Archive for December, 2008

I want to be Evil

I googled Eartha Kitt, who died the other day at 81, AND Laura Nyro and, frankly, didn’t come up with any significant links. So I’ll have to suggest two of my own:

1) Both were iconoclasts, refusing to stick to the well-trod path carved for women performers.

2) Both had a great sense of humor. Check out the song above to see/hear just one example of Ms. Kitt’s. As for Laura, her funny side didn’t usually show on stage, at least in her early days of performing when you could hear a pin drop if she paused mid-song but nary a laugh at anything said or sung. By the late 1980s, however, she had written and frequently performed an entirely humorous song, “Japanese Restaurant”–how about that! It never ceased to draw laughter, especially when she told the waiter that she’d given up smoking, so now she wanted a big bowl … of chocolate ice cream.

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Stephen Paley

photo credit: Stephen Paley


Come young braves

come young children

come to the book of love with me

Respect your brothers and your sisters

come to the book of love

I know it ain’t easy

but we’re gonna look for a better day

come young braves

come young children


I love my country

as it dies

in war and pain

before my eyes

I walk the streets

where disrespect has been

The sings of politics

the politics of sin

the heartlessness that darkens my soul

                                                   on Christmas


Red and silver

on the leaves

fallen white snow

runs softly through the trees

madonnas weep

for wars of hell

They blow out the candles

and haunt Noel

the missing love that rings through the world

                                                   on Christmas


black panther brothers

bound in jail

chicago seven

and the justice scale

Homeless Indian

of manhattan isle

all God’s sons have gone to trial

and all God’s love is out of style

                                                  on Christmas


Now the time has come to fight

laws in the book of love burn bright

people you must win

for thee America

her dignity

for all the high court world to see

                                                  on Christmas


Christmas in my soul

                      Christmas in my soul

            Christmas in my soul


                                                  Joy to the world






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Laura’s Dad

Sorry I haven’t been around in a week or so–deadline time at Ms. magazine, where I’m the senior editor.

But I’m back, and here’s a nice song sent to me by Brian Gari that he wrote for Lou Nigro, Laura’s dad. Lou’s still going strong at almost 93, living now in Ithaca, N.Y., near his son Jan, daughter-in-law Janice and their son. When I was doing my book about Laura, Lou was the first person in the family who was willing to speak with me, and remained supportive throughout the project. I’ll always be grateful to him for his trust in me. I had a few nice visits with him in his Manhattan apartment, which was filled with paintings of Laura and her female relatives that were done by her great uncle and great aunt, William Meyerowitz and Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz (who died in 2002 at age 111!).

 Brian’s song is about Lou’s involvement with the Vineyard Theatre production of Eli’s Comin’ in 2001. Lou was there nearly every night (I think he attended some 36 performances), often greeting people at the door and talking about his daughter. It was a great time in his life, and Brian memorializes it in this song.

By the way, in the cast of the show at the Vineyard was Anika Noni Rose, who has since been in the film Dreamgirls and in an all-black Broadway version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof . Judy Kuhn, who played the main character in Eli, has since put out an album of Nyro songs, Serious Playground,  and performed full shows of Laura songs. (Those of you who familiar with the famous Life magazine article about Laura will pick up Kuhn’s riff on Stephen Paley’s photo of Laura on a fire escape.)

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Laura’s on The Agenda

I was a guest December 4 on a Sirius XM radio show called “The Agenda,” which is hosted by Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and journalist-politico Mary Breslauer. Both are Nyro fans, so they asked me to talk about Our Laura for about 15 minutes.

If, like me, you don’t have digital radio, no problem: The show is available on the HRC website’s blog. Scroll down to the December 5 entry, last paragraph, and you can click onto audio of the interview. Enjoy!

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I met him on a Sunday

Isn’t this an impressive reproduction of the Laura-and-Labelle version? Performed by college students, I believe.

Watch it all the way through–the second-to-last subtitle is hilarious.

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Ever notice how Laura used a lot of actual names in her early songs? Bill, Susan, Emmie, Joe, Billy, Eli, Tom (check out this gutsy Audra McDonald version)–and I’m not even counting Jimmy, because Laura didn’t write Jimmy Mack. Later, she employed the names of goddesses (Sophia, Hecate) and famous artists  (Louise, Sappho, Billie, Frida) in her lyrics, but gone were the love songs (or angry diatribes!) addressed to named, if not actual, people. Her earlier songs certainly emerged out of an era where named characters were more common in songs (Suzie Q, Michelle, Sally, Billie Jean, ad infinitum), but these days the love object is more often addressed anonymously as “you” or “she” or “he.” (And as a side note, it’s a real mixed blessing to have a name that’s been used in a well-known song, as this “ma belle” can attest …)

Now that I’ve made a Laura connection in this post I have a rationale, if thin, for blogging today about the best rock song I never heard until just the other day, “Black Betty.” How did I miss this garage-y classic?!? I came across it as background music on some YouTube video I was watching (and have already forgotten), and then Googled around until I found the original, by a group called Ram Jam. Then I learned that it has been much covered, including an even-more-intense version by Spiderbait, a little-too-mellow version by Sheryl Crow and a weird-but-intriguing version by Nick Cave.

Most surprisingly, I learned that “Black Betty” is actually derived from an old folk song that was famously sung by Leadbelly. The meaning of “Black Betty” is much debated, but in the Ram Jam version–especially as seen in their goofy video above–it sure sounds naughty.

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Meet me on J Street


Can you send some peace on earth?

Laura Nyro, “A Child in a Universe”

Laura Nyro was 3/4 Jewish, although she didn’t have a Jewish upbringing. As far as I could gather, the closest thing to religious training she had was going to an Ethical Culture Society school.

I’m 100 percent Jewish, was Bat Mitzvah’d and attended religious school for about 9 years, but I imagine that what Laura and I got out of our very different religious educations was similar: Do unto others … Honor your parents. Don’t cheat and steal. Seek peace–both inside and for the world.

So I don’t think I’m taking too big a leap to also imagine that Laura would support a web community like J Street. Here’s a bit of how it describes itself:

J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own – two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.

In other words it’s all-pro: pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian state and, above all, pro-peace. As a Jew, I’ve grown quite disgusted by the strain of American Judaism that rabidly defends Israel no matter what, and would deem anti-Semitic anyone who dares offer criticism. This is irrational, and I always thought Jews were among the most rational of people! I’m equally disturbed by those who would elevate the suffering of the Palestinian people above that of all others, and thus demonize the state of Israel. Face it, everyone is suffering in this stalemate. And that’s why we need a peace that embraces the pragmatism of compromise, recognizes the hurt on both sides and fulfills the need for homeland(s) and security.  

I suggest you check out the group–and watch the above video, where the founder explains why he brought it into existence. J Street is trying to expand their membership, and this is my small effort to spread the word. ‘Tis the season to seek peace.

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Burn down the mission!

Did you see the Spectacle show with Elvis Costello and Elton John on the Sundance Channel last night? What did you think?

If you didn’t see it, I can’t say this too strongly: YOU MUST SEE THIS SHOW!!!!!!!!!!!! If you don’t have Sundance Channel yourself, call a friend who does! The episode repeats tonight at 11 p.m., Sunday at 2 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday at 12 a.m. and Wednesday at 5 p.m. It’s also available “on demand” on some cable systems.

Elton and Elvis talk about Laura Nyro and her influence on music and musicians for at least a quarter of the hour show! My jaw dropped–considering that I NEVER hear Laura’s name spoken on TV, I could hardly believe that she was the subject of such a long and loving homage. It included Elton playing “Burn Down The Mission” (see the top of this post for a fantastic early version on a BBC show), and explaining how Laura’s musical fingerprints are all over it. I must admit I never considered that before, but it all makes sense. “Mission” was a cut on Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection album, which came out a year after Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Go back to Christmas and play “Map to the Treasure,” then check out “Burn Down The Mission.” There’s no coincidence at all about how similar the form of Elton’s composition is, and he’s completely honest and humble about it on the show.

Extra bonus on the show: The New Orleans great Allen Toussaint plays keyboards with Costello’s band, and does a verse of Elton’s “Border Song” with Elvis.


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Take her to the Pilot


The great Odetta has left us for that heavenly choir, where she’ll join Laura … and Dusty, Billie, Janis, Marvin, Eddie, David, Sam, Mahalia, Ella, Sarah and so many other great voices. What a mighty sound!

I just wrote about Odetta here, and of my fond memory of her singing “Take Me to the Pilot” with Elton John in the 1970s. I knew she wasn’t well, but so hoped she could make it to the Obama inauguration. Her spirit will certainly be there.

My friend Jennifer Warnes passed along to me this letter, written yesterday, from Odetta’s manager:

Dear Family and Friends of Odetta,

The Grand Lady Odetta passed this evening at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. For more than a decade she fought the brave fight with chronic heart disease and pulmonary fibrosis in her lungs. The tribute concert in her honor on March 24, 2007 in Washington was supposed to be her swan song. At the time, her doctors said she could never leave her bed without oxygen for the remainder of her life. However, she got out of that bed and went on to give dozens of concerts around the world since that time. Just seven weeks ago, she performed before tens of thousands of fans at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett and Wavy Gravy sitting mesmerized below her at the stage. Even though she had been getting weaker through the month she refused to cancel any of her upcoming concerts. However, on October 31st, after returning from concerts in Toronto she entered the hospital for tests. The next day she went into kidney failure. For the next three and one half weeks she battled on–at all times lucid, and determined to sing at Obama’s Inauguration. She went into cardiac arrest this evening. Her old heart just couldn’t fight any more. Her spirit, her will and her determination were greater than anyone I had ever known. I don’t think Joe Louis could have lasted one round with Odetta!

Eighteen months ago, Odetta and I were invited to the publisher’s office of The New York Times to give her oral history obituary. The arrangement with them was that we would not tell anyone about the oral history obituary, that they would be the first to publish her obituary, and that the readers could then view the oral obit Odetta gave by clicking on The New York Times website. Because I didn’t get back from the hospital after Odetta’s transition until 10:00 pm tonight and wasn’t able to speak to Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who interviewed her, until 10:45 pm, I don’t think it will be making the front page, but has been given royal treatment. [See it here.]

May Odetta’s luminous spirit and volcanic voice from the heavens live on for the ages. Though I know she will always be with me, I will be missing her. . .

Doug Yeager,
Manager of Odetta

And finally, here’s another photo of Odetta taken at the McCabe’s tribute on October 2 at UCLA’s Royce Hall (the photographer is Matt Kramer, who I knew decades ago when he did the lighting for Laura and others at the Troubadour!). L to R is quite a lineup: Eric Andersen (anyone remember him?), Lincoln Myerson (the concert director at McCabe’s), The Grand Lady, Jackson Browne (Laura’s one-time lover!), Jennifer and the great Van Dyke Parks (who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting). Didn’t Odetta look so full of life and joy?


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Soul Man

I call singer-songwriter Tim Dillinger a soul man in a blurb I did for his memoir that was just released, Snapshot . It’s a collection of lyrics and poems and stories and pictures, and it’s full of heart.

Tim can flat-out SING, in a voice that ranges from tenor-husky to mountaintop-falsetto. And although he’s white on the outside, he channels the black church in his spirit and vocals. Can I get an Amen, sisters and brothers! 

I met Tim through my Laura Nyro book–he’s a bigtime Nyro fan who contacted me, shared his music with me and invited me to guest on his radio show. I was impressed by both his talent and his good vibe. He’s also one gutsy young man, coming out as gay amidst the Nashville soul and gospel music scenes (he’s now moved to New York–smart move, Tim!). Among other things, he runs an entertaining blog which I really need to catch up on.

Here’s something that Tim wrote in his new book, picturing Laura (a huge source of inspiration to him) on a celestial plane:

I imagine Laura Nyro.  She flies in a black lace gown, her dark hair, still adorned with hints of gray, dancing around her waist.  Her sanctuary is lit with thousands of candles and the back wall is a window that overlooks the greenest forest.  She has a cat and a dog—maybe more than one of each.  The space boasts murals of goddesses, created as a favor by Frida Kahlo.  Her piano is covered with compositions that are in various stages of completion. 


The space has been acoustically designed to re-create the echoes of the subway stations she sang doo-wop in during her teenage years.  Her harmony group visits daily and together they bask in the glory of the sonic synergy that happens when women converge in song.  She titillates them with her memories of collaborating with Labelle, three women held with the utmost regard in this tomorrowland of sorts. 


They have concerts as the mood strikes for an audience of the notorious women of the ages. Like her concerts on earth, they are events, but these are of even greater epic proportions.  The women are still whispering about the night Nina Simone came and they sang “He Was Too Good To Me” together…or when she, Miles Davis and John Coltrane came together.  That evening redefined the word improvisation.


There is a crystal ball in the middle of the room and she sees artists, yet mortal, on planet earth.  Her assignment is to send inspiration, song ideas and warmth to the artists of her choosing. At times, she flies back to earth, as there are some who are aware that she is with them.  Those are the ones with whom she spends extra time. 


Even in her afterlife, she is employed by the muse…or at least, that’s how I like to think of her.

Up top is a video of Tim performing–it’s kind of crude visually, done to a backing track, but I particularly like his singing here. You can hear more of his music on his blog. Enjoy!

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