by Craig Harris
Youthful anthems like "Brand New Key" and "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" made Melanie (Safka) one of the Woodstock era's most successful performers. "I'm a daring performer," she says by telephone from her home in Clearwater, Florida. "I never know what I'm going to do. I have a set list, but, when the moment happens, I like it to be alive."
Melanie recently performed her first American concert in nearly three years. "When I got up on stage," she recalls, "I was really nervous. But, it was really amazing. It was like we had been playing together for a year. I wrote two songs, I was so excited."
Although she's kept a low profile, Melanie has never been idle. "You can perform 365 days a year in the United States," she says, "and, if you don't have people writing about it and television cameras aimed at you, nobody knows about it. I worked wherever I was wanted. I did a lot of festivals in Europe. I kept busy."
A high point of Melanie's recent career is the Emmy Award that she received for writing the lyrics of "First Time I Ever Loved Forever," the theme song of the television show, "Beauty and the Beast." "The producer really fell in love with my verse," she says. "(Lee Holdredge, the composer) was thinking that it should be a more-conservative kind of song - simple, no meaning, just something to get through the melody. They got all these other writers to try it. But, the producer kept coming back to mine. Now they can say `The Emmy Award-winning Melanie.' It sounds real official."
Melanie recently released her first album in six years. "I had the luxury of not having to please anyone other than myself," she explains. "I had the luxury of totally indulging each song that I wrote and that I thought was worthy of being on an album. That's why I called this album Precious Cargo. I've carried these songs for a long time."
Precious Cargo is very much a family project. Vocal harmonies are provided by Melanie's daughters, Jordie and Leilah Scheckeryk and her son, Beau Jarred Schekeryk. "They actually grew up on this album," Melanie says. "(My daughters) were eleven and twelve when they sang `Lovin' the Boy Next Door.' When you want to hear the older version of my children, you can listen to `Rock 'n' Roll Heart.' "
Maine-based trio Devonsquare contribute harmonies to several songs. "They're really great," Melanie reflects. "I love Alanna (MacDonald). She can sound exactly like me when she wants. She's written a song called `Melanie.' "
A highlight of the album is Melanie's third version of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday." "We did it as a goof," Melanie remembers. "Alanna and I were going to start a group and call it `Vandetta.' It didn't go any further than talk in the studio, but, I was going to put out the rumor that this was really three girls that were really big in music in the '60s. I can't remember half the things that we were going to do, but, it seemed very funny at the time. Anyway, we recorded `Ruby Tuesday.' Then we decided that it was too good for a goof."
Melanie also recorded a new version of Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain." "I totally forgot that Dylan wrote it," she says. "I wanted to record it because I had heard Bryan Ferry's version. I really loved it. It made me listen to the song again. It's probably the least folk-like approach to any song on the album. The image of a folksinger - the long, straight, hair, the suffering, angst-filled, poet-like, face. That's not quite it. That's not the essence of what folk music is. Folk music is music that lives and just goes on."
Melanie's early work was, sometimes, criticized for being overly-sweet. Precious Cargo, however, has a dark, somber, tone. "My hits may have been light," Melanie reflects, "but, my albums never were. It was a real problem. I always felt that, when people came to hear `Brand New Key' or `Look What They Done With My Song, Ma,' it was a misconception. That wasn't what they were going to get."
Melanie made her musical debut as a street musician in New York's Greenwich Village. "I had a huge voice," she recalls, "and could attract the biggest crowds. I couldn't get booked into clubs because I was really shy. I was afraid to put myself up for rejection. But, I wasn't too shy to use my voice. They couldn't throw me out of the streets. I used to take a bus from New Jersey and go into the Village to sing. I went on weekends and when I skipped school."
A turning point came when Melanie met her future producer and husband, Peter Scheckeryk. "He was the first person who ever showed an amazing interest in what I was doing," she recalls. "He put his head down and he really listened. I thought `this is nice.' I had never gotten any kind of reaction like that in my life."
Melanie's first recordings were restricted to FM airplay. "Before I was an across-the-board success," she recalls, "I was considered not commercial and not sellable. I didn't wear lipstick. I was on Columbia Records and I had recorded `Beautiful People.' It was getting some airplay in New York. But as a woman, I was a real oddity," she remembers. "When I started out, women were still singing falsetto unless they were Gospel singers or (folksinger) Judy Henske. A woman in music, then, had to be pretty glamorous. It really wasn't me."
Soon after being released by Columbia, Melanie signed with the much-smaller, Buddah Records. "I was allowed to be myself," she says, "to create whatever I wanted. Neil Bogart was in charge of the label at the time. He was a lot more hip about what was going to happen."
Melanie's most dramatic performance was at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969. "I was there for the whole day," she remembers. "Being a lower echelon performer, I didn't even have a backstage pass. I could only go so far before they stopped me. I had a tiny tent that I could go into if I wanted. It was mortifying to think about singing in front of all these people. The biggest thing I had done was five hundred or a thousand people. I mostly sat in my tent. If you're introverted like that and you're terrified at the same time, you can make yourself sick, which is what happened. Somebody would come back and say `Melanie, you're next' then, they'd come back and say `Sorry, someone else in next.' All day long, this went on. I developed this nervous cough that, I think, you could've heard me on the other side of the hill. Joan Baez was in a much bigger tent, but, still within hearing range. She felt sorry for this poor, hacking, person and sent over some tea. I felt like it was the sweetest thing that anybody had ever done for me."
Melanie's nervousness peaked right before her set. "Ravi Shankar had just gone on," she remembers, "and it had started to rain. They said, `OK, give the girl from Astoria a break.' I had to cross a plank. I felt like I was going into a dark abyss. I was going to be dead when I got on the stage. It was all going to be over. I was going to the electric chair. The terror that I felt was so real, that I had an out-of-body experience. I watched myself get on stage, sit down and start to play. Only when I felt it was safe did I come back."
A candle-lighting ceremony, during her performance, inspired her multi-million-selling 1970 hit, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)." "Right before I went on," she says, "the announcer had made an announcement that it was raining and that people from the Hog Farm (commune) were going to pass out candles. While I was on stage, this ceremony was going on. All I knew was that the entire universe was lighting up. I saw a mountain of light. By the time that I finished, the whole hillside was alight. I got the idea, the next day, to write about it."
The ceremony became an on-going feature of Melanie's concerts. "Until I put out the song," she says, "people who had been at Woodstock would come (to my concerts) with a candle to show me that they were one of the people that had been there. Then, it began that people were bringing candles that hadn't been there. Then, when I had `Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),' I would start to sing it and the whole audience would light up."
"It became a real problem," she continues. "I had to sign contracts in many places that I wouldn't sing it. They didn't want people lighting candles and matches. I would have fire marshals, sometimes, lining the stage. In the midwest, they were very hard on candle lighters."
Melanie participated in the 1989 Woodstock Reunion Tour. "I got to sing at Woodstock twice," she says. "After we did this concert in upstate New York, some people were telling me that there were fifty thousand people gathered on the hill. They couldn't get approval to do the reunion where it actually took place. There was nobody performing. People were just there. They were singing on the hill. I was asked to go. I said `Definitely.' It was at night. There was a huge crowd of people. They hooked me up to a little, home-made, generator. I sang for a long time. I was spent. But, it was really wonderful. I felt like Santa Claus."
Melanie also performed in 1970 at the British equivalent of Woodstock, the Isle of Wight festival. "I had to follow The Who's premiere performance of Tommy," she says. "Nobody wanted to do it. Jim Morrison from The Doors turned it down. I don't know how I got it. I was the path of least resistance, I guess. I was all by myself. Keith Moon announced me. We had spent a lot of time together that day and had become friends. He realized my situation and helped to break the ice. It was dawn. The Who had played throughout the night. There was a friendly atmosphere but, they were finished. They had just seen Tommy; Roger Daltry in his prime. Here I was, with just my guitar and my voice. I started to sing. The dawn was coming and the sun was rising. Little by little, I see heads popping up. I woke everybody up! I played one of my best concerts. After I did the Isle of Wight, I had two hit albums in England."
In 1971, Melanie left Buddah and, together with her husband, formed the short-lived Neighborhood record label. Her debut on the label, "Brand New Key" reached the top of the best-selling charts. "I became the chief spokesperson for UNICEF," she remembers. "It took me to places like Yugoslavia with a number one record. Originally, I wanted to be in the Peace Corps. But, they wouldn't have me. All I could do was play the guitar and there wasn't a great need for folksingers in the Peace Corps. If I could dig ditches or if I was an electrical engineer or a teacher, it would've been different. But, I didn't have any qualifications. I became a Rock star, instead."
Throughout the 1980s, Melanie remained disillusioned by the music business. "The music climate was getting stale," she says. "It was very industry controlled. When the industry got hold of New Wave and Punk and Funk-punk and dance music exclusively, there was just about nothing else available. I had every major record label business guy wanting to superimpose my voice on what they thought was a commercial thing. I couldn't do it. It's hard enough to get up on a stage and do what you want to do. But, to get up and do something that you hate or don't think much of, I couldn't even imagine it."
Melanie believes that the time is right again for her music. "The clime is right for the album to be out and for me to be performing again," she says. "I was really nervous before the first shows. We actually sold out. I felt that it was a good indication that people want me. I'm really glad. There's nothing else I could think of that I would rather do."
Precious Cargo Records CD (1991)
Look what they done to my song, ma: Melanie Safka is back!
Although it seems that television commercials play her songs ad nauseam these days, Melanie has never received the critical accolades that she deserves, though she is a big star in Europe. The American press painted her as a wide-eyed flower child who sang of adult things she could not possibly understand. Only in the last few years have some critics acknowledged her talented phrasing, expressive voice, and well sculpted songs.
Precious Cargo is Melanie's latest U.S. effort - an editing of her earlier European Cowabonga [Food For Thought, UK, CD GRUB 12]. It is self-released, due, I assume, to her inability to get a label contract. Precious Cargo is quite an improvement over Melanie's last U.S. album (Am I Real or What? [Amherst Records 3302], known to my friends as "Disco Melanie").
Precious Cargo contains 11 songs, seven of which Melanie wrote herself. Her vocal range and phrasing are still fabulous; the note she holds at the end of "Prematurely Gray" shows that. Her lyrical topics seem to center on the theme of growing up. In "Rock and Roll Heart" (which was featured in the recent Folk City video) Melanie sings, "You pass as a grown up/In this left brain grown up world." "Prematurely Gray" echoes the same theme. "Tonight's the Kind of Night" is a Christmas lullaby to her children, who do background vocals on the album. For me it dragged a little, but then I suppose that is what lullabies are supposed to do. "Loving the Boy Next Door" is a very simple song, though pretty. "Chosen Few" and "Window Pain," however, are anything but simple.
Melanie does a good job on the covers she performs. Her version of Malvina Reynolds' "What Have They Done to the Rain" is heartrending. She interprets Dylan's "Hard Rain" very well in spite of an overly loud drum beat. Melanie also sings the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" well; she and friends make it into a chorus song, though very rhythmical. My one complaint about this is that she has recorded "Ruby Tuesday" at least twice before. Maybe a different song this time? Regardless of this repetition, Precious Cargo is laden with great wares. [Precious Cargo Records/ c/o Melanie Fan Club: Click for Address
- Winthrop Dahl (Bolton, MA)
Back to Chronology
Back to Melanie