‘Woodstock Was Extremely Terrifying,’ Says Melanie SafkaPosted by Mike Schumacher
Melanie vividly recalls the day she busked in London. It was 1983, and the performance she was supposed to perform had been canceled owing to low ticket sales.
So she was dining with friends, sipping Pimm’s, when she got a phone from someone informing her that admirers had gathered outside the Royal Albert Hall. “I just thought, I’ll grab my guitar and go over there and sing,” she says over the phone from her Tennessee home.
That is exactly what she did. The cops came to help her go on, and the news began to circulate.
“It wasn’t a publicity stunt; I was just doing what came naturally to me,” says the 74-year-old, who was once dubbed “the female Bob Dylan.” It’s a mentality that helped her resist her detractors as she sought to reject the labels she was given by the industry: charming folk singer, flower kid with an edge.
She says, “I had a guitar and long hair, so I must be a folk singer.” Instead, her music is a seductive blend of earthy folk, sad blues, and rhapsodic pop, delivered with a soulful voice that is equal parts innocent and wise, and sings with a gravelly rasp that lassos your body.
Gather Me, her kaleidoscope classic album from 1971, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Melanie Safka was born in Queens, New York, and started her wandering musical career in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. She was helicoptered onto the stage at the Woodstock festival in 1969, where she was “an industry buzz” without a clue, in her own words.
“It was the most terrifying day of my life,” she recalls. “I just assumed it was going to be a singing weekend.” I imagined picnic blankets and arts & crafts for families. I was completely unaware! Janis Joplin was waiting for me in the foyer.”
Melanie, who was 22 years old at the time, had never seen a celebrity before. “I told myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ Nobody knows who I am since I don’t have any hit records.’ I didn’t have any musicians or roadies with me, and I even brought my mother!”
Melanie retains an appealing naivety, as well as a gentle acceptance of her career’s numerous twists and turns. However, there is an insightful view that, despite her intricacies, she was often misinterpreted as an artist, being referred to in the press as “a piece of Woodstock fluff.” It’s unclear how much she’s let go of this.
Take, for example, her most well-known song, Brand New Key, which seems to be an innocent tune about brand new roller skates at first listen, but its charming demeanor masks a song about a willful loss of innocence.
It reached No. 1 on the US singles chart in December 1971, then became a novelty success in the UK when the Wurzels’ The Combine Harvester imitated it in 1976, and has come to characterize Gather Me in ways Melanie hasn’t always appreciated.
“For a few years, it was the bane of my existence,” she says. Brand New Key, which she claims was initially written as a blues song but was sped up in the studio to appeal to a wider audience, is more in line with Gather Me as a whole.
Melanie adds, “I’m not a trained musician, and my husband [Peter Schekeryk] was the producer; he was mostly the person who communicated with the band, which was all guys.” She had production ideas, she says me, but she struggled to articulate them due to her lack of acquaintance with the musical language.
Not so with her counter-offering Some Say (I Got Devil) from side two of Gather Me, a satirical counterpoint to the ubiquitous bubblegum pop song. “That’s Morrissey’s favorite; he just did a cover of it,” Melanie explains. I’m not surprised in the least.
She sings with an irresistible blend of longing and fatigue, “Some have tried to sell me / all kinds of things to save me / from hurting like a woman.” Gather Me’s frequently dark and radical beauty is highlighted in part by subversive lyrics.
When I inquire about the story behind the song, she adds, “There was a big gap between my reality and the reality of how I was being perceived.” “I used to be an introvert, and now I’m a celebrity.” I was aware that I was not being depicted in the manner in which I am.”
In an industry where “a girl was just a ‘chick singer,’ you know?” her nonconformity hasn’t always made things easy for her. She speaks about a famous admirer, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and a remark he once made about her being “airbrushed out of history.”
Another renowned admirer, Jarvis Cocker, brought her to the stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2007, her first British performance in 30 years. Journalists gladly ushered her into the pantheon of female singer-songwriters, regardless of genre – Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin – as if she had never before held that high echelon. It was unquestionably aggravating. Has she ever been perplexed as to why?
She responds, “I could speculate.” “It wasn’t a time when ladies smiled. It needed to be darker, and I was much too chubby. Men can be charming. Randy Newman can sing Short People, which is OK since he’s a man with something to say. But a lady? “How could she possibly be important in society?”
Melanie tells me about her goals as a 24-year-old composer recording Gather Me at Allegro Sound Studio in New York. She explains, “I have this desire to be understood.” “I kind of wished I didn’t have a body,” she reflects, recalling those early days. Her insatiable need for independence got in the way as well.
“It was like a slap in the face to the industry” when she left Buddha Records and started her own label, Neighborhood Records, in 1971 – which surprised her at the time, but “there was a whole slew of conditions [on] being a woman,” she later says. She defied them nevertheless, releasing more than 30 albums since then, the most recent of which being Ever Since You Never Heard of Me in 2010.
What about the moniker “flower child”? “I never felt like a hippie, and I despised the term.” If anything, I was part of the beat generation, with residents of the Village expressing themselves in a variety of ways and refusing to be pigeonholed.”
When you’re no longer “the girl,” Melanie adds, it’s a relief. She’s even considering re-recording Brand New Key as the blues single she always imagined. “I’d like to make it clear that I’m still here and doing what I’m doing.”
I’m not quite decrepit even though it’s been 50 years. ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’ I believe [baseball star] Satchel Paige remarked.
Her need to be understood is as great as it has always been, as is her self-assurance. “It’s amazing to think that Gather Me could still be relevant all these years later; it’s incredible to think that I’ve soundtracked people’s lives.” It’s right on the money.”
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