Laura Nyro

Leonard Cohen died last week. It’s almost unavoidable: his songs are all over the airwaves, mags and newspapers have been trying to outdo each other with lavish supplements about his life and work.

Yet I wish the same stations and newspapers would give as much attention to other great songwriters when they die (or, better still of course, are still alive), instead of basically ignoring them. Particularly the women.

Take Laura Nyro (18 October 1947 – 8 April 1997). Laura who? You’ve not heard of her, this Laura Nyro whose name I always mispronounce?

Here’s how Ireland’s “newspaper of record”, the Irish Times, described her untimely death at the time:

Laura Nyro, US singer-song-writer who wrote And When I Die, Wedding Bell Blues and Stoned Soul Picnic, has died at the age of 49. She died at her home in Danbury, Connecticut, on Tuesday after a battle with ovarian cancer.

And that was it. Two lines, 39 words (and at the very bottom of a foreign news round-up that devoted far more space to a court case involving former Zimbabwean president Canaan Banana and his former aide-de-camp, and how a “Falklands hero” and “Retired British colonel” led a team of mercenaries in Papua New Guinea and was captured and beaten up for six days. I kid you not).

Stone Soul Picnic

One of Laura Nyro’s first songs I remember hearing was “Stone Soul Picnic” – her own version, that is, not the huge hit by The 5th Dimension (they had more chart-toppers with her songs than she did).

The following YouTube video has a lot of slideshow stills flitting about the screen in that “Oh-wonder-what-this-Fade-Effect-button-does?” kind of way. But bear with me, try not to let the images distract you from the words and music…

At first the song seems relatively simple, direct, upbeat. At first glance even its title seems hippy-dippy. You wouldn’t blame a dreamy flower-power vibe: after all, it was first released as a single in the summer of 1968.

Stoned Soul Picnic record labelYet musically it is mesmerising, both groundbreaking and timeless. Nyro breaks many of the old rules of the time, using offbeat harmonies, counter rhythms where they “shouldn’t” be, strange shifts in mood and tempo where you least expect it, dark clouds and minor chords and blue notes in what’s supposed to be a happy scene.

Besides the music and musicianship, there’s the lyrics, and that ever-so-strange yet familiar-sounding verb. Yes, I’m talking about “surry”.

Can you surry,
Can you picnic?
Can you surry,
Can you picnic?
C’mon c’mon and surry down to a stoned soul picnic
Can you surry down…

I haven’t a clue what surry means, whether it’s slang or made up on the spot or an abbreviation of “let’s hurry”, or a cross between “sorry” and “hurry”. Whatever it is, in this context it works perfectly. It takes on a life of its own.

Here’s another taste of Nyro’s lyrics, from her first album – written and recorded when she was still a teenager. It’s the opening lines from “Buy And Sell”:

Cocaine and quiet beers, sweet candy and caramel, pass the time and dry the tears, on a street called Buy And Sell.

That same debut album, “More Than a New Discovery”, produced a slew of hits for other acts, including Blood, Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”) The 5th Dimension yet again (“Wedding Bell Blues” and “Blowin’ Away”), and Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”). And all this by a teenager.

Perhaps those infectiously poppy melodies and hidden complexities already remind you of Carol King back in the Brill Building, or Joni Mitchell living in her box of paints, or Stevie Wonder’s classic Seventies period, or Prince in his prime at his mixing desk in Paisley Park. In various ways Laura Nyro’s music influenced them all.

But don’t take my word for it: google her YouTube videos (she didn’t do much TV or live gigs before she semi-retired from the industry, so expect plenty more slideshows by enthusiastic fans), check out her albums, listen, discover, enjoy.