Joplin and Nyro, rock icons

In 1966, their startling talents began to generate electrifying performances, like fireworks shot skyward one after another, during an all-too-brief four-year period. They were both women, both young, both with a few mesmerizing albums in release.

And by 1970, both had all but disappeared from the scene.

For Laura Nyro, it was voluntary withdrawal. For Janis Joplin, it was a fatal heroin overdose.

When I began writing pieces for the Monitor 32 years ago, the music world, like all of American society, was being jolted by change. On Broadway, "Follies" chronicled the death of the American musical, just as "Hair" heralded the arrival of its assumed successor, the rock opera. Singer-songwriters had claimed their place, with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Leonard Cohen blazing the trail. And the endless search for self-discovery, societal revolution, and personal fulfillment reached into every aspect of life, creating gender, sexual, and political upheavals.

During that white-hot era, Joplin and Nyro blasted their way into the culture.

This month, two new off-Broadway shows, both packed with music, attempt to acknowledge that influence. Randal Myler's Love, Janis is based largely on letters Joplin wrote to her sister, Laura. Eli's Comin', created by Bruce Buschel and Diane Paulus, takes its title from one of Nyro's best-known songs.

Both musicals provide a window into the music of Joplin and Nyro, and with it some idea of why their work has proved so compelling for three decades. Anyone interested in riveting music, '60s culture, sexual politics, women's issues, or just having a good time should see these shows.

Joplin, born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, careened from one life crisis to another until her early 20s, barely surviving. Then San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury subculture gave her raw, blues-based hedonistic vocal style a platform. Once discovered by profit-hungry record executives seeking to cash in on the hippie culture, her fame was assured - and with it, her breakneck-speed lifestyle.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1947, Nyro penned "And When I Die" and sold it to Peter, Paul, and Mary when she was 17.

I recall interviewing Mary Travers, hearing her express unbridled admiration for Nyro. "This is a remarkably talented young woman," said Travers, who was never known for loose praise.

From 1968 to 1970, Nyro's annual Christmas concert at New York's Fillmore East rock palace - Nyro attired in crushed velvet, and her grand piano sheathed in similar fabric and topped with a silver candelabra - was cause for great anticipation. Her early albums chronicled sensual journeys never before expressed so poetically. But the glare of the spotlight made her turn inward, and she grew reclusive. She died quietly in 1997.

Nyro was an acquired taste, appealing to those who valued her sensitive, lyrical imagery ("...rugs, and drapes, and drugs, and capes"), stunningly complex melodic structures, and open-hearted sincerity, which was the hallmark of her performances.

Joplin, on the other hand, grabbed audiences by the throat with the most basic of messages, like "Get It While You Can."

The one instance when I saw Nyro and Joplin on the same bill, at the Philadelphia Music Festival in 1969, Nyro took the stage in midafternoon, battling fierce summer heat, singing to a flagging audience in her style, which demanded full attention. She was booed off the stage. That evening, Joplin's electric kineticism ignited the crowd, her growling, lightning-infused voice bringing people to their feet and keeping them there for hours.

I had the pleasure of seeing both women perform several times, but met each only once. Backstage at the Fillmore East, Nyro seemed as introspective, reticent, and reflective as her songs. Backstage at a Randall's Island, N.Y., rock concert, Joplin was expansive, bawdy, and outrageous, the personification of the messages in the songs she flung out so recklessly.

Both were white but assimilated the musical styles of black culture: Joplin from the blues, and Nyro from jazz. Both cleared a path for future women in rock, from Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega to Rickie Lee Jones, Lisa Loeb, and Ani DiFranco. And both, overwhelmed by insecurities, were convinced that their talents were not fully realized.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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