Melanie Is Love

by Margaret English

Look, January 12, 1971


Who reaches the young today? How can you even ask when your son has hitched off for a weekend wallow at a pop festival, or when your daughter has traded her body to a rock star for a spot in his world? The kids can't hear you when the stereo's on.

Rock music is perhaps the most powerful communicating force working on our children, and clearly their response is something besides music appreciation. Rock singers are the only people some kids listen to at all. They read little. They relate to few films. TV has moulded their perceptions and behaviour but not the substance of their thought. The ideas come from rock and rock musicians, who fill the gap with blaring revelations. And the kids follow the beat, seeking more than just music. To get a better look at the quest, I went on a concert tour with my friend Melanie. I wanted to watch kids respond to someone I knew -- to observe the fantasy, not share it.

Melanie's audience is a warm affectionate bundle of puppy loveables. They leave gifts by the microphone for her. They shout, "We love you," from the balcony. While she's singing, the kids leave their seats, climb onto the stage, and snuggle around her. It's a very sweet, dramatic gesture. Melanie is both touched and frightened by it. She's pleased that the kids want to come close, but, like any performer, is basically more comfortable with them on the other side of the footlights. It's hard to tell just what the kids want up there. No one touches her. Hardly any of them speak.

I've gone onto the stage with them and asked what they were doing there. The answers are vague:

"Just to be there, you know. Just to be there with her."

"To be close. Like I feel we have things in common -- that she understands me."

"It's what you do at a Melanie concert. It's what you do if you're one of her people."

"It's like a demonstration, how we show who we're for."

A demonstration. The audience has become part of the act. Youth is a major news-and-entertainment feature these days, and every kid knows what to do in a walk-on role. Television has given them subliminal dramatic training. To be young today is to be an instinctive performer -- at at a peace rally, a rock festival, or a family argument. (Perhaps the generation gap stems partly from our confusion of their roles with their reality.) In any case, they join Melanie onstage to show us that they echo her message.

But there's another side to getting into the act -- the need to become part of the performer's experience. When the kids gather around Melanie, they can become part of her world and not their own. Of course, it's only a fantasy, but if she acknowledges you as a piece of her existence, then your fantasy has come true for a second. Sometimes the fantasies are harmless, gentle visions; sometimes they are terrifying and crazy. Both came to life for Melanie in one weekend.

Friday night's concert was at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. The audience, friendly and receptive, sat on wooden bleachers and sprawled on the hard floor of the gym. Patrolling fire wardens discouraged smoking, but the sharp-sweet smell of marijuana hovered in the air. At the end, the kids filled the stage for the encores. A boy and girl nestled in front of Melanie with their arms around each other. Their faces were innocent, serene fresco faces. Botticelli children. Back-lighted in the spotlight, each seemed to have a halo. Melanie sang of peace, and their eyes saw it coming. As the song ended and everyone else clapped happily, they gazed up at the singer in stoned adoration. As others rose to leave, they sat transfixed.

The next night: another gym, and a different crowd. We were at Ricker College in Houlton, Maine. Students made up less than half the audience. The rest were local people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night in Houlton. While Melanie sang, you could hear beer cans being popped open in the bleachers. They hooted, wolf-whistled and shouted insults. The kids, who had voted among themselves to have Melanie come and sing, simmered with anger. When she finally sang Peace Will Come, the students rose and cheered for almost five minutes, waving the "V" sign and stamping for more. They wanted the townies and Melanie to see whose side they were on. Yes, a demonstration.

They gathered onstage for her encore. Like the couple the night before, the boy in front of her was having visions. But his were different. His eyes were closed; his face was screwed into an agony of concentration. He knelt in front of her and beat the floor with his hands -- all to a rhythm only he could feel. The pounding bore no relation to the song. Somehow Melanie and whatever chemical he'd been poisoning himself with had sent him off on some wild inner journey of his own.

After the performance, we hurried downstairs to a locker room to wait for the crowd to clear. The college social chairman came in to ask if he could let in some of the kids -- the ones who had liked her, who had voted to have her come all this way. Sure.

"Melanie, Melanie, I love you!" It was the crazy kid who had been punding the stage. He ran down the steps and across the locker room, chasing her. He grabbed her around the waist and swung her. She was laughing, but it was an embarrassed, scared laugh. Other kids took the boy by the shoulders and jollied him away. "Take it easy, man. You want to kill her with love?"

He sat down on a bench and played her guitar, singing to himself while she talked to the others. After a few minutes, he rose and thrust a slip of paper into her hand. He had written, "Me, I am one Mike . . . " and his name and address. We finally gathered up coats, guitar cases, hairbrush, and piled into a car to go back to the motel.

"Melanie, take me with you!" It was Mike again. He might have climbed into the car if someone hadn't thrown a friendly block. Instead, he knelt down next to her window and pressed his face against the glass, staring in at her, his nose twisted to one side. We rolled away slowly so as to not hurt him.

Back at the motel, Melanie, Alan (her road manager) and I were slumped in front of the TV when the door burst open, and Mike lurched into the room. Incoherent and staggering, he lunged across the bed clutching for Melanie. A companion followed him repeating, "I didn't want to come. It was all his idea."

After a moment's paralysis, Alan and the companion were able to disengage Mike and hustle him out of the room. We could hear him yelling in the hall: "I want Melanie, I want her." Then the outer door slammed, and Alan returned pale and shaky.

"Listen, I don't want to upset you, but I'm worried about that guy. He took a couple of swings at me. If that other kid hadn't been here, I don't think I could have gotten rid of him.

Ivey's Motel in Houlton has no telephone service from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., and no one on the front desk at night. All we could do was lock our doors and jump every time the radiator creaked. A lot of rock stars travel with bodyguards, which sounds pretentious until you spend a night in a phoneless motel with nobody but a road manager and a lady journalist between you and a strung-out freak who's decided he wants you.

Is this then what happens when someone wraps you up in his imagination? The adoring flower children in Rhode Island and crazy Mike have one thing in common. Melanie has given them a fantasy that her reality can only partially satisfy -- in one case, a saintly vision of gentleness, in the other, a mad speed dream. They're all in love with someone they don't even know. Can't they get any satisfaction at home?

Is it because there's nothing anywhere else that kids turn to rock stars for everything -- love, peace, hope, and communication? Yes, Mr. Agnew, rock puts ideas into kids heads. But don't blame the musicians; they sell only songs. We have sent a whole generation of children off to pop-music festivals to learn how to live. We wouldn't or couldn't teach them ourselves. But the trouble is that there isn't any pop gospel. In the end, the kids just follow the music, taking comfort only in each other's wanderings. They drift from role to role depending on who calls the tune. Since no one else will serve, they ask musicians to be their parents, lovers, God. And what's a kid like Melanie supposed to do about it? Roll over in a motel room and say "Yes"?


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