Captain Saint Lucifer

It’s fitting that Laura Nyro’s most well-known album is called Eli & the Thirteenth Confession. Everything about her suggests a woman who’s simply dying to confess, to lay the vagaries of her raging soul bare for all to see. Laura Nyro wants you to know when she’s in love and when she isn’t, and, because her emotions are such huge and deeply complicated things, her music can scare off even the most empathetic listener.

Like many New Yorkers of her time, Nyro had a significant career as a professional songwriter. This must have been difficult: the constraints imposed by having to craft chart hits for other singers must have been stifling for someone so purposefully free-spirited. The hits the 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand had with her music were clean-cut, anodyne versions; on her own recordings Nyro always sounds either oddly restrained or dangerously close to bursting out of the confines of the verse-chorus pop song. Her discomfort with the format is doubly evident in the Monterey film, in which she awkwardly tries out a girl group routine, before coming into her own with a bare-bones performance of Poverty Train, a slow blues filled with smouldering menace in which she seems to retreat completely into her own head, the only place where she seems truly at ease.

Shortly afterwards, Laura Nyro would abandon hit-making for good and set about giving life to her innermost desires and demons. This process culminated in New York Tendaberry, a difficult, introverted album with no real equal. On it lies something that, to me, sums up Nyro’s art; something called Captain St. Lucifer, a song so mercilessly obtuse that it’s almost incomprehensible on first listen even when done by other, less ambitious artists (what was Melba Moore thinking anyway, when she picked this, of all things, to cover?)

Captain St. Lucifer is a structural nightmare: it is full of false-starts and dead-ends and turn-offs that lead nowhere, and just when you think you’ve figured out where it’s all headed, it turns around and becomes something else. The singing liberally gives way to vocal hysterics; the whole experience can put you off her permanently if you’re not careful. And yet, somewhere in its labyrinthine innards, there’s a haunting melody and a tale of unrestrained desire; if you’re susceptible to that sort of thing, it can leave your hairs standing on end.

A lot of people like Laura Nyro, and I suspect that they do for reasons they won’t admit: she is a serious person, her lyrics frequently qualify as poetry, her melodies aren’t simplistic three-chord radio fodder, and she flatters her listeners into believing they’re connoisseurs of high art, and not consumers of manufactured entertainment.

But that’s not why she’s special. Laura Nyro is wonderful because she never bothered to tame her vast talents in the interests of being more widely accepted, because she is wholly unselfconscious about wearing her heart on her sleeve, no matter that it may be gauche or embarrassing, because she follows her muse unquestioningly even when it’s going the wrong way, and, above all, because, whatever she may be feeling, she sounds like she feels it with all her being, so you worry that she’ll burst if she carries on that way much longer. Laura Nyro has no hang-ups and she’s a hundred percent heart: I know of no one else who is so totally honest in the face of the world. I don’t listen to her often – she demands a lot of attention – but, when I do, that’s the thing about her which fills me with so much strength.

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