By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
It hardly sounds like a compliment, calling someone a "croaky '70s pop singer," a "gravelly voiced flash-in-the-pan," or an "excavated folkie," but Melanie doesn't let it bother her. Since the 53-year-old has virtually dropped out of sight after hits like "Brand New Key," "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," and "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," it isn't surprising that observers view her as a relic to be unearthed, dusted off, and propped up for a round of live concerts and interviews.
But it's really not like that, Melanie Safka Schekeryk insists. She hasn't wasted away the past 25 years in seclusion, though she has spent the last decade holed up in Safety Harbor, a still-quaint community tucked between Tampa and Clearwater. There she has relished her life as a wife, mother, and part-time restaurateur. She collects royalty checks as artists (including Ray Charles and Cheryl Wheeler) regularly cover songs from her oeuvre of more than 30 albums. Though she's almost always associated with the first Woodstock concert, at which she performed, she continues to record and perform. Last year prolific pop auteur Stephin Merritt tapped her to sing a track for his vanity project, the 6ths. Even so, she realizes she's largely forgotten.
"I don't have a high visibility, but I am working," she says. "It's not like I ever stopped. You can work 360 days a year, but people don't know it unless you've got a PR company getting your name out there. And I don't really like hanging out, doing the business thing. I do my shows and go home."
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By 1971, after several years of hit singles, gold records, Carnegie Hall concerts, and coasting on the Summer of Love's warm breezes, Melanie was already weary of the music business fast track. When she found herself with a number one song, "Brand New Key," the success became a liability.
"It made me very uncomfortable being the girl who was known for "Brand New Key' and going to play concerts knowing people would prefer me not to do much else," she sighs.
With her squeaky, creaky voice intoning, "I'm OK alone, but you got something I need/Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates/You got a brand new key/I think that we should get together and try them out to see" and her fetching, pixie-blond looks, Melanie became a huge star with a song she'd rather not be associated with for all eternity.
"The horror came to me when I realized, This is going to be a hit and I'm going to be known as the most adorably cute thing that ever hit the airwaves. I'll never live it down. And I never did."
"Brand New Key" generated no small amount of controversy upon its release, due to its allegedly lascivious lyrical content. Melanie contends that the double-entendres were unintentional, that "Brand New Key" was never about anything more than the joy of childhood roller-skating. But some stations refused to play it -- giving it an even higher profile. The single ended up selling more than three million copies.
"It was just a complete whim," she recalls between sips of midmorning coffee. "I was on a fast for 27 days, then I stopped fasting, and it had something to do with eating a Big Mac afterward. A lot of memories came back that I hadn't thought about in a long time. I was thinking about roller-skating when I was little. I roller-skated on four-wheeled roller skates that had a key that tightened them up, and I had this complete memory about roller-skating that just came out as a ditty."
Now Melanie has come to terms with the song. She still resurrects it during her live shows, and several female artists have covered it, most recently chamber-goth cellists Rasputina. But back when she began recording for major labels, she tasted the bitter expectations the hit had produced.
"With every record company, when I had a hit, the thing they always wanted was another one of those. They wanted the same exact thing with a different chord progression. And I was like, "What? I'm finished with that already -- I want to do something else.' And naively I'd present them my next thing, which had nothing to do with the last thing. You write hundreds of songs," Melanie complains, "and they ask you to do the stupidest song you ever wrote!" Comparing her experiences to those of her old friend, the late Andy Kaufman, she notes, "He thought he was successful for his nuttiness and unpredictability, when in fact he was known for Latka! That's why I took such a giant step away from playing the industry game -- it's so easy to go to where the bright light is shining and lose who you are."
Thus began Melanie's disillusionment with an industry she deems "amazingly hideous." Though she continued recording through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, she hopped from one imprint to the next, making most of her material difficult to locate nowadays. And she never recorded anything as memorable as "Brand New Key" or her other huge early-'70s hit, "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma." A mantra for anyone who's ever submitted a piece of art to an interpreter or editor and been aghast at the results, "Look What They've Done" still carries weight today, though Melanie notes it comes with much irony: "It was made into a Toyota commercial," she moans, "a Lifebuoy soap commercial, "Look what they've done to Ramada, look what they've done to my oatmeal....'"
The song's original sentiment recently resurfaced when Melanie was contacted by Merritt, the oddball leader of the underground pop outfits the Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, and the Gothic Archies. In 1995 Merritt assembled a selection of indie-rock royalty to sing his songs for a project called the 6ths. Wasps' Nests included Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, Yo la Tengo's Georgia Hubley, and Luna's Dean Wareham interpreting Merritt's tunes. Last year he followed it up with Hyacinths and Thistles, taking a different tack by including the voices of Odetta, Marc Almond, Gary Numan, Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto, as well as Melanie. Merritt called her out of the blue and sent two songs for her to consider. She chose a drunken, late-night pay-phone lament titled "I've Got New York."
"I never met him," Melanie explains. "I didn't really know his stuff, so I didn't know what I was in for. He sent me the song -- just a little toy piano track -- and I did the vocal." She expected Merritt to add flourishes to the song -- "some kind of Cole Porter orchestration" -- but the finished track is nothing but a plinkity toy piano and Melanie's sandpaper rasp. "When it came out as it is," she says, "I was totally astounded!"
"Surprise! It's me. It's drunk. I'm three," she slurs the song's opening line, before adding, "... I can't imagine why I'm wasting quarters on the telephone to say... I've got New York/But I ain't got you."
In 1999 Merritt's Magnetic Fields scored beaucoup best-of points with the three-disc magnum opus 69 Love Songs. Yet Hyacinths and Thistles has created a slight backlash with its rather uneven content; Melanie's contribution is alternately loved and loathed. "The sound of an alcoholic grandmother picking warts off her feet," slammed one disgruntled critic.
"I tried to find a key in there somewhere," Melanie reports, "but it wasn't easy. But that's just my normal everyday Melanie voice." And "I've Got New York," she adds, has introduced her to a new demographic who probably had no idea who she is.
As Melanie admits, it's difficult to predict when the next career curve ball will be lobbed her way. She's taken a passive approach to the business for a long time, bobbing like a cork in the sea. At any time, she realizes, another phone call like Merritt's could come. "It was kind of an honor," she says. "You never know who's thinking about you."