in 1955, a hit for The Everly Brothers in 1960 and for Betty Everett and Jerry Butler in 1964.

14. ‘Embraceable You’ (“Late Sky”, 1994-5)

Written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1928, eventually becoming a jazz standard (here by Judy Garland).

 

So that’s my Rosh HaShana gift to y’all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

If I may be so haughty as to address The World on behalf of the Jewish people, we have tried throughout the millennia to contribute to the world we live in. As the prophet Isaiah says (42:6):

I the LORD have called you in righteousness, and shall hold your hand and keep you and give you as a people’s covenant, as a light for the nations.

אֲנִי ה’ קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק, וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ; וְאֶצָּרְךָ, וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם–לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם.

Over the last 100 years, we’ve contributed not a little to popular culture (Vaudeville, Hollywood, Broadway). More specifically for our concerns here, we’ve given you ¾ of Laura Nyro, and 8 of the 14 songs here.

Wishing everyone, everywhere, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or musical taste a very good year, a Shana Tova, full of health, happiness, pleasant surprises, and great music.

 

 

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270: Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle Bootleg, 1971)

Posted by jeff on Sep 1, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle bootleg, 1971)

Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Studio recording)

Laura Nyro, ‘Flim Flam Man’ (Fillmore East bootleg, 1971)

Laura Nyro, ‘Flim Flam Man’ (Studio recording)

I have been listening to Laura Nyro regularly for a very long time – I’d guess I’ve had “Eli & the 13th Confession” binges at least three or four different times a year for the past 49 years now, probably a couple thousand times altogether. Every single time I listen, I discover new joys. And every single time, my admiration for her grows.

You do the physics. We’re talking about one big heap of admiration.

Shall I spell it out? I love Laura. She challenges me, astounds me, bewilders me, frustrates me, rivets me, inspires me, teaches me, consoles me, excites me, reassures me, loves me. She even gets me to dance.

I’ve been listening to two Laura re-issues in recent weeks. The brand-new “A Little Madness, A Little Kindness” presents a new mastering of her first two albums, “More Than a New Discovery” (aka “First Songs”) and “Eli & the 13th Confession” (released here in the original mono mix for the first time). The ear-lifted sound gives me a welcome brace of cold water. After literally thousands of listens, every new angle helps.

The obscure 2012 “Sassafras & Moonshine” is a collection of Laura covers, not always the best-known versions, 12 of the 20 cuts by black singers, hence emphasizing the omnipresent R&B (even gospel) elements in Laura’s writing and performing. It’s deepened my appreciation for a number of cuts – especially some slow ones that I always felt could benefit from a bit more focus, even commercialization, especially Mama Cass’s ‘He’s a Runner’.

Photo – Stephen Paley

So often I think of Laura as a voice from a higher world. In this recent binge I’ve been listening to this early material of hers thinking of her as a (3/4) Jewish girl a year older than myself, thereby  trying to drag her down into a graspable reality by putting her into a familiar context. Even that doesn’t dispel the magic, it enhances it. I knew a lot of 18 year-old Jewish girls in 1966, and I listened to a lot of creative young musicians. Laura was – and is and I imagine always will be – unique. You can compare a lot of artists to Laura. You can’t compare her to anyone.

I first discovered Laura Nyro (just as I did Randy Newman and so many others) by studying and cross-checking the liner notes and the songwriting credits on record labels, internet being over twoscore years away. In this case, it was the lead cut on Peter, Paul &Mary’s (finest) album, “Album” (1966), ‘And When I Die’, written when she was 16.

I’m not going to tell you the whole backstory (you can read it elsewhere) about how in 1966 music macher Art Mogull (who had signed the very young Bob Dylan to his first publishing contract) called a piano tuner out of the phone book, who pestered him so much about his daughter’s songs that Mogull told him the 18-year old could come in the next day, how Mogull signed her on the spot (“Over a period of months, I signed [for Verve Records Al Kooper’s] Blues Project, Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, and Janis Ian”), gave her to Milt Okun to handle, how Okun gave ‘And When I Die’ to his group Peter, Paul & Mary; and then passed her on to arranger Herb Bernstein:

Milt Okun teaches Laura arrangements suitable for ‘the average listener’

She was very artsy-fartsy. If you heard ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ the way she first played it for me, you wouldn’t believe it was the same song. She had that little riff—dah bah buh DOO buh DOO—that she used a lot, but she’d stop every sixteen measures and go into another tempo. I said, ‘Look, I’m as artistic as the next person, but you have to think of the commerciality of these things. If you’re gonna change tempo every thirty seconds, you’re gonna lose the average listener.’

The suits didn’t even let Laura play piano on the album. Because her sense of rhythm was idiosyncratic, Okun felt it would be hard for her to lead other musicians through Bernstein’s arrangements, so he hired a studio musician. Janis Ian: “Quite often you weren’t allowed to play on your own records. It was a lot more difficult to be treated seriously as a woman player. And you weren’t expected to be a songwriter, or to lead a band. Those were things the boys did.”

Laura’s (1947-1997) first album (released 1966, when she was 19) has always been somewhat the neglected little sister for me. Sure, it spawned more hits for her than any subsequent album (‘Wedding Bell Blues’ and ‘Blowin’ Away’ for the 5th Dimension, ‘And When I Die’ for Blood Sweat and Tears, and of course ‘Stoney End’ for Barbra Streisand.

But those covers invariably dragged the songs down into radio-friendliness, dumbed down the emotions, smoothed over the rhythmic quirkiness, sanitized the passion. Made it all sweet and non-threatening for Okun’s “average listener”. Middle of the Road-kill.

I always thought of the album as containing a bunch of great songs which were forced to into a girdle (why haven’t those been banned along with Confederate statues?) by The Suits. I’ve often imagined the ‘What If’ album that was never recorded.

I’ve been listening a lot to live performances from the prime of her career (up to her first hiatus, 1966-72), mostly bootlegs of dubious sound quality, as well as some pretty cool covers of the first album from “Sassafras & Moonshine”, hereafter “S&M” (sic).

I wrote a whole blog posting (SoTW 233) about the amazing range of her interpretations of ‘And When I Die’, so I’m leaving that out of the discussion here. Other than ‘AWID’, I’ve found  half a dozen versions of ‘He’s a Runner’, two of ‘Buy and Sell’, and one of ‘Flim Flam Man’.

I also wrote a posting (SoTW 009) about why I think Barbra Streisand was a great singer up to the age of 22, when she “traded guts for glitz and sacrificed her artistry on the altar of auto-adulation.”I’ve heard her ‘Stoney End’ all the way through maybe five times, and then only out of duty. I find it offensive – plastic, superficial, demeaning of the true original. Which I had never heard–

Until recently I discovered, tucked away inside a 1971 solo Laura bootleg from Seattle (great thanks to fellow Nyrotic Rick Sakoda), a recording of her performing ‘Stoney End’. And I got a revelatory peek at the first album that should have been. (If you care to take a trip to ‘the mythological, apocryphal real album that should have been but never was’ territory, I highly recommend Nick Hornsby’s novel “Juliet, Naked”.)

Stoney End

Here’s the hit version you probably know best, by Barbra Streisand.

And here’s a much more honest version by Sara Bareilles, sung at the ceremony of Laura’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Here’s Laura’s studio recording (the new remastered version, girdle and all).

And here’s Laura’s 1971 Seattle bootleg version. There’s no real into or ending. She just kind of noodles into it via a bunch of minor chords (even though the song is in major), as if she doesn’t know what song she’s going to sing. At least it’s not that horrific intro Herb Bernstein forced on her.

I was born from love and my poor mother worked the mines
I was raised on the Good Book, Jesus, till I read between the lines
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning.
Going to the stoney end I never wanted to go.
Mama, let me start all over
Cradle me, Mama, cradle me again.

 

Stoney End

I can still remember him with love light in his eyes
But the light flickered out and parted as the sun began to rise
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning…

Never mind the forecast, ‘cause the sky has lost control
‘Cause the fury and the broken thunder’s come to match my raging soul
Now I don’t believe I want to see the morning…

This ‘stoney end’ is both tempting and frightening. ‘The morning’ is bringing a new reality, a new awareness. She wants her mother’s reassurance, but she also wants to break through to this new, adult reality. She’s passionately confused. Just like a 17 year-old rock and roll sorceress. Just like a sexennial music blogger.

This bootleg reading has a minor cast to it, emphasizing the ominous aspect of the journey. But the lyric remains vexingly enigmatic. Streisand once said that she never understood the words. Laura wrote it at 17. Here I am, a grown-up male, 50 years on, still puzzling over what she meant.

Stoney End

I’m just so grateful I’ve discovered this version, ‘Stoney End’ the way Laura meant it, the ‘real’ version. Here are some more alternate versions of Laura songs you may or may not know, all from that neglected little sister of a first album. They may be revelatory for you, or mildly interesting, or near misses, or bloopers. That’s for you to decide.

The important thing is that you listen to Laura Nyro. Because she’s so wonderful in so many ways. Because she’s in a league of her own. Because great music deserves to be listened to. And because it will enrich you. Trust me. Trust her.

Stoney End Studio Seattle 1971 Streisand

Darlene Love & The Blossoms (“S&M”)

Sara Bareilles

Linda Ronstadt

He’s a Runner Studio Japan, 1972

Video, 1969

Mama Cass

Blood, Sweat & Tears

Flim-Flam Man Studio Fillmore East, 1971 Streisand
Buy and Sell Studio Japan, 1972 Susan Vega

Nnenna Freelon (“S&M”)

Wedding Bell Blues Studio San Francisco, 1992 Fifth Dimension (video)

Bobby Gentry (“S&M”)

Lesley Gore

Glee

 

 

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4

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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202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’

Posted by jeff on Sep 12, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro — ‘The Confession’

LN2

It’s been a landmark week of vindication, one of the biggest “I Told You So”s in my personal history. After 46 years of grabbing unsuspecting passersby by the lapels, shoving my face into their face, and shouting, wide-eyed: “Laura Nyro!” – I’ve been justified.

This week Billy Childs released the long-awaited “Map to the Treasure – Reimagining Laura Nyro”, featuring a whole all-star array of guest artists: Shawn Colvin, Chris Botti, Jerry Douglas, Lisa Fischer, Renee Fleming, Yo Yo Ma, Rickie Lee Jones, Alison Krauss, Ledisi, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Sorter, Becca Stevens, Susan Tedeschi.

laura23It’s a PR-touted release on a major label by a Grammy-winning artist in collaboration with his boyhood friend and collaborator, Grammy-winning Larry Klein (ex-husband/producer of Joni Mitchell, current husband/producer of the divine Luciana Souza).

So I’ve been jousting at a particular windmill for most of my life, dooming myself to universal ridicule and scorn, and then this Hall of Fame of musical Playboy bunnies comes along and coos “Oh, Jeff, you were right all along.” So what’s my reaction?

Depression, of course.

Laura NyroBecause I’m disappointed in myself. Laura recorded those songs as a personal, private gift to me. And it’s pandering for me to look for approval from others, no matter how many Grammies they’ve won. I’ve been intimate with Laura and her music my entire adult life – it’s informed me and inspired me and educated me and comforted me and protected me – and I shouldn’t give a wooly hoot what anyone else knows or thinks.

What they think – true, I don’t care. Well, I shouldn’t care. What they know – I do care. I’m an altruist, a lover of mankind, an anthrope (that’s the antonym of misanthrope). I want to share great music. I get great pleasure out of facilitating great pleasure in others.

NL2Which is why I’m just pleased as a peacock about the release of “Map to the Treasure”. And I’m not going to get into why I listened to it a few times and went back to listening to Laura. I come to praise Laura, not to bury Billy Childs and Larry Klein, who are fine musicians and have done a wonderful service here. Tens of thousands of people will now listen to Laura, and that’s a cosmic imperative. So, from the very bottom of my heart, thank you, Billy and Larry.

But yeah, I’m disappointed. I don’t expect much from other artists trying to rework the magnitude of Laura’s talent. Even artists I really do admire very much, such as Ms Spalding and Wayne Shorter. My greatest letdown is Rickie Lee Jones. She’s not only a great artist (as are Spalding and Shorter), but her music patently derived from/grew out of Laura’s. Rickie generously admits to that. I heard it from her mouth. (I met her a few years ago, and you can bet your booties I asked her about Laura’s influence). Here she performs ‘Been on a Train’, a diffuse, drugged-out ramble. Laura recorded a lot of those, and they’re not her best. Rickie recorded a lot of those, and they’re not her best.  So -1-1=letdown. Oh, what might have been if – oh, let’s not even go there, Jeff.

NL4Perhaps the most characteristic cut is Becca Stevens’ ‘The Confession’. Up front: I am a Becca Stevens fan. She’s a ballsily independent, genre-flaunting singer-songwriter. She’s sweetly cocky, She’s cool. Aye, there’s the rub. She belongs to Generation X, or Y, whatever we’re up to. The ones who choose Withdraw over Engage. Those who observe wryly. As opposed to those who grab you by the lapels, shove their face into your face, and shout, wide-eyed: “Love my lovething! Love is surely gospel!”

Laura left us three live versions of ‘The Confession’: from Carnegie Hall in 1976, the 1977 “Season of Lights” version, and the 1990 Bottom Line version (charmingly mashed with ‘Hi-Heeled Sneakers’). The song is so imposingly intense that it had never been covered until Billy and Larry had Becca try it. Would that they have chosen a different song for her. Becca is a fine artist, but such up-front sexuality and spiritual epiphany are beyond her (their) emotional range.

NL9The subject of ‘The Confession’, at least ostensibly, is sex. The joy of sex. “Would you love to love me baby?/I would love to love you baby, now baby – now!”

When Laura released “Eli & the 13th Confession” in March, 1968, the two most influential female singers in rock were the androgynous Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (who loved sex but talked about Respect). Janis Joplin (who also loved sex but sang about heartbreak) released “Cheap Thrills” the same month. Joni Mitchell entered the spotlight a year later, Carol King’s “Tapestry” only in 1971. It was Laura who shattered the glass ceiling, at least for those who were listening.

I’m talking about sex not as an entertainment, but as a central component of the revolution of which Laura was more than a harbinger – she was a catalyst. In March 1968, a woman was a companion, an addendum, a decoration. Women were not yet speaking in a Woman’s Voice. Laura was the first, at least in rock music.

l (5)‘The Confession’ is the closing song of “Eli & The 13th Confession”. That of course is the definitive treatment of the song, with the energizing, thrusting, pulsating guitar and drums so lacking in the later live versions. Here it exists in the context of a world of passions – devils, epiphanies, devastations and celebrations. Yeah, it starts with carnality. But her physical passion is her objective correlative of something much greater: “I keep hearin’ mother cryin’/I keep hearin’ Daddy through his grave/Little girl, of all the daughters/You were born a woman, not a slave.”

‘Little girl, you of all the daughters.’ This is a new breed. Women, throughout the generations, have been appurtenances, slaves in a Man’s World. Waiting to react, to nurture, to serve. Laura Nyro serves no man.

NL6And then come the final lines of the world that is “Eli”, the ultimate confession: “Oh, I hate my winsome lover/Tell him I’ve had others at my breast./But tell him he has held my heart/And only now am I a virgin/I confess.”

Those lines are too elusive for me to or dissect with an academic explication or pin down with a definitive parsing. Why does she hate her lover’s winsomeness? His vulnerability is unsatisfying? After all her battle for independence, she wants to be taken by force, is that her confession?

laura22He has held her heart, she has felt love for the first time, and that has redefined her, restored her to a state of prelapsarian innocence. She has finally, after all those lovers, transcended the carnal into the spiritual? Or has she achieved a state of higher reconciliation? ‘Love my lovething, love is surely gospel’.

I haven’t a clue. I’m intrigued, I’m puzzled, I’m mystified. In the final accounting, I just don’t understand women. Hell, I don’t even understand men.

But I keep listening to Laura, I keep trying. And for that, I don’t need no glitzy Sony Masterworks rehabilitation. I need no confirmation. I have The Confession.

 

Super summer, sugar coppin’ in the mornin’
Do your shoppin’ baby, oh, I love my love thing
Super ride inside my lovething –
You may disappear, but you’ll be back, I swear.

Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now
Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now baby now
No, no it’s not pain.

Super summer, sugar croppin’ in the mornin’
Do your shoppin’ baby
I love my love thing
Super ride inside my love thing
You may leave the fair
But you’ll be back, I swear

Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now
Would you love to love me baby?
I would love to love you baby, now baby, now

I keep hearin’ mother cryin’
I keep hearin’ Daddy through his grave
Little girl of all the daughters
You were born a woman, not a slave

Oh I hate my winsome lover
Tell him I’ve had others at my breast
But tell him he has held my heart
And only now am I a virgin
I confess, I confess

Love my love thing
Love is surely gospel…

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’
170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)
182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

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