It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of, and in retrospect, it was remarkably short-sighted, but when Laura Nyro, unhappy with attempts to market her as a celebrity, announced her retirement from the music business in 1971, I lost track of her until many years later. This despite the fact that she came back five years later with a brand new album called Smile *. Hell, five years is no retirement at all these days. It’s merely the normal recording cycle for major artists.
All through the late ’60s and early ’70s there was no more important musical voice in my life than that of Laura Nyro. For me, she was right up there with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. Still after her 1971 covers album Gonna Take A Miracle (recorded with Labelle), an album I adore, Laura left the music business, and when she came back I had moved on to other artists. It’s a damn shame, really. After Smile there was the live album Season of Lights in 1978, and Nested in 1978, and then another long break before Mother’s Spiritual in 1984. Then came Laura: Live at the Bottom Line in 1989 *, and Walk the Dog and Light the Light * in 1993. As I said, I missed a lot of great music. What’s worse is that Laura was no longer on my radar when she died of breast cancer in 1997. She was only 49 years old. Hers is a death that haunts me to this day.
Whenever a great artist dies you hear people say, “we’ll always have the music.” We’re all hearing it now about Michael Jackson. Cliches become cliche because they’re true. I not only will always have Laura Nyro’s music to love, there’s still music of hers that I’ve never heard. The album Mother’s Spiritual (Iconoclassic Records) is a perfectly good example. This album is the latest in the small Massachusetts company’s continuing program of Laura Nyro reissues. So far that program has yielded a reissue of Nested, and last year’s brilliant Season of Lights: Laura Nyro In Concert.
When Laura began work on Mother’s Spiritual, her son Gil was two years old, she had a new love in her life in Maria Desiderio, and she had retreated to a bucolic life in Danbury, Connecticut. All of these changes informed the songs on the new album. After early attempts to record the album at the Boogie Hotel on Long Island with producer Joe Wissert (Boz Scaggs) failed, Nyro returned home to Connecticut, expanded her home studio, and brought in her friend Roscoe Harring to produce, with help from another old friend, Todd Rundgren.
This is where I have to say that in some ways I am not the right person to review this album. Lyrically, this album is a message from a strong single mother to the women of the world. It blends a strong feminist consciousness with a burgeoning ecological awareness, and addresses issues that were heretofore unspoken in popular music. The subject matter is a far cry from the urban dramas that marked her early albums, but at the end of the day, the melodies are still fresh and appealing, and the whisper-to-a-scream soul of Laura’s magnificent voice remains intact. Some say that Laura had mellowed, but I don’t hear it that way. She had become a strong, powerful, confident woman, ready to climb the battlements and inspire other women.
There’s a lot to love here. I’ve chosen two songs, the original album’s first and last. One is a tribute to Laura’s young son, the other a tribute to her deceased mother. The opening song, “To a Child,” is dedicated to young Gil, and finds Laura struggling with the to cope with the stresses of motherhood, while at the same time reveling in the joy of her “miracle.” She says:
“Child I am here to stand by you
and you will find
your own way
hard and true
and I’ll find mine.”
The title track, “Mother’s Spiritual,” finds Laura remembering her own mother, now gone, while at the same time addressing her own concerns as a mother. It’s a staggeringly beautiful and powerful piece of music.
“Feel this love
my brothers and sisters
feel the season turn
She is the mother of time
It’s not war
It’s life she gives
and that’s where
mother’s spiritual lives.”
Once again Iconoclassic Records must be lauded for releasing one of this year’s best reissues. There may be bigger record companies, but none with bigger hearts. The new package includes a lovely essay by Laura’s biographer Michele Kort. There’s also a bonus track, a live recording of the song “Man In the Moon,” made in 1978, several years before the studio version that is a part of this album. Everything this company does is informed by their love of music. I’m looking forward to what comes next.
* Where there are no links provided for the albums, it indicates that they are shamefully out of print, though used and import copies may be available. Hopefully Iconoclassic can remedy this situation.