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One From The Vault

  • 4
(Originally published September 21, 2007)

Dirt On The Ground

The Earthy Blues Of Dave Alexander

Friday, February 26, 2010

My first encounter with Dave Alexander came when he acted as house pianist for the 1970 Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival, providing rhythmic and melodic support for a variety of artists on the festival's main stage. Impressed by his ability to seamlessly shift styles with each new musician that employed his talents, I made a half-assed attempt to make note of his name, hoping to one day hear him workout with his own band and material. That opportunity came a few years later in San Francisco where my second encounter with Dave occurred at a local dance hall concert. To my surprise, he and his band were the opening act for Van Morrison in what became a extraordinary night of soulful music. Again, I was impressed by his command of the keyboard although this time out, I heard his own original material and was electrified! Regretting that I had forgotten to investigate his recorded works as I had promised myself, I later rooted through the KRE record library to find his two Arhoolie Record releases and immediately made them a regular part of my on-air programming.

Dave came to the Bay Area by way of Texas in 1957, settling in Oakland to play the low rent bars of the thriving East Bay blues scene. There he backed everyone from Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy McCracklin to Lowell Fulson and Jimmy Witherspoon while working on his own material. Later in 1968, he cut his first sides for the World Pacific label called 'Oakland Blues,' a compilation of artists from that notable blues city. As the rock revolution began transforming the club scene, Alexander began appearing as a semi-regular, opening for rock acts at the now well-known ballrooms and dance halls of the period. It's at this point where I entered to find myself rummaging through the station library looking for Dave's music, a boogie blues style that is steeped in tradition yet highly modern, rife with Horace Silver-isms and two fisted barrelhouse.

Sadly as the music scene continued to evolve, Alexander's name slowly slipped from the club listings to eventually disappear altogether. Had he retired? Relocated? Worst yet, passed away? I really didn't know, but the memory of his powerful earthy blues remained with me, and his two LP's, 'The Rattler' and 'The Dirt On The Ground' gained permanent homes in my own personal record collection, one of which I share with you in this post. The story does not end here however and picks up many years later.

In the late 1980's or early 90's, I had my third and last startling encounter with Alexander. And as with the previous times, it happened quite by chance. After having become disenchanted with commercial radio, I turned to performance, forming my own jazz/blues quartet to mildly successful acclaim. While laboring on the cutting edge of obscurity, I found myself booked in 'Old Town' Sacramento where I noticed a much larger crowd convening across the street at the door to another club. Curiosity (and ego) won me over and during a break, I moseyed over to see just what I was missing. Descending the staircase of the rathskeller saloon, I heard a familiar piano sound and who was sitting at the keyboard? None other than the incredible Dave Alexander (now calling himself Omar Sharriff), quite alive and definitely swinging! When asked for the answer to his mysterious disappearance, he laid it out to me something like this. It seems that he too had become disillusioned. Dropping out of the music scene, he changed his name, moved North and laid low, for a bit, but was now actively performing again in the Sierra music community and much happier for the effort. And with that, the story comes full circle.

Dave Alexander a.k.a Omar Sharriff today

This week I'm featuring
'The Dirt On The Ground,' Dave Alexander's 2nd Arhoolie LP which is sadly out of print, and whose tracks are listed below. Dave is accompanied by bassist Larry Murdo and drummer Mickey Durio, who both display a deep simpatico for his songs. The material reflects Alexander's broad ranging repertoire and his uncanny ability to fuse many diverse elements into one extremely personal voice. (Amended February 26, 2010) In republishing this post, I'm additionally offering Dave's 1st Arhoolie recording, 'The Rattler' as well. Although both recordings are out of print, Arhoolie is offering a limited number of original, sealed vinyl pressings that were recently uncovered in a distant corner of their warehouse. Both titles can be purchased on a first come, first served basis directly from Arhoolie, and are without doubt cleaner than my own rips. Neither recording has ever been released on Compact Disc. These shares come from my personal record library and date back to the early 1970's. I hope you'll enjoy them both.

1. The Hoodoo Man (The Voodoo Woman & The Witch Doctor)
2. St. James Infirmary
3. Blue Tumbleweed
4. Sundown
5. Sufferin' With The Lowdown Blues
6. Strange Woman
7. Cold Feelin'
8. Jimmy, Is That You?
9. So You Wanna Be A Man
10. The Dirt On The Ground

The Rattler

1. The Sky Is Crying
2. Swanee River Boogie
3. I Need A Little Spirit
4. Good Home Cookin'
5. The Rattler
6. There Ought To Be A Law
7. Lonesome Train Blues
8. A Tribute To My Father
9. 13 Is My Number
10. The Judgement

Old Songs For The New Depression

  • 22
The Barroom Ballads Of A Young Tom Waits
Friday, February 19, 2010

There have been a handful of songwriters I've purposely avoided profiling within these pages. Artists whose work I hold with great respect and awe, but who loom so large that they are very nearly a universe unto themselves. I'm talking craftsmen like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and of course, Tom Waits. They along with jazz masters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bird, and Thelonious Monk are among the untouchables in modern music with intriguing, complex and mysterious personalities, solid bodies of work, and legacies firmly established.* So how then does one like myself gingerly attempt approaching these mythological figures without becoming biopic? Read on, my friend.

Fate can be a funny thing, can't it? At 60 years of age,
Tom Waits is today a bona fide superstar. I mean, who the fuck could have predicted that back in 1975 after having listened to 'Nighthawks At The Diner'? I doubt that even he himself could have seen it coming. After all, in terms of commercial success, the young Tom Waits could barely get arrested let alone sell out auditoriums worldwide in record time (and at record prices!) during the first 10 years of his professional career. While he did at least entertain a small but devoted following, his 'star' trajectory hardly found him staying in the finer hotels. He spent a full decade relentlessly slogging from gig to gig on an endless trek that saw very little support from his label, pitiful few precious moments for himself, and an equal shortfall of coin to line his pockets, despite a flair for penning remarkably tender saloon tunes and snappy Beat inspired poetics. As he once comically stated with regard to the success of his career up to that point, "Even Marcel Marceau gets more airplay then I do."

"Well, no wonder," you might say. "How far out of step with the times could one man have possibly been?" Fair enough. There's certainly a credible amount of truth in that. But it was in fact that very 'man out of time' aspect that made him so damn interesting. That and the aforementioned songs. What an anachronism was Waits, a puzzling bundle of paradoxes. How could such a young man become so enamoured with the forms and lifestyles of a previous generation, embracing them so completely and wholeheartedly that he seemingly bypassed the decade of his own coming of age entirely? And how could this same young man write such mournful songs that were filled more living and heartache than his age revealed?

Tom Waits in his early days

Well in addressing the former, part of it of course was an adopted persona. Others around that period were trying the same thing. Leon Redbone for instance. He certainly sounded old, but the spats and suspenders, along with the waxed mustache made him appear more like an costumed entertainer in a Disney theme village than anything truly authentic. Waits on the other hand at least chose an image that was a little bit hipper, and a bit easier to incorporate into a workable, full fledged style of living. So with persona intact, he then set out to blur the boundaries between the character and the real man for the sake of his art. But after 10 years of doing so, those lines of distinction had completely melted away, resulting in a realization that perhaps choosing Charles Bukowski as a role model
wasn't exactly the smartest of moves after all (although oddly, both men came out on top in the end). In his quest for authenticity, Waits found himself actually living the dejected life that he had set out merely to document in song. A noble endeavor, but a reckless one. For Waits, his troubling epiphany came when he attended a screening of the faux-rockumentary, 'Spinal Tap.' While the audience around him howled with laughter at the trials and tribulations of the fictional trio, Waits claims to have been reduced to tears, struck by how closely the humiliations of the band actually mirrored his own missteps. Most saddening was the scene in which they describe having been the opening act for a puppet show, unquestionably a low point in any musicians career path, unless you happen to be Raffi. He claims his barrel bottom scrape came when he was booked to appear with the aging TV personality, Buffalo Bob on the once popular morning kids show, 'The Howdy Doody Show.' As the felt hammers hit the piano strings, hard candies reportedly flew out of the instruments top. A low ebb indeed. Deflated, there sat a beat-up and downcast Tom Waits playing to an indifferent audience of a hundred screaming runts. Whether this was merely one of his infamous tall tales is open to speculation. But even if it is a fabrication, the fact remains that after 10 years on the boards, he had become a stale parody of himself. Waits had unwittingly painted himself into a stylistic corner. The times they were a changin', and the American landscape he sang of no longer existed, holding little relevance for the new generation of music listeners. His career was sputtering along, running out of gas and at risk of stalling like some beat up Buick on the shoulder of the very busy Santa Monica Freeway. Not exactly washed up, but then again hardly rolling high. As one of the most humane and poetic of songwriters produced in the 20th century, Waits deserved a better fate.

As for those sad songs? Well Waits always has held a gift for sympathetic character portraits, chronicling with simpatico the troubled lives of the disenfranchised, the outsiders, and those who were simply down on their luck. Some people are just born with the capacity to understand and empathize with the less-than-fortunate. Admittedly, the majority of those people go on to become missionaries, social workers, or bartenders, not musicians. In Waits case however, he became a songwriter, and a drunk. Albeit a sensitive drunk who had a poet's ear for words and a knack for writing memorable melodies in an era when Tin Pan Alley songwriters had gone the way of chrome bumpers and tail fins. And of course hanging out with other drunks provided him with a vast reservoir of anecdotal material to fill his songbook. His relentless touring meanwhile gave him plenty of lonely moments to mold his observations into sympathetic character sketches and melancholy ballads. Then a funny thing happened when his epiphany coalesced with the meeting his own redeemer in the form Kathleen Brennan.

To her detractors, Brennan is to Waits what Ono was to Lennon, but to her credit, his future bride helped to transform him into the iconic showman that he is today. You might say she even saved his life. She lent him money for a shave and a haircut, dragged him down to Macy's to buy a new suit and hat, suggested that he shine his shoes periodically, and offered him more than a few tips and ideas for turning around a career that was limping down a dead end street. The recipe was an interesting, but complex one --- clean up your act by dropping the booze and cigarettes, then add three parts Captain Beefheart, two parts Howlin' Wolf, and one part Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and a quarter cup of Louie Armstrong. Mix in a few tablespoons of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, as well as a heaping dollop of Harry Partch. Stir them together in a Wiemar Republic mixing bowl until well blended, top off with sprinkle of Barnum and Bailey, and bake for an hour at 450˚F. Well shit, it actually worked! A strange, mysterious, and magic casserole. Who would have believed it? Overnight Waits' became a 'prestige' artist (something I always thought he was!), and his material became more complex and esoteric than the study of entomology. And on top of this, it ironically garnered more critical and consumer acclaim than anything he'd recorded prior! He went from barfly to barker, moving from backrooms to Broadway in the course of just a few short years. Gone were the roach stompers and endless stream of Chesterfields. Now he dressed like a gentleman farmer and conducted the proceedings like a true maestro. Having once played toilets, he now appeared in classy auditoriums around the world, made videos for inclusion on MTV and VH-1, acted in movies directed by prestigious luminaries, collaborated with heavyweights, and simultaneously became the darling of the new self-proclaimed bohos. If only we all could be so lucky reinventing ourselves. But God bless him, Waits deserved his newfound glory. He went from the fringes to becoming contemporary in the most unorthodox of ways. And perhaps most telling was that he seemingly was now enjoying himself more than ever before. Funny, but like I said, fate can sometimes be that way. Love too can make you do crazy things as well.

Tom Waits today

These days, it's hard to even attend a Tom Waits show. Contrary to years ago, he now tours infrequently and his concerts typically sell out within seconds. And tickets for those shows come at a premium unless of course you're willing to pay an exorbitant price on eBay, or deal with some shifty-eyed scalper outside the venue, neither of which I'm willing to do. He skillfully reinvented himself as ringmaster of his own kaleidoscopic carnival to great acclaim, and somehow miraculously became everyone's ultra-hip uncle or something in the process. Today Waits can seemingly do no wrong. He's the old guy who's more interesting and colorful than anything or anyone his new audience has ever known, and hey, he sings with a voice that's torn up worse than the road through Baja --- without having lost one ounce of his artistic integrity, I might add! And while I still hold a great appreciation and admiration for his work, it too has gone on to a whole new level. It's now filled with sideshow freaks, snake oil salesmen, and the revival tent evangelists who occupy his imaginary traveling big top. Gone are the touching portraits of the lost, imperfect, fallible souls doing whatever they can to nurse their broken heart. Those sad ballads have been largely replaced with discordant, bull horned depictions of Fellini-esque characters walking hamstrung amidst the clink and clank of assorted junkyard paraphernalia --- wooden planks, anvils, oil drums, garden hoses, hubcaps, and the like. It's simply a different aesthetic, I realize that, and one not without it's merits, or rewards. But you know, sometimes I think he's very possibly painted himself into yet another stylistic corner, and I sometimes find myself beginning to lose interest after awhile --- which is something I never thought I'd hear myself say about Tom Waits.

You know, it's not that I wish for Waits to remain the gristly, finger-poppin' young storyteller of yore. That would be short-sighted and selfish of me. He's a formidable showman. He always has been, and he's certainly an American original. But I suppose that what I actually miss is the tenderness that was once so prevalent in his songwriting. I believe that is where Tom Waits has always excelled, the songs that dealt with everyday people who were trapped in circumstances beyond their control, or perhaps their own willpower. Compassionate portrayals that were then wrapped in beautiful and hauntingly sad, piano driven melodies. For my money, it was always the humanity with which he infused those songs that makes them more powerful and completely human than most of what he does today. Tender ballads do continue to pop up in his work although with less frequency, and certainly less melody. Unfortunately however they get lost within the bigger rooms where they're washed out under the glare of stage lights, and trampled beneath the cacophony of his barnyard clatter. His material remains compelling nevertheless, and his stage performance absolutely mesmerizing. But after 20+ years of his current dog and pony show, I sometimes wonder if perhaps the most radical and refreshing thing that Waits could do today would be to return to the heartbreaking melodies and tear stained poetics that he once penned so poignantly, even if it were only for a moment.
*Others could be included in this list, James Brown and The Beatles for instance, and it could be an interesting topic of debate.

1.) Bad Liver And A Broken Heart (In Lowell)
2.) Saving All My Love For You
3.) (Meet Me In) Paradise Alley
4.) Soldier's Things
5.) Tom Traubert's Blues
(Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)
6.) Please Call Me, Baby
7.) Broken Bicycles
8.) Muriel
9.) I Never Talk To Strangers
(w/Bette Midler)
10.) Jitterbug Boy
(Sharing A Curbside With Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body, The Mug & Artie)

11.) Lonely
12.) Burma Shave
13.) I Beg Your Pardon
14.) Annie's Back In Town
15.) I Can't Wait To Get Off Work
(And See My Baby On Montgomery Avenue)
16.) Candy Apple Red
17.) Blue Valentines
18.) Semi Suite
Picking Up After You
(w/Crystal Gayle)
20.) Johnsburg, Illinois
21.) Kentucky Avenue
22.) Invitation To The Blues
23.) The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)
(An Evening With Pete King)

Source material for 'Old Songs For The New Depression' come from the following:
Closing Time (1973)/The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974)
Small Change (1976)/Foreign Affairs (1977)/Blue Valentines (1978)
Paradise Alley (1978)/Heartattack And Vine (1979)
One From The Heart (1982)/Swordfishtrombones (1983)

The Women In My Life, Pt. 2

  • 11
Laura Nyro
The Rose From Spanish Harlem
Friday, February 12, 2010

 Miles And The Thirteenth Confession

I was young, impressionable, and open to just about anything when I fell under the spell of Laura Nyro. Fueled by testosterone, a thirst for true love and understanding in combination with my yearning to unravel the many mysteries that comprise the hearts and minds of womankind, Nyro became the unreachable object of my desire. Just a few years older than I, she nevertheless appeared to be not only on an entirely different and higher plane than I, but also deeper than any of the other young women I had encountered up until that time. Dark and enigmatic, feminine and beguiling, I naively idealized her and believed her to be the keeper of the key to unlocking the tangle of emotion and longing that is womanhood. In other words, I had a serious hard-on. Crude of me, yes, but true.

Although perhaps not considered beautiful in the modern sense of today's preference for chiseled features and tall, slender bodies, Nyro held a rare beauty that captivated me nevertheless; a classical beauty from a bygone era. Appearing perpetually wounded, somber and faraway, she possessed the saddest of faces, one that was accented by the loveliest of dark and penetrating downcast eyes, and the fullest, most sensuous of lips - strong, ethnic Mediterranean features that were framed by a flowing mane of long black, cascading hair. Voluptuous and earthy, she physically represented all that was alluring to me in women. Even when she later began to radiate a sort of 'Earth Mother' quality, such was my romanticization of her that I chose to continue idealizing her as the intense woman-child beatnik poetess, perpetually adorned in black - veiled and mysterious.

Despite being a product of the Bronx, Nyro radiated none of the brash, gum snapping, trash talking aura that at one time was associated with the tougher New York girls who lived in the outer boroughs. Instead she was the sensitive, but gifted loner who spent hot summer nights out on the fire escape to beat the heat, quietly listening to the pulse of the city, earthbound yet dreaming of a life somewhere far from the sorrows of living. She was at once as mysterious, sensual and sexual as the subject of a Caravaggio painting; beautifully fragile as a red rose growing amidst the concrete cracks in the sidewalks of Spanish Harlem. And then of course there was her exquisite music.

More Than A New Discovery

Nyro's early LPs like 'Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,' 'New York Tendaberry,' and 'Christmas and the Beads of Sweat' broke nearly all the rules of what constituted contemporary music of the day. They were idiosyncratic, allusive, almost stream-of-consciousness recordings containing bold arrangements that brandished flourishes of jazz, soul, doo-wop and blues, a keen understanding of the Tin Pan Alley song craft, and even pieces that nearly resembled Broadway show tunes, if it weren't for the oblique, self confessional poetry that ran throughout them. Nyro's was a poetry that was often so personal, it may have made sense only to her alone. Poetry that frequently alluded to Captains and devils, death and dying, "Cocaine and quiet beers." But don't get me wrong, it wasn't some sort of dark, Gothic wallowing. Although much of her material did revolve around the subject of pain, it wasn't always necessarily the pain of suffering, it also touched on the sometimes overwhelming pain of joy. And above it, her soaring charcoal smeared soprano rode the crest of what on one hand were sometimes difficult and moody compositions, filled with dramatic block chords and unexpected shifts in tempo, and at other times simply the absolute sweetest of soul music. Either way, it was all quite captivating in its emotional depth. As I said, hers was a new form of contemporary pop music. There hadn't been any role models available for Nyro to follow. She alone blazed her own trail with her unique and unorthodox song structures. Her jazz phrasing, soulful delivery, passionate playing, and dramatic arrangements made for arresting music. And of course her lyrical content always gave one pause for thought - it was so very elliptical and surreptitious. "Decipher the code and you'll arrive at your desired level of enlightenment," I repeatedly told myself, but I never did. Instead I came to realize that despite her flair for poetics, her words in and of themselves were not truly at the core of what made her so mysterious and special to me. Rather it was the visceral feeling that they, along with the music she wrote to underscore them produced in the listener. As jazz musicians might say, her songs were 'feels,' motifs designed to not so much to be intellectualized, but rather to be felt - something like the way a subtle change in wall color can alter the mood of a room. During the recording of one of her early works, she asked her label mate, Miles Davis if he would be kind enough to contribute his musical input to one of her songs. After listening the piece in question, Davis declined stating, "What can I offer? You've already nailed it." With my new understanding of her art, I then coveted Nyro all the more.

When Laura Nyro first arrived on the music scene back in 1966, she arrived nearly completely developed. It was quite remarkable for one so young - the tender age of 19. Her first recording, 'More Than A New Discovery' was far more disciplined and linear than her subsequent material. It's difficult to imagine that at such a young age, she was able to come out of the gate with such sophisticated, fully realized and infectious pop melodies as 'And When I Die,' 'Wedding Bell Blues,' and 'Stoney End.' All three songs became huge hits for others, thus building a secure financial foundation for her on which she could then afford to express the deeper, more personal inner workings of a young girls heart. And when the money ran low, she was able to simply pen a few more palatable hits in the form of 'Stoned Soul Picnic,' Eli's Coming,' and 'Save The Country' which also met with great success and financial rewards in the hands of others. Nyro was a very talented and savvy young lady. Additional attributes that made her all the more attractive to me. And thus my infatuation continued unabated in my growing, yet silent admiration.

The Loom's Desire
 (And Beads Of Sweat)

Then one day in the late 1980's or possibly the early 90's, I received a fortuitous phone call inquiring if I'd be interested in sharing a bill with the now reclusive Laura Nyro, providing support as the opening musical act. At the time, I myself was performing my own form of poetry mixed with jazz and blues, leading a small acoustic combo to lukewarm acclaim. Perhaps you'd heard of us? I'd seriously doubt it, as we were toiling on the cutting edge of obscurity for what felt like a lifetime. But boy, was I interested in accepting this particular billing! "Of course I'd be interested. Where do I sign?," was my response.

For the next several weeks, I agonized over the upcoming show like I had with no other, filled with anxious anticipation and anxious apprehension in equal parts. I was about to meet and perform on stage with Laura Nyro, the long, unspoken object of my admiration and desire as the young man I once had been. What could be wrong than that? Well, the answer was that I was about to meet and perform on stage with Laura Nyro, the long, unspoken object of my admiration and desire as the young man i had once been. All sorts of insecurities suddenly sprang to the surface. What would I say to her? Would I be the cool, calm, collected sophisticate I thought myself to be, or would I come across like some stammering idiot, uncomfortable in my own skin and unable to create anything that vaguely resembled intelligent conversation with a woman? And what if she didn't care for my material, shooting me down like an unwanted suitor, casually dismissing me with a nod of artistic indifference? Or would she maybe feign polite interest, desperately searching in vain for flattering euphemisms to mask her critical supposition of my marginal talents? In some ways it was like encountering an old girlfriend who had burned down your world so many, many years ago. Where perhaps you were once naive, irresponsible and self absorbed, you were now older, wiser, and fully developed as an individual, surely capable of impressing her with your success, insights and responsibility. The meeting could then be a rekindling of embers once thought dead and extinguished, or a grand recipe for disaster. Well, clearly never having been lovers, she and I, the former certainly wouldn't have been the case. In fact, she didn't know me from any Tom, Dick, or Harry walking down 42nd Street. So obviously the latter would be the eventual outcome, or so was my now twisted thinking. I guess I wasn't the cool sophisticate that I thought myself to be after all.

Gonna' Take A Miracle

The big night came and the stage was set. The adverts had been in the papers for weeks, and where was I? Well, I'll tell ya', I was sicker than a dog, down with the worst flu I'd had since junior high school. And it was summertime! Obviously I was terribly rundown and drained. For all practical purposes, I should have cancelled, not only for the benefit of my own health, but also for those with whom I'd come into contact. But the evening held such special meaning for me at some 20 years in the making, how could I bail-out? I was about to come face to face with that beautiful and mystical rose that grew in Spanish Harlem. So like a dimwit, I propped myself up with the ridiculous age old adage that when one is in the entertainment business, 'the show must go on.' What a load of crap! Whoever first uttered those words obviously had never been afflicted with the vile influenza that was claiming me now.

Bolstered by brandy, I dragged myself to the club and listlessly went through the sound check, unwittingly sapping the last of my strength to complete a single song. I was determined however that immediately afterward I would compose myself, knock on Laura's door, introduce myself and amiably chat with the beatnik poetess I'd idealized for so many years. Sound levels set, I instead retreated backstage only to pass out on the couch of the dressing room where I slept until the stage manager woke me to inform me of the 10 minute curtain call.
Wasted and wounded, I was too weak and contagious to even consider approaching her, let alone flashing her a telling smile. Christ! There I was almost delirious within a feverish sweat, and just a mere two doors down from the woman who had penned some of the most beautiful songs I had so thoroughly lived with and absorbed over the years. Laura Nyro, the very woman who was once the focus of my romantic fantasies as a younger man, completely oblivious to not only to me, but also to the part in which she had played in my coming of age. I could have cried, but instead I just puked.


I Am The Blues

Emptying the pint I'd been relying on for fortitude, I mustered the last of my energies to take my place on the stage as the curtains parted. Today, I remember none of the grueling 45 minutes I spent in the spotlight on that fateful night. Not one fucking thing, except suggesting to the stage manager to consider quarantining the microphone before using it again.* When it was over, I stumbled down the staircase and staggered slowly through a foggy haze down the corridor to the dressing room where I collapsed once again. On that seemingly endless journey from the stage to the couch however, I do recall passing the open door of Nyro's own dressing room where there she sat, looking for all the world like the sad eyed Caravaggio I'd imagined years ago. I paused for a just a moment, and in that brief second she looked up at me with a look of shock and complete horror. Ready to call for security, she no doubt wondered how the pale, sickly looking drunkard on the verge of throwing up had managed to somehow get backstage and find his way to her dressing room door. Mortified, I had no choice but to lurch onward toward the comfort of the sofa whose cushions I had earlier melted into. It seemed the wisest path for all concerned and spared me from any further humiliation. And there I slept like a sad sack for the remainder of the night until I was told by the management that it was time to go home. Rising to my feet, I gazed out over the now empty club. The show was well over. Laura was long gone, and so was everyone else for that matter, save for the clean-up crew. We hadn't said a word to one another, she and I, not so much as even a friendly hello. I wasn't able to tell her that like a good Cub Scout, I had faithfully purchased every recording she had ever made. Nor was I able to tell her just how much that music had meant to me through the years. Neither did I have the chance to hint at my one time playful infatuation with her - a confession that might have resulted in either her being charmed by the handsome man who had come to pay respect to his muse, or repulsed by the creepy guy who smelled like sickness and alcohol. God forbid it would be the latter. Obviously I preferred the former and far more romantic scenario. But the sad fact is, I never even got to hear that sweet angel sing that night, and the importance that evening held for me would be forever lost on her. Truth be told, she may not have even realized that I was even her opening act. For all she knew, I was the bleary eyed vagrant of the street I had feared she'd perceive me to be; sallow and clammy, staggering through the hallway striking fear in the hearts of adults, children and dogs alike. I was crestfallen. Holding my head, I asked the bouncer to call me a cab and he poured me into it like I was just another sad, pathetic and tired old drunk, sending me on my way into the cold morning light.

Over time, I recovered, of course. But several years later my heart sank once again when I learned that Nyro had been unfairly claimed by Ovarian cancer. The creator of such soulful music and
object of my youthful desire was now gone forever. When I reflect on her legacy today, I console myself knowing that her music lives on, but I also lament that the world has lost such a wonderful songstress. And as I'm looking back, I also lament that for decades I had dreamed of a chance meeting like the one ours could have conceivably been, but now that hope was forever lost as well. There is a silver lining however. I do find a kind of odd comfort in knowing that on that fateful night, despite the outcome, I came so very, very close to an actual encounter with that rare and beautiful red rose of Spanish Harlem - Laura Nyro.
*Although a soundboard recording indicated that things went well. Miraculously, I even managed to tell a few jokes!

About The Music

As testament to the cache that Nyro held within the music industry, you'll hear musical contributions from Duane Allman, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, John Tropea, Alice Coltrane, the Philly International house band, Patti Labelle & The Bluebells, Chuck Rainey, Joe Farrell, The Brecker Brothers, Richard Davis, Mike Mainieri, Will Lee, Andy Newmark, Todd Rundgren, Cornell Dupree, and Jimmy Vivino to name a few of the more well known musicians who have lent their names and talents to her discography. Nyro additionally worked with producers, Arif Mardin, Felix Cavalieri, Gamble & Huff, Roy Hallee, and Gary Katz. All of the above recognized and appreciated the extraordinary talents of Nyro and they too fell under her spell, just as I did so many years ago.

Although the drama and poetics of her early material diminished as she matured, her latter works were equally as personal and powerful as ever. 'Angel In The Dark, Pts.1&2' which draws from nearly all of Nyro's recordings, it is not intended to serve as a career overview, nor as a greatest hits package of any kind. The selected songs instead are merely those which have resonated most deeply with me and have gone on to become among my favorites. As it stands, these songs are intended to act as a primer for those who wish to become better acquainted with Nyro's music. 

  Angel In The Dark, Pt.1

1.) Buy And Sell

2.) Spanish Harlem
3.) Stoned Soul Picnic
4.) I Am The Blues
5.) Stormy Love
6.) Sexy Mama
7.) Captain For Dark Mornings
8.) Eli's Comin'
9.) Angel In The Dark
10.) Money
11.) Sweet Lovin' Baby
12.) Late For Love
13.) Poverty Train
14.) Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)
15.) Dedicated To The One I Love
16.) Walk The Dog And Light The Light (Song Of The Road)
 17.) Emmie


 Angel In The Dark, Pt.2

1.) Billy's Blues
2.) He's A Runner
3.) Luckie
4.) One it Was Alright (Farmer Joe)
5.) Captain Saint Lucifer
6.) Man In The Moon
7.) He Was Too Good To Me
8.) Melody In The Sky
9.) Gardenia Talk
10.) Save The Country
11.) Children of The Junks
12.) Dèsiree
13.) Hands Off The Man (a.k.a. Flim Flam Man)
14.) Sweet Blindness
15.) The Bells
16.) A Free Thinker
17.) Let It Be Me
18.) Time And Love
19.) Ooh Baby, Baby
20.) When I Was A Freeport (And You Were The Main Drag)
21.) Up On The Roof
22.) Medley: I'm So Proud/Dedicated To The One I Love

Source material for 'Angel In The Dark, Pts. 1&2' come from the following:
More Than A New Discovery (1966)/Eli & The Thirteenth Confession (1968)
New York Tendaberry (1969)/Christmas & The Beads of Sweat (1970)
Gonna' Take A Miracle (1971)/Smile (1976)/Season Of Lights (1977)
Nested (1978)/Mother's Spiritual (1984)/Walk The Dog And Light The Light (1993)
Angel In The Dark (Recorded 1994/1995) (Released posthumously 2001)

 Live: The Loom's Desire (Recorded 1993/1994) (Released posthumously 2002)

Inside Looking Out

  • 16
At Gray Skies Over New Amsterdam
(The Soundtrack To A Winter's Day)
Friday, February 05, 2010

About The Music

It's the hazy shade of winter. The soundtrack to a frigid afternoon spent 'Inside Looking Out.' Framed by frosted windows, the streets below once vibrant and teaming with life lay sullen, empty, and oddly silent, all color erased by the bleak and lingering skullcap of a relentless February sky. It's the score to a cold and gloomy winter's day where melancholia hangs like heavy tapestries on barren walls. It's the sound of mid-season doldrums, merciless and unforgiving --- music for quiet contemplation. The inner dialogue of complex emotion and rational thought mingling uncomfortably with persistent doubt and deep concern that stains the room with a nagging sense of fear. A troubling dread that the bottom could drop out of everything at any given moment. It's the anxiety of solemnly waiting for the other shoe to drop as it inevitably will, and quite possibly music for committing suicide. That choice however depends solely on your frame of mind. Listen cautiously.

Inside Looking Out, Pt.1

1) Wonderful
2) Beginning
3) Keep The Curtains Closed Today
Colin Blunstone
4) Beauty
Ayden Esen
5) Billy's Blues
Laura Nyro
6) Lars-Erik Larsson's 'Lyric Fantasy, Opus 54'
Petter Sundkvist and The Swedish Chamber Ensemble
7) Pretending To Care
Todd Rundgren
8) Will
Terje Rydal
9) Next Time Around
Sandy Denny
10) For Erin
Ryan Kisor
11) Mahler's 'Symphony No.#5, Adagietto'
Pierre Boulez and The Wiener Philharmonic
12) Ruby, My Dear
Thelonious Monk
13) The Sea Of Time And Holes
George Martin
14) The Twilight Zone
Van Morrison

Inside Looking Out, Pt.2

1) Many Chinas
Art Lande's Rubisa Patrol
2) Calling All Angels
Jane Siberry
3) Forever And Always
Pat Metheny
4) At Last
Joni Mitchell
5) Traction In The Rain
David Crosby
6) Small Hours
John Martyn
7) About A Girl
8) My Little Secret
Pete Aves
9) Black Narcissus
Joe Henderson
10) King Of Rome
June Tabor
11) Delius' 'On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring'
Sir Andrew Davis and The BBC Symphony Orchestra
12) Mad Ruth/The Babe
Danny O'Keefe
13) Turiya And Ramakhrishna
Alice Coltrane
14) Woman Of A Thousand Years
Fleetwood Mac
15) La Mesha
Stephen Scott
16) Chloe In The Garden
Duncan Browne