Melanie, a Reluctant Superstar, Reflects: "I Never Wanted to Be a Celebrity"
Speaking on the phone from her home in Nashville, Melanie Anne Safka-Schekeryk -- better-known to Baby Boomers everywhere simply as Melanie -- sounds exactly as one would expect: personable, engaging, down to earth, and, in the slightest way, ever so fragile.
It's hard to believe it's been nearly 45 years since the public got its first glimpse of a once-budding singer, songwriter, actress, and screenwriter at what was supposed to be a modest music festival in upstate New York. There, standing alone at center stage in Woodstock, facing some 400,000 people, she immediately ascended to the throne of Earth Mother, Hippie Chick, and Flower Child Supreme.
"I can't tell you how terrified I was when I played Woodstock," she confesses. "I drove up with my mother. I had no clue. I didn't hear any of the hype or buildup or anything. We started driving, and we hit some traffic and then took a detour, made some phone calls -- no cell phones or emails back then, of course -- and I finally found my way to this little motel in Bethel. And there were all these media trucks and famous people. When I appeared at Woodstock, maybe a small percent, if that, had ever heard of me. I'd never been in a magazine or on TV or anything. I went up an unknown person, and I walked off a celebrity."
According to the woman herself, the "angstful Melanie songs" like "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)" and "Stop! I Don't Wanna Hear It Anymore" were about the stress that accompanied her fame. "I couldn't take a compliment. I didn't how," she admits. "I came from a family that believed the wheat that grows the highest is always cut down. We were taught never to stand out or achieve. So here I was, a famous person, and it was horrible! That's not what I geared myself up to be."
Somewhat surprisingly, then, one of her most famous songs of that era -- "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" (later given a most rousing cover by that most unlikely of admirers, Mott the Hoople, on their Wildlife album) -- was supposedly inspired by the swarm of lighters and matches that the Woodstock audience lit to show their approval.
In truth, Melanie's acceptance reached far beyond those long-haired legions. From 1968, the year she released her first album, Born to Be, through to the early '70s, she boasted no fewer than 15 LPs and a dozen singles that established her imprint on the pop charts, among them the aforementioned "Lay Down," "Beautiful People," "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," a spirited cover of the Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," What Have They Done to My Song Ma," and "Brand New Key." The latter, often referred to as "The Roller Skate Song," achieved a different kind of notoriety after being banned by several radio stations for sexual innuendo. Ironically, it resurfaced in 1997 as part of the soundtrack for the porno spoof Boogie Nights.
Indeed, despite the fact that her fragile finesse seemed deliberately out of sync with the hordes of underground outfits that crowded the airwaves in the early '70s, Melanie chalked up quite a track record. Three of her songs became hits for the pop group the New Seekers. She amassed two gold albums and one gold single (for "Brand New Key") and earned the distinction of becoming the first female performer to have two Top 40 hits on the charts simultaneously. She capped that accomplishment when the bible of the music industry, Billboard magazine, named her its top female vocalist for 1972.
"I never wanted to be a celebrity," she reflects. "I'm really bad material for a celebrity. I've gotten pretty good at doing interviews, and I've gotten a certain amount of professionalism, but as far as my natural instincts as a person, I'm the type who's even a bit uncomfortable walking through a crowded room."
Indeed, after one final hurrah, a 1976 album recorded for Atlantic Records titled Photograph -- overseen by legendary label chief Ahmet Ertegun, no less -- and a pair of less-than-successful follow-ups, Melanie's career began its decline. "In the '80s, it became more about putting your guitar down and singing Barry Manilow songs," she recalls. "Every president of every record label wanted to superimpose my voice on the next schmaltzy ballad. I guess that became the choice, because the other choices were to become the next Neil Young or to do the punk thing. The president of Sire Records gave me a song and said, 'You're going to make this a smash.' It was called 'Breakfast in Bed,' and it was about giving a guy a blow job. [laughs] It's hard enough to get up night after night and do something you really love, but to get up and do something you don't believe in? It would be hideous."
Despite her lowered profile, Melanie's remained as prolific as ever, releasing a steady stream of albums throughout the '70s, '80s, '90s, and well into the new millennium. (Her latest, ironically titled Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, remains officially unreleased.)
In 1983, she wrote the music and lyrics for a musical called Ace of Diamonds, based on a series of letters written by the legendary Annie Oakley. Six years later, she received an Emmy award for writing the lyrics to the theme song for the TV series Beauty and the Beast. At the same time, the onetime West Coast Florida resident has continued to make several high-profile festival appearances, including the 2007 Meltdown Festival at London's Royal Festival Hall, where she performed at the invitation of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker; the 2010 Isle of Wight festival (40 years after she was first ushered onto that stage by Who drummer Keith Moon); the 2011 Glastonbury Festival; and 2012's 15th-annual Woody Guthrie Fold Festival, where she shared the bill with Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins. Considering the fact that she made her first public appearance at age 4 on a radio show in her native New Jersey, she's now tallied more than five decades of performing.
"I've never retired," she insists. "Three months is probably the longest I've gone without doing a gig. What keeps me going? I don't know. I guess the music mostly."
She also found inspiration in her relationship with her late husband, Peter Schekeryk, her husband of 40 years and the man who guided her career. Last October, she witnessed the world premiere of a new musical she helped write called Melanie and the Record Man, based on the couple's personal and professional relationship.
"I'm just trying to out-create the things I've gone through," she says. "I started in the theater, so it's funny I'm back in a theater setting."
The impetus for the musical came from her late husband, who had always encouraged her to pick up and pen and write an autobiography. It was only after his sudden death -- which occurred while she, Peter, and her son and current musical collaborator Beau were out on tour -- that she was encouraged to take his advice.
"It was surreal and unreal and evil and too much," she says of his sudden loss. "Ultimately it's really not my story. It's Peter's story. Sometime you don't know you have a story until you have an end. It just went on, 300 pages about his life, and how it interwove with mine. He was the PT Barnum of the music business in the '60s. He was the extrovert. I couldn't wait to leave. I'm one of those people who goes to a party and gravitates to the farthest corner. Peter would do the room. He'd come out with 50 business cards, the names of the children and all their birthdays." [laughs] There wouldn't be Melanie if it wasn't for Peter."
Regardless, Melanie remains etched in immortality, thanks to songs that find new life in everything from cereal commercials to unconventional covers by the likes of Dion, Bjork, Cissy Houston, Alison Moyet, Miley Cyrus, Will Oldham, and Tortoise.
"I love when I hear someone else take one of my songs and make it something else," she says. "I loved what Ray Charles did with 'Look What They've Done to My Song Ma.' He had an R&B hit with that. He did it on TV with Barbra Streisand. It was my Barbra Streisand moment." [laughs]
Clearly, more than 40 years after it initially hit the charts, the question first posed by "Look What They've Done to My Song Ma" remains one still worth pondering.
Melanie performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, February 21, at the Amaturo Theater in the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $25 and $35. Phone 954-462-0222, or visit browardcenter.org.
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