Christmas In My Soul

My favorite Christmas record is the Waitresses’ "Christmas Wrapping".  But it’s not the song I hear in my head every holiday season.  That’s Laura Nyro’s "Christmas In My Soul".

The decade from 1964-1974 represents the musical Renaissance.  There was only one Renaissance in painting.  It’s not like artists dropped their brushes and drills thereafter, it’s just that never again was there such concentrated artistic fervor, never again was art at the center of public focus to such a degree.  People have been making records for decades since the sixties, but they just don’t stick in the same way.  "Thriller" may be the second best selling record of all time, but it has none of the raw energy, it lacks the cultural impact of "Meet The Beatles".  "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" is a great track, but it pales in comparison to "Satisfaction". In the sixties and early seventies music drove the culture.  If you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you turned on the radio.  The radio was an Internet built solely for us, the baby boomers.  It featured not only music, but hip news too.  The deejays were not beholden to corporate masters, we felt they truly belonged to us.  If you wanted to make a statement in the fifties you wrote a book, if you had something to say in the sixties and seventies, you cut a record.  Which the audience waited in rapt attention for.  We truly believed what was contained in the grooves was the essence of life.  We needed to get closer.  To not only the Top Forty gems, but records that were the beneficiary of no airplay at all.  We had an underground railroad, passing these gems along.  They still make music today, but it’s not the same. Hell, before the Beatles no one knew you could make this much money, no one bothered to cut album length opuses, we invented it as we went along, which is why we can’t relate to Live Nation and the rest of the corporations serving product up to us.  We thought music was best presented by Bill Graham, at his vaunted Fillmores East and West.

Those were buildings that rocked no matter who appeared.  Going to the Fillmore East was like going to shul.  With its high ceiling and free program.  And light show. No one was cutting costs, no one was getting fabulously rich, the Fillmore was a shrine where you went to experience the music, in all its glory.  Not only what was successful financially, but what Bill thought we should hear.  Reading the ad in Sunday’s "New York Times" was an educational experience unto itself.  Not only blues legends, but the Grateful Dead.  They were featured right next to the stars of the day.

The first triple-header I saw at the Fillmore East was in the fall of ’68.  Iron Butterfly was the headliner, Canned Heat opened, and if I thought really hard, I could remember who the middle act was.

But that was not the best show I saw at the Fillmore East.  That was the Who performing "Tommy" the following year.

But the most memorable shows I saw at the Fillmore featured Laura Nyro.  She played there during the holiday seasons of both ’69 and ’70.  One time prefaced by Jackson Browne, the other by Miles Davis.  I was there, I had to be there, I needed to be there.  Because I felt if I met Laura Nyro she’d understand me.  She’d understand all the disappointment, the rage…and the hope.

She was famous for the hits.  Performed by the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night.  But she was legendary for her albums.  The definitive statement being "New York Tendaberry", bookended on either side by "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession" and "Christmas and the Beads of Sweat".

Laura Nyro didn’t dance.  She wasn’t built for stardom.  But she had the talent.  Which was ultimately recognized by David Geffen.  She was his first protege.  David Geffen allowed Laura Nyro to be Laura Nyro.  We have to thank him.

Ultimately Geffen’s business head interfered with his heart.  Laura could not leave Columbia for Warner.  She couldn’t abandon those in Black Rock who’d been her team.  This is the conundrum of Geffen.  He’s the number one artist friend, but deep inside burns the heart of a businessman.  It’s about the deal, it’s about what’s right financially as opposed to emotionally.  But when the two were together, when Laura Nyro and David Geffen worked side by side, they made beautiful music.  Which was sui generis.  No one like her before, no one like her since.  You don’t get it on the first listen.  But on a late wintry night, alone in the dark, her records penetrate you, you’re converted, you never let go.

She’s gone.  Almost forgotten.  She gets tributes from Elton John, others, but her music is not topping the holiday chart in the U.K.  But those of us who lived through her career, who always believed she could deliver again, we hold a special place in our hearts for her.

Laura Nyro was unvarnished honesty.  Straight emotion.  She didn’t worry about the corporation footing the bill.  It was directly from her heart to you.

We sat upstairs at the Fillmore East.  We sent for tickets to the P.O. Box listed in the "Times".  We weren’t connected, we couldn’t get any closer.  But when the act is truly legendary, you’re thrilled just to be in the building.  Those in the rafters are often the biggest fans.

I’d bought "Christmas and the Beads Of Sweat" as soon as it had been released, less than a month before.  I played it again and again, knowing I was going to see her live.  "Christmas In My Soul" was not my favorite track then.  But it is now.

I love my country as it dies
In war and pain before my eyes
I walk the streets where disrespect has been
The sins of politics, the politics of sin
The heartlessness that darkens my soul
On Christmas

We’re all Americans.  Patriotic.  We don’t want to move.  We just want things to be better.  Because they’re not good enough.

We hire people to watch our money, our country.  Both Democrat and Republican, Christian and Jew.  We have faith they’re working in our best interest, as we pursue our own personal goals.  But while we weren’t watching, our country started sinking down the rathole.

Too many people have too much and too many don’t have enough at all.  Injustice is promulgated in the name of religion.  And we’ve got no one to turn to, no one we can trust.  We hope our new President will shepherd us through this crisis, but we feel nakedly alone.  We felt this way once before, in the sixties.  But we truly believed the artists were on our side, that they’d lead us through, they’d express our pain and show us a way out of the mess, soothing our souls along the way.  But those days are gone.  Artists are beholden to the corporation, doing it for the bucks.  Instead of performers being at the top of the pyramid, unknown gatekeepers decide what we can see or hear.  And then there are the teeming masses yelling for our attention on the Internet.  Telling us to listen to them, spamming us, telling us they’ve got the answers.  All seemingly false prophets, because does a real messiah have to market himself this way?

Facebook is bigger than any act.  Bruce Springsteen creates a special package for Wal-Mart, a corporation that locked its employees inside.  Money trumps vision, artistry.  Our whole nation shrugs and says that what sells, what makes the most money, is best.  Our values are hollow and suddenly we’re all a whole lot poorer.

Money won’t keep you warm.

But music will.

Come young braves
Come young children
Come to the book of love with me
Respect your brothers and your sisters
Come to the book of love
I know it ain’t easy
But we’re gonna look for a better day
Come young braves
Come young children

Know it’s your world.  Know that we, the baby boomers, your elders, fucked it up.  We didn’t mean to, but we couldn’t resist temptation.  Only you can save us.  It’s your time.  Make money, but don’t let it get in the way.  Know that we’re looking for honesty.  And truth.  They’re immutable.  As easy to locate and relate to as the greatness of a Laura Nyro record.

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