Oh, Sweet Blindness

Laura Nyro Livin the artist's life“Oh sweet blindness

A little magic, a little kindness

Oh sweet blindness, all over me…” ~Laura Nyro

 Really, Subconscious? I woke up at 4 am the other night with the song Sweet Blindness playing in my head. On repeat. When I got up, it stayed with me. I thought it was odd, as I don’t think I’ve heard the song in at least 20 years. Although it’s not so odd that it would be echoing around in the recesses of my subconscious. My parents were big fans of the band The Fifth Dimension, who made a hit of their cover version of the song in 1968.

I must’ve heard the song hundreds of times growing up. Looking back, it’s just a little ironic that my parents, who rarely drank, would play a song for their children about underage drinking. But The Fifth Dimension were one of those acts with generational crossover appeal (believe me, I know – I was even taken to see them in about 1970, along with many other kids and their “square” parents – young and old clapping along).

But why now, subconscious? A song I haven’t heard in ages, about underage drinking, by a group my parents loved? The song, and the question, stuck with me.

You Know Laura, Right? I eventually found my answer the next day, starting with an online search of both the song Sweet Blindness, and its lyrics. The lyrics were no surprise—I’d remembered them correctly. But the beginnings of my answer came at the bottom of the lyrics page, in the form of the songwriter’s name—Laura Nyro. “Oh yeah,” I thought. I immediately searched for the original Laura Nyro version of the song, and listened. The songwriter had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time. I had been pre-intrigued.

Now things were unfolding for me. Last summer I’d followed the recommendation in a Steven Pressfield post and watched the documentary Inventing David Geffen. Near the onset of his career, long before he became the star-making super-agent, Geffen courted and signed 19 year old Laura. He speaks of her as the one of the brightest, most talented, most underappreciated finds of his multi-decade career. As a huge, lifelong music fan, I was a bit chagrinned that I didn’t know her name. But I surely knew her music, and I’ll bet you do, too.

The songs Laura wrote that became big hits all made the charts as cover songs done by other artists. Besides Sweet Blindness, there were several others made famous by The Fifth Dimension, including Blowin’ Away, Wedding Bell Blues, and my favorite, Stoned Slow Picnic (in which Laura invents the verb “surry,” which I love—more on that later). There were many others, perhaps most notably Stoney End, which only hit the top ten as a cover by Barbara Streisand. There was also Eli’s Comin’, taken to the charts by Three Dog Night. I would be remiss to leave And When I Die from the list, a song made famous by Blood, Sweat & Tears. What amazes me about that last one is that Laura wrote it when she was sixteen. “And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on…” Pretty deep stuff (sorry, no pun) for a sixteen year old.

“Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a shade of a bit hung over…” ~ Laura Nyro

 An Artist’s Artist: After my 4 am sweet blindness, when my “morning after” arrived, I spent it watching videos and reading interviews and bios, and listening to Laura. Turns out Laura was one of those artist’s artists. You know the ones—artists that never really came to be broadly known, but who are embraced by other hugely talented artists as an inspiration or a seminal influence. I found several interviews and quotes alluding to Laura in this capacity from a broad range of artists, from Elton John to Suzanne Vega to Todd Rundgren; even musicians as diverse as Paul Shaffer and Alice Cooper cite her influence. It’s said that Stevie Wonder wrote If You Really Love Me in tribute to Laura’s style.

Laura with David Geffen in '68

Laura with David Geffen in ’68

In the Geffen documentary, he bemoans the fact that she never really got her due, but he admitted that she never really wanted fame. She disliked being “handled” in the studio, and was uncomfortable in the spotlight. She just wanted to make music. You could hear the regret in Geffen’s voice. You might now better understand my intrigue.

 “Come on baby, do the slow float…” ~L.N.

Cherished Freedom: One of the documentaries I watched was filmed in 1995, less than two years before Laura’s untimely passing at the age of 49. It’s shot in her home, and she’s shown alone on camera, with the interviewer off camera. Her first words are: “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” She goes on to discuss her life as an artist: “For me, singing is like… It’s the closest I can come to flying. Writing music is like creating musical architecture. It’s my favorite thing to do. I use everything—my spirituality, feminism, motherhood, relationships… It can be frustrating sometimes, if you let yourself check into that energy. You just have to work every day. It’s an important part of my well-being.”

“I don’t accept limitations. I can use whatever I want to in my work. And that, to me, is freedom. It’s a freedom I cherish.”

“It’s a very simple feeling I have about all of this. It’s about an integrated spirituality, built into having an artistic life. It brings me peace.”

In the film she certainly looks and sounds like she’s at peace. And it was filmed after she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same type that killed her mother, also at age 49.

“Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me…” ~L.N.

Laura’s Lessons: At the time of my 4 am sweet blindness, I hadn’t been working on a manuscript in several weeks. I’d been flailing back and forth about possible changes to a recently completed manuscript, even before all of the feedback was in. I was certainly in a place where I needed to be told to, “come on, baby, do the slow float.” In contemplation of Laura’s life and her work, I came away refreshed, and with a fresh outlook. Here are the lessons I’m taking to heart:

*Get back to work! Writing is my favorite thing to do. I enjoy using everything—my spirituality, my intelligence, my curiosity. Why would I allow weeks to go by without doing what I love?

*Don’t check into negative energy. There will always be ups and downs, and contradictions in feedback. Those are externals. Why should that have an effect on what I do from day to day?

*Forge your own artistic trail. Laura’s music can be somewhat polarizing. Even her voice is unique enough to be off-putting to some. You either get her and feel her, or you don’t. “Laura was not someone who copied people,” says veteran arranger and producer Charles Calello, who produced her second album. “She was original in every sense of the word.” In spite of that somewhat polarizing originality, it seems to me she never compromised on her art, never altered the path of her musical exploration in response to how her previous work was received. Now that’s a sort of sweet blindness I can aspire to.

*Find your peace through the work. Laura never had a top ten hit as a performer. But she had many top ten hits as a songwriter. She found herself—her identity as an artist—through the work itself. She did her “favorite thing” every day. She cherished the freedom, the expression, the outlet. And she found peace. Even in the face of an often fatal disease, she was able to smile at the camera and say, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” And I believe her.

Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me? You bet.

“Can you surry down to a stoned slow picnic?…” ~L.N. (from Stoned Slow Picnic)

Can You Surry? As I said, much ado has been made over Laura’s coining of the verb “surry” in the song Stoned Slow Picnic.  And no, this has nothing to do with a “surrey with the fringe on top.” When asked what it meant, Laura usually said something about liking the sound of it. When asked if it was a contraction of ‘let’s hurry,’ she was resolute: “Absolutely not. Quite the opposite.” David Geffen (who obviously knew her well at the time) explained it as being “a feel. It’s about allowing yourself to experience the joy of life. It’s about slowing down to recognize your happiness.”

I think “to surry” is to live without buying into negative energy, to do what we love, and to recognize the beauty, the freedom of it. If that’s true, then to surry is to move toward finding our peace in an artist’s life. To be able to honestly say, at the end, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.”

Laura in '96, at peace

Laura in ’96, an artist at peace

So thanks, Laura, for surrying into my life when I needed you. Thanks for the inspiration and the life-lessons. Continue to surry, and be at peace.

How about you? Do you ever wake up with an old song in your head? Are your parents to blame? Will you help me to bring the verb “surry” into the lexicon? Would it matter to you if you were denied the recognition your work seemed to deserved? Can you find your peace through the work? 

14 comments on “Oh, Sweet Blindness

  1. liz says:

    Hi Vaughn! Great post. I often wake up with a song in my head — and my kids HATE that, because then they have to listen to it on constant replay for days. (My son last year “WHO is this JANE person? She doesn’t sound sweet at all.”) I love the sound of the word surry, and good luck with your efforts to make it mainstream. I hadn’t heard of Laura before your post, but I had heard many of the songs you listed. She sounds like an amazing talent and influence.

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    • Your son’s question made me laugh! Too funny. And, yes, we’ve had Laura on nearly constantly since last Thursday. I asked my wife to proof this post this morning, and I was already playing her album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. She finished and said, “So at least one more day of all-Laura, all-the-time?” I laughed, but had to answer yes. At least one more day. Thanks (to you and the boy) for the laugh and for “getting” Laura today, Liz!

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  2. sheilaklewis says:

    Thanks for this Vaughn, I loved Laura Nyro’s songwriting, and her use of surry, a verb that connotes both saunter and hurry to a destination. She was a muse for you at 4am, and you used her visit well. I often wake up at 4am without a lofty song in my head, more likely, some tired old jingle, probably from watching too much TV growing up. The voices you described which follow writers with their endless demands and judgements, do need some soft music or magic broom to whoosh them away. I call them what they are–creative interference. Sometimes we are not very good at writing or breathing or sharing. But we do go on. Sheila

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    • Yep, Sheila, I get those darned jingles and silly stuff stuck in my head, too. This one felt like something I should investigate, though. I love the name “creative interference,” and you’re right about the need to whoosh it away. Thanks for enhancing the conversation. Onward!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. brindle808 says:

    Hi Vaughn,
    Wonderful post. Yes, I often wake up with a song in my head. Either one plucked by my neurons during the night or one which was planted by a facebook friend in the form of an ear bug. I love the word surry. I love that it’s about slowing down to recognize your happiness. We need more words like this, I think. I think we’re denied many things in our lives. It’s the journey, isn’t it?

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    • I can’t believe how much energy I devoted to figuring out what she thought “surry” meant. Seems she never quite said. But I love Geffen’s interpretation. It was a funny interview, with a stogie old radio reporter. The reporter was the one who brought up “Surrey with the fringe on top,” and Geffen shot right back, “Oh, no no no. It has nothing to do with that!” Had to laugh.

      Yes, so true that we need not only more words like that, but to embrace this meaning. I think I can hear the truth of it in her voice when I hear the song. Why else would she repeat it 22 times (yep, I counted), and with such ease, and yet with such passion? Thanks, Brin!

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  4. deedetarsio says:

    I woke up *FURIOUS* this morning after a bad dream where my husband “did me wrong.” No sweet, sweet music there. Such an inspirational post, Vaughn, and so cool to follow you unravel those threads. While I didn’t know of Laura Nyro, I know many of those songs! (Unfortunately, the only song stuck in my head is Amy Schumer’s Milk, Milk, Lemonade. Google it. Or not!!) Surry!

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    • Uh-oh. Even though it was only a dream, I feel bad for John. (So what’s the payback? Milk, Milk, Lemonade on repeat? A nice batch of fudge on the breakfast table?)

      I don’t know why, but I was most surprised by Babs’s Stoney End (another of my parents’ favorite records). And have you ever listened to those lyrics? I think it’s about feeling suicidal after a break-up. Funny that the Funny Girl embraced it. Was this about Elliot Gould?! Maybe it’s the part about being cradled by mama that got her…? Anyway, fun to relive 1970 for a few days. Surry on!

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  5. Jan O'Hara says:

    I love Wedding Bell Blues!

    Do you watch The Voice, V? I DVR it and skip through it to listen to some of the finalists. But what I’m always after are the coaches’ comments, particularly Pharrell’s. He’s a fantastic mentor for an artist’s career, not necessarily for winning the contest. As such, because his team is always seeking to refine and pursue their own vision, an inspirational singer could potentially win this edition. Could anyone have predicted that? Not I, that’s for sure. Goes against conventional wisdom that a contestant could bend the competition to suit her rather than the other way around.

    Keep at it. There are as many ways to do this writing life as there are writers.

    Like

    • I don’t always catch The Voice, but I’ve really been awed by Pharrell as a judge/mentor. And, no, never would’ve predicted the inspirational singer. There was a straight blues singer this year, too. Unbelievable. But goes to the point about staying true to your own path. Great example, Boss!

      Btw, Wedding Bell Blues was one of Laura’s very earliest singles, and one of the few of which her version hit the charts. Watching her sing it made me wonder, for the first time, who Bill was. 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VX5tviI9Mg

      Thanks for the great comment and the encouragement. I do love what I do, and can’t be reminded of that too often. Same to you, Jan!

      Like

  6. Nicole L. Bates says:

    This is a very interesting look into a different creative outlet. It seems that writing is a little backwards, at least compared to other forms of art. Most artists expect to spend their lives toiling without recognition, hoping for, or maybe not even wanting that big break. It seems that only writers are expected to make it big on the first try. That’s been my perspective at least. I do know that your story, your art, are worthy of renown.

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    • Ah, your kind assessment and your belief in me life me right up this morning, Nicole. Thanks for that, and may I return the favor. I’ve told a number of people that yours is one of most original sci-fi stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it’s so ready for prime-time!

      You’ve got an interesting point there, about the pressure on novelists to hit it right on the first try. A songwriter would’ve written many, many songs before “striking the right chord.” I know that many writers produce a number of completed manuscripts before they find their storytelling footing and their truest voice. I suppose I’m unique in that I keep trying to tell the same family’s story, over and over (like, when will it be ready already?). I know you’ve worked long and hard, too. I suppose that spending so much time getting it right for our debuts is why there’s often an issue with the sophomore release. Fingers crossed for our debuts, and non-problematic sophomore stories.

      Hope you’re getting some springtime up there. We deserve it this year, don’t we? Thanks again, Nicole!

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  7. Donald Maass says:

    Vaughn-

    The next line of “Stoned Slow Picnic” after “Can you surry?” is…

    “Can you picnic?” (Whoa-oo-oh!)

    So I think you’ve got it right when you say, “I think “to surry” is to live without buying into negative energy, to do what we love, and to recognize the beauty, the freedom of it.”

    It’s to picnic on life. Whoa-oo-oh! Laura Nyro was a genius.

    Like

    • “It’s to picnic on life…” I can’t imagine a more perfect exclamation point on Laura’s lessons. And from another of my favorite lesson providers. Perfect for a sunny Friday.

      Thanks, Don. Enjoy the picnic this weekend.

      Like

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