Seventeen Magazine - June 1971 US
MELANIE: ON THE EDGE OF GREATNESS
by Edwin Miller
Her name is soft as silk. Melanie. Melanie Safka. She walks onstage in a flowing multi-hued gown that originated somewhere in the Middle East. It covers her arms, falls to her ankles. Leaning over a big guitar, she fills the hush with plaintive, powerful lyrics that reflect as many moods as Joseph's biblical coat had colors. There's no common denominator to Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma or Beautiful People or The Nickel Song, other than an intensely dramatic view of the world. Her urgent ballads bind you to her with invisible threads of emotion. Full of fire and rue, some tell of parents or peace on city streets. Some cry, Who am I? Some shout, I am! I am!
As she sings - a bright-eyed pied piper, round apple cheeks framed by long brown hair - listeners drift toward the stage like hesitant butterflies, moving always closer to the source of sound. Down the aisles and up the steps, slipping onto the stage in successive waves, tenderly they close in to crouch, kneel, sit around her. Silent girls drape bead necklaces on her microphone, slip rings on her fingers between songs. Moved to tears, they offer kisses, deposit flowers at her feet. In their seats others light candles and sparklers and hold them glowing in the dark until ushers insist they be extinguished.
Melanie has been singing in concert for some three years. "Once," she recalls, "in New Jersey, when part of the audience came up, I had to stop and ask, 'Could you please move to the side,' because they were blocking the view of those still in their seats. Everybody was very cooperative and I shut my eyes and continued singing, but when I opened them again, there were police on the stage. 'Get off!' I said. 'This is my stage, nobody asked you here!' They left. I get nervous if people are pushed around."
The stage didn't always belong to Melanie. "There were hard years," she explains. "I made records but they weren't successful. Many times I was the opening act for a hard-rock group and I would get cold treatment. If an audience is waiting to see a certain person and it isn't you, that's a terrible position to be in. I would sing for a week at some hotel up in the Catskills. My room would be paid for but I'd be laughed off the stage! I played conventions and terrible places I really had no business at. Oh, it was all experience, I suppose, and good to have to face people who didn't care to hear me, but for three years until Candles in the Rain came out, I was trying to sell myself, to prove something. Then all of a sudden, I was out there! It's so good now to get onstage and have people know my songs.
"Singing shouldn't be a misery. It's something you do with pleasure. I don't care what I get paid or how many people are at my concerts. I just know that I don't have to fight anymore and that's the thing I was worried about because it took away from what I was trying to say.
"I've been to Woodstock, where I was really scared by the size of the audience. Right before I was scheduled, Ravi Shankar had been on. It was one o'clock in the morning, and they didn't want him to leave. He got a standing ovation and then it started raining and I said, oh, God, I don't want to be here, oh please, but my prayers weren't answered. Then somebody asked if I was going to sing a song another girl was known for, and I knew they thought I was she! I was really bugged. All day long I had been thrown out of the artists' area. Guards constantly asked, Who are you, what are you doing here, where's your pass? I said, 'My name is Melanie. I'm singing here today.' They said yeah, yeah, and they'd push me into the crowd. And I'd have to fight my way back to the tent. Nobody knew who I was and nobody cared. I was damp and I was miserable and I didn't know what I was dong there. When I first heard about Woodstock, I said, doesn't that sound nice, three days of peace-loving music. I didn't think it was going to turn out a monster. But I was there, and suddenly it was fantastic. I was nobody in the middle of all those famous people, and they were clapping and asking for more! Someone in a long robe who looked Indian embraced me and I felt he was the spokesman for everyone. Inside I thought, oh, I'm so glad you came, Melanie, we've been waiting for you a long time. That was the night it all started.
"I went to the Powder Ridge festival last summer in Connecticut, even though I knew it had been canceled the night before. I called up a friend and asked, 'Want to go anyway?' She said okay, so we got our blankets and bought a big thing of oranges to give away in case anybody got hungry and we went. It was really nice, a special event in my life. Nobody knew me wandering around on a hillside with my guitar, and I started to sing very soft, and a few people gathered around. Little by little more and more came to hear. One girl said, 'I thought you were a tape -- a Melanie tape.' I said no, and she said, 'You're Melanie!' And everybody started saying, 'Melanie, that's Melanie,' and I sang for about two hours to hundreds of people. It was the greatest.
"I've written hundreds of songs, but I only remember the ones I like. If they're good they stay with me; if not they just fade away. It doesn't take me long to write a song; it just comes out line by line and I memorize it as I sing. The guitar is only my accompaniment. I'm terrible on it -- I'm self-taught but I don't like to concentrate on technique; it takes my mind off what I am singing. My songs used to be more complicated. Lately they have a more universal, humanitarian feeling.
"The thing that moves me so much is that people are trying very hard to get to something basic, and we haven't been taught how. So many people go about it in such a wrong way, it's almost as if we're not ready to go where we want to go. The thing is to become involved with some sort of community family where you can really make things better. I love privacy and couldn't stand being with people constantly, but I believe living in a community -- not a commune -- where people get some feeling of accomplishment. If I plant corn and it grows I feel good because I see what I've done to make it happen. If you don't see results from your work, there's nothing to hold on to."
Melanie is a New Yorker. "Safka is Ukrainian," she explains, "but my father doesn't remember what it was shortened from. My mother's Italian. She was a singer too, and worked with a bandleader named Sam the Man Taylor. She has a deep, bluesy Billie Holiday kind of voice." When Melanie was eight, she moved to Long Island and then to Long Branch, New Jersey, where her father was in the retail discount store field. "My parents were always off and on as far back as I can remember," she says, and essentially she grew up with her mother and sister. Melanie is twenty-four now, with vivid teen-age memories. "I've always wanted to sing -- somehow I felt I was supposed to -- but I was inhibited about singing in school. When I was sixteen, I worked Monday nights in a bar, where I would sing all the Peter, Paul and Mary songs, four and five hours for twenty dollars. I love folk music, the real thing -- Ewan MacColl and Ed McCurdy, broadside ballads and the Library of Congress records; that's my biggest influence. Then there are the blues my mother used to sing.
"Long Branch was very much a place where not many people like me came from the outside. I had a hard time at school. I didn't answer back and I wasn't fresh, so they got me on the dress code. They made boots illegal. Nobody else wore boots at the time, so the rule applied only to me. In the summer they made the same rule for sandals although I was the only one that wore them! My only outlet was in singing.
"My mother put me into amateur shows when I was little. I started writing songs and little poems. My mother always encouraged me. My astrologer says we had some kind of link in a past life because we're so much in tune. I put her in songs I write because mother is a very warm word. Anybody's mother. She's the one who watches, the one you want to prove yourself to.
"In the summertime I would sing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses; I thought of music school, but I was so moved once by a stock company performance of Othello that I decided to act and went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts."
Melanie moved into a New York hotel where she roomed with three other girls. "I always felt that I was so easy to get along with," she says, "but I think I kept to myself too much. After a while I got the feeling that I was being talked about. I wasn't used to a lot of girl friends. The most frightening thing is to argue with your own sex. I really thought I was sick because I couldn't adjust until I found some girls the complete opposite of me and we got along fine.
"When I graduated, I worked with a children's theater in Massachusetts, but when that was over, I was absolutely nowhere. I wasn't one of those people with a resume' and photos, so I moved back home to New Jersey and then would travel to Manhattan. But I never found myself able to go to any auditions. I was always simply too afraid to get up and say this is what I am, do you like it? So I would come into the city bus terminal and have a cup of coffee -- I hate coffee! -- and sit there reading the theatrical trade papers. Descriptions of the people wanted never fitted me. It was always somebody else. Then I read one for a girl who could play the guitar and sing folk music and I felt, oh, this is me, it just has to be!
"The next day, I came back, all ready, to the address listed. The doorman sent me to the fifth floor. I went to a secretary and said, 'I'm here for an audition,' and she said, 'This is a music publishing office.' I said, 'I'm late, you can't be late to an audition,' and started crying! It was the only thing I ever even attempted! The girl began calling around the building and then the publishers walked in, saw me holding my guitar, ranting and raving, and asked what I did. I said, 'I sing, and I write a little,' and they asked, 'Why don't you come back after your audition?'
"I got the part, came back very excited, sang for them and they gave me a paper and said, 'We'll record you.' Record me! I couldn't believe it. The first line of the contract said, 'Melanie Safka, herein referred to as artist . . .' It was the first time anybody had ever called me an artist! I told my mother if she didn't sign I'd never speak to her again. We signed and they had me for everything -- song writing, singing, going to the bathroom.
"My play fell through because they didn't have enough money to continue rehearsals, so I just went to the publishers' office all the time instead of wandering the streets. After a couple of weeks, they hired a producer, Peter Schekeryk, and they said, 'Sing for him, maybe he can thing of something to do with you.' Peter just freaked out. I thought he was putting me on, but he said I was the best thing they had. They told him, 'Oh, she's freaky, she sounds as if she's singing under water.' Little by little, Peter and I got very close, and he tried to record some of my songs but nothing panned out."
Melanie eventually got out of her contract. "But I met Peter that way," she says, "so it was a lucky thing. Finally I ended up with Buddah Records and made my first album over three years ago. I've made four others since.
"We were married over a year ago. I never wanted to marry anybody, I just thought of marriage as a catastrophe. Ever since we met, I've been all right, but before, I was so alone I thought I was in for a nightmare life. Somehow I imagined myself as having to be miserable. I didn't think there was any possibility of becoming adjusted to what I was doing. My life seemed to be going nowhere. Performing is such a lonely life. If you don't find something to hold on to, you just float around. Singing had become the only thing I cared about and I thought you had to be bigger than life to give a good performance. I wasn't, so I had to do something to make myself that way. And I got into the drug thing a little. I wasn't addicted or anything, but I always felt I sang better when I took something. Sometimes I would be too up and I would have to take something to bring me back down. It was just horrible. I was really wrecked at times. I'm still getting over some of the damage I did to my body."
Melanie pauses. "There has been a lot of drug involvement in the music scene, but people are getting wise now. They realize that your life can't be based on drugs because then you're just a robot reacting to whatever you have put into yourself that day. Music now is like a new religion that's basic and pure, that inspires you to feel good and wholesome about live. That's what people are going to look for, something that gives them a feeling of being able to go on without a pill, music that involves your whole being, not the kind that makes you bash your head against a wall -- the kind that represents what you can do after you hit your head against the wall. Something with which you can recover!"