1967 wasn’t so different from today, it was hard to get noticed.
Sure, it was hard to get a record deal, but it was even harder to get someone to buy your music, and if they didn’t, chances are it went unheard, unless, fortuitously, you were inundated with talent and your composition was covered by an established act.
Can you surry, can you picnic?
Gobbledygook to millennials, all baby boomers know this as the initial line of “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a monster smash by the 5th Dimension in 1968. But it was written by Laura Nyro and appeared on her second album “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” her first for Columbia, her initial LP, 1967’s “More Than A New Discovery,” went completely overlooked, but not for long. Blood, Sweat and Tears went to number two in 1969 with her composition “And When I Die” and Barbra Streisand went top ten with her rendition of “Stoney End,” but Nyro had already moved on. Sure, “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession” included “Eli’s Comin’,” which helped make Three Dog Night a household name, but it also contained “Poverty Train.”
Last call for the poverty train
They don’t make tracks like this anymore, piano-dominated with a flute with lyrics about the underside of life, the disadvantaged on drugs. Today everybody’s a winner, if the song isn’t laden with hooks Max Martin doesn’t want to be involved, but in 1968 songs were still just that, songs, with melodies and changes, yet Nyro and her contemporaries were testing the limits, stretching the form, and if some young ‘un with pipes went on Jools Holland and performed “Poverty Train” jaws would drop. And if Gaga sang it… No, the problem is she oversings, ever since Mariah Carey that’s been the paradigm, all subtlety and meaning is sacrificed in the desire for personal attention, the song is trumped by the performance, but…
No one with any traction wants to sing anything controversial. You’re just supposed to shake off your losses and delineate your personal victories and petty complaints, but Laura Nyro was trying to vault a different bar.
Now let’s be clear, David Geffen was her manager. And although Geffen’s admired for his money-making abilities, he made his bones as an artist-protector. He stood between the label and the act, made it so Laura could play by her own rules. It all didn’t end well, but when “New York Tendaberry” was released in 1969, the stars aligned, people now knew who Nyro was and she released just the music she wanted to and the song with the most traction, once again a hit for the 5th Dimension, was “Save The Country.”
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 country now
Hmm… Our country still needs saving. But now it’s not from war with enemies, but war within. We’re divided, not united, and no one with a voice is willing to challenge the status quo, for fear of pissing off those on the other side. But Todd Rundgren, a famous friend of Laura, said Trump fans should not even buy tickets to his show and if you’re not willing to take a stand you’re living outside the conversation, you might have a fat bank account, but you’ve got no impact.
Now the times were different. The young ‘uns were all on the same page. Or were they? Believe me, most teenagers and twentysomethings were for the Vietnam War before they were against it. After all, the United States was the greatest country in the world, couldn’t we just clean up wherever we wanted? But we’d never experienced guerilla warfare, we didn’t know that those who truly believed in their cause would never give up. But as these songs by their contemporaries filled the airwaves, as the carnage was paraded on the news, students started to change their minds, because kids are still malleable, it’s adults, the establishment, who are stuck in their old ways. Fewer than forty percent of people over sixty five have smartphones, how are you supposed to explain Uber and Spotify to them? And this is the government, this is the heads of corporations, this is why the oldsters are no match for the youngsters when it comes to innovation.
But it’s the oldsters who are rebelling against the political status quo, leading the charge, but we need artists to infect the youngsters.
Come on people, sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
The two young brothers were the Kennedys. Laura Nyro was inspired to write “Save The Country” in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. That’s how art used to work, before songs were composed by committee, sanitized for consumption. It’s the lightning burst that attracts us, how did we get so far from the garden.
And inspiration is plentiful these days, it’s everywhere you look.
But to be inspired and create on Nyro’s level you have to have paid your dues, honed your chops, put in your 10,000 hours. And in the sixties if you hadn’t you couldn’t get a deal, but today everybody can play. So the waters are muddied. But this just means the professionals must play on a higher level, strive for greatness, undeniability that eclipses the work of the hoi polloi.
We could build the dream with love, I know
I do too. Isn’t that what John Lennon was preaching? I don’t think it’s possible for all of us to love one another unconditionally, but we’ve still got a lot of room to move. Then again, when you can’t get a good ticket to the show, when acts whore their ducats out to scalpers, it’s hard not to become disillusioned, we’re all disillusioned, that’s how we got here, hating each other, we’re all pissed about the lack of upward mobility, except for those on top, who are doing the best to keep the rest of us down.
Come on people, come on children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay that devil down, gonna lay that devil down
Come on artists.
1. Be informed. There’s no excuse not to be. Hell, iPhones come with a news app built-in. No one’s that informed, including our President, read every day and feel confident weighing in.
2. Be prepared. Practice instead of sell. Believe me, one great track will eclipse years of social-networking. Become better at what you do best.
3. Channel inspiration. All artists know when it hits. Drop everything and catch lightning in a bottle, that’s always the best stuff. We’re looking for human emotion and honesty, not seamlessness. Just because you can perfect it in Pro Tools doesn’t mean you should.
4. Be fearless. Be willing to endure the blowback. There are three hundred million people in America, gain the attention of less than one percent and you’re a star, ignore the haters.
5. Have a viewpoint, have a backbone, don’t be wishy-washy. Stand for something, or else you stand for nothing at all.
It’s your duty to save the children. Kudos to Ariana Grande and friends for staging a benefit concert so soon after the Manchester disaster. But shows are not as powerful as songs.
I got fury in my soul. I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no political power, but I do have this platform, I do have a voice, I can take a stand and when I channel my anger, it takes me closer to the glory goal.
And you can do this too.
We’re pissed off. We’ve all got our platforms.
It’s just that that of the musicians is bigger than all of ours.
Bono is over fifty, he’s performing his greatest hits, U2 can’t even crack the pop charts, but there are those who are not moribund, who are less beholden to commercialism who can tap into their inner consciousness and deliver the anthem we need.
Because one thing’s for sure, we need to save the country.