154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’

[2021] Who would think that I’d look back at the previous incarnations of this blog with nostalgia? ‘Oh, for the good old days when all we had to worry about was the Hamas missiles raining down on us.’ We’re facing problems of a gravity unseen before, terrible things happening to so many people. Today not even Laura can dispel the gloom. But we’ll be here tomorrow, and so will she.

[2014:] Here we go again, my city being bombarded by Hamas and me republishing yet again this posting. Half a dozen Incoming Missiles Alerts since last night. How many times is this over the last 10 years? Three? Four? Five? But merrily we rock and roll along, whistling a happy tune and pretending there’s some coherence and logic on this orb. 

Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Stereo Single)
Laura Nyro – Save The Country (Mono Single)
Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Album)
Laura Nyro – Save the Country (Live TV performance, starts at 7’20”)

[2009:] I learned something this week: you can appreciate music even when missiles are falling on you. Well near you, anyway. Certain music you can appreciate even because missiles are falling near you. I live in southern Israel. My city had 86 missiles shot at it over eight days from our neighbors in Gaza. There’s an Israeli-developed anti-missile system called Iron Dome. It detects the missile, sets off alarms in the targeted areas. This is what it sounds like from my room. Everyone runs for ‘safety rooms’ made of reinforced concrete. Poets in the heat of inspiration. Kids on potties. Barbers in the middle of a haircut. Couples in flagrante delicto. Everyone.

Iron Dome

After half a minute’s warning, the whoosh of the Iron Dome. Then we wait 10 seconds for the boom. It might not come at all. Or it might happen up in the air above an open field outside of town. Or it might be among the 1/3 of the incoming rockets that aren’t caught, and it might fall on your next-door neighbor, or on you, or on your children. That’s the bad time, those 10 seconds. There are people around the world who say that Israel’s at fault in this conflict. I’m here to talk about music, not to shout polemics, but let me just say that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza to the recognized international border seven years ago; that Israel’s rationale for the sea embargo is to prevent Hamas from stockpiling missiles; and that anyone who thinks one side is all wrong and the other is all right in a conflict as complex as this one is too biased to talk to.

Velvet Dome

On one level, I dealt with the 86 sirens and the explosions with equanimity. No tears, no screaming, no bed-wetting; worst comes to worst, I’ve had a pretty full life. But still, I do feel a certain indignation, deepening with each day of sirens and explosions. Stop shooting at me! I don’t want to hurt you! Stop trying to hurt me! This war stuff is crazy!

And a sound track emerged: I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal – In my mind I can’t study war no more. Save the people, save the children, save the country, now!

It’s ‘Save the Country’ by Laura Nyro (1947-1997). I’ve known it intimately since for 44 years, but it never resonated as strongly as during those sirens and explosions. It’s a furious demand for an end to violence, sung in her unique street gospel style. ‘I will not tolerate this evil! I personally am going to fill this world with love, goddamit, and if you keep shucking your ugly, I’m personally gonna kick your ass!!’

I’m reminded of a story my college friend Steve told me. He was in a bad place, dropped acid in the worst possible circumstances, and took off on a Bad Trip. He told me that he felt The Devil was about to envelop him. But he did have the presence of mind to sit himself down and put on “Eli and the 13th Confession”, knowing that Laura would protect him; she knew all about fending off Lucifer.

That’s sort of how I felt this week. Laura’s unbridled love would protect me. Together with Iron Dome. Come on people, come on children, Come on down to the glory river. Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down. The song and the atmosphere that evoked it sent me on a binge of listening to Laura Nyro (not that I need much of a push). I listen to her frequently and intently and passionately. She is one of my very favorite artists. I usually confine myself to her masterpiece “Eli and the 13th Confession” and to “Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East”, recorded in 1971 but released only in 2004. Here’s ‘Save the Country’ from that show.

While we’re at the Fillmore, here’s ‘Walk on By’, a knock-out ‘Spanish Harlem’, and the sublime ‘Emmie’. This time I revisited her entire oeuvre, particularly enjoying the 1970 “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat” (including ‘When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag’ and ‘Up on the Roof’) and this hour-long low-quality video “Live in Pittsburgh” from 1994. It begins inauspiciously – overweight (from chemotherapy?); in Pittsburgh; in daylight; at a low point in her career and nearing the end of her life; on electric piano (why in heaven’s name?) accompanied only by 3 singers; and including songs dedicated to Animal Rights, Native Americans, and her own menstruation (no kidding). But amazingly, it’s a knockout.

Here’s ‘Save the Country’ from that show. And just for good measure, here’s ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ and from her first album ‘Blowin Away/Wedding Bell Blues’. Oh, and one I never appreciated before, ‘Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)’. And here’s a fine 10-minute film with and about Laura made by her long-time lady partner in 1995.

Up On The Roof

It reminded me just how much I love and admire and am inspired by Laura Nyro. She’s a major artist. Together with Joni Mitchell, the two most accomplished women to emerge from the rock idiom. Joni is an artisan, a craftswoman, a perfectionist, every song a finely cut gem. Laura is all soul and inspiration, a look-ma-no-hands roller-coaster trip. If Laura was too quirky to be fully appreciated during her prime years, recognition of her talent and influence has been growing by quantum leaps in recent years. Elton John, guesting on Elvis Costello’s TV show, said “This is music so far ahead of its time that it still sounds unbelievable – the soul, the passion, the audacity of her rhythmic and melody changes was like nothing I’d ever heard before.” Rickie Lee Jones told me how deeply indebted she is to Laura. This year Laura was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bette Midler, including a knockout ‘Stoney End’ by Sara Bareilles. Mega-producer Larry Klein is working on a “Reimagining Laura Nyro” project with Dr Billy Childs, guests including Renee Fleming, Rickie Lee Jones, Yo-Yo Ma and Wayne Shorter .

‘Save the Country’ was Laura’s response to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on June 5, 1968 (Keep the dream of the two young brothers). I remember the event and its context well. It was a trying time, difficult to maintain your equilibrium let alone envision peace. Not Universal Harmony. Just let-me-get-through-the-day-unscathed peace. The song was originally recorded  that summer as a single, her first release after her monolithic second album, “Eli and the 13th Confession”, then subsequently in a different version on her follow-up “New York Tendaberry”.

Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro

Laura was having a lot more success in the late 1960s as a songwriter than as a performer. She had bleached hit treatments of her songs by Three Dog Night (‘Eli’s Coming’); Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Flim Flam Man”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; and especially The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”.

Columbia President Clive Davis and Producer Bones Howe appreciated Laura’s talent and wanted to help her take off commercially. Bones Howe, on ‘Save the Country’: “She was excited about it when she did [the single version]. But when she stepped back she said, wait a minute, that’s not me. It was too produced, too pop for her. She wanted to do ‘Save the Country’ just sitting at the piano. She said ‘You make records that sock it to the people. I can’t sock it to the people. I just don’t do that.'”

I’ve always felt closer to the single version. I find it a finely fashioned pop funk production. To tell the truth, I’ve never succeeded in snuggling up to “New York Tendaberry”. I find her slow, rambling songs (‘December’s Boudoir’ and ‘Woman’s Blues’ from “Eli”, most of “Tendaberry”), hard to follow – diffuse, unfocused, less engaging than when she’s being melodic. The first half of the Tendaberry ‘Save the Country’ is solo piano, and is fine. At mid-song it shifts gears in typical Nyronian fashion, to my taste to too hysterical a tempo, the orchestration overbearing.

The version that grabbed me most strongly this time is the rare TV appearance (1968, I’m guessing), in unfortunately low quality. She takes beautiful rhythmic liberties, she swings and sings and rocks and smiles. She lays the devil down. She makes me believe – even as the sirens are wailing and the explosions are shaking my walls – that we can build the dream with love. That’s what music can do.

Thank you so much, Laura.

Come on people, come on children, come on down to the glory river.
Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down.
Come on people, come on children, there’s a king at the glory river.
And the precious king, he loved the people to sing,
Babes in the blinking sun, saying “We Shall Overcome”
I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal –
In my mind I can’t study war no more.

Save the people, save the children, save the country, now.

Come on people, come on children, come on down to the Glory River.
Gonna wash you up  and wash you down, gonna lay the devil down.
Come on people, sons and mothers, keep the dream of the two young brothers.
Got to take that dream and ride that dove, we could build the dream with love.
I got fury in my soul, fury’s gonna take me to the glory goal –
In my mind I can’t study war no more.

Save the people, save the children, save the country, now!

All SoTW postings on Laura Nyro