Sunday, October 28, 2007

Save the Country: Nyro's passion


I got fury in my soul,
Fury's gonna take me to the glory goal.
In my mind I can't study war no more.
Save the people!
Save the children!
Save the Country now!

So wrote and sang Laura Nyro in "Save the Country" on her third album, 1969's New York Tendaberry. The Fifth Dimension, who had success covering many Nyro songs, took the single to number 27 on the US top forty pop charts. (Nyro's songs provided the group with five of their twenty Top Forty hits.)

New York Tendaberry rose to number 32 on the US album charts, giving Nyro her highest charting position. It's a favorite of Rickie Lee Jones, Karla Bonoff, Suzanne Vega, Phoebe Snow and many others and "Save the Country" is sampled by Kanye West for his "The Glory." The song was performed, by Nyro, on NBC's Kraft Music Hall Presents the Sound of the Sixties (January 15, 1969). Yes, in primetime. The same network that would air Bright Eyes' performance of "When The President Talks To God" on May 2, 2005 -- but late night, on The Tonight Show.

Early on Nyro garnered attention with her regional hit "Wedding Bell Blues" (later a number one pop hit for The Fifth Dimension) and by bombing at the Monterey International Pop Festival (co-organizer Mama Michelle Phillips would miss the bulk of Otis Redding's performance as she attempted to cheer Nyro up while they shared a joint). David Geffen (then at William Morris) would hear the single "Wedding Bell Blues" after that, become her agent (and co-owner of Tuna Fish Music -- Nyro's publishing company) and set up a recording deal for her with Columbia Records after Nyro performed the material that would make up Eli and The Thirteenth Confession for then label president Clive Davis -- on a piano with a TV screen providing the only lighting in the room.

Verve-Folkways had released her first album, More Than A New Discovery. Columbia would re-release it as The First Songs. For the bulk of her career, Columbia would be her home.

Come young braves, come young children,
come to the book of love with me,
resepct your brothers and your sisters,
come to the book of love,
I know it ain't easy but
we're gonna look for a better day
Come young braves,
come young children
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.

Nyro would sing the above in the title track to 1970's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. The album would provide her with her own first national chart hit, a cover of Gerry Goffin & Carole King's "Up On The Roof" which would make it to number 92 on the pop chart.

Nyro would follow the album with 1971's Gonna Take a Miracle -- a full albums worth of covers recorded with vocal assistance by Labelle (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash). Nyro would then declare her retirement and move to Massachusetts with then husband David Bianchini. The five-year absences is explained by various theories including Nyro's disenchantment with the music industry (see Smile's "Money") over the dealings involved in the selling of Tuna Fish Music to Columbia and the near label switch to Asylum Records (run by Geffen). The return found a more subdued Nyro and this would be the hallmark of all subsequent albums. In the midst of her brief retirement, Clive Davis would maintain that the press on the sale of Tuna Fish Music (focusing on the monies involved) led to Nyro's retirement and offer that Nyro had told him the mood or desire for composing was no longer present and felt that the move from NYC had provided her with a less inspirational setting. Smile would be followed by Nested in 1978, Mother's Spiritual in 1984 and 1993's Walk the Dog and Light the Light -- all on Columbia. Along with those studio albums, the live albums Season of Lights and Laura: Live at the Bottom Line were released. The first Columbia bungled (in 1977) by insisting a double album be condensed to a single disc. The second (released in 1989), Columbia wasn't interested in.

A real loss because not only did the live album contain six new compositions (including "The Japanese Restaurant Song") it and the tours leading up and following it brought Nyro back to the attention of the public. The CD, now out of print, was issued on the small label Cypress and had Columbia distributed and promoted it, Nyro's comeback might have been even more of an event. (Even without Columbia, the release was a major event with a lengthy write up in Musician magazine. The cover was Natalie Merchant, then with 10,000 Maniacs, and a small photo of Jackson Browne. Had Nyro's album been backed by a major label, a photo of her might have appeared on the cover as well.)

Laura: Live at the Bottom Line didn't just draw attention to her recharged talents, it also offered a road map for older fans who may have been confused by her mid-seventies return with Smile and all that followed. Nyro's themes had expanded (and, as she joked, she was no longer being chased by the devil) to include environmentalism and stronger nods to feminism. In terms of the musical direction she'd been pursuing since returning from retirement, those come across much more clearly than they did on Season Of Lights (both live albums feature Nyro reworking songs from her canon).

Columbia was done with her. Walk the Dog & Light the Light attempted to build on the goodwill of Laura: Live at the Bottom Line but didn't have a clue as to what Nyro had brought to that live album and the performances: herself. Instead, her vision had to compete with a producer and an engineer who were going to 'bring her back' (she was already back). The intensity of the early career had been replaced with a hard earned womanly groove and neither of the two men appeared to grasp what was being captured in the studio and what should be preserved. "To A Child" conveys that best. The song had first appeared on 1984's Mother's Spiritual and was something to behold even then. On Laura: Live at the Bottom Line, she'd explored it even further. What found its way on to Walk the Dog & Light the Light was an abbreviated version of what she had been exploring and one of her concerns (this is Nyro who recorded epic length tracks for Christmas and the Beads of Sweat side two) was that everything was being reduced to single length, not out a feeling that one song was a potential hit but out of a fear that every base had to be covered. Nyro questioned whether her instincts were off because the label seemed so pleased with what was being completed but having given them the simplest Laura Nyro (that's a reference to recording, not songs) the album's 'failure' convinced the label that if they couldn't move units of Nyro as they wanted her, she was done.

'Failure'? The sells reflect Columbia's disastrous marketing scheme which has wrongly been pinned on Nyro. Columbia's marketing showed no appreciation of Nyro's talent or place in the music establishment. It was as though they were trying to copy Roger Davies' plan for Tina Turner's 1984 comeback. Much was (and is still) made of Nyro's refusal to engage in various interviews. Nyro never agreed to those interviews. Nor did she ever say, "Sure, I'll do The Tonight Show." She agreed to consider them. Instead of developing a multi-pronged promotion, the label elected to pin their hopes on Nyro's maybes (which anyone who knew Nyro would have grasped was a "no") and to plan the most hokey and obvious promotional campaign.

The 'failure' of Walk the Dog & Light the Light was Columbia's, not Nyro's. On April 8, 1997, Nyro would die of ovarian cancer while Columbia was releasing the double disc anthology Stoned Sould Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro.

Nyro left behind a legacy of amazing songs (in the early days and after) and made a name for herself that remains undiminished. The lesson of her art, career and accomplishments it that if you explore, if you reach, you can have a legacy. It's a lesson many of today's performers churning out their safe 'hits' would do well to grasp.
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