Laura Nyro entered my life on a small Maxell C90 cassette, sent to me in a small brown jiffy bag, sometime in the summer of 1990. It was one of many compilation cassettes sent to me at the time by one of my many pen pals. This particular pen pal was Pami Gill, who would become a very important part of my life nearly twenty years later. But at the time, we were just pen pals and this was one of many cassettes she would send me, hoping I would enjoy the music within.
I had never heard of Laura Nyro. Not a mention of her. Not even a whisper of her in the hallowed pages of the New Musical Express or Sounds. The UK charts from the mid to late eighties were full of Stock, Aitken and Waterman who brought us Rick Astley, Sinitta, Brother Beyond and Kylie Minogue. The alternative was the soft rock sound of bands such as Def Leppard, Bon Jovi or Aerosmith. Mainstream pop had Kate Bush, Wet Wet Wet, Terence Trent D’arby and Genesis. If you were really daring you might tell someone you were into Killing Joke or The Cardiacs, but they might look at you funny.
Or even Bulgarian folk music, which might get you ostracised.
So the name Laura Nyro meant nothing to me. I had no idea what she looked like, whether she was British, if she was old or young or if she had a cat. I knew nothing. So I placed the cassette in my treasured Amstrad midi system and pressed play.
The album that Pami had taped for me was called Eli & The Thirteenth Confession. On the other side of the cassette was a compilation of Laura’s work from the late sixties to the late eighties.
It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
In 1990, at the tender age of 19, I was not really into mainstream chart music anyway. I loved Kate Bush and was just discovering Joni Mitchell. Other albums in my collection at that time were Aja by Steely Dan, U by The Incredible String band and What We Did On Our Holidays by Fairport Convention. All different in their own way. All with their own unique sounds. But none of them prepared me for Laura Nyro.
Her voice was clear, smooth and passionate. And, a big appeal for me, she wrote her own songs.
And what songs they were. The structure of them seemed chaotic to me initially. Especially a song like New York Tendaberry, which I now consider to be one of her masterpieces. At the time, however, its free form compositional style and lack of a ‘hook’ left me puzzled. But the songs on Eli & The Thirteenth Confession were more accessible. Poverty Train (see the video link below for one of her rare live performances of this song) hit me hard with it’s stark, bleak, confessional lyrics and a melody that I found mesmerising. “Why was I born,” sang Laura, and it appealed to that dark melancholic streak inside me that I have always held tightly on to, throughout my life.
Over the coming years I managed to acquire all of her albums, one by one. At the time I was living in Cwmbran, which in 1990 only had an Our Price. I would spend my hard earned ‘unemployment benefit’ travelling to Cardiff, where they had a huge Virgin Megastore. Sometimes I would return back to Cwmbran empty handed, but other times I would return clutching a Laura Nyro CD which I would listen to over and over again, much to the chagrin of my dear bemused Nan who preferred the more dulcet tones of Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline.
And now, twenty-two years later, her music still means the world to me. Albums such as Nested, Mother’s Spiritual and Smile have a special place in my heart and there are certain songs on those albums that I will never tire of.
Sadly, I never got to see Laura play live in the UK. She passed away on April 8, 1997, aged just 49, of ovarian cancer – the same disease that had taken the life of her mother too at the same age.
Laura, I thank you for mark you have made upon my life. I thank you for the pleasure you have given me, through your music, for all these years.
I wish I could have met you.