April 7, 2000

Melanie at Green Wood

(A Postscript to the Garden)

by: Fredrik King


Like my last essay on Melanie A Day in the Garden: Return to Woodstock this is a lengthy report (very possibly with more detail than the reader would care to have--"more information than you wanted to know," as Melanie quipped during her performance about an entirely different matter)--but I'd rather err on the side of caution and include as much as memory will serve.
               Ann Arbor, MI is slightly over an hour away from my home on the east side of Detroit, but the Green Wood--a Methodist church that sponsors monthly appearances of various artists--had open seating, and I had no idea how many people would show up, so I arrived early, about five hours early.
               The Green Wood itself doesn't look like a church. It rather looks like a large cottage, resting against a backdrop of wooded acreage that dips downward. The building itself stands on a hill, although this isn't obvious until you see the side of the building, where a second level descends down along the side of the hill.

It's a very beautiful structure, and with the wooded lot around it, suggests an idyllic peacefulness.
               The parking lot before the building was nearly empty. A van was parked before the entrance, with perhaps two other vehicles parked elsewhere on the lot. It began to rain with cold and needle-thin drops. I pulled out a novel and settled back to read while I waited. Presently, a lovely young lady emerged and walked to my truck. Telling her I was here for the Melanie performance, and had evidently arrived way too early, she pleasantly asked if I could park my vehicle on the grassy portion of the lot beside the paved parking area, in order to make room for what she told me was a virtually sold-out show. I pulled up over the curb of the lot onto the grass, right next to the trees. From there I could see the side of the Green Wood, how the second level moved down the hill, and through the glass walls I could see shadowy forms rushing about setting up tripods and cameras. I again took up my novel and began my wait.

               I was the first of the audience to arrive. Presently over the next few hours other cars trickled in. It continued to rain, not a torrential storm, just a steady drizzle, and the temperature began to drop rapidly. At one point the rain turned into sleet. By 6:30 enough people arrived that they braved the dropping temperature to gather in front of the main entrance to ensure getting good seats. I joined them, doing my best to keep my teeth from chattering. At A Day in the Garden, my problem was to avoid being parboiled in the August sun at Yasgur's Farm; now I had to worry about turning into a Popsicle.
               About a dozen people were chatting about Melanie and their past experiences with seeing Melanie perform. As I've learned to expect, quite a few were from out-of-state. One fellow was from Toledo; another, I heard later, had traveled all the way from Utah! One lady was accompanied by her daughter, who she named after Melanie. Tonight, her daughter would get to meet her namesake. One interesting point of commonality, beyond our obvious appreciation for Melanie and her music, was the Internet. Pat and David's websites were mentioned several times, and I mentioned to several people the new website set up by Robert Ian Smith. One fellow had read my essay on A Day in the Garden. What I found interesting about all this was that the internet made it possible for those fans of Melanie who had lost contact with her, were able to connect with Melanie again through this technological change in our lives, enabling us to purchase CDs available from overseas, as well as access to websites that kept us alerted about Melanie's appearances. While I have grave misgivings about this new era of cyberspace, the Web was entirely responsible for my being able to be here tonight.
               Shortly before 7:30, the entrance doors swung open, and the group--now swollen to about two-dozen surged in to take seats. As we passed through the vestibule showing our tickets, I saw a table set up with CDs (mostly the "Antlers" album, with other CDs in paper sleeves, and a pile of Melanie glossies.) The wooden chairs, with comfortable upholstered seats and backs, were arranged in a "U" pattern on a flat floor, the horizontal portion of the U comprising the center column and the most rows of chairs. Next to the vestibule entrance, in the main hall, were several tables arranged with coffee, soft drinks, and a variety of snacks and pastries. Quite a few people immediately lined up to purchase some goodies. I was too excited to think about eating. In front of that center section was a large rug covering the floor. There was no elevated stage. The rear wall was smoky glass, allowing us a beautiful view into the woods. I took the third chair in the front row on the left column of the U pattern; a few paces from the performers. I couldn't believe my good luck--even people in the back row would be quite close to the performers. While people continued to file in, I looked at the small array of equipment on the rug-covered area that would serve as the stage. A couple of acoustic guitars were resting on stands; near the fore edge of the rug was some electronic equipment, a couple of guitar foot pedal controls, a small portable folding wood table. I placed my knapsack on my chair, went back to the vestibule to purchase a Melanie photo and some of the paper-sleeved CDs, and rushed back to my chair.

               A few minutes after 8:00, through the windows of the secondary entrance that separated the vestibule from the main church, we saw Melanie enter the vestibule. She was escorted by Peter to a side room. Many of you reading this, who have known Melanie personally for many years, or have talked to her on several occasions, may or may not appreciate how surreal this scene seemed to me: seeing Melanie indistinctly from a distance a hundred or more feet away on a huge stage, as was the case for me at A Day in the Garden last August, is one thing: to see her so close was simply stunning, as I said, almost surreal, like a dream.

               Melanie re-emerged a few minutes later, with her son, Beau-Jarred following (her daughters, Leilah and Jeordie were not present for this performance), to cheers and applause. Melanie was simply beautiful. Her hair was platinum and shoulder length, and she wore a flowing black dress that draped to the floor, ornamented with red flowers and yellow curliques. Beau, in denim jeans and shirt, moved to Melanie's right. He carried a solid body pine-colored guitar with a series of electronic slide controls on the upper body above the strings. He strummed a few notes that didn't produce any sound: someone pointed out he hadn't connected his instrument to the pickup! We all laughed good-naturedly. Melanie, meanwhile, had taken up her acoustic and plugged her pickup in. The performance was on.

               After an opening guitar instrumental, Melanie spoke with us--it's hard to refer to this relatively small group by so formal a term as "audience" because Melanie's close proximity to us made us feel like just a large group of friends--about an "obscure Melanie song" which turned out to be "Let it Flow"--hardly an obscure song, since so many people, I noticed, had original LPs of "Stoneground Words" (I had "Stoneground" with me as well, because while being one of my favorite Melanie albums, it also has a neat photographic portfolio inside. I was hoping to get one of those photos autographed.) In calling "Let it Flow" a Melanie song, she commented laughingly on the peculiarities of referring to oneself in the third person. (Was she thinking about certain political chowder heads in the past dozen years who talk about themselves in the third person, usually a warning sign of someone to watch out for?) It was a real blast to hear "Let it Flow" live, a song that I took so much comfort in the seventies when I was something of a hippy myself in the good old days when people were in so much conflict, yet at the same time seemed to be coming together in the spirit of the era of Woodstock.

               This turned into a lengthy performance, far longer than I would have expected. Melanie sang, "You Call Yourself a Writer," "To Be a Star," and "Ring Around the Moon." (My thanks to Karla for her superior notes on the song line up, which caught a few, I missed.) After a few songs, Melanie worked up a sweat and was looking for a towel to remove the moisture on her face: a towel wasn't on the wooden table, so I reached into my knapsack (ex Boy-Scout that I am), pulled out a small package of tissues, called to Beau, who was only a few feet from me, and tossed him the package. Beau passed the tissues to Melanie but someone brought a towel so she didn't need the tissues. During the performance at one point, between sips from a coffee cup on the small wooden table before her, she occasionally took up a bottle of fluid with an eyedropper, squeezing drops of what she explained were Vitamin A to ease her throat. She explained about how singers develop little bumps--I think she called them calluses--on their vocal cords, and how singers panic and get them surgically removed. "They're just calluses," she said, dropping more Vitamin A into her open mouth. "This is probably more than you want to know," she added, laughing. "Have you noticed that's last year's expression? `More than you wanted to know,'" referring to catch phrases that enjoy a momentary vogue. (Like "This is true" from the `80s. This year the new phrase seems to be "Let's do this.") (Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane completely ruined her voice from vocal operations--although smoking and drinking probably helped--and another popular singer is currently suing someone because a vocal operation damaged her singing.)               Melanie was in rare form and chatted quite a lot with the audience. She spoke about how people become outlaws in today's world "because the laws are stupid," which produced great applause.

She launched into "On the Lam from the Law," and then a follow-up "outlaw" song, "Pretty Boy Floyd." Somewhere about this time, Melanie's energetic strumming caused a string to snap. SPRANG! She didn't miss a stroke and finished the song. She picked up the second acoustic guitar, cedar colored, that she explained used to be her old guitar that she gave to Beau, and that Beau has since "tweaked" for his own distinctive style of playing. The strings, she said laughingly, felt like "mosquitoes." Meanwhile, a gentleman came to remove the first guitar to replace the broken string. That one only lasted a song or two before the same string snapped again. SPRANG!

               Beau's guitar playing is simply remarkable, and on a couple occasions when he moved into a sustained guitar solo, it was amazing to watch him work. Beau plays guitar in a way most of us can only dream of: instead of the usual method of striking the strings with a pick, Beau uses all of his fingers to pluck at several strings at the same time, with lightning speed that is impossible to follow with the eye, the kind of playing one only observes with masters of the guitar like Leona Boyd or John Williams, and indeed, there is a clear Spanish influence in his playing, which adds a new dimension to Melanie's singing as well as a harmonious counterpoint to Melanie's more traditional folk method. There is something that invokes awe in such talent, the ability to play in such a complex manner and make it look so natural you wonder why everyone can't do it. That of course is the difference between the amateur and a true musical genius. In playing in accompaniment with Melanie's strumming, mother and son often locked eyes in pure joy of playing music together. It was quite beautiful to watch.

               In addition to Beau's Spanish-influenced playing, however, Beau adds synthesized effects, particularly with songs like "Baby Day." Before that song began, Melanie introduced us to the lady who was responsible for making the arrangements to bring Melanie to Michigan, Katie Geddes. Melanie invited her up to the stage area. A lovely young woman wearing a flowery dress walked up to the stage, and I realized it was the same lady who I met out in the parking lot hours before! As Melanie sang "Baby Day," Beau and Katie sang the background refrain; Katie and Beau's combined voices provided the perfect gentle chorus for "Baby Day," while Beau's (MIDI) synth effects invoked the celestial feeling of the rising sun.
               And of course, no Melanie concert would be complete without "Brand New Key." As Melanie and Beau were strumming the opening chords, Melanie explained how "Key" came to be born (you can hear the same story on the Borders CD): Melanie was evidently trying to clean out her body of impurities and toxins, and on the advice of her guru chose a rather radical method--a 27 day total fast, drinking only water. Distilled water, yet. (No minerals, even!) After this extended fast that would try a saint, Melanie laughingly suggested she was hoping to see God. We were laughing along with her, the implication that after weeks of fasting one is likely to see any number of starvation-induced hallucinations. Finally, at the end of her fast, she went to the most unlikely of places--McDonalds--and ordered a hamburger with all the trimmings. A doctor told her she needed meat because she had Type O blood. "How many of you are Type O?" she asked us. A number of people raised their hands. "Well, you're all meat-eaters," she said, laughing. (I wonder if this is why my repeated attempts at vegetarianism have always failed?) Melanie apparently wasn't the only one looking for God; Beau's own composition, "The Angel Song," was written in response to a visit by an angel. While he was performing this song, with Melanie as backup vocal, one of those marvelous moments happened where we all realize we're human: Beau forgot one of the verses to his own song! But Melanie made us feel like a group of friends, so these little flubs added to the joy of the occasion. He completed the song, and he and Melanie launched into the hysterically funny "Florida Song," Melanie's wry tribute to the state where she and Peter moved to raise their children, and where Beau was born. Certainly it was much warmer in Florida, compared to the rain and sleet we were experiencing in Ann Arbor, which we Michiganians take in stride even in April, but was a bit too cold for Melanie. "I guess I'm getting thin-blooded," she quipped. "Let's move to Florida," she sang, "Where the people don't know what's happening at all..."               Melanie and Beau completed the set with "Momma, Momma," "Ruby Tuesday," and "Friends and Company," to repeated resounding applause--and on one song, a standing applause. The entire performance, with a brief break, ran until midnight, nearly three solid hours.

               After Melanie and Beau set down their guitars, Katie reappeared in front of the mike to tell everyone that Melanie would be out in a few minutes to sign autographs. A meandering group--I would estimate most of the crowd, at least a hundred--attempted to form a line from inside to the church, and led into the vestibule where the photos and CDs were displayed, where presumably Melanie would sit to sign stuff. It was cramped, to say the least. I was inside the church, moving to the end of one of the branches of people waiting their turn to file into the vestibule to see Melanie and sign photos and CDs. I had the Borders CD, "Stoneground Words" with a couple of the original portfolio photos. I moved to the end of the line to the left of the vestibule entrance to the church, by the administrative office, where I would be the last to see Melanie.

               Peter came out of the administrative area, and pulled up a wooden table that had been cleared of pastries and snacks, and planted it near the wall next to me. Melanie wasn't going to sign at the vestibule table--she was signing here, in front of me! Instead of being the last, I was going to be the first!       Melanie at last came out. But I didn't have any time to brace myself--my tongue completely twisted itself into a Gordian knot, and swear I was actually trembling. With shaking fingers I placed my photos and CD on the table as Melanie came out, wearing a hat, and seated herself between the wall and the table.

               There is no accurate way to describe my reaction to meeting Melanie. She took my presumptuously held out hand in greeting--I was still trying to untie my tongue--while I thought, "Who was I to take up even a moment of this magic lady's time?" But looking at Melanie's eyes, soulful and gentle, I managed to introduce myself, explaining that I had wanted to meet her for so long, and that I wrote an essay about her appearance at A Day in the Garden. To my amazement, Melanie had read the essay! (I hadn't realized Melanie actually read the article, although I was told she knew of its existence.) She explained, "I thought I saw everyone there," alluding to the fact that I hadn't met her on that day in August. (A brief aside: Many people wrongly believe that fans have a right to meet a performer after a concert, and that simply isn't the case: you pay to see a singer perform. If the performer is kind enough to meet with their fans afterwards, if time permits, that's a bonus, but one that fans should not necessarily expect, and certainly one that fans shouldn't demand. It should also be remembered that it was unbearably hot during A Day in the Garden, and Melanie had a performance immediately scheduled after the Garden gig. People shouldn't expect superhuman performance from their favorite artists.)         Melanie realized she didn't have anything to sign with. Someone--Katie, I think--produced a handful of colored markers. But color markers don't really do a very good job at signing photos because of their transparency, so out came my black Sharpie marker pen, the same one that Jeordie used when she met fans at A Day in the Garden. (Ex-boy-scout, remember?) Melanie signed my items, and then was about to hand the Sharpie back to me, but she still didn't have anything to sign with. I told Melanie to please keep the marker. I didn't want to take up any more of her time because there was a wave of people behind me just as anxious to see Melanie as I, so I moved out of the line.

               Beau had emerged, and after I introduced myself (Beau remembered a recommendation letter I wrote to his tutor a couple of years ago at the request of Patti Petow), and I asked about his guitar playing. He enthusiastically said, "Here, let me show you," and led me back to where his equipment was set up on the stage, including his guitar. "It that a solid body guitar?" I asked, and he handed it to me. With all the electronic controls, I had wondered if the flat guitar was actually solid or loaded to the gills with esoteric electronic gizmos. It is indeed solid body, and heavy. Not as heavy as, say, my Les Paul copy, but darn heavy enough. "It gets pretty heavy after playing it awhile," said Beau. He explained how the pedals activated synth effects, which he programmed-- "I started out playing a guitar, now I'm an engineer" he said jokingly. He explained to me how much he loves playing music with his mother, and how he hopes to put his own band together. I asked him if he was a fan of classical Spanish guitar, because I noticed that much of his playing seems to be Spanish-influenced. He said that indeed he was heavily influenced by Spanish guitarists, and named several who I never heard of. (Not surprising--I know almost nothing about classical music.)             While talking with Beau, asking me about his music and his plans for a career in music, I was amazed at his self-composed, articulate presentation of himself. He is extraordinarily well spoken, very friendly, and at ease with himself and the people who came up to him to ask him to sign items. As a former schoolteacher, I would have given a limb to have students like Beau in my classroom. Clearly, Melanie is not only a great singer and songwriter, and Peter a great producer, but together they are wonderful parents.

               After a few more moments of chatting--and getting him to take a photo of Melanie and me with my disposable camera--I left to allow Beau to finish collecting his equipment. As I headed out, I called out to Melanie, who was signing the last few fans' items, "Miss Safka, thank you for coming to Michigan!"            Back in my truck, with many of the cars gone, I headed out of the rain-covered parking lot in a daze. There were almost no street-lamps on the roads in this part of Ann Arbor, and I got lost. After a half hour of wandering black roads, I found myself back in the Green Wood parking lot, trying to read a map and figure out how to get back home. Presently, a car pulled up next to mine, and lowered the passenger window. Someone had taken pity on the poor dolt in the Blazer trying to read a map. I saw Katie Geddes' face.

"I'm trying to find the interstate," I told Katie lamely. She was heading in the same direction, and she graciously allowed me to follow her car. I was able to follow her car back to I-94, and from there I was on my way home.

               When I came back from Melanie's performance at A Day in the Garden almost eight months to the day prior to Green Wood, I truly thought that would be the last time I would see Melanie perform. I can't begin to express how fortunate I felt at having this chance, courtesy of Katie and the Green Wood folks, as well as the Melanie websites and DES Records--and of course, Melanie!-- to be able to see Melanie again, this time in person. In my library awaiting framing, are signatures of Melanie that I thought I would never see, something substantial to remind me in the years to come that the experience wasn't a dream.

My heartfelt thanks to all who made this possible, and I hope that those among you, who haven't seen Melanie will be able to do so very soon.

       Now, does someone know how I can send a six-pack of black Sharpie felt-tip pens to Melanie?                                                                       Peace, Fredrik King


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