Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Power of Music

It's a big, old-fashioned, extravagant word, but it's useful for describing big, old-fashioned, extravagant emotions: the other night I was disconsolate. I was doing the evening dishes and weeping like a fool, feeling trapped, lonely and sorry for myself.

Then I heard a familiar voice that I had not heard in years. It was playful and flirty, with an edge of roughness to it.

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 you see
I been looking around awhile
You've got something for me
Oh, I got a brand new pair of roller skates
You got a brand new key

It was Melanie. I turned to look at the television and saw a baby in a stroller shooting through traffic at high speed: a telephone commercial.

My first thought was, Good on her! The old gal will get some money for that. I brushed my tears aside and turned back to the dishes, only this time my hips were swaying.

I asked your mother if you were at home
She said yes, but you weren't alone
Oh, sometimes I think that you're avoiding me
I'm okay alone but you've got something I need...

So many associations rose up from wherever we keep them when we're not using them. I remember buying my first Melanie album at a small department store in Wisconsin the summer that I rode with my grandmother and grandfather to Minnesota from Maine. We had traveled through Canada and stopped at Niagara Falls along the way.

Slowwwwly I turned -- step by step --

But I digress that's what associations do. Everything is connected.

I don't think I knew anything about Melanie when I bought the album (it was Gather Me -- a real good place to start); but I had seen them in the record club ads and I was curious. You'd never know that Melanie Safka was a New York City girl, born and bred; she wore what were known in those days as Peasant Dresses and cultivated the Whole Earth Mother image (the Whole Earth Catalog was another thing we had back then). I knew little about folk music and am not sure if I knew that was what I was getting into. The look was what intrigued me.

Gather Me is a great album by any standard and I was hooked. I spent most of that summer with my grandmother and grandfather (two more people I miss terribly). and spent a good chunk of it lying next to their stereo listening to one Melanie album after another.

I've been celebrating way too long
And I've been drinking I'm ashamed to tell
Still feel thirsty
God I want to drink the water from the well
Still feel thirsty
God I want to drink and Ring The Living Bell
Ring the bell, ah...

By that time Melanie Safka was well along in developing as a performer. In her early years her voice was a bit nasal and rough, and she fell into the same category as Dylan: more interesting as a songwriter than as a singer. She could belt out a wailing note, but she used that trick to excess, sometimes to the point of annoyance. But beginning with Good Book, her voice had mellowed some and her delivery was greatly improved in its range. She could still wail, but she could also coax and flirt, and when she sang sad songs it was with tenderness rather than overt weeping. With sophisticated arrangements by Roger Kellaway adding to the mix, Melanie had developed into something much more than just a hippie gal with a guitar.

I entered dancing
And looked for my partner
I thought the path could be a double road
You played my heart like a drum beating warning
Oh, I guess I'm gonna dance this one alone...

Several years later I remember shopping with that same grandmother at Porteous, Mitchell & Braun, in Portland, Maine. Once a great, old-fashioned department store (the closest thing Maine had to Dayton's in Minneapolis), Porteous was already suffering from a decline brought on by the opening of the Maine Mall, and you could see that decline in the store. But they still had a record department, and I remember the joy of finding a brand-new Melanie album there: Madrugada. Grandma bought it for me. With a great opening song and full-blooded covers of "Lover's Cross," "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Wild Horses," it was a strong effort, if not quite to the standard of Gather Me or Stoneground Words.

I'm so tired
That I can't sleep
And I already read the Bible
Inner deep
The preacher keeps me on my knees
To wander and to travel

Her songs are often melancholy and reflective, which made me her perfect target audience. During the summers at the farm there were many days of daydreaming alone in my end of the house, with the stereo playing full blast, usually The Beatles or the Moody Blues or Melanie. I still have all the vinyl records, but my stereo system is Deeply Troubled, and I haven't played any of them in many, many years.

By 1976 Melanie had been without a recording contract for a few years. She had fallen out of fashion with the record companies, more than with her fans. Ahmet Ertigun (sp?) at Atlantic Records gave her a chance and her "comeback" album, Photograph, was released. The New York Times gave it a rave review, but it was not widely distributed. I remember finding my copy in the record store: one of those moments when you suck in a load of breath in excitement. That's one experience the internet has largely killed. The art of browsing, and the moment of pleasure when you make a find or a discovery.

Photograph is probably Melanie's best and most sophisticated album, with a powerful, stirring opening song, a reflective remake of her own "Nickel Song," and a pleasing range of autobiographical songs. It deserved a much wider audience. Instead, it was her first real step into obscurity.

By this time I was in my senior year of high school and about to make the worst decision of my life.

Too much singing for my living tonight
Do a song for friends and company
Too much is the matter with the giving on spite
Here's one for the giving, and the other for free

Here's a link to Melanie's web site. She appears to be keeping herself busy.

For my part, last night as I was once again doing up the evening dishes (and having a better time of it, for all the Melanie music going around in my head, plus the knowledge that I had just ordered up a couple of CD's online and will soon be able to listen to some old Melanie favorites once again), I realized that Ms. Safka even had a number in her songbook for my current crisis. All I had to do was change one word.

Look what they done to your song, Ma
Look what they done to your song.
You know they tied it up in a plastic bag
And they turned it upside down, Ma
Look what they done to your song.

-- Freder.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic piece of writing on the wonderful Melanie. Thank you so much for these insightful words.

    I also once lost touch with Melanie's music and when I found her again and heard all the music I knew and all the new music I didn't know it was like finding a big treasure. Hope you will have the same experience! All the best to you.


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