Trapped inside a very crowded subway car, I was feeling cranky, annoyed and even a bit nauseous. I was ass-bumping the person behind me (which is, I believe, a felony when one is below ground), and could smell what the person next to me had for breakfast.
It was impossible to hold a book and read so i plugged in my earphones, hit shuffle, closed my eyes and out came the sublime voice of Laura Nyro singing “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
“Can you surry, can you picnic?”
And just like that, I was transported out of that cramped subway car to a hot summer’s day when I was teenager, back on the bench with my friends in the projects where we spent a ton of time waiting for our favorite songs to play on small transistor radios.
I never knew what “surry down” meant, never mind “sassafrass and moonshine” so, when I had time, I did a little research. Turns out that Laura Nyro, who was born in the Bronx, made up the word because she liked the sound of it. She could have changed ‘surry’ to ‘hurry’ but that wasn’t the way Laura rolled.
She had a complicated history as a singer/songwriter/person and was very much a shooting star. She scored big time when, at the age of 17, she sold “And When I Die” to Peter, Paul and Mary for $5,000.
She then released several albums with a host of classic songs covered by other artists like The 5th Dimension. “Stoned Soul Picnic” was one of the group’s biggest songs and they were astonished it was written by a white girl. Other songs like “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Eli’s Coming” were covered by…just about everyone. But Nyro was a unique artist. By the age of 24, she retired but five years later, unretired and released a couple of other albums.
Her personal life was no picnic. She lived with Jackson Browne for a year, married, divorced, had a son and, when she died at the age of 49 from ovarian cancer (same age and disease as her mother), she was a committed lesbian and had lived for years with another woman.
When Nyro’s lover died soon after, the singer’s estate fell into the hands of a friend, not Nyro’s son. The two feuded over the singer’s estate and, for a time, he was not invited when his mother was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Using the name Gil T, Nyro’s son became a rap artist…perhaps echoing Nyro’s prescient lyric “And when I die, they’ll be one child left to carry on.”
Laura Nyro was a true New Yorker who sang doo-wop on the streets as a teenager so I know that somewhere she’s smiling at having made my subway commute just a little bit sweeter.