Melanie: I Want To Buy A Mountain

by Mopsy Strange Kennedy

(from The New Ingenue, September, 1974)

Picture by Peter Schekeryk Melanie lives in a house that's like a great delicious fruitcake soaking in ancient memories. Everywhere you look there is stained glass, patchwork, old-fashioned sleighs loaded with pansies, hexagonal tea chests, country tiles, mellow velvets - the voluptuous treasures of antique stores, junk shops and Melanie's own imagination. But her attitude toward it is paradoxical. On the one hand she loves it, and it seems to be an extension of herself - like her songs and her voice; on the other hand, she is perfectly able, as she puts it, to "release" the whole thing. There is a sensual Russian darkness about the house, reverentially hushed (is it because her baby, Leilah, is asleep on the lawn, or does it have to do with the fact that the house was built as a monk's retreat and just breaths silence?), and when Melanie herself appears, quietly out of nowhere, she seems to match the house perfectly, in her long Bedouin wedding dress and her pink platform shoes.

We go outside and walk around the house, surrounded by immensely tall trees and protected at the outside of the property by a big fence which divides the affluent suburbia (but still suburbia) from the enchanted territory of Melanie's land. Melanie is concerned because her cat Patchouli's Persian kittens are missing, and her dog his barking suspiciously. Eventually they are found under the azaleas in the red, red earth that is everywhere in that part of New Jersey. Melanie wanders slowly, a bit vaguely around the house, stopping to sing a few notes to seven-month-old Leilah (pronounced "Layla"), moving as if through honey. Back inside we go past an enormous wall of stained glass that resembles a Pre-Raphaelite painting, by some remarkable tables and chairs that Melanie has covered in an intricate paper-patchwork design, and finally into the living room with its papier-mache Russian castle, once again made by Melanie, an old pastry wagon from a German hotel filled with silver objects, and the deep, crewel-work sofa where the tape recorder turns on its spinning ears.

"I'm not a good antique buyer," she begins, "I just like little human-type antiques, just junk." She looks slowly around her bedecked room. "I have made this gingerbread house because I like to create my environment all around me, but I've released all of these possessions in my mind. Once I lost a big trunk full of things, and I released that too - knowing it was gone made me feel good. I used to always need my things around me, just to have something personal, but once I was away from this house for a year and I forgot all this stuff was here, and I was just as happy thinking they weren't here - I just let them go."

Melanie Safka is the daughter of a Ukrainian father and an Italian ex-jazz singer mother, and her husband, Peter (who was not there that day), is her producer and discoverer. She sang with her mother as a child, and then as a teenager she sang in coffeeshops in Greenwich Village "where they pass the hat after each song." She was going to the American Academy of Dramatic Art when she stumbled mistakenly into a music publisher's office in the same building with the acting audition. There Peter Schekeryk asked her to sing some songs, and he became very excited by them and took her under his wing. For anyone else, this might sound like a contrived stumble, but for Melanie it was quite genuine. "I sang a bunch of songs I'd written. Oh, obviously I wanted to do it; I was going to keep on writing, but I don't think it would have ended up this way if I hadn't met Peter who inspired me to make records and give concerts. Still, I can't help thinking it was supposed to be."

We talked about her songs and the writing of them. Having noticed a copy of Sylvia Plath's poem on the shelf, I ask her is she considers her lyrics to be poetry. "No, I guess I really don't. Without the music they're . . ." she laughs, "like little cripples," although many of them are poetic, and even like tiny short stories. She tells me about the genesis of a song called "Babe Rainbow," a poignant, longing song addressed to a girl by that name. "Peter and I were walking down a street in England, and I saw a picture in a Chelsea shop window of a sexy girl named Babe Rainbow wearing a holster. And I said to Peter, 'I feel like that person,' and I really did. I imagined a whole life about her, other than the one the artist had made up about her. He had written that her parents were both champion fighters, but I imagined her to be me. I looked like that to myself, and I felt my essence was in that picture. I knew she was a trooper in whatever she was doing, and there was something about her that made me sad."

Babe Rainbow, keep your glow on

There's a show on you know

And they're all going to be there . . .

Oh I know it's hard looking up at the sun

When you know deep inside, you might never be warm . . . *

Probably Melanie's most-known song, "Brand New Key," turns out to be one that she is perhaps least attached to. "I had been eating vegetables after a fast, and I had this incredibly strange urge for a McDonald's hamburger. To me it was a big moment because I hate that food, and I hadn't had any junk food for ten years."

I wondered how this could relate to that song that seems to be the voice of a defensive, daring little girl with a crush on someone.

"I don't know, it was just something about riding around in a pickup truck eating that hamburger that made me think of it. And it was me, not a little girl singing."

Her attitude towards food resembles her attitude toward possessions. She talks about the food she likes with great enthusiasm and sensual relish - especially her diet during pregnancy which bombarded her with healthiness and protein - but another side of her renounces it. "You take so much impurity into your body every day you have to let it out. People weren't meant to eat all the time. So I go on a fast - a short one is fourteen days." She stops and giggles. "I just realized how funny that must sound, but I've gone on a twenty-seven day one. You feel weak, and you go on healing crises, but that's just the poison coming out. I couldn't do concerts while fasting. It's work. Your spirit has to be . . ." she stares off for a minute, "Well, it's a religious thing; you can't fast for physical reasons. I lose weight on those fasts, but only fourteen pounds on the long one. Fasting makes you feel incredibly stoned. When I start breaking the fast, I just have these bursts - I couldn't begin to tell you - just these bursts of light. It was during one of those times that I wrote 'Someday I'll Be A Farmer' and 'Ring The Living Bell.' 'Farmer' is about working with your hands,. I had been thinking during that fast that the only happy people must be farmers, because they support themselves, they create something from nothing. So many people don't see the results of what they do, and if they did, they'd probably be happier."

Because Melanie is not, in the words of her publicity man, a "record-business type," and not a pusher in the aspiring-actress sense, I wanted to know how she imagined life would have been for her without success. She leans forward intensely. "You mean, what would it have been like if six people came to my concerts instead of a thousand? That would have been fine, that would really be fine with me. I mean, I like my life, but I'm sure it would have been alright the other way. My development would have probably been about the same. I wasn't expecting any of this; I wasn't waiting for it. The idea of becoming a known person is the absolutely last thing in the world I thought would happen. I dreamt of having my own room, being able to be private, maybe having an apartment in New York and supporting myself. But I would probably have been singing anyway, just at a different level."

Melanie's speaking voice, like her singing voice, is rich and mellifluous and fruity. The more she talks to me, the less she seems like the "little girl" image that she has, and the more she seems like a magical person of no age at all. Before our interview I sent her a list of questions to think about, one of which had to do with worrying about getting older and possibly outgrowing her image, but it seems superfluous when confronted with the real Melanie. In fact, she is 27, and being a recent mother is one of the few things that identifies her to her chronological age. "Pregnancy is a superior state," she says. "I've never been so incredibly in tune. I've been breast-feeding all this time, and I don't want to be without her and I don't want to stop. I think women who don't breast-feed must feel incredibly lonely." Leilah, who is named after a Persian princess, runs the risk of having people think she was named after "Layla" the Eric Clapton song, but this is not the case. However, that's a song that Melanie and Peter like, and when she was giving birth, one of the songs on a long, prepared tape she listened to during labour was that one. Melanie takes her baby wherever she goes, travelling, backstage at concerts, etc. - and Leilah's baby carriage has a press pass stamped on it.

Melanie and Peter and Leilah at this point are a little travelling unit, a family business of sorts, spending time in New Jersey, some time in their New York apartment on Central Park, and lots of time on the road (Melanie gives about 75 concerts a year and roams around a bit after each concert). "The further north and the further east I go, the better I feel. It must be some sort of Karmic thing. Peter and I found a wonderful mountain in New England that we'd like to buy. Sometimes I need to go to the country and say, "Oh, God, let me see nothing but a tree for a while."

Peter was in California doing business that day (it was an odd thought for me to think that his business was his wife - but not uncommon in show business, and certainly sensible and economical). Peter is 100 percent Ukrainian and spent his early teen years in America hanging around record companies, learning the business, so that even as a 14-year-old he was well-versed in record production, and worked with Sam Cooke and other groups. He was running a music publishing business when Melanie happened upon him. "I didn't know what a publisher was then. I thought it was just someone who made sheet music." He got Melanie to make a "demo" of "Beautiful People," and the audition demo turned out to be the single. "That was funny, since the musicians were only getting the low demo rate, and the engineer wasn't interested in getting top quality for such a record. After that, Peter realized we had to go on to seriously doing albums."

The business side of record-making, while more or less invisible to Melanie's fans (and Melanie herself is charmingly vague on this subject herself) is the whole, enormous underside of the iceberg. "If it weren't for Peter, I won't know anything about this stuff; in fact the first time I signed with a record company, they owned all the rights to my publishing for practically the rest of my life. I thought, 'It's not my arms or my legs or anything I'm going to miss,' but in fact rights and all that are very important. Thank God Peter got me out of that one."

There is a publishing company called Amelanie that I ask her about.

"I think it stood for 'A Melanie Song' or something." She turns to her publicity man. "Is it still in existence, I wonder? I don't even know."

Ostensibly, and for all such business matters, Peter is the organiser. According to a friend, Melanie will just wake up in the morning, and Peter will tell her, "We're going to Toronto today to do a concert, and she'll say okay."

But Melanie claims that the tug of organisation is not all one way. "Peter doesn't organise my life," she laughs. "I organise his. Or I should say events organise Peter's life, and he helps me make plans. He's much better at it than I am. . . . he works under pressure, that's the way he organises himself, whereas I just hang around and let things happen to me."

One of her best-known songs, "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma" (ironically now in Muzak form), is addressed not to her mother but to Peter. They were recording, and Melanie went for a walk, furious at the transformations being visited on her songs, and this song came to her. "I was addressing my thoughts to Peter, but the overall thought behind it was 'Look what they can do to anything. You start out with the purest thing, whatever it is, and by the time it gets packaged and sold it's a far cry from what you started out with.'"

I know, though she doesn't say it, that this has an unelaborated parallel in Melanie's food lexicon to additives and junk food. Just at the moment she was telling me this, one of the girls who lives there (she has a nanny and a sort of secretary-companion fan-club organiser) came in with a glass of unadulterated, freshly squashed carrot juice. I have always regarded carrot juice as the most pious, humourless form of health food, but had never actually had any till that day. Amazingly enough it is sweet - yes, pure - and delicious.

Melanie's voice and her songs have a characteristic colourfulness to them, a touching - I want to say edible - quality, like melon. And there is an intimacy to her, a quality of making a personal statement in everything she does, which comes out in so many ways that it has to be called an image, although that word sounds unpleasantly pushy. The centres of her records - where the Beatles have an apple - show a bleeding rainbow with a lady's face floating on a splashing ocean. This is her "mark" and it is descriptive. Part of the one-to-one feeling comes from the simple fact that Melanie is not - mostly - a band; she is a vulnerable girl up there with a guitar, shades of Joan Baez, singing her own songs. I ask her about the ego-gratification, or perhaps fears, of being on-stage.

"When I first did it, I was so scared of what was happening that I really thought it was me up there till I learned that it's not me; it's some entity that comes out of me when I'm on-stage, and once I realized that I was not as nervous." Does she mean it's like a role she plays? "It's an expanded part of myself, not a put-on role exactly, but an expansion or an extension of what I am. It's bigger than life; it's the strongest thing in the world when you're up there on-stage. The energy that comes from the audience is amazing. There's a power in the room when you start to sing about things that touch people really deeply, when you have this intimate experience with a lot of people. It's the most spiritual thing I've ever taken part in."

This whole recitation makes me shiver, partly with envy. Maybe some of the reason Melanie seems so calm as she sits on her tea-cosy sofa comes from having the strong outlet, like a bleeding almost, which leaves her freer to billow in her fantasy the rest of the time while others book her tours and sell her records for her. I've never met a celebrity so free of hype.

Repeatedly on that zephyry afternoon, Melanie talks about the intensity of a particular experience, and then steps away from it into some kind of detachment. I was asking her about a line in one of her songs in which she says, "Maybe I was a river flowing in Russia," which had struck me with a kind of icy zing. She had been talking about things she couldn't do without, and water was one of them. "I'm an Aquarius anyway, and I love water - bathing water, drinking, swimming, ocean water, streams, rivers, lakes." But when I mention the river in Russia, she interrupts me with a thought she had about writing songs that was obviously welling up in her as we spoke. "That's a nice line, I like it, but I'm not creating anything, and that's why it's embarrassing to talk about it. I didn't do it, it's just there, it's a matter of picking it out. I don't know where it is, but it's just a matter of putting it together. I like that line the way I like something nice in a store window, and I can look at it very removed and say, 'Yea, I like that,' and I suppose it's considered a talent. . . ."

Before becoming the Melanie she is today, she went to the American Academy of Dramatic Art, and made a half-hearted attempt at becoming an actress. "I went to the Fiddler on the Roof audition, and it was the most embarrassing experience getting up there and having them tell you to stand, not sit, even when I said I'd rather sing sitting down. And after it was over there was this cold response, no one thinking it was cute or wonderful or anything, but rather thinking, 'She has a hell of a nerve if she won't do what we tell her to.' I had dressed up kind of peasanty because I thought that was what they would want, but everyone else there was dressed up all spiffy with their hair done." She did not get the part, even though she looks rather well-suited to the Fiddler ethos, in dress and manner. But while that kind of experience, so common to actresses and aspiring ones, is unpleasant, Melanie is quick to point out that the grass may be just as crabby on the other side of the fence. "Actually, having some kind of success is a burden too; it's something I had to get over. It's a learning process suddenly being confronted with money and a position, with people looking at you as if you were something, whereas three weeks ago they looked at you as if you were nothing. You know damn well it's because they think you can do something for them or that they should be seen with you."

Melanie is resistant - unusually so - to the notion of being pigeonholed, even in so profitable a niche as a hit single. "I dislike it when they do that, because it looks as if you're saying, 'This is what I've been doing - period' - and it's only a part of the whole picture. I'll tell you one song I like by itself, though, 'Love To Lose Again.' I wrote it in the last month of my pregnancy - there's something very pregnant about that song. My cat had just run away at the time. I thought 'I'm going to write a really big essay on losing' - thinking of all the things we lose, but I couldn't get past it as a song."

When you have a second language like song-writing, expressing yourself in that way must seem like a preferable alternative to the clumsy ski boots of prose. "Love To Lose Again" has a succinctness and a paradoxical quality that are hard to imagine coming across as well in an essay. "And man will go on lovin'/So we're bound to lose again. . . . And woman dies of giving/But she's bound to live again."**

Despite her attitude of detachment from this gift, Melanie clearly flows very naturally with this perpetual fruiting of her fantasy. "I'm always dreaming, imagining, and making up stories in my head." As she herself says in a song: "She spent all her nights/Under raspberry lights/And her days/Wrote her days into songs."**

* Copyright 1971, Kama Rippa Music, Inc., and Amelanie Music.

** Copyright 1974, Neighborhood Music Publishing Corporation. Rights in the USA and Canada administered by April Music, Inc. (ASCAP).

Special thanks to Rick Ziegler

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