The Good Times of South Florida, April 3-16, 1979
Melanie's Got a Brand New Key
by John Robson
Presenting, for your inspection, at Gusman Hall April 10, the revised 1979 edition of everybody's favorite Whole-Earth Mother, Melanie. But wait, this year's model features disco curls courtesy of the Grove Haircutters, a hot new rock and roll album courtesy of Tony Battaglia, Stan Kippr and a bunch of excellent South Florida session men, and, purportedly, a whole new generation of fans.
"I see all the young faces out in the crowd," she says, "and I know they all couldn't just remember me."
For the record, though It does pay to remember a couple of things. To wit, Melanie has a career total of l9 albums, 22 million records sold, and the singular distinction of being the only woman in the last twenty years to simultaneously place three tunes in the Top 40. While these are the figures of which hype sheets are made, it does point out the fact that the lady has enjoyed a hell of a lot of success. When such a person deigns to inaugurate a comeback it may be a mistake to dismiss it lightly, as many are currently doing.
She Still's Got Her Song
For openers she recorded her new album in a method that is definitely unusual, if not unique, It is a live album that was recorded in the studio. About 40 people a night were invited to attend the sessions at Fort Lauderdale's Triiad Studio. Michael Laskow, Triiad's chief engineer, said the sessions were recorded in a very relaxed atmosphere. Visitors were allowed to talk and wander about.
Ballroom Streets, the new LP, is a strong rock and roll effort, the strongest criticism of which I've heard is that sounds too damn much like Melanie. To her that would be no criticism at all. Her voice has always been unmistakable, first quavering, then rolling into the gutter, emerging into tremeloes marred by occasional crackling and finally, toward the end of a performance, smoothing out to a really pleasurable, mellow instrument. Not exactly pear-shaped tones, but something a lot more interesting.
And a lot more interesting, she asserts, than the current crop of females riding the Ronstadt wave." All the ones that are making it now seem to be trying to sound alike. You know, from Karla Bonoff to Nicolette, they all sound alike." The mention of Rita Coolidge brings an "Uhh!" and Dolly Parton receives this critique, "I heard one of her hits on the radio the other day and said 'that's me five years ago.' "
What about female vocalists she does like, I query, and suddenly the image comes back. "They're all dead now," she tells me. It's a horrifying testimony to the "Age of Aquarius" for the ones she liked were her contemporaries, already gone as Melanie moves through her early thirties, a self-professed survivor.
Before we could dismiss those days though, there were a few gaps I had to fill in if for no other reason than personal edification. I pass along the information that Alice Brock had been forced out of business by, of all things, an anti-billboard ordinance and Melanie, who once penned and sang the words, "Did you ever eat at Alice's Restaurant? I eat at Alice's Restaurant year after year, she makes an animal cracker pizza and she gives animal crackers out free with her beer" fails to make the connection. I explain, and she confesses that she had never met Alice, but finds it distressing none the less that Alice's Restaurant is no more
This leads us down the path of Melanie as symbol of the halycon days of the '60s. Against the backdrop of violence and discord that marked the era, Melanie seemed slightly surreal, too good to be true. An early vegetarian, a pacifist, and, yes, an unashamed 'fatty,' she was an easy alternative to the strident voices being raised around her. It was a picture of vulnerability and it won her many lasting fans.
"I didn't want to get up on a pedestal, to try to change things," she now says, "things just came to my mind, and I wrote songs about them. I guess I did seem like an angel, in white flowing robes, smiling and a little fat, but I wasn't like Donovan, making a whole thing out of it."
In her Leftover Wine album there are some liner notes that refer to her bond with her audience and then say, "Hands reached from cufflinked sleeves and pull her backstage where the people who handle her business arrangements congratulated her on a good night's work." They were trading on that precious vulnerability, but today Melanie laughs. "You have to remember that I released my first album at 19; my first single at 18. I was an old lady singer by the tine of Leftover Wine.
If she was an "old lady singer" in 1970, one hates to look for self-appraisal now, but there's no doubt that she's the same Melanie as regards her reaction to contemporary trends. Now that vegetarianism is all the rage, I'm shocked to catch her munching on spare ribs for dinner. "I'm not a vegetarian. I was for maybe three years, but I think for a person like me, with all the energy, you need meat. I never really liked red meat, so that wasn't a problem."
Disco. A bit of the seventies that she can't be ignoring, what with her new curls and all. Her answer is quick, her laugh infectious, "I'm gonna do an album (pause) yeah. I'm gonna call it, "Disco Plague" (pause, laugher). I'm gonna have cuts like "Disco Disaster," "Disco Hurricane," etc.'' There's another pause and then she comes up with the ultimate nugget of disco wisdom. "You know, disco isn't the best dance music. It is if you want to hustle, but if you want to dance, if you want to use the body you know...you need something with a lot of left hand rhythm, you know. "
A third mark of the late '70s is the resurgence of interest in Buddy Holly. To this she pleads a strange kind of ignorance. "When I was growing up, he was the only one...he was the only one who meant anything to me. 'Oh Boy' (her 1978 single of the Holly standard) was just a thing we did to fill time. It's not on the album - I recorded it before the whole thing. Somebody finally told me 'it's Buddy Holly Year' or something. It was only released in Florida, no promotion or anything. The record company just didn't get behind it.''
One thing that Melanie is doing that could prove to be significant to her career is an expansion of her range into the realm of Broadway. Specifically, she's working on a musical based on the life of one of America's early heroines, Calamity Jane. Jane, wife of Wild Bill Hickcock, lived the kind of life Thomas Berger had in mind when he wrote Little Big Man, and could provide the kind of material needed for a Broadway sleeper. The fact that Nat Shapiro, who profited handsomely from his involvement in a little thing called Hair a decade ago, is working with her lends no small amount of creditability to the project.
For now, though, the important consideration is what the concert goer will get for his money when Melanie kicks off her Spring tour with the gig at Gusman Hall; Unfortunately it will be something of a pig in the poke. Ostensibly she will come out rocking and rolling, but the band behind her won't be the same one that made Ballroom Streets such a nice package. They've been replaced by a crew from Cleveland called "Silk and Steel" about whom nothing is known in this neck of the woods. "Running After Love," her latest single, will no doubt be included, but nostalgia buffs need not worry about missing "Beautiful People," "Brand New Key," or "Candles In The Rain." If the record company is represented she may even cut loose with "Oh Boy" and force their heads out of the sand. It really is the best shot she's taken in some time and currently stands as the sure hit that didn't hit.
For someone who was quite comfortable with mellow, beautiful person, it'll be a treat to see a meat-eating rock and roller kick it out in the midst of acoustic perfection.
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