by Suzanne Vega / April 2012
I discovered Laura Nyro when someone left the albums Eli and The Thirteenth Confession, and The First Songs at my parent’s house after one of their frequent parties. I loved Laura Nyro right away. Passionately. My mother told me later if she had listened to the lyrics, she probably wouldn’t have allowed me to play her records. Fortunately she wasn’t listening.
I studied the image on the covers. This was a woman I would never be. She was dark with olive skin, and thick black wavy hair falling over her bare shoulders, with a sensuous wine colored mouth. She had curvy womanly hips, and wore long rich dresses, showed a bit of cleavage. She was not androgynous – she was mysterious and womanly and initiated. I felt she was an older sister figure, whispering and wailing advice to me about what she knew about men and the streets.
She played piano in a style that combined Broadway show tunes with gospel, blues, rock and folk music. Her voice whispered, but it also wailed, and she had a free way of using rhythm – sometimes right on the beat and then other times she would take such long pauses I would think something had happened to the record player. I would leap up to turn up the volume only to be blasted the next moment by a piercing cry or scream.
No other writer wrote about the appetites of a young adolescent girl growing up in New York City the way she did. The danger and the joys. Her songs were ripe with sex, drugs, longings, alcohol (“Stoned Soul Picnic”). Sometimes food (sweet candy and caramel).
Her characters were epic. A pure woman named Emily (The unstudied sea. A cameo.). Various men that always got away – Tom, Joe, Eli. A Captain for dark mornings. The devil himself appeared: The devil played with my brother!
I knew the devil, too. It wasn’t hard to find various devils incarnate in New York City in the 1970s. So I knew she was telling the truth.
Her songs reached the depth of despair but never lost a glorious ecstasy in the singing. Like all great artists she wrestled with mortality at a young age – she wrote “And When I Die” when she was 19. (Bundle up my coffin cause it’s cold way down there.)
Her eccentricities were legendary. But more than anything she had soul! Her voice dripped with it, a kind of confident emotional flood pouring out of the speakers in harmonies layered on top of each other.
In thinking about her I feel there is no better way to describe her work than to just tell you to listen to it. Read the lyrics. Get into her epic world of archetypes and of men, real women and children who ache and love. (Save the Country!) Come on people, Sons and fathers, Keep the dream of the two young brothers – those brothers being John and Robert Kennedy. As a child myself, I felt she knew me, she recognized me somehow, and I was in that dangerous glorious inner landscape with her. She caught all the grit and beauty of life here in New York and on Earth. I loved her then and I love her still.