Can a troubled artist create great art? Not according to Van Morrison, who once claimed that ‘you’ve got to be happy’ to produce your best work. But Van himself sounded like a man in pain when he made the majestic ‘Astral Weeks’, and there is certainly a counter argument to his assertion. Consider for example, Sly’s fractured and frazzled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, Dylan’s post-marital post mortem ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the austere desolation of Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon‘ or the neurotic but bleakly transcendent ‘Sister Lovers’ by Big Star – astonishing albums created under great psychological duress. You may wish to add to that impressive little list ‘New York Tendaberry’, Laura Nyro’s stark but affecting masterpiece from 1969.
Reviews of the album are characterised typically by comparisons with Joni Mitchell and Carole King, alongside a complaint that the arrangements are discomfortingly sparse and the music frustratingly out of character, the least joyous of her career. There is some uncertainty about Laura Nyro’s emotional well being at the time of the recording. The lyrics at times allude to a dark crushing sorrow, an unbearable distress, and the music has an unmistakable solemnity in places, as if she had shut herself away from the world and it’s troubles. And yet, one senses, even in the more introspective compositions, a brooding at times rapturous intensity, where the most intimate secrets are involuntarily unleashed in impassioned bursts which sound as euphoric as they are harrowing.
A more accurate musical touchstone than ‘Blue‘ or ‘Tapestry‘ would be something like ‘Laughingstock‘ by Talk Talk or ‘Climate Of Hunter’ by Scott Walker, perhaps even those John Coltrane albums of which she was so fond. There is an improvisational approach to the performances, a rudderlessness or – if you prefer – a wilful disregard for conventional song structure, which makes New York Tendaberry a comparable listening experience. Nyro was unable to write music. Instead, she “[held] the music in [her] head and [wrote] the lyrics down.” Her memory bank must have been bursting at the seams as she settled down to record some of these complex jazz and gospel inspired pieces for her third and finest album in early 1969.
Nyro empties those lungs, working her tonsils hoarse with abundant expressiveness, showcasing that extraordinary vocal range. Whether her voice caresses and purrs or lets rip piercing shrieks and wails, she is by turns little girl lost, now the bruised bastard daughter of Billie Holiday, or on occasion a frenzied howling banshee – sometimes all of these within a few short moments. The songs themselves frequently traverse several changes of mood and tempo. One (‘Tom Cat Goodbye‘) resurrects itself at least three times just as it’s embers appear to die out – it leaves me feeling exhausted, my head ransacked after Nyro’s dizzying energy-sapping performance.
On the album’s opening track, the exquisitely judged ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry‘, Nyro’s affliction (whether drug induced or man induced) yields the most naked of confessionals [‘I want, I want to die/You don’t love me when I cry/Made me love to play/Made me promise I would stay then you stayed away/Mister I got drawn blinds blues all over me’] The production is superb, crisp and understated, and Laura’s supple delivery incredibly heartrending.
Carving out similar territory are the haunting ‘Gibsom Street’ [‘Don’t go to Gibsom cross the river/The devil is hungry, the devil is sweet/If you are soft then you will shiver/Gibsom, Gibsom street/I wish my baby were forbidden/I wish that my world be struck by sleet‘] and the beautifully understated title track which provides a fitting finale to an album replete with references the devil, Lucifer and forbidden fruit – perhaps the reason it is often misconstrued as a thinly veiled narrative documenting a personal narcotic meltdown.
Throughout, the arrangements are superb. While the more upbeat tracks, such as ‘Mercy On Broadway’ retain the buoyancy of some of her ‘First Songs’, the gunshot and gospel break is inspired – infinitely more subtle and imaginative than the more explicitly commercial production of the first two albums. Both ‘Sweet Lovin’ Baby’ and the album’s most celebrated track, ‘Save The Country’ while more readily identifiable as ‘classic Laura Nyro’ bristle with a passion and inventiveness missing from those earlier outings. It is here on ‘New York Tendaberry’, where she presents the fullest exposition of her remarkable artistry.
I first read about Laura Nyro in a Melody Maker series from around 1987 entitled ‘Pop! – The Glory Years’, which turned me on to Tom Rapp and Syd Barrett amongst others. The article on Laura Nyro spoke of a woman who had wrestled with demons, perhaps the devil himself, and one sensed she had come out second-best in the tussle. Implicit in this account – which focused primarily on New York Tendaberry – was Laura’s supposed battle with heroin addiction, subsequently disputed by many. When I finally found an old second-hand copy, it quickly wormed its way into my consciousness. Whatever the truth regarding Laura’s drug use, it was plainly clear that here was someone laying her soul bare for all to hear. I remember exactly where the vinyl crackled in those spaces between the deftly nuanced orchestral and brass arrangements. It is in those very gaps that the album utters it’s unique language and it feels odd to listen now to those silent passages on CD, neutralised by their digital subjugation. Laura herself saw it as her most natural, even visceral recording. “It is not an obvious one…not one that you really even listen to, because it really goes past your ears and it’s very sensory and it’s all feel…it goes inside, like at the back of your neck, or something. It’s abstract, it’s unobvious and yet I feel that it’s very true. I feel that it’s life, what life is to me anyway.” Laura’s own life would of course end tragically prematurely at the young age of 49. Her legacy however is secure – a series of superb albums (all wheat, no chaff), of which this is her greatest accomplishment. (JJ)