#463: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Laura Nyro
In the liner notes to this record, Laura Nyro credits herself as “witness to the confession.” She was only 21 when it was released, and she had a three-octave range. That should already tell you a lot.
I’d never heard of Nyro before, but I was intrigued to learn that she had a bit of a notorious reputation. She performed at the Monterey Pop Festival (where Janis Joplin blew up rock music with her voice like a hand grenade), but had quite a different vibe than the rest of the performers: a slow, soulful, jazzy singer-songwriter. Rumor has it that Nyro left the stage in tears after getting booed. It’s been called the low point of the event, and Nyro herself has been accused of being “melodramatic.” But video of her performance of “Poverty Train” seems to betray that: People are quiet, sure, but it’s likely just so they can hear her. At the end, she gets a big round of applause.
I hate the idea of a 21-year-old getting booed offstage, so I was relieved that that wasn’t the case. Especially because Nyro is a striking, shocking, brilliant songwriter. She might have been underappreciated by the masses, but other musicians certainly saw it: “Sweet Blindness,” a beautiful ode to getting drunk, was covered by The Fifth Dimension, and “Eli’s Comin’” was made famous by Three Dog Night. But at the same time, songs like “Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe)” are practically uncoverable: the melody changes maybe five times, suddenly and without warning, and yet the transitions seem seamless, glued together by her unique voice.
And wow, that voice. It’s more than the fact that she has a three-octave range (although you can’t miss it, since she sings up and down every inch of it). Her voice is a living thing, packed with personality, buoyant and powerful. It shocked me on opener “Luckie,” maybe because I was expecting her to be moody and depressing, not singing, Dig them potatoes … I’m gonna go get Luckie. She’s a dynamics master on “Lonely Women,” delivers a trilling falsetto on “Timer.” The most technically impressive was maybe “Woman’s Blues,” where her voice goes from light and airy, to chirpy and vibrato-y, to a powerful wail that rivals Janis Joplin herself.
Nyro was quietly bisexual and spent most of her life living with another woman. It makes sense, then, that there is both a ballad dedicated to my man “Lu” and one to a woman named “Emmie.” And Emmie is romantic, no question about it: You ornament the Earth for me… You were my friend and I loved you. Other love songs are the syrupy “December’s Boudoir” and the complex “The Confession,” where she both celebrates her lovething and chastises herself for losing sight of who she is.
This is one of the most unique albums I’ve ever heard, which is saying something for a singer-songwriter from the Sixties. Nyro died only aged 49, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. In an upsetting turn of events, her only son wasn’t invited to the ceremony. But it should shock no one that Jann Wenner, my new nemesis, was behind that choice.
Ballsiest Move: On “Stoned Soul Picnic” (also covered by the Fifth Dimension) she just straight up invents the word surry: as in, Surry down to a stoned soul picnic. When asked what it meant, she apparently said, “Oh, it’s just a nice word.”