I’ve been thinking about Laura Nyro a lot and listening to her music. This started yesterday when I realized that one of my characters in a novel I’m working on has a lot in common with Laura Nyro, and so I began the search for videos of her to see how she moved. Turns out there’s little of her filmed and on the web, but lots of music, and lots of music already in my itunes. I realized there are three miracles of Laura Nyro that always blow me away: her voice, her songwriting, and her decision to pull away from the music industry and be her own woman.
Her voice is so strong, delicate, high, low, wide and full. Just listen to her at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, a gig, she was convinced she blew. Or check her out at Kraft Music Hall about the same time when she launched into “Save the People.” There’s so much range in her emotions, her passion, her conviction that it’s impossible for me to pull away when I hear her. She sings like smoke, water, height and dept.
Then there’s her songwriting — this is a woman who wrote “When I Die” when she was 17, and just kept going with “Walk on By,” “Eli’s Coming,” “Stoney End,” “Stone Soul Picnic” and so many others. She says on her biography, on the website she helped put together before she died, “I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting. For instance, I may bring a certain feminist perspective to my songwriting, because that’s how I see life. I’m interested in art, poetry, and music. As that kind of artist, I can do anything. I can say anything. It’s about self-expression. It knows no package – there’s no such thing. That’s what being an artist is.”
Finally, there’s her story. In 1971, at the age of 24, Nyro announced she was retiring from the music business. It wasn’t that she wasn’t writing and performing — she was — but that she refused to stay stuck as a hit machine of certain limited strip, and she walked. In Michelle Kort’s biography on Nyro, Soul Picnic, she lays out the whole story, and adds “I can’t imagine Laura Nyro being famous today unless she was thinner, more stereotypically beautiful and showed a lot more skin!”
Nyro died in 1997 of ovarian cancer after over two decades with Maria Desidero, the love of her life. What she left behind, in addition to her son, was music but also the spark for so many others to make music. Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times: “If not for Laura Nyro the music of Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Teena Marie might have been very different.” Long live her music. Long live her spirit.