In December 1970 I was in my senior year of high school. I was thinking about college. I was thinking about the Vietnam War and that the following year while at college I would be part of the draft lottery. Someone would pull a ball with my birthday (October 20) on it and then another ball with a number (from 1-365) that would decide if I was going to be drafted into the Army.
On Thanksgiving break, I had bought Laura Nyro’s new album, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. I knew of her two earlier albums but I didn’t own them.
I bought it because of the title and because her sad eyes were staring at me.
People knew her music because there were pop covers of her songs on the radio by other artists. (The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love” and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” )
Laura didn’t have hits, but I heard her on WNEW-FM regularly. Ironically, Laura’s own rare cover version of a song, the Carole King-Gerry Goffin oldie “Up on the Roof,” was probably her only Billboard “hit.” I saw that Laura Nyro was playing at the Fillmore East in New York City on the 22nd.
Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, the holiday has lost all its childhood magic seven years before when my father got really sick. When he died, after five years of crippling illness, Christmas had become a depressing time of year.
For some reason, during this period of my life, when I was depressed, I would do things to drag myself deeper into that depression. Smoke, drink, stay away from people, take long walks alone and listen to depressing music.
In three days, it would be Christmas. Laura Nyro’s seemed to me to be a tortured artist who fit right in with my mood.
Also on the bill was Jackson Browne, a songwriter whose songs were recorded by others. He wouldn’t release the eponymous Jackson Browne until 1972, but he played songs from that album that would launch his career: “Doctor My Eyes”, “Rock Me on the Water”,”Jamaica Say You Will” and “Song for Adam” which he wrote about the death of a friend. He often was paired on bills with artists like Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell.
I went to the concert. Alone.
Poco had been at the Fillmore a few night before on one of those oddball multi-artist bills along with Savoy Brown, Gypsy and Jo Mama. The day after Christmas, Mountain would roll into the Fillmore and “Mississippi Queen” their way on a hard rock “Nantucket Sleighride.”
But at the Fillmore East on December 22, 1970, it was a much quiter night with a woman and her piano and a man with his guitar. My Christmas gift to myself.
I stumbled on an audio recording of Laura Nyro on that night on YouTube. I don’t know the copyright/wrong-ness of the posting, but I hope it stays there so that other people can listen.
Did Laura’s music make me more depressed? She programmed her set nicely for me. It started out soft and sad. “And When I Die” sounds like a downer and it can be, but it can also be seen as a positive outlook about death. “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”
“Christmas in My Soul” (which is actually more political than you might expect) was done as a poem.
But there was no way to stay depressed through her closer of “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”
Nyro was inspired to write “Save the Country” after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. That doesn’t sound very upbeat, but again the outlook is positive. Listening to it this week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of our country right now.
Come on, people come on, children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down
Come on people! Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love, I know…
Everyone around me was singing, gospel style, that last line “We could build the dream with love” over and over. It felt like we could.
In late 1996, Laura Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died the following year. I had to look up some things this morning to write this post and saw that she died on this day April 8, in 1997. Synchronicity. She was only 49, the same age at which the disease had taken her mother.
After her illness was diagnosed, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc retrospective of her music which was Laura’s final musical project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She was reportedly pleased with the outcome.