What makes a perfect song?

Usually, it’s not just one thing. A melody alone does not indicate a great, perfect song. There must also be performance, and poetry, and ingenuity, and sincerity. From a listener perspective, it could be any one of those things that draws us to a song in the first place, but any one of those things alone is likely not enough to merit such a designation.

Recently on this blog, I wrote about the great Merle Haggard song “The Running Kind” and the amazing lyric “Every front door found me hoping, I would find the back door open.” For many reasons, this is a great and perfect song, but it was that line…that perfectly poetic, creative line that first drew my attention.

And it can be just that. Just one line that helps us to listen more. To appreciate more. To continue exploring.

I was driving home from work one evening in 1997 when I heard about the death of Laura Nyro at age 49 from ovarian cancer. I had heard her name before, but did not really know much about her. A double CD career retrospective had recently been released, so I began to listen. I looked at the list of songs, and realized that I had unknowingly been listening to Laura Nyro music for years, but always recorded by other artists.

And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat and Tears

Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension

I Met Him on a Sunday” by The Shirlles

The list, literally, goes on and on. I knew so many of these great songs she wrote, but I did not realize that Nyro was also an amazing singer, performer and recording artist in her own right. Nyro was a pianist, with a bluesy, almost ethereal voice. Her writing was creative, unique and always surprising. She grew up a Jewish girl in The Bronx, but inhabited so many other worlds through her music. She never experienced much success as a performer, but she could write.

“Stoney End” was released in 1967 on her debut album More Than a New Discovery. A quick drum fill begins the song, then Nyro leads with the piano as the band comes in behind her with the lonely wail of a bluesy harmonica.

Nyro sings the first verse as if she lived every syllable of its story.

I was born from love
And my poor mother worked the mines
I was raised on the Good Book Jesus
Till I read between the lines
Now I don’t believe
I want to see the morning

Like I said, Nyro was a Jewish girl from New York, but she does what great songwriters do. John Prine imagined himself an old woman in “Angel from Montgomery.” Bruce Springsteen is a serial murderer in “Nebraska.” Laura Nyro imagined herself living in coal mine country, and becoming disenchanted with church.

The song is a rollicking, clap and sing-along good time, and in those two lines of lyric she speaks for everyone who has ever become disillusioned with religion. She was raised in Christian household. Her mother worked hard to provide for her. She became inquisitive about her faith, and now she does not even think she “wants to see the morning.” After the one verse, we now hear the chorus, backed by a vocalists that sound like they are coming straight out the back of a church.

Going down the Stoney End
I never wanted to go
Down the Stoney End
Mama let me start all over
Cradle me, Mama, cradle me again”

I imagine a tree covered, dirt road that comes to an end, an end that symbolizes the disappearance of faith and love. Nyro begins with family, but then goes to romance.

“I can still remember him
With love light in his eyes
But the light flickered out and parted
As the sun began to rise
Now I don’t believe
I want to see the morning”

This is a fun, sing-along good time song that is suffocatingly dark and pessimistic song. Nothing is strong enough, good enough, to survive the “stoney end.” Be it family, religion or love, when we look too close, when we become too discerning and engaged, everything falls apart. We go down to the stoney end.

Never mind the forecast
‘Cause the sky has lost control
‘Cause the furry and the broken thunders
Come to match my raging soul
Now I don’t believe
I want to see the morning”

Laura Nyro released “Stoney End” when she was 20 years old, a time for many of us that is a time of questions, challenges and answers. Usually, the answers we get are not good enough. Usually, the challenges go unanswered. Usually, we are left to read between the lines.

Sara Bereilles singing “Stoney End” at Laura Nyro’s posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010

“Stoney End”
Written and Performed by Laura Nyro
Released 1967

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