When Laura Nyro retired from the music business in 1971, she had produced five studio albums. She was also 24 years old. A piano-tuner’s daughter with little classical training, in 1967 Nyro found a manager in an upstart promoter named David Geffen. She recorded albums in the iconic Brill Building in Manhattan, collaborated with the likes of Patti LaBelle, and wrote songs that were routinely made famous by other bands of the era: The Fifth Dimension covered “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues,” Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded “And When I Die” (which was later also a hit for Blood, Sweat, and Tears), Three Dog Night covered “Eli’s Coming,” and both Barbara Streisand and Linda Ronstadt recorded versions of “Stony End.” In turn, Nyro’s best-known track (ranking 92nd on the US singles chart in 1970) is a cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up On the Roof.”
After a few comebacks over a quarter century, Nyro died in 1997 at the age of 49. She had become a mother, a feminist, and an activist for animal welfare and Native American land rights. She had also lived openly as a lesbian for nearly two decades. The lesbian identity announced proudly in her obituaries caused something of a stir for gay advocates in the 1990s, hungry as we were for as usable past. It turns out many of the songs that defined the popular music of the 1960s were penned by a queer woman. Some went so far as to argue that Nyro’s 1968 track “Emmie” deserved recognition as the first lesbian pop song.
Yet it is remarkably difficult to recognize “Emmie” as a pop song. Unlike the guitar- and drum-based instrumentations typical of 1960s pop, “Emmie” opens with several measures from what sound like a xylophone, followed by piano echoes, percussive beats, and a melodious chorus of “ooh-la-la-la”s. Its structure also bears few of the repetitive pleasures of pop arrangements, shifting tempo no fewer than six times in under five minutes. These shifts are led by drum beats, changes in vocal pitch, and single notes that linger. The song’s dynamics are typical of Nyro’s composition style of the late 1960s, as are the remarkable movements of her voice—the trilling cry of “Emmie” (at 2:53 in the clip above), followed just seconds later by the too-nasal “been” (2:56), and the fading rhythmic cadence of “you” (3:00). One of the few declarative sentences among this song’s lyrics, “Emmie, your mama’s been a-calling you” becomes an exquisite labyrinth of words and feelings from which, perhaps, the eponymous Emmie would not want to be recalled by her mother. This is gorgeous music. But, as the saying goes, you can’t dance to it.
It is also fairly difficult to recognize “Emmie” as a lesbian song. Here, it is not the complexity of the music that beguiles, so much as the intricacy of the lyrics. Indeed, the dynamic tensions that characterize the song’s sound are reduplicated in its incongruous images. This love song both anticipates and memorializes its love object in the first verse: “Emily / And her love to be / Carved in a heart / On a berry tree.” The beloved here is framed in a wide horizon (a love to be) one minute, and in a narrow inscription (carved in a heart) the next. A similar jumbling of scales appears with different metaphors in a later verse: “Emily / You’re the natural snow / The unstudied sea / You’re a cameo.” These are three very different analogies. The song twice describes Emmie as one who “ornaments the earth,” yet also refers to her as a “friend / And I loved you.” And in the oddest statement of yearning in a song that is about little else, Nyro sings, “I swear you were born a weaver’s lover / born for the loom’s desire” (2:08). This is evocative poetry. But it doesn’t seem any more lesbian, than, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets seem gay. (Which is to say: kinda, but.)
However, it is precisely these ambiguities about whether “Emmie” is a lesbian pop song that make it so worth listening to. The rich complexities of its music and lyrics—the commitment in each case to dissonance rather that more straight-forward kinds of harmony—tell us far less about “lesbian pop” than about the tense and contradictory nature of desire itself. Listening to “Emmie” one cannot mistake the fact that somebody wants something from someone. But in a fairly bald admission of how confusing it can be to want something, the song proceeds unabashedly with the conviction that aspiration and fulfillment, possibility and memory, expansive seas and precious ornaments, are the kind of things that our psyches throw together in one untidy libidinal heap.
In this respect, “Emmie” is not entirely unique, as Nyro’s early oeuvre excels in the exploration of desire’s tensions, both formally and thematically. For example, her 1969 “Tom Cat Goodby” is a frenetic five-and-a-half-minute argument in which she both fights with her charming but cheating lover and then vents her disappointment that he doesn’t make a move on another woman more effectively—sung partly a cappella, partly piano solo, with a little trumpet undertone mixed in during minute three, and then, implausibly, accompanied by a bold three-second string flourish (2:57–3:00, below).
Elsewhere, in 1966’s “He’s a Runner,” Nyro laments the loss of a lover who hasn’t yet departed, at the same time giving advice to his other lovers, “Woman, get away while you can.” The song builds vocally and emotionally, interrupting itself halfway through with the introduction of jazz percussion (drums and cymbals). This middle verse doesn’t pick up the pace of the previous verse, but it still somehow leads to a nearly screeching “Now I’m in chains / Till I die,” only to pause and appear to begin again at the first verse. The lyrics expound upon the knowledge of heartbreak to come, but the music, like the desires it describes, follows to the compulsion to repeat what lyrics warn us against.
We might say, then, that if “Emmie” is a song about lesbian desire, as part of Nyro’s oeuvre it is also a song about what lesbian desire shares with other kinds of desire—and that is the ability to want more than one thing at the same time. Pop songs, with their upbeat melodies and light harmonies tend to reflect something wonderful about love’s expansiveness and its easiness. But a song like “Emmie” tells us less about being in love than it does about wanting something, whether that something is love or whatever fulfillment we happen to want love to stand in for. Nyro’s sounds are finely tuned to the harmonics of desire. In this way, they invite us to think about how songs might sound queer, whether or not they happen to be gay.
For Rahne Alexander
By Jordan Alexander Stein