Laura Nyro Essay - Critical Essays

Nyro, Laura


Laura Nyro 1947–

American songwriter and singer.

Laura Nyro was one of the first truly urban songwriters to emerge in the 1960s. As William Kloman wrote: "Her love of the city is expressed in the convulsively shifting moods of her music." For Nyro, "the struggle in the city is between health and sickness—God and the Devil." Her music reflects this struggle, especially its effects on her. On her album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Nyro celebrates her own victory in the struggle. After a particularly harrowing experience with LSD, Nyro says she "stopped being a loser and became a winner instead."

Nyro plays the piano in her personal appearances, but she cannot read music. When telling her back-up musicians what she wants, Nyro describes the sounds in terms of colors. Her first album, More Than a Discovery, was not very successful due partially to the fact that the musicians and producers who were working with Nyro did not know what she was trying to do with her music. On subsequent albums she was granted full control over the production. On New York Tendaberry, Nyro coined the word "tendaberry" to describe the warmth and tenderness she feels is at the center of the city. The songs here reflect her own experiences of New York City. As the title of Christmas and the Beads of Sweat suggests, Nyro despairs of finding joy in the season amid war and inner conflict. One more album was made, not her own compositions, before Laura retired from public life.

In 1975 Laura Nyro made her comeback with Smile. The songs here reflected Nyro's life during her absence—her marriage, divorce, new love, and a more natural life away from the city. She has since released several more albums, but most critics feel that none of these match the talent of her earlier work.

William Kloman

Laura Nyro is now the hippest thing in music. By the end of the year she may be the hottest as well…. "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" describes, in 13 songs, ("Eli" and "The Confession" are two of them), a young woman's passage from childhood to maturity. The initial reviews were uniformly ecstatic, but the reviewers obviously had trouble fitting Laura into existing categories…. Her music—all of which she writes, arranges and sings to her own accompaniment has been called rock, jazz, soul and classical….

Like Bob Dylan, another writer who was discovered only after other artists began recording his songs, Laura Nyro is a poet. Dylan's images are rich literary constructions accompanied, troubadour-fashion, by music; Laura's poetry, however, is a totally musical form in which lyrics and melody are inseparable. She chooses words for their tonality, and the singer's voice becomes one instrument among many. Laura's lyrics are a staccato bombardment of sound which touches the senses before it can reach the mind….

Laura Nyro is perhaps the first fully urban composer to emerge from popular music. Her love of the city is expressed in the convulsively shifting moods of her music. When she sings the blues, it is an apartment house wall, untouched by the levee or the plantation. Her melodies capture the city's tempo the way Mozart's quartets captured the spicy nuances of 18th-century drawing rooms. Strains of Gershwin and Bernstein flash through Laura's songs…. But it is Bernstein without Bernstein's sentimentality, and Gershwin perhaps on acid….

"The struggle in the city is between health and sickness—God and the Devil. That's been my experience," Laura says. The Devil shows up frequently in her lyrics, and lately he has been losing….

[Her new album will be called "New York Tendaberry."] "Tendaberry" is a word Laura made up to describe the warm, tender core she perceives deep inside the city's grating exterior…. "Tendaberry" is not a romantic concept, because romance isn't what Laura Nyro sees at the center of things. It is the sensual, immediate experience of a 20-year-old woman who has looked into the heart of the city and transcended its decay with the knowledge that, somewhere beneath the dirt, God is alive and waiting.

William Kloman, "Laura Nyro: She's the Hippest—and Maybe the Hottest?" in The New York Times, Section II (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 6, 1968, p. 32.

Vince Aletti

[Laura Nyro is] not just another chick singer but a woman of some complexity, a fact her songs should have prepared everyone for….

[In her songs, the] words-as-meaning are less important than the words as sounds, like "time and wine / red and yellow honey / sassafras and moonshine" in "Stoned Soul Picnic." And any meanings are usually allusive rather than specific; they set up a flow of associations that opens up the poetry of the song. But more than that, the word-sounds are sung for their feeling, for their own sweetness or harshness and for the added expression Laura can give them with her constantly varying voice.

Vince Aletti, "Laura Nyro: Every Number an Encore," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 50, January 21, 1970, p. 14.

Maggie Paley

What makes [Laura Nyro] special is her music—songs that blend gospel, rock 'n' roll, jazz and blues (people also hear in them classical influences, from Schumann to Stravinsky); lyrics that are knowing, evocative, elusive, personal; and a voice full of soul and nuance….

Everyone in the business knows about Miss Nyro,… who right now is probably the most successful pop composer around. It started about a year and a half ago, with Stoned Soul Picnic and Sweet Blindness, both big hits for the Fifth Dimension…. There are more on the way up—Blowin' Away, Lu, Save the Country, Time and Love—since it seems like the easiest way for other performers to have hits is to record her songs. Most of the Laura Nyro songs they do have a goodtime, gospel, rhythm-and-blues feeling to them, though the chord changes and the words are decidedly untraditional. "Come on baby do a slow float / you're a good-lookin riverboat / and ain't that sweet-eyed blindness good to me," is the refrain of Sweet Blindness, a song about drinking. She has other songs that are musically more complex, more like progressive jazz, with lyrics that speak of pain as well as joy. Almost always the songs are love songs. "I think that the important things in life are love, and respect, and understanding, and trusting," she says. "I have a great feeling for the earth, and for the people of the earth. I'm involved with both, and I can express my feelings for and about humanity through my music." (p. 45)

Maggie Paley, "The Funky Madonna of New York Soul," in Life (Life; © 1970 Time Inc.; all rights reserved), Vol. 68, No. 3, January 30, 1970, pp. 45-7.

Rex Reed

Laura Nyro is probably the most important performer the current stream of pop music has produced. She is a wonderful singer, thoughtful and sensitive, and possessed by demons that drive her well beyond the call of artistic duty. She makes poetry out of the squalor she sees around her, she knows about love in a way that is older than her years, and she is on intimate terms with the blues. All this internal sadness, understanding, and demonic energy she weaves into a unique musical form that at first seems bizarre (Where's the melody?, you ask) but with familiarity becomes personal, thrilling, even awesome to hear. She is well ahead of the times musically, and she cannot be imitated. When another artist performs Nyro's songs he must re-define them and adjust them to his own skills….

Nyro has matured tremendously with ["New York Tendaberry"]. Though her diction is still unclear enough that you need the enclosed lyrics to best appreciate her heart-piercing imagery, it is easy to see the emergence of a personal musical pattern that demands serious recognition. She is by far, in my estimation, the singer who has done the most to raise pop music to the level of serious art. (p. 87)

Rex Reed, "Laura Nyro's 'New York Tendaberry'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1970 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 24, No. 2, February, 1970, pp. 86-7.

Chris Albertson

There are those who argue that [New York Tendaberry] does not live up to the standards set by [Eli and the Thirteenth Confession], but certainly one must agree that [Jimmy] Haskell's arrangements are sensitive and tasteful. In any case, Laura Nyro's music is not always immediately ear-catching. It has to grow on you—and it generally does. The new album contains at least two memorable songs, Tom Cat Goodbye and Save the Country. (p. 13)

Chris Albertson, "Laura Nyro: From the Heart." in down beat (copyright 1970; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 37, No. 7, April 2, 1970, pp. 12-13, 33.

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Richard Williams

Each of Laura Nyro's four albums has had its own distinct personality.

"The First Songs" showed an immature girl struggling against unsympathetic arrangements; "Eli" was freer, a testament to her melodic ability and to her vocal virtuosity; "New York Tendaberry" was a deep exploration of self, an inner-directed monologue.

["Christmas and the Beads of Sweat"] is different again…. In fact the essence of the music hasn't changed at all, and Laura … uses the assets of [the musicians who accompany her] to serve her approach, rather than becoming subservient to their way of playing. The result is probably her best album to date, although it's difficult to talk about her in such...

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Alec Dubro

Laura Nyro is a reflection of the moods and colors of New York. She's done this with incredible artistry, more perhaps, than anyone since the late John Coltrane. Her voice and piano paint pictures of the lost and lonely sounds, with a delicacy and precision that, in popular music, is hers alone.

But, with each succeeding album, as she gets deeper and deeper into her tasks, her flaws become more apparent. Christmas and the beads of sweat, when taken in context with her previous works, is dominated by her shortcomings, although, as a separate entity, it's not a bad record. It's just that her previous ones are much better….

[With] her last album, New York Tendaberry,...

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Pete Fornatale

Listening to a Laura Nyro album is unlike listening to any other record. There are ground rules. First of all, her songs demand your complete and undivided attention. Therefore, you shouldn't even consider listening to something new of hers without first setting aside a block of time to really get into it. Secondly, at least until you are thoroughly familiar with the music and lyrics on any one given album, it is almost imperative that you follow along with a printed lyric sheet….

[How] does one even begin to describe her music? Well, I won't try. Let it suffice to say that somehow she manages to transform the merry-go-round of music in her head into the neatest package of notes, verses and...

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James Goodfriend

It has always been difficult to pin down exactly what it is that Nyro does (purely in terms of music and lyrics), and that is all to the good in the making of a pop star. Unlike so many of the rock singers and players, she evinces practically no Eastern influence in her music; it is American through and through, both white and black. There's a lot of blues in it—but one feels it didn't all come from the original source—and a great deal of Forties swing. Taken all together, with her somewhat lesser gift for words, her typical flights into the upper ranges of her voice, and the multi-voice backing choruses of her arrangements, there is a very individual and likable style. The problem is it doesn't go...

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Noel Coppage

Laura Nyro [invented] something new: soft rock, which seems to be one part modern folk-rock and two parts Broadway-Hollywood schmaltz with a dash of Forties urban blues and gospel. I am not one of her worshipers. I think the reason so many are genuflecting before her can be traced to the taste for blandness Americans have in them as a result of pop music's having festered so long in the mush of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties and, perhaps, a nostalgia for the earlier sounds which are an element in her music. Still, a high intelligence marks the work of Nyro; the symbolism in her lyrics is cleanly and professionally rendered, and her melodies have a fluidity that no amount of soul could produce without help...

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Allan Jones

It is more than a distinct possibility, and more than personal admiration that provokes the opinion that Laura Nyro will eventually be recognized as one of the very few essential talents to emerge from within the context of rock.

The reason is simple: she is unique. There's no precedent, in rock at least, for her vision, and the way she was able to manipulate her exploration of, and insights into, that vision, and create out of the chaos of her emotions a catalogue of work that has few equals in contemporary songwriting.

She's been described as everything from a Bronx Ophelia to the Lady Rimbaud of Rock. It's tempting to see her, like Ophelia, as being at the mercy of her own...

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Bob Sarlin

[Time] has proved Laura Nyro to be one of the best of the songpoets. (p. 122)

Of all the songwriters we have, she is the one who has shown herself capable of producing an endless stream of single hits, while at the same time moving off in musical directions that others have either given up on or failed to notice. She has faced up to the gamble of commerciality and prevailed; her music has consistently gone into modes of rock and songpoetry that no one else has either the ability or the will to explore.

No matter where her music takes her, New York with its dirt and its funk and its people is central to her work. She is like a lover to the city—which seems a miracle at a time when...

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Allan Jones

[It] was inevitable that Laura, when she was ready, would return. Such a talent as hers, one surmised, could not remain dormant for any considerable length of time, and here, four years after "Gonna Take A Miracle", is Laura Nyro's sixth album, "Smile".

Her songs have always been concerned with her own experiences, and only occasionally (as on "Save The Country" and "Christmas In My Soul" particularly) taken in external, political events. "Smile" proves to be no exception…. [She] focuses here with great clarity upon the recent events in her life. "Stormy Love", one of the most immediately attractive songs …, deals specifically with the disintegration of her marriage. "Midnite Blue", with a...

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Janet Maslin

At the time of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (and, to a lesser extent, New York Tendaberry), Nyro imbued her songs with an arrestingly authentic hysteria, a wrenching freneticism that never felt forced. Reveling in a murky feminine eroticism, agonizing over her dependence upon men, struggling with religious convictions and concomitant fears, she could illuminate her wildly energetic melody lines and impressionistic lyrics with a lunatic lucidity, composing from a vantage point right on the edge….

[Smile] shows her to be understandably unwilling to live out on the border any longer, not even for the sake of her art…. Nyro is intent on protecting whatever new peace of mind...

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Laura Nyro was celebrated at a time when eccentricity inspired acceptance, when craziness was regarded not as neurosis but as a talisman to be worn proudly, signifying a profoundly tortured character. Nyro's earlier material is fraught with Catholic images of God and the devil—the devil being primarily cocaine and any no-good man, as evidenced in "Eli's Comin," "Poverty Train," "Time and Love," "Gibsom Street" and many others. Having been raised an Italian Catholic in the Bronx, she invoked God often and most of her material was gospel in an almost mystical way. As if, instead of experiencing her "weaknesses" as guilt, she, along with her fans, delighted in her behavior as a sign of a fragile, supremely sensitive...

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James Wolcott

Mystique is Laura Nyro's mantra. During the Sixties her delicate urban lyricism made her a Cher for middle-class bohemians—a bohemian princess—and a four year sabbatical fashioned that mystique into drama…. The release of Smile aroused curiosity as to what Laura Nyro would have to report after several years in the shadows: as with Joni Mitchell, Nyro sparks in her audience a sense that they are not only watching her grow as artist and woman, but that they are shaping that growth—that a collective autobiography is being written.

Smile makes for a very dull chapter.

Smile suggests that those years were spent in a hammock, or on the front porch watching the...

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Stephen Holden

Season of Lights is a live retrospective that encompasses the range of Laura Nyro's career, from the ornate pop soul of her early records to the blander jazz pop introduced on Smile. Originally, Nyro imprinted the first style with unprecedented volatility; its culmination, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, had the feel, if not the form, of a song cycle. Season of Lights recasts four of Eli's songs in simpler, rhythmically straightforward settings. The burning intensity that drove "Timer," "Emmie," "The Confession" and "Sweet Blindness" has been replaced by a cool, detached stance. Although Nyro's voice retains its throbbing edge, her furious urgency has all but disappeared. As Nyro...

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Allan Jones

While any new album by Laura Nyro is to be received with thanks and a smart tug at the forelock, it must be said that "Season Of Lights" is one of the most disappointing releases of the year. A live album …, "Season Of Lights" is no honourable successor to last year's memorable (and curiously underestimated) "Smile" and in no way challenges the achievements of Nyro's classic records, especially the epic "New York Tendaberry" or the accomplished versatility of "Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat," both of which stand among the best American records of the last decade (and that's NO overstatement, Bub). The songs she has selected for inclusion here are drawn from each separate stage of her artistic development (with a...

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Allan Jones

[Laura Nyro's admirers] refer most often to the extraordinary "New York Tendaberry" … as the possible apotheosis of her particular genius and radical musical vision.

A dark and violent and often forbidding album, "New York Tendaberry" measures with a graphic intensity the extremes of addiction and private despair….

["Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat"] largely surrendered the anguish of "New York Tendaberry."

The mood of "Christmas," it will be noticed, is less victimised, more a celebration of her victory over the self-destructive forces she had so traumatically exorcised….

Now we have "Nested"; a superb and generally enthralling return to...

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Richard Mortifoglio

Laura Nyro emerged a decade ago, when the "counter-culture" began to seep in the mainstream. Beloved by middle-class girls moving away from the brutal slums of adolescence to the high life of college, she presented the perfect bohemian image, funky, wild, and peaceful all at once. And while her willfully narcissistic lyrics meant freedom, her overwrought delivery conveyed desperation with a naked violence that eluded even Janis Joplin. This makes her something of an embarrassment today. But most girls I knew could sing Nyro's odd shifts of meter and abrupt stops and starts by heart. She represented the poetics of their hysteria and commanded an adoration and respect no woman songwriter has enjoyed before or since....

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Laura Nyro still gets inside my heart like no other woman performer. Even when her lyrics are just plain silly, even when her thin falsetto scrapes the back of your eardrums like an out-of-tune violin, there's something about her music that makes the imperfections endearing. You can grow up, and she still sounds as good. There's a depth to her singing, and a spirit in the way she deals with the old male-female mystery dance that a feminist fellow-traveller like myself can live with quite well. Laura Nyro learned more than a style from the '60s soul crooners whose music nurtured her; she copped an attitude. Like Smokey Robinson, like Marvin Gaye, she's not afraid to let go in love. A little weakness never hurt a strong...

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Aida Pavletich

[Laura Nyro] was a natural magnet for opprobrious epithets, a stark tragedienne who, though hailed as a new songwriting genius, was christened the "Bronx Ophelia." Her loose songs were bursts of inspiration, quotations from American pop songs. They were held together by her audience, who grasped the thin thread of common culture and her idiomatic constructions, which, from another viewpoint, would have seemed to be no more than word salads.

At the start of her career she made Eli and the 13th Confession, a concept album around the growth of a girl to maturity in thirteen songs, hopscotch style through anguish and elation. Old rock 'n' roll from doo-wop groups, the symbols of the Catholic...

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