CRITICAL MASS / Nods to Childhood Idols
THERE WERE TIMES in my young life when, if forced, I could have lived on just three recordings. The first was anything by Janis Joplin, but, eventually, the "Greatest Hits." The second was Laura Nyro's "New York Tendaberry." The last was-don't laugh-Barbra Streisand's "Second Album," which, as long as I avoided the treacly horrors of "My Coloring Book," had the right song for every shade of darkness in a moody girl's day.
At a distance, the pattern is ridiculously easy to appreciate. These were the sounds of the middle-class misfit women, which, no matter how popular we might appear, basically meant every late '60s white female in high school or college who didn't aspire to join the Young Republicans.
Joplin-so outside, she wasn't even about Manhattan-was every overweight young woman with a complexion problem who acted tough in high school as a defense against the status denied her. Not incidentally, she was also the first person I saw - or maybe the first one I liked
-who didn't iron her frizzy hair.
Nyro was the lonely Bronx girl who wrote introverted poetry and took the subway to Greenwich Village to catch up on the life of coffeehouses, jazz and people wearing black. And Streisand, the one I attached myself to without a clue that those neurotic songs I loved came from musical theater, was the homely Brooklyn child whose restlessness and confidence pulled her to Broadway.
Looking back, I see them connecting directly into nervous systems near a crossroad in the women's movement, a time before "having it all" was declared a post-feminist option and massive unformed decisions were gnawing at whatever it was our families had planned as our lives. And these singers-these breakthrough artists-were making our music about the contradictions between independence and the need for a man.
I'm sure there were others, for different moods -Joan Baez for feeling fierce and Carly Simon for the need to know that the beautiful and well-connected can also feel miserable. But Joplin, Nyro and Streisand were my formative oddball trilogy, women who created themselves without stylists and packagers to decide how much belly button to show or which magazines to allow the meticulously coached cover exclusives.
Two, of course, are dead-Joplin, at 27, from an overdose in 1970; Nyro, at 49, from ovarian cancer in 1997, though she had dropped out of the business in 1978. And Streisand is iconography, still self- made but so far from the turmoil of her ancient yearnings that I periodically listen to the "Second Album" to marvel and feel the loss.
So consider this my apology for letting the crush of the Broadway season distract me from rediscovering-or fessing up to-my roots. Call it nostalgia avoidance, or pop-necrophilia panic. But I finally got myself to the Vineyard Theatre, where 20 Laura Nyro songs have been shaped into an impressionistic theater piece called "Eli's Comin'." And, after fearing what Joplin's siblings may have done to her rough reality, I relaxed enough to get to "Love, Janis," a bio-concert based on letters home and interviews. The shows are very different, but both are worthy of their subjects. That says a lot.
"Eli's Comin'" had been scheduled to close weeks ago, but five Obie Awards and a stream of old and new audiences have meant a reprieve until July 14. Diane Paulus is best known for having created "The Donkey Show" -that "Midsummer Night's Dream" disco hit I loathe. But she and Bruce Buschel have put together a luminous quartet of women, led by Judy Kuhn, and weaved the formidably sinewy Wilson Jermaine Heredia through the female thicket as different guises of Man.
I could live without the melodramatic moralizing-what's that, a drug intervention?-toward the end of the 80-minute reverie. Until then, however, this is a subtle, lovely, aptly mysterious re- creation of Nyro's enigmatic and direct communications from an underground New York, with the doo-wop, jazz and folk poetry in such defining songs as "And When I Die" and "Stoned Soul Picnic," full of sadness and curiosity and the raw impulse of an era before it was made to look plastic and stupid.
"Love, Janis" is more clearly a concert and a biography. The show, in the spiffed-up Village Theater where the Village Gate used to rule, feels a little long and, a few times, a little bogus. But Laura Joplin and Randal Myler have honored their unruly subject by refusing to clean her up, moralize or sensationalize her indulgences. They have divided Janis into two women, and it works for me. The one who talks, Catherine Curtin, has the jolly little-girl-lost quality. The Janis who sings, the powerful Cathy Richardson the night I saw the show, is the tough, glamorous, trailer-camp rock star from Haight- Ashbury.
I was surprised, and delighted, to learn about the Janis who read books and sent literate letters to her disappointed parents about her dreams. And, although the gimmick of a disembodied interview voice is creepily like Zach in "A Chorus Line," her answers-about fame, the media and the pressure for her to suffer enough to qualify as a blues singer-are honest and touching. I just read that a fan sold her body to a German Web zine reporter for a ticket to Madonna's "Drowned World" show in Berlin. Janis famously said, "Young people are looking for sincerity and a good time." I wonder what she'd be saying now.
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