Cast Photo ©Maddy Miller
Cast Photo ©Maddy Miller
Vanuit JoeBean bel ik J, ze heeft me een aantal keren gemaild over haar plannen voor Rochester en het lijkt me leuk haar te ontmoeten. Ze is lief en lijkt op de een of andere manier erg onzeker. We drinken samen nog een overheerlijke koffie van JoeBean en besluiten dan de bezienswaardigheden van Rochester te gaan zien.
Ze heeft een grappige nummerplaat waar in het Engels ‘Red de honden’ opstaat. Ik maak er een foto van maar ze drukt me op het hart deze niet zo op het Internet te zetten want ze is bang dat criminelen uit zullen vinden waar ze woont. Ik beloof het haar en heb net de nummerplaat onzichtbaar gemaakt.
We gaan naar de waterval. Midden in Rochester stroomt de rivier de Genessee en er is verval en een waterval.
High Falls Rochester
Ik vind het altijd indrukwekkend hoe een rivier door een stad stroomt en hoe mensen bouwen langs de rivier. Ook hier staan de gebouwen aan de waterlijn.
Het water valt bruisend.
Eigenlijk is dat geluid van vallend water het mooiste maar dat kan ik hier niet laten horen.
Ik poseer nog even met op de achtergrond de waterval. Hier kun je goed zien dat het water maar aan één kant naar beneden valt. En ik poseer, lachend, nog een keer. Maar de lach zie je niet want ik ben te ver weg.
Dan neem ik zelf nog een foto op de brug.
Ook deze nacht slaapt Jopie bij me. Zelfs Nellie heeft bij me gelegen. Ik durf het haast niet aan S te bekennen maar ze is er zelf al achter. Ik heb de wekker op zes uur gezet maar ben ruim voor zessen wakker. S heeft alles klaar gezet zodat ik koffie kan maken. De middag hiervoor heb ik inkopen gedaan bij een Aziatische winkel. Ik heb fruit gekocht, wat noten en water voor onderweg. Voor de zaak werd gedemonstreerd door twee jonge mensen omdat de eigenaar van de zaak zijn personeel slecht betaalde. Eigenlijk wilden ze me niet binnen laten maar ik ben toch gegaan. Ik eet wat ananas die ik heb gekocht en maak mijn koffie. Hierna doe ik mijn morgengongyo en mijn oefeningen. Ik wil om kwart over zeven weg. Natuurlijk ben ik zenuwachtig. Gaat het me allemaal lukken? Ik heb al gezien dat ik om naar de 34e straat te komen ik alleen maar naar het perron aan de andere kant moet en dus niet zeven trappen op of aan moet sjouwen met mijn bagage waar allemaal cadeautjes in zitten. Alles gaat goed tot de 34e straat. Daar sta ik aan de verkeerde kant van de straat op de bus te wachten, dus moet ik de straat weer terug over om naar de juiste halte te gaan. Tijdens de wandeling zie ik het gebouw dat ik me de dag daarvoor had voorgenomen te onthouden.
Bij de juiste halte aangekomen verzeker ik me ervan dat ik goed ben. Een vriendelijk zwart meisje wijst me er op dat ik uit een automaat een kaartje nodig heb om deze overstap te maken. De chauffeur van de bus zal me er niet omvragen zegt ze maar er komen soms controleurs en dan moet je een kaartje hebben. Ze heeft gelijk. De bus laat lang op zich wachten en zit stampvol. Ik sta met mijn twee koffers. Als ik uitstap staat er een man in uniform aan wie ik mijn kaartje moet laten zien.
Om de hoek zijn de bushaltes van Megabus. De linkerkant van de stoep is afgezet mer een geel lint, er staan borden met de namen van de bestemmingen. Achter het bord met Rochester staat een mens of tien en ik sluit me aan. Aan het eind van de straat ligt de Hudson. Deze river zal ik geregeld rechts naast me zien. Mensen sluiten zich achter me aan. Een jongen die een stoer meisje zou kunnen zijn komt achter me staan. Hij is aan het bellen, luid tettert hij in zijn telefoon en mijn oor. Ik krijg er genoeg van en ik pak ook mijn telefoon en begin in het Nederlands een gesprek met niemand. Het kalmeert me. We wachten.
Iets over negenen vertrekt de bus. We gaan de Lincolntunnel in.
Als we de Lincolntunnel uitkomen ligt New York City rechts van ons. De grote stad en de skyline.
De bomen verkleuren. Ik probeer het te fotograferen maar het lukt niet zo goed vanuit een rijdende bus. Ik hoop dat ik straks in Rochester mooie plaatjes kan maken. Misschien hebben we tijd een bezoek te brengen aan een verkleurend bos. De bus rijdt en rijdt over de highway naar Rochester. Langs Verona en Amsterdam, langs Albany en Schenectady. Het landschap verandert niet. Bergen met bomen. Saai?
Het is bloedheet in de bus. De buschauffeur heeft het zelf koel maar voor ons is de verwarming tot het hoogste opgestookt. Iedereen zit te puffen. Ik ben de oudste passagier. De meeste reizigers zijn onder de dertig en zwart. Ook de chauffeur is zwart. Na bijna alles te hebben uitgetrokken doe ik alles weer aan om de chauffeur aan te spreken. Hij schrikt erg als ik zachtjes kuch om zijn aandacht te trekken en hij reageert erg geagiteerd als ik hem vraag of er iets met de verwarming is. Hij roept Nee maar het wordt gelukkig koeler.
Dit is de Hudson. De Hudson is een rivier in de Verenigde Staten van Amerika. Hij ontspringt in het Adirondackgebergte in het noordelijk deel van de staat New York en loopt via Albany naar de stad New York, waar hij langs Manhattan en Jersey City stroomt en uitmondt in Haven van New York en New Jersey. De rivier is 507 km lang.
Tijdens de rit luister ik naar Norwegian Wood van de Japanse auteur Haruki Murakami en kijk uit het raam naar de borden die me bekend voorkomen van de keer dat Peter me afhaalde van JFK en ik mee ging naar Lake Scanadaga naar de cabin van Carol en Ed die over een beek gebouwd was.
Na een lange rit kom ik eindelijk aan in Rochester. We worden op een bouwplek uit de bus geladen. Ik ben totaal verdwaald. Weet niet waar ik ben en hoe naar de stad te komen. Er zijn geen taxis te bekennen. Ik bel M die me zegt naar haar toe te komen. Aan de weinige voorbijgangers vraag ik naar een bushalte. Niemand weet iets. Dan spreek ik een vrouw aan. Zij biedt aan me naar M te brengen.
~ wordt vervolgd
A Conversation with Melanie
Mike Ragogna: Who could this be? Why, it’s the very lovely, very iconic, Melanie.
MR: Hi Melanie, how are you?
M: I’m good.
MR: I have to get my clapping over with. Okay, there we go. Melanie, it’s a joy. Your latest album isEver Since You Never Heard Of Me. Traditionally, on all of your albums, we would see the credit “Produced and Arranged by Peter Shekeryk,” though this one was also produced and arranged by Beau Jarred Schekeryk, your son.
M: Yes. Beau did get to work with Peter, and he always says, “I’m so grateful, I got to work with dad on this album,” because Peter is strictly old-school and Beau is best of both worlds, new school and old school.
MR: Because you guys taught him well.
M: Well, Peter was all about the feel and capturing the feel. He would let the artist reign. That was his gift–to really let the artist come out with the album they wanted to come out with. Beau is much more in control of everything. In the technology realms, you sort of have to be in control of everything. But the magic part is making that appear as if it happened with the spontaneity and the magic of a live session.
MR: Let’s go into that. The marriage of traditional recording and modern technology really benefited you on this album. You even have a couple of spiritual songs such as “Motherhood Of Love.” I guess you’re a follower of Mata Amritanandamayi, right?
M: Amma. I’m not exactly a follower, but I’ve gotten an embrace from Amma, and it is an amazing, magical experience. It’s nothing that I could take with me for the rest of my life except in memory, but I think you have to do the hard work yourself, the meditations and the chanting. I think it’s not just the hug from Amma, although I’ll tell you it’s a nice way to jumpstart any kind of spiritual practice.
MR: Yeah, that’s what a lot of people who’ve gotten the hug have said.
M: They say that?
MR: Yeah, as far as getting a jumpstart in their spirituality.
M: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I’m always amazed when somebody thinks of something at the same time as I do.
MR: Oh, that wasn’t to downplay your experience.
M: No, I think it just occurred to me that that’s what that is. The other day, I just thought of something and I thought, “This is amazing! I have to put this out!” and there was another person who thought of this already and I thought, “How is that possible?”
MR: Well let’s talk about that for a funny moment here. What about those times, when you think you’ve had the most original idea for a song and you put it out and somebody else has the same idea on another record?
M: Yeah, that’s what happened with “Beautiful People.” I had a song that I had just written called “Beautiful People” and we produced it and Peter had it put out on Columbia records and Columbia had just released the Kenny O’Dell song “Beautiful People.” So they made me change the title of mine to “My Beautiful People,” which was not exactly what I had in mind, but they were Columbia records, so they won, but it was totally a different thing. His went like [sings] “You’ve got to be one of the most beautiful people in the whole wide world. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true! And I love you.”
MR: [laughs] Thank you for that concert just then! Melanie, in the context of you putting out your own album and self-promoting it and touring for it, you’ve been indoctrinated into the new model for the music business. Those days of needing a major label to promote your record, market you and break you are kind of going away.
M: Oh, they’re gone! I mean…that’s if you’re interested in mainstream media. If you want to be a celebrity for the sake of being a celebrity, you know, being promoted and having your face everywhere, you need a major label. I’m just amazed. Half the people, I see their faces and I say, “They’re famous for being famous,” you know, that phenomenon that’s reared its head in the last ten years or so, people that are emerging. And you’re like, “What do they do? Do they sing? Do they act? Do they write?” The amazing thing is that you don’t need to have a major label, but what your competition is–and this is what I’ve been discovering–is this flood of mediocrity. Yes, we can get everything directly, but we have to weed through the guy who plays the broccoli and whatever it is. Somebody gets their name out as a YouTube artist and people get famous for being good at getting themselves out there. Quite frankly, most creative people are not the best at getting themselves out there, so again, the competition is the flood of mediocre or less than mediocre people. I just wish people who don’t do something would stop wanting to be famous. What is the deal? Why don’t they just do something useful? You can write songs or poetry as a hobby, you don’t have to take up people’s valuable time.
MR: Well, if they play the broccoli, I have to see that. Hey, Melanie, what about the fact that everybody can be a star for five seconds, because of machines like American Idol, The Voice, and all that?
M: Well, that’s degrading, especially American Idol. That’s demeaning, that’s degrading. It brings out the worst in us. I just hate that sort of degradation.
MR: Anyway, enough of they, them, let’s talk about you! I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to throw out some Melanie hits because, hey, they were hits.
M: That’s true! I did have to live that down, being a person who was called a “folk singer.” There was a whole group of folk people who just didn’t think I belonged because I had a hit record; that was called “selling out.” Unbeknownst to me, I sold out because I had a record that was being played on the radio, and that in itself was highly suspect.
MR: Yeah, you sold out because you merely contributed to the culture songs like “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” one of the great Woodstock-era anthems. How could you!
M: Well, you know what was really the most wonderful comment? Jerry Leiber was a good friend of Peter’s–Peter having been my husband and producer–and he had a phone call and told Peter something. Peter said, “You have to tell this to Melanie” and he put Jerry Leiber on the phone. I hated when he would just hand me a phone…
MR: …yeah, Peter did that to me and you a few times.
M: “Here, say hello to Mike!” “Hey Mike!” [laughs] So I was put on the phone and Jerry Leiber said, “You and The Beatles have had this knack for…” to paraphrase, to make commercial music blend with art. I think that was one of the most amazing compliments that anybody’s ever paid me. He always loved “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma” and he was trying to convince me to do a version called “Look What They’ve Done To My World.”
MR: Okay, now let’s go back to “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” As I’m nodding to your contribution to the culture, you’re also one of the heroes of Woodstock, and people know you from other hits like “Brand New Key,” “Nickel Song,” and your versions of “Ruby Tuesday,” “What Have They Done To My Song, Ma.” And there’s “Psychotherapy,” “Animal Crackers,” “The Good Book,”… You have quite a few classics. Looking at that body of work, what are your thoughts?
M: Well, it all just continued. I never stopped. When people say things like, “Melanie from the sixties,” it’s like, “Well, yeah, from the sixties, from the seventies, from the eighties, from the nineties to the new millennia, and into the beyond.” You want to know what my feeling is about that era, the sixties and seventies? As far as genre, they never knew what to do with me. Pop music was so forgiving at one point. They had The Edward Hawkins Singers with “Oh, Happy Day,” and then there’d be Connie Francis or something or Nancy Sinatra, you know what I mean? All kinds of music were coming together and the source of different genres were crossing over, so you’d hear on a pop radio station with all kinds of different influences. It was a near renaissance on Earth and people were investigating and pulling from different sources. Art was alive and music was alive, because of this interest from artists. Basically, people were doing things because they were interested. Now they’re doing things because they want to be interesting.
MR: Wow, good point.
M: It’s such a different place to come from. “Ooh, I’m going to look like this, and I’m going to sound like this, and my voice is going to do things like this,” just doing things to get people to look at them. “Look at me, look at me!” It’s unpleasant. Back then it was, “Oh, listen to this, this classical thing with the strings…I would go to SIR, the studio instrument rental place in New York city and bump into Laura Nyro who was looking for some interesting percussion to use on her session and I was looking for different flute-y type instruments–maybe a didgeridoo, you know? But it was because it would express what I wanted to express, not because, “Ooh, everybody will see that I used that and I’ll be so interesting.” It’s totally different motivations. The reason why people say that there was a value in that era of music–is it just nostalgia or is there something else? And, of course, there is something else and it comes down to motivation and intention.
MR: There’s something I wanted to throw out at you. There are a lot of indie artists out there, and I would even include you and your son in this, as far as people who are interesting, indie acts, many of whom you can find on the internet if you search. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear it all. A lot of music seems regional again, like it was in the fifties.
M: Yeah, that’s definitely possible. I mean, I don’t think that is such a terrible thing because then they’re backing it up with performances and people have a reality on what they actually do.
MR: Good point. Now, I wanted to talk about a few other things that you’ve worked on, for instance, your book Tales From the Roadburn Café.
M: I’ve been writing journal entries for some years, and I just put them out on my website and people have been reading them. I don’t read well on a screen. I like to have stuff on paper, I like to turn a page. I’m not a big Kindle person. I’ve tried, but you know, there’s something that’s missing without the ink. I like ink on paper and I like it with books. I decided I was going to collect some of the journal entries and put them out in a book called Tales From the Roadburn Café. We published it ourselves.
MR: I want to read what it says on the front cover. “Whimsical observations told with pathos by the iconic music festival queen with photographs by Beau Jarred Shcekeryk.”
MR: You have always been about “family,” it seems. Your husband produced your albums, your kids performed on them, and you’ve all been so supportive of each other. That’s a very hard thing to do when you’re in entertainment, isn’t it?
M: Yeah, it really is, make no mistake. And over the years, so many people were really, truly envious of it, and it’s bizarre because it’s such a hard life. Being in the entertainment business at all is a very hard life. I tried to talk my kids out of it. “Be a vet or something. Something where people aren’t going to attack you,” because you’re really a target! I love that they’re all artists. I didn’t necessarily want them to pursue that as a career, but they all did. My daughter Leilah is a writer in Nashville, and Jeordie sings out in Arizona all the time. She’s actually in Chicago singing right now, and writing. She has her own website and she’s very into social media. I’m just dabbling with Twittering and stuff like that. We’ve just been a gathering of artists, really.
MR: And this latest album, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me was, of course, a family project. But then again, the last few projects you’ve released have been about the family as well.
M: Well, I never think of it that way, but I guess you could see it that way.
MR: And when you read the credits, it’s pretty obvious, you know?
MR: You’ve got yet another project going right now, one in the theatrical field.
M: Yeah! Well, before Peter passed away, he gave me an empty journal. He said, “You have to write a book. Everybody wants to hear about what you have to say.” I said, “I can’t get the order right, and it just doesn’t fit me to do this. I think you have to be very old to write a book of memoirs and I’m not old enough.” I would just back off from it all the time, but on this last road trip, we were going on tour and be in Massachusetts and Colorado. We were going to do it by car the whole way, and we packed it up, and he gave me this leather bound journal and said, “I want you to start writing this book. Just write it, it doesn’t matter what the sequence is or the order. Just do it and we’ll worry about that later.” So I didn’t do anything. I didn’t write a thing. But a few nights after Peter passed away, I realized that the story–and it is a story…it’s some story–it was our story, because really and truly, I don’t think there would be a public Melanie if there weren’t a Peter Schekeryk. I was his only client and he was dedicated to spreading the word. In fact, his last words were, “It was Melanie,” because I found this out. He had gone to upgrade his phone at a Best Buy so I wasn’t with him, and I wanted to know how it went down. The guys from Best Buy came in and they were crying. They said he came in and he said, “Did you ever hear of “Melanie? No? Oh, you’ve got to check her website,” and he had them put the website on so they could see who I was and he said, “Melanie was the one who started the lighting of candles at concerts. People don’t know this, but look,” and he was showing them this stuff but then said, “I don’t feel so good.” He keeled over and his last words were, “It was Melanie.”
MR: Oh, my God.
M: When they told me this, I had to write it, and I started the book with, “Sometimes you don’t know it’s a story until it has an end.”
MR: I’m sorry you had to go through that.
M: So this is going to be a musical. I call it a musical mystery comedy of errors.
MR: Let’s take a look at that for a second. I love the fact that you’re doing this, and with a beautiful dedication to Peter as well. I have to tell you, how I came into Melanie was of course through the singles, but I also came into your music through a magnificent album. I know everyone says Photograph is your best, but I came in through Madrugada, which I feel was an album of emotions that had music to it.
M: Yeah, thank you. That’s absolutely a great way to say it.
MR: Right from the beginning to the end, it was just one of those magic records. Also, with Peter, I had spoken to him over the years, getting a call from him like every six months, his trying to work something for you. I was never in the right place until I was at BMG, since they owned your old Buddha Records masters. But my point is that, yeah, it was always about trying to get something going for Melanie.
M: Right, exactly. He was on everybody’s time zone. He would get up at four and be talking to England. He was a one-man Melanie campaign.
MR: And those orchestral arrangements that he came up with were magnificent, I really think so.
M: Oh yeah, and some of the things that he had to do to get those strings. He was a producer for CBS when I met him, and he actually lied to CBS and told them it was a session for a group he was producing called The Marshmallows, a psychedelic group, and it was me, but I had no idea what he was up to. I had a full-out orchestra with a string arranger and the New York session strings and I did it live. It was “Beautiful People.” That’s going to be in the musical. It’s called Melanie and the Record Man and it’s going to be at the Blackfriar Theatre in October in Rochester, New York. So if you’re in and about, or not, if you want to just come in and see this…
MR: …and if people did want to get tickets, I imagine there’s a website?
M: Yeah, it’s Blackfriar’s Theatre in Rochester, New York.
MR: All right. Melanie, what advice do you have for new artists?
M: Wow. God. I would just say examine what your motives are and be careful what you wish for. People ask me this a lot. Listen…listen to things that move you and then if you have something to add to that, great. If not, maybe you want to be an archaeologist or something. Not everybody has to be a famous person. But okay, if you’re beyond that and this is what you’re going to do and no matter what this is what you have to do, if you’re driven and you know what you’ve got to do, then just follow that.
MR: Beautiful. Now, you’re going to be touring, ain’t ya?
M: Yeah. Go to my website and we will put the dates up. I’m going to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on November 9th, and I’m going to be at the New Hope winery in Pennsylvania on the 23rd and there’s talk about a European tour and about dates in Florida and Texas, but nothing is absolutely solid yet.
MR: And don’t forget about that Fairfield, Iowa, date!
M: I know! When am I coming to Fairfield?
MR: We’ve got to figure this out.
M: I’ve never performed in Iowa.
MR: Iowa wants its fair share of Melanie, too, you know. Hey, let’s close with a thought or two on a special song from Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, “I Tried To Die Young.”
M: I think there was this “Never trust anyone over thirty” sort of thing, there was this thought that nobody cool ever gets old. We all leave before we get ugly. Of course it doesn’t happen.
MR: Too late for me!
MS: The good die young, so here we are.
MR: [laughs] Any other words of wisdom?
M: Oh, gosh. Nothing’s coming out. I’ll Twitter it.
MR: [laughs] You got it. Thank you very much, Melanie. I really do appreciate your time. It’s been beautiful. You truly are beautiful people.
M: Thank you.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
JUST CAN’T DO IT (IF I’M NOT IN LOVE)
Written by Melanie Safka
Well I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
And I’m not in love with you
There was this song I used to sing
This kinda was the gist
If you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with
I’m not into being used
Or making someone a fool
And I’m not in love with you
And I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
And I’m not in love with you
Back in my room I got a vibrator
Gonna turn into a chronic imaginator
But I just can’t do it, uh, uh, uh
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
And I’m not in love with you
Oh I’m real, real lonely and it’s been so long
But there’s just some things a girl must do alone
Though I’d like to do the things you want to do
I’m not in love with you
And I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
I just can’t do it if I’m not in love
And I’m not in love with you
(See you tomorrow)
I’m not in love
(With my clothes on)
I’m not in love
(Not ’cause I’m Catholic)
I’m not in love with you
(if you click on the link you will get to the page where you can download Melanie’s concert.)
This weekend it’s a concert recording made by the BBC in 1975, which ironically was her first appearance before their microphones, live at The Paris Theater.
Slowing the pace down a bit – quieting the noise from an otherwise really noisy weekend (you know what I’m talking about) and paying tribute to a Woman and her timeless art.
We do what we can.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
This is the extended interview with Melanie that we couldn’t fit in print. Enjoy! Check out Melanie’s music at melaniesafka.com.
Remember Melanie – the sweet-faced quintessential hippie chick who sang “Brand New Key” and “Candles in the Rain”? Well, you might say she’s back, but the truth is she really never left.
You’ve always been one of those famous performers that everyone thinks of as a friend more than a star.
I know. I’m pretty accessible. Nobody ever thinks I’m anybody. When my husband was here and we’d walk together people would always come up to him because he’s very striking, and they’d say, “You’re somebody, aren’t you?” And we’d always laugh cause I’d just be sitting there like this lump.
You play with that status with your new album title, but you’ve stayed very busy.
Oh, yeah, I’ve never retired or anything. It’s amazing – you can be a really well known person to a segment of people, especially now with all the many, many ways to be a celebrity, and people are famous for being famous – we don’t even know what they do – [we're] not sure if they are singers or actors or just married to a football player. I never wanted to be a celebrity. I wanted to do what I did and believe me, if there was a way to do that without being a well-known person, I’d like that. But basically you have to put yourself out there and put yourself in people’s faces to a certain extent before they’ll come to your concert. If people see the parking lot is full, they think it’s good. I’m always astounded by it. It comes from not trusting what you really like. Do the opinion leaders of my socio-political group like it? Cause if they do it must be good. Okay, I like it too.
I see that happening more and more. People are afraid to have their own, completely their own, thing coming from their inner wellspring of what they really want and like. They so want to be accepted and have it be cool.
Of course, our generation is the one that invented cool. And if it isn’t cool, don’t do it. But then cool came from a place within you and now cool is invented by opinion leaders and then marketed.
[It] used to be marketing was studying who liked what and now it’s developing markets for who likes what.
Listening to your songs they sound contemporary. I suspect a lot of your old stuff would hold up pretty well. Your fashion and style is still popular. The way you used to dress is the way my daughter likes to dress.
That’s really funny because my kids were always completely terrified that I might go to school meetings. My daughter would say, “Mom can’t you put on a different pair of shoes? There’s a Papagallos store down the street.” I’d go “Ah, I don’t think so.” Blending was never one of my biggest assets. I always had a romantic notion of who I am. I always dressed that way. I’m not saying I didn’t toy with ’80s things – I put blue in my hair just like everybody else. I loved it. I always wonder why people don’t do more colors. Colors are so amazing and we’re surrounded by taupe and beige, off-white, cream and cappuccino. When you think about all we could do with color we could build purple houses and astounding electric blue and orange cars. But we’re just surrounded by these gray-taupey-mauvey colors. I always say it’s a fear of being Mexican. Or in New York it’s a fear of being Puerto Rican or exuding any kind of color. “Tasteful” is cream, drab cement.
I live in the southwest now and there’s just so much color here. Not in the topography but in decorating. People aren’t afraid of coral, orange and blue. It’s so wonderful to see color. I keep thinking what’s wrong with people. We have all these colors and we keep building square cement gray things.
There’s probably a song in there somewhere.
Yes. Probably. If you are a person who doesn’t care about that then you might have a shot of being who you are. I thought I invented the ’60s because I always sensed that we each have our own little authentic thing. We each have an authentic part of ourselves that it’s our job to be born and project that little [authenticity]. So in dressing or in music, I really wanted it to be authentic and real. That was important to me.
You had some real hits. Is that pressure on you, you know, to try to catch lightning in a bottle one more time?
I never set out to write a hit. In fact “Brand New Key” was totally a one-off thing and this famous record producer (Peter) had heard it and said, “This is a hit.” I said, “Oh no, please. If that’s a hit I’m going to be cute for the rest of my life.” And so I never really set out to have a hit but there’s nothing that feels better than being a human campfire. And that’s what happens. You have a hit record and people are just drawn to you because they know this song. And if they know this song, then they know you and you know them and it’s this wonderful connecting device, a hit record.
It’s nice but it’s not a motivation.
Hard to believe that that song was so controversial back in the day.
I know, it was so sweet. I’ve come to terms with it. You can imagine – I was pegged. Before “Brand New Key” I was suspect because I was very cute. I was too pretty, basically. I wasn’t angular pretty. I was cherubic and I was suspect in the underground circles. Joan Baez was angular and she was angry and Joni Mitchell had an angularness. My package was a little more soft and cuddly and huggy. I got pegged as a kind of Woodstock fluff.
The second record company I was with really pushed that. I didn’t know, I was just me. People have all these dimensions and the one people see is the one that’s promoted.
After “Brand New Key” it was over. In Folk circles, having a hit record was highly suspect anyway. If you had a hit, you sold out. People were saying that about Dylan. It was the Folk Nazi thing. If you had a hit record, you obviously sold out to the establishment. It was total nonsense.
After “BNK” I was the underground press’s favorite target. It was very unfair but there’s nothing to do about it. I didn’t argue or try to rebel. I just continued in my life. I decided, I’ll just out write this.
It was also controversial because of the innuendo.
Oh yes, the innuendo. People thought it was a key club song, a thing about wife swapping and keys. Then it was a kilo, it was drugs.
Now it’s on a commercial. Is there a revival of interest?
Oh yes, a lot of kids, 15-16 years olds, have just tuned in because of that. It would be really great if they had my website up there. I don’t own anything of any of my hit records. Not writer’s royalties, not publishing, not nothing. I found this all out after my husband passed away. I didn’t know anything about the business whatsoever, about who owns what, but I soon found out. It still is wonderful in that I hold these concerts and I get kids coming to hear the music because of that song. And they’re singing along.
Now on the other side of that song, the growing up part, that was something I wanted to live down, but now I think, wow this is a great little song. If I went out to try to write a song like that it would go nowhere. It’s unique. It has it’s own little place it doesn’t belong in any category I can think of. It’s got a quirky [novelty] but it’s melodic and bouncy. I wish I could write one every day.
I have to tell you, in my circle of friends, we knew that this was your hit and yeah other people liked you now, but we still respected you, if that’s any vindication to you.
Aww. Yeah, but back then I thought I’d have to live it down. I knew some people got it ’cause people would keep coming to my concerts.
You know Albert Goldman? He became famous for dragging legacy people through the mud, [like] John Lennon. He wrote a scathing book revealing the true gritty yucky parts of everybody. He did a thing on me. He was trying to get an interview with me before those books came out and for some reason I kept avoiding it. I was back in the country - I’d been singing a lot in Europe and [now] I was back in the country and doing a show in Long Island, a big, big show, and my assistant said that Albert Goldman really wants to do this interview, is it possible he could ride up with you and do it in the car?
He came with his girlfriend. She was very quiet – very, very quiet - and he just sort of talked. It wasn’t really an interview, just a conversation and I figured he was going to see the show and just write about it. I was sick. I had just had laryngitis and I was doing these remedies in the car to try and get my voice back.
I had this Russian driver who said drink milk and club soda and we stopped and got some and I was coughing and hacking away and I’m telling him I’m terrified because my voice isn’t there. So he went to the show and I never saw him again. He didn’t ride back with me. I thought it was kind of weird.
But the article came out in a major magazine and was this hideous thing, basically it tore apart the audience. If you came to this show you were just a geek, some complete geek, a crazy person with no clue whatsoever. Basically it was good - he wrote well. That’s what’s so terrifying about a person like this. He knew how to write very convincingly. If I read this article I might not want to go see a Melanie concert. There are some people who really have that ability and he did, but where he was coming from was such a terrible horrible place. I almost couldn’t breath after I read it. It was so damning in such an amazing way I could see hundreds and hundreds of people reading this and saying “Oh, I’m never going to a Melanie concert of I’ll be one of those.” That was one of the biggest backstabs I ever got. ‘Cause there I was opening up to him saying “Oh gee, I wish I could cancel, what am I gonna do?” and every bit of everything I said he used against me and he tore the audience apart just for being there.
I suspect that strain of journalism is still alive.
Yeah, but it could never hurt me the way it did then. I believed that everybody was, somewhere in there, a decent person. I have since learned that there are some who are really not. You just have to set your radar to know who they are.
Seems like you are kind of responsible for the whole “wave your Bic lighter” tribute meme at concerts. Do you take any credit for that?
Sure. It happened at Woodstock. Here’s exactly how it happened. Right before I was to go on, the announcer, I don’t know if it was Wavy Gravy or one of the other guys had made some inspirational announcement of how the Hog Farm was passing out candles.
I had been waiting in this little tent all day in total terror. I wasn’t with a group of friends. I didn’t know anybody. My mother had driven me up. I didn’t have any idea it was going to be a big thing. I thought we were going to be doing a picnic with families on blankets, crafts, maybe I’d go shopping and pick up some incense. I had no clue. Peter and I were in the London Philharmonic doing a film score, [which was] a really big thing so you know, this little festival, I didn’t know if I should leave the studio to go and do it.
Peter said, you go and do it, I’ll be here and when you come back [and] we’ll finish and everything will be fine. So I went back to the states. My mom picked me up and we drove out to Woodstock. I didn’t even know what songs I would sing. I’d been writing, so I thought I might do some new songs. We knew nothing. I didn’t know there would be a movie, a culture based on it. I didn’t know I’d be known as the girl from Woodstock.
First we go to this place, and now it’s at this other place, and now I’m getting nervous ’cause I see there’s a lot of traffic. It’s all getting very big. I end up in this hotel and I go into the lobby and there’s Janis Joplin and she’s a superstar already. I was just a person who had one record that was being played I think at WNEW FM by a DJ called Roscoe and it wasn’t even in record stores because the record company didn’t believe in it.
It was Clive Davis’s company before Clive Davis became cool. He was a lawyer who had just gotten the head of A&R position at CBS. He did not get it at all so they did not even put it in stores. So here I was with this one kind of underground record. No one knew who I was. I hadn’t done shows, I didn’t have any high visibility PR, and there I was at this mega festival being told to get into a helicopter and my mother was with me following behind and the guy says, “Who’s this?” and I say, “My mother,” and he goes, “No, no. No mothers. Just bands and managers.”
So I said goodbye to my mother. I didn’t even have the sense to say, “No, she’s my manager.” We just waved goodbye and I didn’t see my mother at all for the rest of the day. Then as the helicopter descended to the field, I didn’t even know those were people. I thought, “Is that some weird crop, no it’s people. That can’t be possible. There’s no way to perform in front of those. It’s too many.” And I’m all day long in this terrible terror and finally at night it starts to rain and I thought, “Oh, they’re going to go home. It will all be over. I’m saved. I’ll fly back to England and I’ll be a movie writer and it will be all good.”
And that’s when they called me. And the announcer says to me this inspirational thing about the Hog Farm and the candles. So when I stepped onto the stage, my set was this lighting of the candles and I got to see the field coming closer toward me like fireflies coming closer and closer and with that light came this incredible flow of energy and human connectedness and power – that beautiful kind of enabling power. So I had that song, “Candles in the Rain,” in my head going home. And after that, anybody who came to my concerts who had ever been to Woodstock would bring a candle or something that lit to show that they had been there. Then when I wrote “Candles in the Rain,” it just became synonymous with the lighting of things at concerts. Yeah, and I realize most people don’t know that, but now maybe now they will.
What an amazing story. On a more provincial note, have you ever performed here in New Hampshire?
I don’t remember performing there so much, but I remember going there with my grandma. Lake Winnipesauke. That’s where we used to go in the summer. My grandma took me to one of those New Hampshire resorts. We would go row boating and eat in the main dining room and go on scavenger hunts. Those were idyllic, absolutely beautiful days of New Hampshire in my growing up years. I’m sure I’ve performed in NH but I can’t say where or when.
I learned from Wikipedia that you are a libertarian. Have you ever heard of the Free State Project? It’s a plan for a bunch of liberty-minded people to move to New Hampshire to make it more libertarian. We’re already a pretty libertarian state.
No, I love that idea. “Live Free or Die,” right? Are you then going to secede from the union? I’m so suspicious of politics. That’s why I became a libertarian. I believe people have to be involved, but it’s become so black and white and there’s no room for real opinions. If you have one it will be labeled something or other. I’m not a very political person or even up on what the party is doing right now. I figure after 9/11 it became pretty hard to be a libertarian because people are all “terrorist, terrorist!”
It’s becoming easier now, because people seem so fed up with the status quo.
I really think the world is in for period of renaissance. I really do, because if it’s not, it will be the dark ages. So we still have that choice but people have to wake up. I mean, God, half the population is in a trance. I think the distractions are pretty big. Everybody is so entertained. It’s hard to focus on anything that might be taking over the planet.
Is there anybody out there you like to listen to?
I have really strange eclectic tastes. I love lyrics but if I hear them I find myself analyzing them whether I want to or not. So I love instrumental music. I love Vaughn Williams. That’s what I listen to to relax. I put on my Vaughn Williams and space out. I like Joan Armatrading. I was a big advocate when she was writing. I’m not even sure if she’s still recording anymore.
As far as right now, I’m drawn to authentic and, well, maybe I’m not exposed to the right authentic but so many people just make interesting noises with their voice and it irritates me. I can always tell if it comes from a real place or not. So there’s not too much that’s going on as far as I’ve heard that feels real. But I’m open. It’s not that I don’t believe they are out there. I’m sure they are, but celebrity has become so important in the selling of things and the best artists usually aren’t the ones who want to wear a meat suit.
And there’s so much mediocrity on the Internet, there’s just a flood of it on the web and on YouTube. It’s unbelievable. I’ll sing a song and people will say, “Oh did you see this thing on YouTube of the people of Walmart?” And I’ll just say, “What does that have to do with anything?” So much of it is mean spirited and doesn’t come from anywhere creative. It comes from somewhere exhibitionist. I’ve always distrusted those who are total exhibitionist. It’s not music it’s some other thing.
“Brand New Key” is the song you’ll always be known for. Is there something you’ve written recently that you’d rather was the one you’ll always be famous for?
I think I love “Angel Watching” or “Hushabye” or “ITried to Die Young” is, I suppose, lyrically a proud moment. But I’m not taking anything away from “Brand New Key,” because if I could write another one, I would. It touches some many people in a number of ways, because it wasn’t trying to preach anything. I never really wanted to be a preacher in my songs. Just let people in on a little certain aspect of me that gives people an insight to somebody else. That’s what I love, and “Brand New Key” is one of those songs that is uniquely mine. I wrote it after I broke a fast.
It’s been delightful talking with you. It somehow makes me feel young.
Aww, thank you. I never even think about age. You’re supposed to get older because the alternative isn’t that great. It’s funny that people have such weird considerations about it but if you just keep doing what you do with art, it’s just supposed to get better. And I feel like I have and I’m not worried about age.
Melanie’s new album is not available right now on iTunes, Pandora, Sirius/XM right now, and I feel lucky to have a copy of the singer-songwriter’s latest work, “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me.” Melanie, who is one of my mother’s favorite singers, has had a limited number of copies produced, and has not sought to distribute it widely, following her husband-producer Peter’s death in 2010. She and Peter started the second independent, artist-owned label in rock music (the first being the Beatles’ Apple Records); she has long been committed to artists’ creative independence and self-publication. So now, after decades in the music industry, the Woodstock legend of pop-folk is learning herself all there is to know about making a living as a musician in the twenty-first century, including our new paradigms of music distribution. Last year, a group in Australia posted a rough mix of her new album to iTunes, and collected all of the profits for themselves. She spent most of last year tracking those people down and getting them to remove her original content, the last production work of her material by her late husband. Successful, she has copies to distribute while on her sporadic tours this year and last—in Arizona, in the Northeast, at the 2012 International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis, and across two nights at the Tupelo Music Halls in New Hampshire and Vermont. Melanie’s career has come full circle; she began amongst others, as a Greenwich Village folk troubadour in the mid-1960s, and the value of her live performances have returned to being her ultimate experience.
Melanie’s career has included over thirty albums (two of them gold), an Emmy for lyrics penned for a 1989 television adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, a stint as a UNICEF ambassador in 1972; she has had a long and close family experience with her husband Peter, her partner and producer, raising her three children, Leilah, Jeordie, and Beau-Jarred. Peter and Melanie were married in 1968, and her first few hits appeared in Europe came around the same time: “Bobo’s Party,” on the Buddah label went number one in France, and “Beautiful People” was a hit in the Netherlands. In mid-August of 1969, after substantial press coverage of her live performances overseas, as well as a television appearance in the UK, Melanie found herself in a helicopter above the American masses gathered at Woodstock in upstate New York, a defining moment, and terrifying experience, in her life. In a recent interview, Melanie told this writer that at Woodstock, she waited in a small tent to perform, and that all day, she was told by the event producers that she’d be on stage next, only to be suddenly told, ‘oh, wait, nevermind.’
Melanie described herself as an introvert, one who will find a quiet corner at any party; it was her husband Peter who always did all of the schmoozing that helped maintain her presence in the public sphere. “I like people. I like people sitting down in front of me,” she said, as we talked of aspects of creative introversion and live performance. In the year following Woodstock, Melanie wrote and released “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” to widespread acclaim, a lasting pop favorite; the lyrics described the moment during her Woodstock performance when Hog Farm distributed candles to concertgoers, and the rain-soaked audience became aglow in soft light. The first few minutes of her performance was a spiritual experience, one in which she saw herself outside of herself: “I was faced with a massive humanity,” she said. It was from this moment during her performance at Woodstock, the practice of an audience illuminating a theater during a concert via lighters or cell-phone apps was developed; Melanie was contacted by MTV a few years ago for a documentary on concert behavior, as this illumination is part of her legacy: “I wish I had a penny for every time someone used one of those apps,” she said.
Even if she did, I think Melanie would still feel the need to get herself across in song. Her new album, “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me,” is the home production work of her late husband and her son, Beau-Jarred, and is a strikingly honest compilation of their work: Beau sought the “pristine, totally musical” recording, while Peter was “old school,” and sought to have sessions with many instrumentalists present at the same session. Melanie talked of the advent of home recording as something that supports one’s need to “live with your creative source energy, and that’s not babble.” From the first track’s multi-tracked Melanie melody-voices across various reverb stages, her new album shimmers with a digital gloss of production and equalization: soft guitars, pianos, quiet guitar licks. Some of the production choices augmented the stellar songwriting; very few choices, in whole, detracted or distracted me. “Tried to Die Young” is a striking ballad that sounds seems to improve upon an early (good) Indigo Girls tender verse-chorus-bridge structure; I’d want to hear Amy and Emily cover this song, electric fiddle solo and all. I realized Melanie had been making records and strumming away in her own rhapsodic trance to audiences for twenty years before the Indigo Girls produced their own first album in 1987; she was a contemporary of Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and other women’s voices in pop and rock that crackled through AM and FM radios in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her career was important to the development of the genre that today supports Natalie Merchant, Alanis Morrisette, and Jewel. Some of the songwriting on “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me” is a fine reflection on her lifelong commitment to her craft;
On Melanie’s latest release, there are lyrics of rains in Nashville, compromised dams and floods that hover above nylon-string, electric, and acoustic guitars, subtly-brushed snare drums, and a variety of digitally-apparent keyboards. In fairness, the home production value of the recording reveals a growing edge in Beau-Jarred and Melanie’s collaboration: the bass, when present, is sometimes soft and synthetic, and the middle-ground of the equalization sometimes left something to be desired: on my Auratones, the drum set nearly disappeared on “He Died for Love,” a shuffling country song about Johnny Cash, featuring brash pasting of sound clips of his introduction of Melanie, from her appearance on his show long ago. Melanie’s voice is up-front present in the mix throughout, and bears little digital effect; some of the musical genre-hopping in the setting and production surrounding her chord changes and melodies makes this album an inventive endeavor in the face of loss. Some of the material on “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me” represents Melanie’s husband Peter’s last production efforts; this album represents her “picking up the pieces” following his passing. I was interested by the song that follows the Cash tribute, for it sounded like, and was as good as, any Peter Gabriel studio effort, with choruses of repeated syllabic chants and sweeping electronic drum programming, including a dramatic large cymbal break, the whole thing bearing a likable Lion King soundtrack vibe. Besides one crude virtual fader-rise at the song’s close, this track was an interesting work in itself. I didn’t expect to be brought to tears by any of this album, but “Hush-a-bye” was such a suddenly simple song of leaving and departure, and sought to imbue love upon sad leaving just hit me, like a ton of bricks, in its lilting and continuing: by the time Melanie had gotten through the tender verses (“life will take over/no won will have won/hush-a-bye, baby, bye bye”), and was simply repeating the song’s chorus against a small-volume band of electric keys, drums and such, the song had become anthemic, and had gained my emotion; I was hearing my own experience being described. I didn’t expect to be so moved.
And, the instrumental that followed this emotional song was perhaps one of the best choices in production, though the flamenco-guitar riffs across the hip-hop beat could have been avoided, or could have come on faster. Instead, the track evolved into something even larger, involving a vocal counter harmony, a synthetic marimba, and a closing featuring some sort of hiss. There were tracks I preferred less for their production, but these sins of overproduction might be overlooked for the album’s songwriting: there wasn’t much keeping this Melanie album from being a female counterpart to Paul Simon’s Brian Eno collaboration albumSurprise (with lyrics like “if everyone smiles we’ll have a hometown all over the world”), complete with interesting Eurotrash-commentary bridge-drum-breaks—though Simon, unlike Melanie, might refrain from the Beatlesque waltz-based sing-along coda. “Every Breath of the Way” sounds like a Steve Forbert song, in production and drive—and some sort of electric mandolin riffs are massive and entertaining, huge and bearing over the mix in a funny and unprofessional way. A bluesy electric number closes the album, and sounds something like Bonnie Raitt or Grace Potter.
On the basis of “Hush-a-bye” and the album’s first four tracks, I was glad to have gotten a copy of this album, and am excited to see Melanie live—because the creative artist might be actually formed and reformed by their interaction with their audience, however dark the theater. It is in that relationship that the spirit of creative human expression may best flourish, however tricky and slick our studios may become. Melanie’s favorite venue of all time is not Woodstock or any outdoor festival, but the Stables, a 400-seat venue in Milton-Keynes, UK, under the direction of Dame Cleo Laine [www.stables.org], and supported by the Arts Council of England. And if she could perform onstage with anyone, Melanie named Nat King Cole—because, she said, she’d be too in awe of Billy Holliday. She mentioned Cat Stevens (now Yusef Islam) as someone she’d like to collaborate with; I told her that was a fantastic new project for her to pursue. For now, besides completion of her touring in 2012, her next project is the production of a work of musical theater, a memoir of her life with her husband, with production, arrangements, and musical direction by her son, Beau Jarred. Melanie and the Record Man, with Nicolette Hart playing the role of Melanie, debuts at the Blackfriars Theater in Rochester, New York in October of 2012. Reviewing her discography—with many titles out of print or unavailable—I am most interested to hear her 1999 release Recorded Live @ Borders as much as I am her 1972 at Carnegie Hall release. I most look forward to seeing her live.
For more from Melanie: http://www.melaniesafka.com/home.cfm
Catch Melanie at Tupelo Music Hall
March 9—White River Junction, Vermont
March 10—Londonderry, New Hampshire