Sunday, 5 March 2017

Laura Nyro


Revisiting Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968)

There was soul, gospel, Brill Building pop, Motown, doo-wop, the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a touch of Broadway, even a hint of opera. It was a frantic synthesis of so many of the styles I was coming to appreciate. I never expected to find them together in one place, and the mystery was compounded when I found them in someone about as far removed from my nerdy suburban self as it was possible to get. Laura Nyro was a feisty Italian-American from the Bronx, of mixed Jewish-Catholic background. But it is to her that I owe my lifelong passion for women singer-songwriters.

I’d probably encountered her before without even realising it. Her earliest songs were picked up by other artists. I remember Pan’s People on Top Of The Pops, a vision in white polyester, applying their painfully literal choreography to ‘Wedding Bell Blues’, a hit for The 5th Dimension in 1969. Then an older brother bought The Rock Machine I Love You, a CBS sampler that included ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’, and I had my first exposure to Nyro’s own voice. Alternately soothing and shrill, ranging unfettered over several octaves, it was not quite of this world. Of course, I had to have the album from which this track was drawn.  

Nothing, I discovered, about Eli And The Thirteenth Confession was conventional. Famously, the original US pressing used perfumed ink on the lyric sheet, enabling Nyro’s college fans to identify each other by smelling its lingering aroma in each other’s dorms. No such luck with my UK copy. And some olfactory prompts would have been useful, for I never met anyone else who shared my taste, or even knew how to pronounce her name correctly (think “Nero”, like the Roman emperor).

The lyrics were obscure but poetic (“Silver was the colour | Winter was a snowbell | Mother of the windboys | Livin’ off the lovewell”). Sometimes she just made words up: “Surry down to a stoned soul picnic”. Humpty Dumpty tells Lewis Carroll’s Alice that words mean whatever he chooses them to mean: this seemed to be Nyro’s position likewise. I envied her for getting away with it. At other times a line of pellucid simplicity would jump out at you: “Emily, you ornament the earth | For me”. Her world was peopled by larger-than-life characters, God, the Devil, someone she called ‘The Captain’. Later in life, her music loosened up (to its detriment, in my view) and she’d refer to this early work as “a little crazy”, but to a young man ill at ease in his own skin it was a revelation.

There were celebrations of alcohol (‘Sweet Blindness’) and a cautionary tale about drug abuse (‘Poverty Train’). I suspected that the concerted whole was a song-cycle about coming of age. For a teenage boy grappling with the “facts of life”, she seemed to allude to dark secrets. The invitation on the final track to “super ride inside my lovething” was the most explicit proposal I was likely to hear all year. Present throughout was an inescapable theme of neediness, of dependence on a man, but on first exposure my antennae were barely attuned to other hints in the lyrics. When Nyro's bisexuality was finally confirmed in the obituaries, there were murmurs of “I told you so” as fans looked back to ‘Emmie’, a track on this early album infused with a near-romantic intensity.

Released in March 1968, when she was only twenty, Eli is a work of astonishing maturity. Later, as I learned more about her, I understood that the artistry went even deeper than I’d realised. Having transferred from her original label and won the support of David Geffen, she was given unprecedented creative control by Columbia. The careful sequencing of tracks across the two sides of the LP was hers. She insisted on accompanying herself on piano at a time when girls were supposed to be singers, not instrumentalists. The abrupt tempo changes and weird jazz voicings of her piano style were left unregulated. It would fall to others to make her songs hits by smoothing out their contours, simplifying the harmony – Nyro stuck to her guns.

What I realise now – but barely intuited at the time – is that this album lies at a cusp of Sixties music, a time when women were transitioning from singer with the band or soloist performing songs written by professional (usually male) songwriters to the empowered singer-songwriter figure who emerges at the end of the decade. We think of Carole King, and Joni Mitchell. But it’s no accident that Laura Nyro is the only female songwriter that Joni Mitchell namechecks with reverence.

She did one concert on British television, in 1971. Somehow I missed that – probably doing my homework – which is a crying shame, as the BBC, with customary disregard for my feelings, has since wiped all but seventeen seconds of the video master. I never did get to see her live. Alas, she died of ovarian cancer in 1997, but she lives on inside me and inside all those whose lives she has touched.

First published in R2 (Rock'n'Reel)