Musings on a Muse: What Laura Nyro Left Behind

In an excerpt from his upcoming memoir, Grammy-nominated composer Ricky Ian Gordon contemplates the singer/songwriter’s enduring magic 25 years after her death
Laura Nyro poses for a portrait in November 1968 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It wasn’t Eli and the Thirteenth Confession that hooked me. I mean, I knew she was unique and special, and “Lucky” is a spectacular song, but maybe it was because I heard some of the songs on that album as covers first, done by Barbra Streisand, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night and The Fifth Dimension before I heard her do them. Barbra made “Stoney End” a hit and The Fifth Dimension sang hugely produced gorgeous and lush choral versions of “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “Wedding Bell Blues.” Blood, Sweat & Tears covered “And When I Die,” and Three Dog Night covered “Eli’s Comin’,” so those songs didn’t feel like Laura Nyro songs to me. But there is something else, too. She seemed to take a deep long journey inside herself for her next album, New York Tendaberry, and it is as if she moves from great to genius in one giant step.

There was a new interiority to her writing, and, like Joni Mitchell, she seems to have completely entered her own world with that album. She let go of any standardized form of songwriting, no adherence to strophicism, no A-B-A​, now, she was rhapsodic, fantasia-like, her songs could go anywhere, and they did, unexpectedly and surprisingly. What is the form of the song “New York Tendaberry?” It’s like an art-song, like a poetry setting. It goes where it needs to go, where the words go. She follows her own rules, not any dictates laid out by the gods of pop music. It’s like…when Joni Mitchell, on Blue, let go of pure form, in her song “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” 

 

 

If I had to pick one song to talk about on New York Tendaberry, it would be “Gibsom Street,” which was the first song on Side B. When I first heard that song, I thought it had the depth and the portent of a Bertolt Brecht play, like In the Jungle of Cities. Brecht says, “. . . a man doesn’t get finished off at once, ever—they want to have at least a hundred goes at him! Everybody’s got far too many chances.” There is, in “Gibsom Street,” a terrible tremble from the first note to the last.

I had never heard a pop singer sing a song like that. It was full of warning and trepidation like a horror movie or even a Jacobean tragedy. 

I wish my baby were forbidden

I wish that my world be struck by sleet

I wish to keep my mirror hidden

To hide the eyes that looked on Gibsom street

What happened on Gibsom Street? 

They hide the alley cats on Gibsom Street.

You have a feeling something awful has happened there and you believe it with visions of infanticides, or serial murders, but she never actually tells you what happened. It is a perfect song brilliantly done. On “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” there is certainly that full-blooded heartbreaking perfection in the songwriting, but it’s like something happened to her, and whatever it was, happened on Gibsom Street, as well. Someone grew up, found out what the world was really about. Even the “aboutness” in the lyrics, rather than any striving towards pure narrative…feel​s​ like pure poetry…

Where is the night luster, past my trials?

And it is a perfect example of the unique pyrotechnics of her singing, she goes from pianissimo, almost a whisper, to wailing like a banshee. Listen to the section …

 In my sorrow oh my morning

 It is so forceful and bone chilling, even terrifying, it comes out of her guts as if she is keening. 

 

Laura Nyro records in the studio on October 3, 1968 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

And just technically speaking, where is she putting these incredibly high notes? Because they are too stratospheric for the chest, and too heavy and rich for the head. There seems to be no end, no limit to her voice, like Joni Mitchell, with her roots in Canadian yodeling, and yet, no evidence of something called technique, vocal technique, just instinct and prowess, necessity and danger. There is menace in her music, and celebration, and rejoicing and transcending. There is whisper and catcall. She is all over the place yet totally contained in her own particular logic. 

In New York Tendaberry, and then the next one, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, she caught me at that place where you play the album so much the vinyl almost melts with your insistence. You tell me the form on the last song on ​the album,​ which, by the way, how about that title? What does it mean? To be that elliptical, to trust your voice that much, in pop music. But listen to “Christmas in My Soul.” It could have been written yesterday:

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.

She chants the words “Christmas in my soul,” at the end of the song, as if there were never tinsel, never lights, never mistletoe, but only a savior being born, a way out of this mess mankind had made. Her voice is unleashed, as if grief has unmoored her from safe harbor, swept her out to sea. It could be sung now, for Ukraine.

 

 

And she seemed to know exactly who she was, as if she came out of the womb dressed like Laura Nyro, with huge black brocade dresses and red roses, throwing her big black mane of hair around, like she was caught in a spell, and howling. 

My sister Sheila and her husband Peter took me to see her at The Fillmore East in 1970. I’ve always said Miles Davis opened for her that night, but now I know, he was just on before her. Miles Davis was too important to “open” for anyone. He just set the tone, the scene for the ungodliness that was about to happen. I think she was singing “Captain St. Lucifer,” though it could have been “Mercy on Broadway,” and somehow, during that song, she got up from the piano, ran around it, ran into the audience and ran back onto the stage. What was she doing? It was like she had jet fuel rushing through her veins. She was electrifying. 

 

Laura Nyro performs in concert in San Francisco, January 1971. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

I want to tell you about a scene and a time I go back to when I hear New York Tendaberry.

Sheila and Peter were living in Rockville Center with a couple named Susan and Kenny Wilson, and their little boy, Kenny Jr. I loved that house. I loved being there beyond anywhere I had ever been. For one thing, there was no one on earth I wanted to be with more than Sheila and Peter, so anyone who was there, where they were, I loved too. Kenny kept snakes, so he had two HUGE pythons that fascinated me, especially when you got to see one stalk, attack, and eat an unknowing rabbit. The atmosphere in this house was…you were somewhere you could say or do anything and it wouldn’t matter. I guess it was a little like a commune. It was a shame-free zone. It was the time of free love and dried flowers and incense and anything could happen.  

It was a happy time for Sheila. She and Peter loved living there. It might have been the happiest they ever were when they were together, so much so that when they broke up, it punctured the membrane that kept Sheila tethered to the world, and for at least a decade she was deranged with sadness. 

One night, I was at the Wilson house, Sheila and Peter went to a party, and I don’t remember why I didn’t go with them, maybe I wasn’t invited, but I stayed home with Kenny and we smoked really strong hash and got crazy-ass high. We were tripping out on New York Tendaberry. I was hearing everything including the arrangements, the brass, the chimes, the breaths, the piano in a whole new way, as if it were live in the room. When you are young like that, you can give yourself over to music, like being under water, because you are always looking for a way out, out of your body, out of your broken heart, your rattled mind, and music, music is the escape hatch. Only as you grow older do you develop all the controls you need to keep everything out, including beauty, including love. 

Kenny, who, with his wavy shoulder length golden hair, and his beard and mustache which were slightly darker but no less luxurious, looked like a Viking, or the soul of Ireland, fell asleep on the floor. I was overstimulated in that way you get when you are so high, you can stare at the corner of a room for hours completely amazed, saying “wow” every ten seconds. Well, here I was in a room on a chair listening to Laura Nyro with Kenny asleep on the floor facing the ceiling, and I felt like I could stare at him, examine him unabashedly, eye his crotch for even the least imperceptible movement, imagine devouring him. I had a very erotic couple of hours just staring at him, undressing him with my eyes, living in the wild reckless abandon of the imagination Laura Nyro and her almost shamanistic implicitness conjured up. It was one of the most powerful sexual fantasies I have ever had. Kenny and I were in the same room together and the freedom of being able to look at him and not be seen was perhaps, besides for the moments of staring at my father naked under the covers as a little boy,  my most powerful  experience of pure unabashed voyeurism. I even remember the corduroy pants he was wearing, the way the fabric defined every rumple and curve, every bulge of the terrain of his masculinity. I wanted to take his clothes off, ravish him, bury my face in him, do anything I wanted to him.

Was it the hash, was it my raging out of control adolescent lust, or was it Laura Nyro. Was it the screaming trumpets? Could she have been the liberator of my deepest and wildest desires? 

Susan died of alcoholism and I think Kenny might have, as well. Alcohol and drugs, the waving banner of the times. Sometimes, we would all go out on to the lawn in front of the house, get drunk and high under the stars, and stare at the VFW across the street, talking and laughing, making up stories about everyone who passed. We called it Vinnie, Frank and Willie’s.

This morning I woke up with the song, “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry,” moving mournfully through my head:

Two mainstreams die

You don’t love me when I cry

Ricky Ian Gordon is a Grammy-nominated New York based composer and writer, whose widely recorded and awarded works have been performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and all over the USA and Europe. Recently, he premiered two new operas in New York City within one week: The Garden of the Finzi Continis with librettist Michael Korie (New York City Opera and The Yiddish Folksbiene), and Intimate Apparel with librettist Lynn Nottage (The Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater). This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir releasing  in 2023 from Farrar Straus & Giroux.

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