Discover more from Listening Sessions
Laura Nyro's New York Hymnal
A meditation on Nyro's masterwork, New York Tendaberry
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
First off, I wanted to express my deep gratitude for all the love shown for my previous essay, on Miles Davis’ Miles in the Sky. Except for a piece on Nancy Wilson in 2022 that was featured in the weekly Substack Reads digest, it is the most popular thing I have written for my Substack. I deeply appreciate all the likes and kind comments it has received. It’s great motivation to one day tackle the underlying theme of the essay: the emergence of jazz-rock in the 1960s.
Last week, I was in New York. Those who know me know how much I love the city, and I returned from there after a week of lots of fun with that love renewed and deepened. While there, I wrote most of this edition’s essay: a reflection on Laura Nyro, New York and her 1969 masterwork, New York Tendaberry. It’s a little more poetic that how I usually write but I do hope that it articulates why I believe that Nyro (my favourite female singer) is, in my opinion, the indispensable bard of New York. I hope you enjoy the essay and will share your thoughts by dropping a comment.
Coming up later this month will be an essay on the recent release of recordings of the Doors live in San Francisco at the Matrix in March 1967, capturing a moment in time before the group became very, very big. In December, as is custom here, will be a few essays on the sounds of the holiday season.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
If you’re not yet a subscriber of ‘Listening Sessions,’ I hope you'll click the button below to subscribe and get each edition delivered straight to your inbox. I publish a long-form essay on music three times a month, every 10 days or so.
If you are a subscriber, please share ‘Listening Sessions’ with any music fans in your orbit.
That Laura Nyro spent more of her life outside of New York than residing in it seems almost contradictory. New York is a metropolis with a psychic pull. Entire ways of living are carved out of its steel and chrome. Walking may be the most elemental. If you must dawdle, do it on the right side of the sidewalk so that New Yorkers and visitors on the make can get on with their day and jaywalking is close to a city-wide religion. Deli, pizza, the dirty-water dog, the chopped cheese, chicken over rice, bagels—New York food all, none of it epicurean, most tailor-made to consume while on the go go go, like Popeye Doyle eating a greasy slice while stalking Charnier on the Upper East Side in The French Connection.
There’s a rhythm in the streets. It pulses just like John Shaft (RIP Richard Roundtree) through Times Square in its gritty, pre-Giuliani glory at the start of Shaft.
John Steinbeck once said of the city: “New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it—once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”
In 1969, Nyro rhapsodized about the city this way: “you look like a city / but feel like religion / to me.” It forms the climax of ‘New York Tendaberry,’ the title track of her third album. It is the quietest song on a quiet LP. It begins with Nyro whispering the song title with the rest of the lyrics unfolding like a delicate tapestry. There is the grieving suddenness as she sings “I ran away in the morning” and defiance as she announces “now I’m back / unpacked.” In the midst of that personal drama is a panorama of images: destitution, a fireworks display and finally, a collage of the millions who seek a life, a place, a space for themselves in New York.
There are many who could be considered the definitive New York songwriter, whose portraits in song best capture its complex cacophony. Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Billy Joel are three that quickly come to mind but Laura Nyro, for me at least, claims the honour of being the indispensible bard of New York.
On an early spring Saturday night last year, I was on a downtown train heading to the southern foot of Manhattan. A group of five teens got on at Grand Central undoubtedly having arrived from a train from outside the city. They had a glow about them that was lit from having left, if only temporarily for now, the cookie-cutter conformity of whatever suburb from which they came. Once they got to their stop, they were ready for whatever they had come for in New York. Perhaps one day they will, as the Steinbeck quote suggests, make the city their home. But, that moment of temporary escape, brought to mind another song by Nyro.
“Oh, Luckie’s taking over and his clover shows
Devil can’t get out of hand cause Luckie’s taking over
And what Luckie says goes.”
- from ‘Luckie,’ written by Laura Nyro
‘Luckie’ is one song, of many, that exemplifies one of the most distinctive characteristics of Nyro’s music: the shuffle, redolent of a lack of inhibition, an openness to the possible, a daring to believe that this New York night might be the night of nights or, if not, at least a night that won’t soon be forgotten. It opens Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Nyro’s second album and the first released on Columbia. It came out in 1968 and soon Nyro began to be known—well, more pointedly, her songs began to catch attention.
The 5th Dimension, an elegant and multi-faceted vocal quintet, covered two of the songs from the album: ‘Sweet Blindness’ and ‘Stoned Soul Picnic.’ The former was a hit, the latter was a smash. The group, with producer Bones Howe, had a knack of ironing out some of the idiosyncrasies in Nyro’s performances and pitching them a little more firmly into the mainstream. Some may say they ultimately did her a disservice, watering down what made Nyro such a visceral, attention-demanding artist but that is almost a reflexive criticism (listen to the Three Dog Night’s travesty of a cover of ‘Eli’s Comin’’ and you’ll hear what it was really like to take a sledgehammer to her music).
Nyro herself went the 5th Dimension route once. In the summer of 1968, she recorded ‘Save the Country,’ a gospel-inflected cri de coeur of the tumult of the year, with Howe and the Wrecking Crew. If she sounded a little stilted against the metronomic and methodical Hal Blaine, her recording still had the makings of a hit single, it just wasn’t going to be by her but by the 5th Dimension once they got their hands on it.
It wasn’t the first time that efforts to push Nyro toward commercial success didn’t work. The advertising surrounding her first single, ‘Wedding Bell Blues,’ (another song awaiting the 5th Dimension’s Midas touch) that portrayed the singer as an expecting-to-be-jilted bride is comical in retrospect. Her performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival seemed to bear the same curse. The belief that Nyro was booed by the crowd led her to avoid live performances. The eventual release of part of her performance proved that she was, in fact, warmly received. Appearing with a full, if under rehearsed, band and a group of female background singers, Nyro at Monterey emphasized the influence of the great girl groups of the sixties on her music. But that was only part of it.
“Nights / in New York / street angels / running down stairs / into the echoes of the train station / to sing…”
- from the back cover of Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle
Another Saturday night and another set of teenagers out in New York. They stage a picture against a sign for the Broadway-Lafayette station. Perhaps in Nyro’s time, they would be making the kind of underground serenade that Nyro and her friends made instead of another social-media selfie.
At a time when cross-pollination was the name of the game, Nyro’s blend was especially bold. Broadway and the Brill Building. Motown and Miles Davis. Streisand and Sondheim. Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan.
Her first two albums remain wonderous collections of this mélange, a mixture that perhaps could only come from someone born and raised in New York.
Eli and the Thirteenth Confession tipped off strongly, however, that there would be even more to savour in Nyro’s artistry. ‘Lonely Women,’ with Zoot Sims on tenor saxophone, begins as a smoky duet, a scene lit perhaps only by the entrails of a burning cigarette balanced on an ashtray. And just as that picture solidifies, lights come on, illuminating a full band with strings and Nyro singing urgently, forcefully, before it all disappears again, leaving us where we started with just singer and saxophonist. This rapid stylistic shift would be the defining feature of New York Tenadberry.
Co-producing the album with Nyro was Roy Halle, an inspired and ideal choice who could impart individual moments in a production with shuddering and staggering impact. On the opener, ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry,’ they amount to a single chime, a guitar chord strummed softly at the start of the second verse and the intermittent swelling of woodwinds and strings. They are the mise-en-scène to Nyro’s song about taking leave—sorrowfully—hastened by the realization that her lover doesn’t love her whole self.
It’s a song of details in the same way that New York is full of them—individual moments that play out against a backdrop that makes them seem more consequential that they might otherwise be; the difference, for example, of studying in a non-descript library branch and studying in the Rose Reading Room of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library.
‘Mercy on Broadway’ tells of the New York dues paid on its streets. A single gunshot echoes out mid-way as a chorus of Laura Nyros enact, amidst the violence, the continuing passionate play set to handclaps and girl-group harmonies.
‘Gibsom Street’—no such street exists—tells of other expenses extracted. Mining the same territory as ‘Eli’s Comin’,’ the song conjures a mood of dark and shadowy foreboding. Nyro starts with a warning, “don’t go to Gibsom across the river / the devil is hungry / the devil is sweet.” In the middle of that line—it’s just Nyro singing and playing the piano up to that point—a full band swerves in with a full crash of sound. It becomes explosive once Nyro proclaims, “they hang the alley cats on Gibson Street.” The cyclical shift from soft to loud and back again is continuous throughout the song. At the end of the second verse, there is an incandescent, rafter-raising interlude—Nyro cries out “all my sorrow / oh my mommy.” An electric guitar punches through to raise the fervor even higher. The final verse brings a resolution that is ambiguous and haunting: “there is a man who knows where I’m going / he gave me a strawberry to eat / I sucked its juices never knowing / that I would sleep that night on Gibsom Street.”
Nyro reminds that love’s stakes are always substantial, an insight that may seem incongruous today when the avoidance of romance and attachment seems to be on the ascendant. When Nyro pledges on ‘Captain for Dark Mornings’ that, “I’ll be your woman if you’ll be my fearless captain,” the entreaty is seductive. She lets it hang in the air before upping the ante, “I would lay me down and die for my captain.” As she affirms her gallantry with an “oh yeah,” a flute line wanders in to underline the desperation, as if it is occurring amid a cold and blustery New York night. And when Nyro’s captain says yes, she surrenders to the release of ‘Captain Saint Lucifer’ or the shift to ‘Sweet Lovin’ Baby’’s declaration of “sweet lovin’ baby / oh sweet lovin’ man / I want you / I could almost die.”
If it all seems too intense then hang out for an hour or two at Washington Square Park—see the young people passing by, hear the bands playing in the corners, dodge the hustlers, peruse the peddlers and connect to the dream of summoning up the quixotic gumption of trying to make it in New York, carving out a sliver of sky for your dream to take wings between the mythology and reality of the city.
Yes, there are the strivers. There are also the skunks, the low-downs, the up-to-no-goods, like on ‘Tom Cat Goodby.’ An unflinching takedown that is almost entirely performed solo by Nyro, there are rubato passages that seem suspended in mid-air as well as propulsive, gospel shouts in which Nyro teases the tempo ahead and then back around the other way and a middle section in which she gets lost on a phrase that ushers in a dissonant passage for strings that resolve into an uplifting phrase before she resumes cutting this tom cat to shreds.
‘Tom Cat Goodby’ is perhaps the best example on New York Tendaberry of how Nyro suggests structure through the explicit lack of it. The through line is Nyro. In her music, it’s always Laura Nyro, a songwriting Jimmy Breslin or Pete Hamill writing columns about what's really happening in New York. What propels her music is a vision as articulated in the refrain of ‘Time and Love’: “time and love / everybody / time and love / nothing cures like time and love / don’t let the devil fool you / here comes a dove / nothing cures like time and love.” It can also be found in Nyro’s transformation of ‘Save the Country’ into a two-part rallying cry for a troubled America.
The first section is just Nyro and again, she keeps the tempo fluid, pushing it forward on the line, “I got fury / I got fury / I got fury in my soul.” The second section begins with a cry of “NOW.” A chorus of Nyros repeat “save the people / save the children / save the country / come on down to the glory river.” Brass blasts and a wicked bass-line turnaround bring a revival-tent fervour. The song ends with a repeated fanfare that concludes with a final, questioning chord.
The title track returns to the same quiet with which the album opened. As Nyro whispers the concluding line, “New York tendaberry,” the album ends as it began, with a single chime, bringing a holiness to the act of listening to the record from start to finish.
In the early seventies, Nyro would perform live as a one-woman show. Her shows had a sacred aura. The crowd would be silent, only breaking the stillness to erupt into applause or to call for her by name. It would be the same later in the seventies after she left New York. On Season of Lights, a document of her 1976 tour with a full band after a four-year sabbatical from both recording and live performances, it ends with the encore from one of her shows at Carnegie Hall. The audience welcomes her back to New York. She remarks how great it is to be back.
I suppose that even as Nyro physically left New York, she never left it spiritually. Neither New Yorkers who no longer reside there nor serial visitors do either. We long to be caught up again in its energy, to act our story anew among the millions. To take another bite of the city’s sweet tendaberry, whatever that may mean to you or I.