Sunday, September 26, 2021

Kat's Korner: Here's what happened when artist Laura Nyro auditioned for two pigs

Kat: All last week, a song was stuck in my head and I felt like Bob Dylan -- or maybe Linda Ronstadt covering Bob Dylan.  The song was "Baby, You've Been On My Mind."  And the one on my mind has been Laura Nyro.  

First off, last week we learned Sarah Dash had passed away.  A powerhouse vocalist, Sarah was part of the trio that made up Labelle -- it was her, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle.  And three years before they asked the world, "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?," they recorded the album GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE with Laura Nyro.  And it was sad to read coverage of Sarah's career last week that didn't appear to actually know a damn thing about her.  LaBelle started that year that they worked with Laura.  Prior to 1971, they were not LaBelle and, prior to 1967, they were a foursome (the fourth member being Cindy Birdsong who left the group to join Diana Ross & the Supremes).  It was really sad to read, for example, that LaBelle had a hit with "Over The Rainbow," for example.  That wasn't LaBelle, that was Pattie LaBelle and the Bluebells.  Before that, they had been The Blue Bells and before that they had been The Ordettes.  But to people pretending to know of the group, all their recordings from the beginning of time were just LaBelle.  

LaBelle released their first album in 1971 (a self-titled release that came out a few months before GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE).  The group released eight albums (counting the one they did with Laura).  With Laura, they made real magic and most cite "The Bells" from their joint-album but, while I love that track, my favorite is "I Met Him On A Sunday."  There is so much magic in their cover of The Shirelles' song as they trade lines and especially the joy and lift when they get to:

Doo ronde ronde ronde pa pa 

Doo ronde ronde ronde pa pa 

Doo ronde ronde ronde pa pa 

Doo oo oo oo ooo

Pay attention to that album because it's going to pop back up -- to a degree -- in this review.

Laura was on my mind also because I just reviewed a live album by the late singer-songwriter and I'm still going through e-mails on that.  And people wanting to share thoughts of how Laura's music touched their lives and wondering if I was going to review anything else by Laura -- many citing AMERICAN DREAMER.

AMERICAN DREAMER?  No.  I don't have time for AMERICAN DREAMER.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's out there.  But I'm not someone who spends $259 on a single music release.  Sorry.  If it were eight discs of previously unreleased material, I would.  I'd probably even do it for four discs of previously unreleased materiel from Laura.  But a repackage?  

On vinyl or CD, I already have MORE THAN A NEW DISCOVERY,  ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION, NEW YORK TENDABERRY, CHRISTMAS AND THE BEADS OF SWEAT, GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE, SMILE and NESTED.  I do wonder why they didn't include MOTHER'S SPIRITUAL (a great album), WALK THE DOG AND LIGHT THE LIGHT as well as LAURA: LIVE AT THE BOTTOM LINE.  Why not include those and SEASONS OF LIGHTS to have all of her original output, all the albums released when she was alive?  

I don't know but I do know that I don't spend two hundred and sixty bucks for repackaging, sorry.

However, a Laura album did come out this month.  You can get it on vinyl.  You may want to, you may not want to.  It's an interesting album, even an important one but I'm not sure it's something that anyone but a Laura fan's going to want.

I say that because the album in question, GO FIND THE MOON: THE AUDITION TAPE, isn't a long album, it's only 19 minutes.  OMNIVORE has released it on CD and vinyl and streaming.  By the way, that link takes you to the company's press release for the album.  I encourage you to read it because,  when I read it, I saw that several reviews had raided it -- full sentences, word-for-word, passed off as the reviewers' own thoughts.  I guess that's easier than taking the time to come to your own conclusions -- easier but not honest.

The album is sort of ten songs over eight tracks.  I'll come back to that.

"Enough of You," "In and Out" and "Go Find the Moon" are the new songs.  One's actually not new.  Not musically new.  It pops up in her original four album cycle.  I'm amazed no one noticed that but, judging by their reviews, the ones paid to review didn't actually listen to the album.

The three are more than worth hearing and would have been great on any Laura Nyro album.  What is she doing on this album?  It's a recording of her audition.  She's auditioning for a record producer and a 'manager' -- actually, a well known thief whose first name is Artie.  We're not going to enshrine these two disgusting men here, we don't do that.

Artie has lied for years about this audition.  He's insulted Laura for years saying he sees her for the first time and she's ugly and unattractive.  Laura was attractive.  This is nonsense.  Even before Barbra Streisand had demonstrated that talent is beauty, Laura would've been considered attractive.  You'd think the fortune he made off of Laura would've caused him to be a little kinder but liars gotta' lie, right?  For years, he's dead now, his lie also included that this ugly Laura walked in, sat down at the piano and performed her songs "And When I Die, " "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Stoney End."  Really?  Because this album is the audition, the audition in full, it was recorded, and of those three songs, Laura only performed "And When I Die" (a song that Artie, in published interviews, frequently got the title wrong on).

Artie claimed he was blown away by her talent.  Another lie.

And that's where GO FIND THE MOON really shines a light.  Laura is eighteen, it's 1966 (she'd turn 19 shortly after the audition). And 'blown away'?  Track six and seven prove otherwise.  It goes to sexism.  Artie thinks he's cute when he says he's heard of Bob Dylan (Artie ripped off Bob as well, and did so before he met Laura).  Why does Dylan come up?

Because Laura writes her own songs.  That's what she's there to do, to perform her songs.  And Artie,  who swooped up Bob's music publishing and will try to take Laura's, clearly doesn't appreciate her.  She writes her own songs, she tries to remind him, like Bob Dylan.  Yes, he informs, he knows who Bob Dylan is.

1964, is when Bob becomes a commercial artist.  It's his fourth album and he finally gets a song into the top forty -- one of his own that he sings ("Subterranean Homesick Blues'' makes it to number 39).  Prior to that, the hits were his songs covered by other acts -- like Peter, Paul and Mary.  By 1966, Bob is charting with his own songs.  The Beatles are charting with songs they are writing.  John Phillips -- sometimes with Michelle, sometimes with Denny -- is writing hits for the Mamas and the Papas.  Sonny Bono is writing hits for Cher and himself.  This is the new trend by 1966 and it's closing down NYC's Brill Building -- where songwriters like  Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann and Carole King labor (Carole will end up in California the following year).  

Here's Laura during this phase performing amazing songs and the men can't hear what's in front of them.  Can she, they wonder, do other songs?  You know, something someone else wrote?

The sexism is pretty shocking.  And that's what this album really does, provide the historical context of what happened when a songwriting legend -- someone rightly in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, someone who wrote many hit songs -- happens to be a woman who's auditioning for men.  We already knew Artie was a sexist pig because what did all of his talk about Laura being, in his pig mind, unattractive and ugly have to do with her songs?  But here she is offering them gold, serving up some of the best writing of that time period and they want her to play songbird and sing songs written by others, they want her to be a 'girl singer' and not an artist.  They can picture a man like Bob writing and singing his own songs but it's too much for them to accept it in a woman.  The sexism is pretty shocking.

So is the sexism right now, the sexism in the reviews.

I didn't hear what the 'reviewers' were hearing.  I actually don't think they heard what they were hearing.  So I went to C.I.  Thanks, by the way, to Elaine who's proofing and editing this for me.  I noted C.I. in the last review and when she, C.I., was done helping me with it, I asked, "You're not upset that I brought you into it?"  She said, "Publish what you want to publish."  Later, I found out, from her, that she'd just rather not read it if she was mentioned in it.  She didn't mind so much that I quoted her or told tales out of school, she just didn't want to have to read it herself.

Well I needed C.I. on this review right here.  And it was because I felt the writers were getting Laura wrong in the reviews.  And I know C.I.'s big on the need for Laura to be appreciated for her extraordinary talents.  And I know she's very wary of who she will speak to, for publication, when it comes to Laura.  Originally, for example, she and Peggy Lipton were both going to speak to Michele Kort for what became Kort's SOUL PICNIC: THE MUSIC AND PASSION OF LAURA NYRO.  Then, as Peggy first told me at a lunch at C.I.'s home, they each started hearing that Michele was not someone to trust.  They immediately cut off contact with Kort and refused to participate.  They weren't the only ones and that goes a long way to explaining how Kort ended up writing such a bad book.  (For people newer to THE COMMON ILLS, when C.I. recently noted a politician had helped "my friend Peggy," she was referring to her late friend Peggy Lipton.  Those who've been reading this site for many years got that on their own.)  So because of wanting to get Laura right -- when so many are lying about her -- and knowing she could trust me not to distort and because she'd never heard the audition before, C.I. agreed to listen to it and provide a comment or two.

I was hoping it would be about track six and seven.  And it was.  Sexism.  She called it immediately.  But what I really wanted was her perspective on track seven.

Prompted to perform some song by someone else, Laura is rattled.  This is how we get ten songs on eight tracks.  She tries three songs on track seven.  She ends up performing some lines from "When Sunny Gets Blue," then from "Kansas City" and then from "I Only Want To Be With You."  The reviewers want you to know that Laura can't remember the songs.  That's not what I heard.  As a piano player, I don't hear forgetting, I hear frustration and freezing.  I didn't say that to C.I., I just told her that reviewers were saying Laura tried to fulfill the request but couldn't remember the songs.

Having listened, C.I. called bulls**t on that.  Laura, she quickly stated, was doing doo-wop throughout her teenage years, with neighbors, with friends and damn well knew the lyrics to "Kansas City" by heart.  GONNA TAKE A MIRACLE, remember, I told you we'd get back to a topic -- was Laura's salute to those early days before she started recording, when she'd sing with others in stairwells and on door steps, sing the hits of that era.  She knows the songs.

But Laura doesn't want to play other people's songs at the audition, C.I. points out.  She's uncomfortable at the request and should be. She's prepared for her audition, practiced it, put the songs in the order she thinks they'll work best  and, instead of being thrilled with what she's presenting, they're acting like she's a jukebox and they can tell her what to play.  She's choosing to stop for that reason, not because she doesn't know the songs.  C.I. points out that she's played the chord progressions to all three songs and they're not going to vary if she continues.  So she knows the music to play and she knows the words to the songs so that's not why she's stopping.  She's stopping because she finds this insulting.  She tries it for a bit because that's what she has to do because she's a she, but she's frustrated ("listen to the chords, listen to her voice, she's not into it") and she's fumbling for some way not to rage at these two idiots before she finally makes clear, no more, I'm here to perform my songs.

"I would do it if I could," Laura says.  And, it's clear to me, that she can't.

That's what I thought I was hearing.  But I never knew Laura.  C.I. did and I wanted her opinion.

"Okay," the male voice from on high says with a sigh, "do one more of yours then."

Oh, the gratitude and the appreciation -- I'm being sarcastic.  She stops in the middle of "gray" on the first song attempted -- did the reviewers listen to what they wrote about at all?  Are they trying to tell us that they honestly believe that Laura started off singing the word "gray" and then forgot the word she was singing?  It's nonsense. Listen to how she's playing.  Listen to the way she's singing.

Again, this recording works as a historical artifact.  It documents both Laura's talent and the way that women were treated then.  (Not a great deal better than we're treated today though there has been some improvement.)  Two pig boys are presented with one of the most original and talented songwriters of her generation and they interrupt the audition to try to force her to sing standards.  It's insulting.  And it also works to shine a light on sexism today as reviewers rush over the ugliness, the insulting nature of two men auditioning a female singer-songwriter and basically telling her that her material -- her self-written material -- isn't good enough and how about she instead sing some standards.  (As C.I. pointed out, this nonsense will later be pulled with Carly Simon as well, starting with Albert Grossman, and that it's not about music or an audition, it's about a power trip being pulled.)

At 19 minutes, it probably won't work as an album for most people.  That said, it shows that even at 18, Laura was not only determined, she was tremendously gifted.  The tracks of her singing her songs could have appeared, exactly as they do on the audition recording, on one of her studio albums and impressed.  She's that gifted, she's that strong.  I'd give five starts out of five stars to GO FIND THE MOON: THE AUDITION TAPE for that reason and for its historical importance.