Melanie and her boyfriend Peter were walking in Greenwich Village
one fall day in 1968 and looking for a Mexican pottery shop. Melanie,
still two years away from her first big hit, Lay Down (Candles
in the Rain), had an acoustic guitar strapped over her shoulder.
Descending a flight of stairs, they heard a familiar song coming from where? Melanie felt total panic, disorientation. It was her song, Beautiful People, which had been released only the day before.
"Where? Where's that music coming from?" she said, struggling for breath. "Are you hearing it too, Peter?"
"Yeah, I hear it."
They followed the music into the Capezio shoe store.
" That's my song, That's my song," Melanie exclaimed.
The clerks exchanged wary glances. "Where's it coming from?"
"What? What station," Melanie implored.
Melanie and Peter rushed out of the store and called the DJ. His name was Rosco. He played only stuff that was "totally heavy."
A blissed-out hippie folk singer wasn't expected to act this way when first hearing her song on the radio, or so the cliché goes. Heavy lids, a shrug and "Far out, man," would have been the more appropriate response.
Nearly 23 years later, Melanie (last name Safka), a Bay area resident
for five years, is sitting in the pastel-and-stone courtyard of
St. Petersburg's Heritage Grill laughing ruefully about her early
image as the prototypical flower child Hippie Chick No. 1. It
was an image that was never really her, she's saying, but the
notion somehow became carved in granite. When flower power became
passé, so did Melanie.
The post-Woodstock anthem Lay Down hit the Top 10 in 1970, The whimsical Brand New Key ("I've got a brand new pair of roller- skates / you've got a brand new key") stayed at No. I for three weeks the next year. ' Because of the song's playful allusion to sex, a few stations even banned it. Three minor hits and two years later, Bitter Bad barely made it into the Top 40, ending Melanie's chart run.
So far. She hasn't thrown in the towel altogether.
"You have hit records once, you want another one," Melanie, 44, says, with an accent that shows hints of her Queens, N.Y., upbringing.
Is she making a push to get back into the race.?
"Yes? says Peter (last name Schekeryk,, her husband of more than 20 years) declaratively.
"I guess so," says Melanie after a pause. "At a
certain point some years ago I looked around and realized that
this was not going to be the world I would sing in, and I was
gonna do something else, so I did folk festivals in Europe. No
problem. But I sense this is a good time for me, and if people,
want to hear more, well then, yeah."
She half-smiles, shrugs. Never once did she stop writing or playing
for people. Melanie won an Emmy in '89 for writing the lyrics
to - The First Time I Ever Loved Forever, a song from Beauty and
the Beast. Her newest disc, Precious Cargo, is due out in a couple
of weeks. It's being released on Melanie and Peter's own Independent
label but with wide distribution. It's her first U.S. album in
Melanie has also made over Ben E. King's Stand By Me into Stand By You. Which she hopes will become a sound track for the troops returning from the Persian Gulf. And she'll headline her first bay area concerts in more than a decade on April 19~20 at the State Theater in St. Petersburg.
More than two decades ago, in the era of "Just Say Yes,"
Melanie didn't exactly say "no," but she made a lot
"I was definitely afraid of drugs, which was certainly not
fashionable," she says with a chuckle. "A real artist
had to try everything and be (dragged down into the pits, and
then you could really know. I never bought that. I didn't like
alcohol at all. I smoked a little grass and didn't particularly
like that either.
"But everybody was so whacked. Yeah, I was sober in a lot
of those situations, but I didn't admit it. "Wanna do a little
clear light (LSD)?' " No .I have a headache. Not tonight.
I did something else before.' It was very hard. I was always excusing
myself from the room."
There's a glib axiom among survivors of that period. If you really lived through the '60s, you can't possibly remember them.
Woodstock. '69. She came on stage, and it was raining. The announcer
said something about peace and love. The audience lighted candles.
To Melanie, looking out on the hill, it was as if the entire universe was little flickering lights. The experience moved her to write Lay Down (Candles in the Rain); the song became a cue for fans to light candles during her concerts.
Sometimes she had to sign an agreement not to sing the song because
the candles would violate a concert hall's fire code. In time,
fans started holding aloft lighters and matches at other artists'
concerts. The ritual persists to this day.
Isle of Wight, 1970, Britain's answer to Woodstock. Backstage,
the Who, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone and
other big acts were bickering about who would close the show.
they were afraid to follow each other on stage. Melanie piped
up and said she'd strap on her acoustic guitar and play last.
Peter was hopping mad.
She came on near dawn, looked out and saw nothing but English
mist. The crowd slept. The crew was dismantling the stage.
A few minutes into her set, some heads popped up above the fog.
Shortly after, more heads. Within an hour, the entire crowd was
on its feet, transfixed. A couple of weeks later, Peter recalls,
Melanie had two albums in the English Top 10.
There were the bad memories, too. By the mid '70s, she was "guilty
by suspicion. I was an anathema," Melanie says, sliding into
a mock whisper, " "She's a hippie."'
San Francisco rock impresario Bill Graham, once a strong Melanie
advocate, wouldn't take her calls. Jackson Browne, who had opened
concerts for Melanie at one point, refused to share a bill with
her a few years later.
Neil Young, ensconced in a post-punk phase, had her bounced from
a European concert bill. A record exec extended a contract offer
and gave Melanie a song, Breakfast in Bed, a barely veiled metaphor
for oral sex. She turned it down. Another label wanted her to
have an abortion.
"I was never really upset about losing the popularity; that was kind of relief," Melanie says. "I did get hurt by the transition, the total change. People seemed to like you once, and then they wouldn't even talk to you."
Through all the highs and lows, Melanie has remained steadfast
in her belief of basic '60s tenets. "A renaissance began
on Earth," she says, sipping from a glass of wine. "I
was there; I knew it. It was a recognition of the value of humanity,
that we were connected somehow, that there was more to life than
the American Dream and accumulating a bunch of stuff and not sharing
"The '60s were about the higher levels that mankind could reach. It got exploited, infiltrated somehow. We lost. Humanity lost a great battle."
Peter produces a guitar, hands it to Melanie. It appears as if,
like it or not, she's going to perform a few songs in the sunny
St. Petersburg courtyard. She flicks her thick hair once dark,
now blond out of her face and ponders what song to play.
Peter suggests something Arlo Guthrie wrote for her, a tongue-in-cheek
number in which an '80s son tells his mother, "Oh ma/Your
universal love is/Such a drag."
Melanie has what she calls a "big voice." Singing and strumming, she turns inward, holds nothing back during this charming private performance,. Her pipes retain that touch of warble from the old days. She sings coyly, conversationally, and then throws her head back and blows down walls, loud enough to startle a passer-by.
Peter beams. He's surely witnessed this thousands of times but sits in rapt attention. Melanie does a few more tunes some old, some new including a short turn at Lay Down.
At this moment she appears totally relaxed, thoroughly alive.
"Another thing that really saves an Artist who is successful, then not successful, is that basically I went into making music because I love it" she says, smiling and cocking an eyebrow. 'There's - a notion for you."