Stoney End- an appreciation of her hip phase
by Robin Cook
On the cover of 1971"s Stoney End, Barbra Streisand reclines on a red sofa perched in the back of a pickup truck outside Las Vegas. Think of it as a metaphor for Streisand"s career at that point. By the end of the 1960"s, she had an armful of Grammys, two Emmys, and an Oscar. In 1970, she topped it off with a non-competitive "Star of the Decade" Tony Award. Where do you go when you"re the Queen of Show Business, nearly an EGOT winner, and you"re still in your late twenties?
In popular imagination, Streisand is The Voice, The Diva. Reviewing the Funny Girl cast album for NPR, Gwen Thompkins wrote that "it captured a rare cultural moment in which one performer emerges bigger than the medium itself." Her outsized musical presence and sheer talent are beyond dispute. Nonetheless, the critical intelligentsia, as well as music snobs in general, haven"t really acknowledged her role as an artist and a cultural figure. Granted, she was at one point considered too square and middlebrow for such evaluation. How do you wrap your critical gray matter around a Broadway star turned movie star turned musical shapeshifter?
While she was no counterculture figure, Barbra Streisand"s take-me-or-leave-me persona would have only won her a mass audience in the shifting cultural norms of the 1960"s. Film critic Molly Haskell points out that "a huge number admired her because she didn"t de-ethnicize herself. In a business where people twist themselves out of shape to be universally acceptable, Streisand was antiassimilationist." It would be one step from Barbra Streisand, unconventional pop songstress, to Janis Joplin, colorful blues shouter, as Streisand reshaped show business glamour in her own image. From there, Joplin proved, per Ellen Willis, that "a woman could not only invent her own beauty...but have that beauty appreciated."
By the early 1970s, two paths were open to Streisand. The first would lead to the same sort of limbo where Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como would be consigned: being dubbed "old fogey" music while the boomers were confusing their parents. Perhaps movie musicals during a decade when they were out of fashion. And, of course, TV commercials for mail-order greatest-hits albums. Instead, Streisand took an off-ramp that read, "HIP SINGER-SONGWRITER MUSIC, EXIT 66," with an album of songs by writers including Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Gordon Lightfoot, and, of course, Laura Nyro. As an ad for Stoney End said, "After all, she"s just as young as they are."
On her 1969 album, What About Today?, Streisand had sung songs by the Beatles, Paul Simon, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, steeped in standard-pop orchestration. For Stoney End, Richard Perry handles production duties. The arrangements are earthy, inflected pop with flourishes of soul and country, the Great American Songbook has been replaced with another, more inclusive one. First of all, it wasn"t strictly an American songbook, given that Mitchell and Lightfoot are Canadian. More significantly, most of Stoney End"s tracks were written or co-written by women. In addition to Mitchell and Nyro, there are songs by Carole King and Gerry Goffin ("No Easy Way Down"), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill ("Just a Little Lovin"") and Barbara Keith ("Free the People").
The album opens with a dreamy take on Mitchell"s "I Don"t Know Where I Stand." As Streisand sings, "All alone in California and talking to you," it"s as if she went to bed in Brooklyn and woke up to find herself in Laurel Canyon. The second track is one of three Nyro compositions on the album: "Hands Off the Man (Flim Flam Man)." Streisand may be hanging out in southern California now, but her jaunty delivery shows that the Broadway belter is still in there somewhere.
On most of the album, Streisand"s vocals are assured and comfortable. She doesn"t rock out so much as explore a new musical realm and new approaches to singing. Every now and then, she sounds like she"s trying to find her feet. Usually though, she meets the material halfway and embraces it, as when she stretches notes and syllables on Nilsson"s "Maybe." The singer-songwriter pop of the 1970"s had a theatrical element that fit her. Take, for instance, Randy Newman. At that point, he was mostly known for dark-humored satirical songs, but he"d been composing for movies and TV since the 1960"s. Newman"s "Let Me Go," from a little-known drama called Pursuit of Happiness, is a forlorn, country-tinged ballad that ends with Streisand singing, "I"m so young, I"m so young, I"m so young, I"m so young."
"Stoney End" is Laura Nyro"s signature song, and Streisand"s version--complete with funky arrangements, background choruses, and Streisand"s own passionate delivery--is the one that became a hit. By the album"s third Nyro song, "Time and Love," Streisand lets her inner show-tunes diva emerge once again. You start to wish she"d done an album like this earlier instead of making Hello, Dolly! (This is not a putdown of Hello, Dolly! Streisand was simply a twentysomething playing a middle-aged matchmaker.)
In retrospect, Stoney End doesn"t seem so radical when you compare Streisand"s artistic shift with others in her age group. Take Carole King, who"d spent the previous decade at the Brill Building creating the kind of music that made Streisand"s audience cover their ears. In 1970, King relocated to California, where she wrote and recorded the quintessential homey singer-songwriter album, Tapestry, which was released the same month as Stoney End. The end of the 1960"s meant that artists were free to reinvent themselves in a fashion that would have confused their younger selves.
Listeners now know that the songwriters of the rock era were just as sophisticated, intelligent, and versatile as their Broadway/jazz/standard pop counterparts. Carole King became the subject of a Broadway musical of her own, Beautiful. Randy Newman is now most famous as an Oscar-winning composer of well-loved Pixar movies.
And Streisand? She turned to making cozier-sounding contemporary pop ("The Way We Were"), disco ("No More Tears"), and eventually making an album of contemporary pop with a guy who was famous for disco (Guilty). By the 1980"s, she"d come full circle with The Broadway Album.
The idea of a musical "guilty pleasures" is laughable today. People throw together streaming playlists. Critics are paying attention to yacht rock. Tony Bennett made an album with Lady Gaga. There is no shame in listening to what you enjoy and, thankfully, no generation gap fouling things up. Amidst this, where does Barbra Streisand fit in? Wherever you like.
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