Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Meaning of Melanie

Melanie performs "Lay Down"/"Give Peace a Chance" at B.B. King's.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

How strange to suddenly see someone you knew (I use the word loosely) as a young person when she is, if not old, well into middle age. Melanie—she of the brand-new skates, candles in the rain, and fucked-up song, Ma; she of the brown bangs, huge dark eyes, and hippie clothes—played the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square last week. I was there, more than 30 years after seeing a show of hers at Lincoln Center. The bangs had been replaced by a thick grey braid, the eyes were still large but not as dominant—only the hippie clothes, in this case a long multicolored dress complete with fringed bag and glittering headband, remained the same.

Aging is an odd thing. While everyone’s face changes, some people retain a certain essential look, the decades notwithstanding. When Donna Summer materialized as if by magic on an NYC disco stage three years ago—remember the summer/Summer anthem “Stamp Your Feet”?—she’d gained weight but was completely recognizable. Melanie, on the other hand, seemed so different that I was having trouble wrapping my head around it, even after I heard that familiar timbre in her voice, that unique Melanie sound, as though she were a sui generis songbird.

For her, there’s a lot of water under the bridge (I’m mixing metaphors, but maybe that bird is perched on a bridge?). Her husband of 44 years, Peter Schekeryk—the producer who instantly heard the hit when she played him a Cajun-style “Brand New Key”—died suddenly in October (she did a show only three days later), and she seems to be virtually on her own with her career; she said she has no PR company and that she needs money to get to the Glastonbury festival in England for the 40th anniversary of her famous appearance there. (“We’ve got a tip jar,” joked George Wurzbach, the keyboard player.) She called her latest CD Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, released last fall on Arpeggio Records.

At B.B. King’s, Melanie, who grew up in Queens as Melanie Safka, played mostly new songs, and her themes have not changed much: togetherness (“Angel Watching over You”), difficult relationships (“Live One”), being a musician (“I Do It for Love”). Between songs she complained about being constantly called “cute” when she was starting out, and I wondered if I was actually missing that youthful elfin quality. Yet when I later watched a few early videos, I was struck not so much by that as by the toughness that came through in her voice (“She sang her diminutive guts out,” wrote a witness at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre) and her aggressive guitar-playing. Not to mention the sly subversiveness of some of her lyrics, as with “Baby Guitar.”

Melanie did “give birth to a baby guitar”: her son, the fleet-fingered Beau Jarred, who played intricate guitar licks behind her strumming. He looked just as you’d expect the son of Melanie to: dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, a handsome face, a sweet smile. (After meeting him after the show, a man wrote on an online forum, “He seems like a great guy, and he’s very muscular.”) Watching Beau, who looked so proud of his mom, I wondered if he could be the baby brought onstage at the show I’d seen all those years ago.

Melanie, still so evocative of peace-and-love, did perform some of her old hits, most notably “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” Unfortunately, she chose to tell us about her life, interesting though it certainly is, during those fantastic songs, interrupting their flow. (She claims the skate song just popped into her head when she went off her vegetarian diet at McDonald’s.) Still, many of us in the audience couldn’t help but lift our table candles during the stirring “Lay Down,” just as my fellow blogger Bob Rosen predicted we would! (How could we ignore the fact that she’d started the candles/lighters/matches trend at Woodstock?)

Do we still need her, now that she’s 64? Look around. Of course we do.