For as much merriment as the Christmas season promises, the holidays prove melancholic for many, either for lack or for the awareness of what others lack. Songs like Joni Mitchell's "River" have inadvertently become Christmas classics for expressing the sadness that many feel as the darkest days of the year shift at solstice towards a return of the light. Depression mingles with hope as the soul contemplates the image of the birth of light at he heart of darkness. Another song that musically expresses that mood would be Laura Nyro's "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat" (1970) from the album of the same name, wherein she incants:
"I love my country as it dies
In war and pain before my eyes
I walk the streets where disrespect has been
The sins 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"
Infusing the season's carols with the longing loneliness of desire and the human weight of sorrow, Nyro made these classic tunes her own through the sheer force of interpretation, such as her unexpected version of "The Christmas Song" (written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé) mashed together with "Let It Be Me" (originally "Je t'appartiens", a French hit in 1955 written and first recorded by Gilbert Bécaud with lyrics by Pierre Delanoë, rendered into English in 1957, and made popular first by The Everly Brothers in 1960, but more definitively by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler in 1964).
Included within the posthumously released album Angel in the Dark (2001) was Nyro's cover of a Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune—"Be Aware"—originally written for Barbra Streisand's 1971 TV special. It's a song that I have come to associate with Nyro's cycle of (arguably, unintended) Christmas melodies for reflecting upon how we have lost the meaning of Christmas in our commodified celebration of plentitude. Along with the necessity of gratitude, the Christmas spirit challenges our willing charity with others. As corporate greed bridles our lives, generosity of spirit and soul seem at times like a midwinter dream. In Nyro's lovely rendition, she gently reminds us with unerring emotional precision—just when we have nearly forgotten—to be aware that somewhere in the world children are hungry while our stomachs are full, and that when we're feeling young someone is old, and that when we're feeling strong someone is weak, and while we speak our minds, somewhere someone cannot speak.
The following obituary originally appeared in the April 14, 1997 issue of the San Francisco Examiner under the title "Laura's Dead" and is being republished here—a sad, misplaced gift, perhaps, yet prescient in its own seasonal way—with the generous permission of its author Marc Huestis. For Marc, as for me, Laura Nyro remains a hovering angel, a holiday of memory, and a gift from the past to future generations. A continuing promise of light in a world in love with war.
* * *
Laura is dead.
There are few cultural icons that are known by first name only. With these chosen few, we share such intimate, aching knowledge of their heart and soul through their art. Joni, Patti, and Laura....
The news of Laura Nyro's tragic death of ovarian cancer at age of 49 is devastating. Laura touched so many lives. As a rebel gay teen growing up in the white suburbs of New York, Laura spoke to me. She spoke of "Stoned Soul Picnic(s)", "Wedding Bell Blues", of "Sweet Blindness", of "Saving the Country", yes even of "And When I Die" (which she wrote at the amazing age of l6)!
Yes, she is remembered for these pulpy hits ... but that was not her best work.
I remember cold dark days when I would rush home from school to put on the well worn grooves of New York Tenderberry ... sitting in my darkened room pounding the imaginary keyboards, turning the volume up full blast as my immigrant mother begged me to "turn that noise down."
In the era of the sixties, where most women dressed in varied patterns of potpourri, Laura wore black. Not that she was always dark. Born Laura Nigro in the streets of the Bronx, across from Spanish Harlem, she was a blooming rose. As a teen, she doo-wooped in the streets of Manhattan with the other neighborhood girls.
And in her teens, she wrote brilliantly of her New York. Her rhythms scooped and snapped. You could almost see the girls with anklets and laced blouses jumping rope while the sweating boys cooled off on gushing fire hydrants. From her song "New York Tenderberry": "rugs and drapes and drugs and capes ... sweet kids and hunger slums … sidewalks and pigeon ... you look like a city but you fee/like religion to me." She was an urban worshipper.
And her soul soared! Perhaps the most brilliant concert memories I had was seeing her on a stormy night at the Fillmore East. It was Christmas Eve, 1970, the year she released Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. A black begowned goddess appeared, surrounded by a sparkling Christmas tree and a plethora of red roses. Not saying a word, she sat at the piano, tossed back her long flowing black hair and took flight. As the hypnotized crowd listened in rapt attention, she tore into her version of Carol King's "Up on the Roof" and, as if on cue, the sound of pelting rain battering the roof accompanied her wailings. To this day that memory exists.
In keeping with that spiritual bond, last night I lit a candle, darkened the room, and once again pounded on those imaginary keys. I called friends ... we cried, exchanged our favorite verses, and drank to Laura. She was our diva.
In this age of segmented identities, Laura found common ground—emotional truth, raw madness and pure joy. The fact that such a vibrant, important artist can die so young overwhelms. In an era where AIDS deaths numb, where internet suicides are frighteningly tidy, when pre-fab Madonna's and out-there Ellen's grab the spotlight, perhaps Nyro is an anachronism. Perhaps there will never be another Laura again? Still, I doubt if she would have agreed. We are left only with her words: "And when I die and when I'm dead, dead and gone they'll be one child born and a world to carry on."