From Marc Mercurio's archives
AFTER DARK November 1978
MELANIE -- "PIAF IN PIGTALS"
by Steven Gaines
Dismissed by some critics as being too cute and sickly sweet, the power and compelling beauty of Melanie's voice and songs were often overlooked. She feels that her new album, Phonogenic -- Not Just Another Pretty Face, strikes a successful balance. (Photo by Lynn Goldsmith, Inc.)
She streaks down the streets of New York City, smiling at strangers on Park Avenue who return her cherubic grin with curious stares. But the unfriendliness of the city doesn't discourage Melanie not even from literally running down the street after Eartha Kitt to say she is an admirer. Eartha Kitt looks questioningly around her. "Melanie?" she drawls like a clarinet. Then it dawns on her: "Melanie! You sing 'Beautiful People'!"
Later, caught in a traffic jam in a taxi, a very different Melanie peers anxiously out the window at the roof of the Coliseum Building where a man is threatening to Jump. "I just don't understand why someone would want to kill themself," she says thoughtfully. "Although once, when I was very depressed, I tried to drown myself in a bathtub in Japan."
Many moods, many faces, thirty-one-year-old Melanie still adds up to one pretty, round-faced, childlike singer-songwriter with a voice that runs the gamut from whimper to blast, who one critic described as "Edith Piaf in pigtails." Her checkerboard career includes nineteen albums with sales of twenty-two million records world-wide, and a variety of hit singles like the novelty song "Brand New Key" to the gospel sound of "Candles in the Rain" or the plaintively cute "Look What They've Done to My Song."
But still, Melanie Safka, with all the hit records, two beautiful daughters, Leilah, 5, and Jeordie, 3, a New Jersey home converted from a priest's retreat with stained glass windows and indoor pool, and a handsome producer-manager-husband, Peter Schekeryk, straight from the Ukrainian Black Mountains, is missing something: satisfaction. Or, as Melanie puts it, "I wasn't getting it back." Although her albums sold, she has traditionally been greeted with critical sneers. Labelled as a folk singer and all too-often accurately accused of being too cute and sickly sweet, her career never took the direction she wanted. Ironically, the song that damned her the most, "Beautiful People," never reached Top 40 on the charts and stigmatized her as a "flower child" years later. "Who needed to be a flower child in 1973?" she asks with a defeated shrug.
Often the power and compelling beauty of her voice was overlooked, as was the tremendous range of her song-writing. Nobody sings a more poignant Christmas carol and "Candles in the Rain" is certainly a classic piece of musicianship. Yet even her most critically acclaimed LP, Photograph, which pointed her up as a maturing singer-songwriter of increasing range, never became a hit. Her most recent LP, Phonogenic -- Not Just Another Pretty Face, on Midsong Records, accompanies her first public appearances since she retired from an active career in unhappiness and desperation in 1972. "That's when the Japanese suicide happened," Melanie admits cheerfully at a corner table in the Gingerman Restaurant, pleasantly high on white wine. "I was at the peak of my career, ironically. I had sold millions of records all over the world, I had made it, but I decided something was wrong. I wasn't getting anything out of it. I lost the reason for why I got into it. I didn't want to be another name with a cute face that got thrown around. I wanted to be listened to, but all people played was "Brand New Key." I was in Japan on a UNICEF tour and I got into the tub and tried to breathe in water, but I kept on coughing and couldn't stay down. "Where's my teddy-bear pocketbook?" she asks, searching under the table for a furry bag with button eyes. "I wrote this on a Japanese post card as a suicide note. I just found it last week in my desk." She reads aloud:
I had enough of everything, thank you.
Enough jelly for my toast,
enough toast, enough early breakfast.
I've had enough, thank you.
Enough past, enough moon in my love,
enough sun in my meditation,
enough hot and cold running water,
enough green in my summer,
gold in my fall
enough sun in my winter
and enough to change their order.
Enough divinity, enough isolation,
enough city, enough country,
enough cats, enough left over to make a celebration,
and too much jelly for my own toast.
From the beginning, her goal was to entertain. Born in Queens, New York, and raised in New Jersey, Melanie always felt like a sneaker in a Gucci factory. At sixteen, eager to break into show biz, she ran away from home, bought a blond wig, and changed her name to Eve Dane. In a week she wound up in Hollywood at a pink stucco rooming-house called the Hollywood Studio Club for Girls. "I discovered the town like a sponge discovering water," she remembers with a mischievous giggle, "but nobody who wears a blond wig and is named Eve Dane is taken seriously. One night after a bad adventure, the landlady called me on the house phone at four in the morning and said, 'Melanie?' and when I said 'Yes?' I thought, "Oh my gosh! they know my name!" Sure enough, it was the police. They locked me up in a girl's detention home in a room with a toilet bowl and a sink. I was there for weeks before my Dad found out where I was and came to get me out." Not many years later, after studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she went to an audition for Dark of the Moon, her favorite play, and got lost in the Brill Building where she stumbled into the offices of a music publisher and promptly started to cry because she was missing her audition. The publishers auditioned her themselves instead, and a young producer working for them, Peter Schekeryk, swooned over both Melanie and her music. They ran away to Atlantic City together that night and haven't been apart since. Not only did Peter help sign her to her first recording contract with Columbia Records, he married her too.
For harmony, her marriage fared better than her recording career. Melanie considered herself an artist; the recording industry is a hard-nosed business, where artistic success lags far behind commercial success on the scale of importance. Although she had her share of hit singles, they were almost accidental. "I never wanted a singles career," she explains. "I just put out albums with very little thought to singles. My job was to make music, not hit records. What was important to me was musical communication."
She feels she has achieved the satisfying balance with her new album, Phonogenic, a word her husband coined to describe the disc. Surprisingly, only four of the ten songs on the LP are Melanie's own compositions. The others are an eclectic grouping by songwriters as diverse as Lennon-McCartney to Jesse Winchester. "What I want," Melanie says, beaming, "is to be able to work. And whatever I have to do, I'm gonna do it. For awhile my career just went to sleep. But I can't stand to be away from an audience. If there was any disillusionment in my life, it was never from my fans."
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