By Lee Zimmerman
Melanie Anne Safka, better known to baby boomers everywhere simply as Melanie, sounds on the phone just as one would expect her to, based on her records. Personable. Engaging. Down to earth. And, in the slightest way, ever so fragile.
It’s been 62 years since her first public appearance — she was 4 and it was on a New Jersey radio show — and nearly 45 years since the singer, songwriter, actress and screenwriter appeared at what was supposed to be a modest music festival in upstate New York. But when she stepped out onto the stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, she was greeted by an audience of 400,000.
“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 e-mails 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.”
And that was the last thing she ever wanted to become.
“I’m really bad material for a celebrity,” she says. “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.”
So she channeled the discomfort and stress that accompanied fame into creating what she calls her “angstful” songs, including “Peace Will Come (According to Plan)” and “Stop! I Don’t Wanna Hear It Anymore.”
One of her most famous songs of that era — “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” — later given a rousing cover by unlikely admirers Mott the Hoople on the band’s “Wildlife” album — was supposedly inspired by the sea of glowing lighters and matches that Woodstock audience members held aloft to show their approval — much to Melanie’s horror.
“I couldn’t take a compliment. I didn’t know 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.”
The pop charts had other plans. Her debut LP, “Born To Be,” kicked of what has grown into a catalog of dozens of albums, including a string of 11 LPs that cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1969 and 1974.
Melanie’s earth-mother, flower-child, hippie chick finesse seemed deliberately out of sync with the hordes of underground outfits that crowded the airwaves in the early 1970s. Yet three of her songs became hits for the pop group the New Seekers. Billboard named her its No. 1 Female Vocalist for 1972. Between 1970 and 1973, she landed nine singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Lay Down,” “The Nickel Song,” “Bitter Bad,” a spirited cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and 1971’s “Brand New Key,” often referred to as “The Roller Skate Song.”
“Brand New Key” brought her a gold single, but the 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 “Boogie Nights,” the Oscar-nominated drama about the porn industry in the ’70s and ’80s.
Melanie’s career began to slow as the 1970s wore on. The 1976 album “Photograph” — recorded for Atlantic Records and overseen by legendary label chief Ahmet Ertegun, no less — and a pair of less-than-successful follow-ups officially put her career into 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 become 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 lower profile, Melanie has remained as prolific as ever, releasing a steady stream of albums throughout the ’80s, ’90s and the new millennium; however, her latest, ironically titled “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me,” remains officially unreleased.
She also found new creative outlets. In 1983 she wrote the music and lyrics for the musical “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 composer Lee Holdridge’s song “The First Time I Loved Forever,” which was used in the short-lived TV series “Beauty and the Beast.”
Her songs have also found 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,” she said with a laugh.
But fans still like the original very much, thank you, as evidenced by the miles Melanie continues to rack up on the road. She’s been in demand at high-profile festivals, including the 2007 Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall; the 2010 Isle of Wight festival (40 years after she was first ushered on 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. She also has plans for a series of dates with Tom Paxton in March 2014.
“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 finds inspiration in the relationship she shared with Peter Schekeryk, who was both her husband of roughly 40 years and the man who guided her career until his unexpected death from a heart attack in 2010. In 2012, Melanie witnessed the world premiere of the new musical she helped write called “Melanie and the Record Man,” which was 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.”
Her husband had always encouraged her to pick up and pen and write an autobiography, but it was only after his unexpected death that she was encouraged to take his advice.
“It’s really not my story. It’s Peter’s story. Sometimes, you don’t know you have a story until you have an end,” she says. “It just went on, 300 pages about his life and how it interwove with mine. He was the P.T. 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,” she said, laughing. “There wouldn’t be Melanie if it wasn’t for Peter.” GM