Monday, May 12, 2008

Melanie


In the years immediately after my parents’ divorce, my Dad went through a groovy ‘70s bachelor phase. He got an apartment with an orangey shag rug in the sunken living room, a couple of bean bag chairs, and a console TV where he, my brother and I watched “The Rockford Files” on Friday nights. He painted and sculpted and drank awful milkshakes made with wheat germ and bananas. He grew lots of facial hair.

He drove a Volkswagen beetle, like any good late-blooming hippie, and its 8-track tape player was perpetually churning out tunes by Donovan, Billy Preston, Three Dog Night and The Fifth Dimension. But he had one tape I especially loved: “Candles in the Rain,” by Melanie.

I was initially drawn to this album by the song “Alexander Beetle,” Melanie’s musical version of an A.A. Milne rhyme from the book “Now We Are Six.” But I grew to like the other songs, too. And then the 8-track broke, like they always did, and that was that. No more Melanie.

At least, not until ten years later, when I was in high school. Prowling through used record stores and flea markets, I began to find Melanie albums. I hadn’t given her much thought in the intervening years, but I bought a copy of “Candles in the Rain” and took it home, and it blew me away. I bought all the Melanie I could find: “Affectionately,” “Garden in the City,” “Gather Me,” “Stoneground Words,” “Madrugada.” I became a total Melanie-head.

To most of my friends, who were all listening to The Police and Prince, this was another of my strange, inexplicable quirks. (I had a thing for The Fifth Dimension, too. I had all their albums at one point -- and there were a lot!) Only my friend Kevin also saw the light, and became just as big a fan.

Melanie had a soulful voice and played a mean guitar. She was a skilled songwriter, and even played at Woodstock. But she got pigeonholed as a hippie, and when hippies went out of fashion, her career never quite recovered. Unfortunately, many people know her solely for her song “Brand New Key,” which doesn’t do her songwriting justice.

I shouldn’t use the past tense to refer to Melanie -- she’s still out there, performing and writing. In April 1991, when I was working as a reporter in Florida, I actually got to sit down with her for an interview. As you can imagine, it was a huge moment for me. We spent an hour or so revisiting the ‘60s, and discussing her career. Her album “Precious Cargo” was just about to be released, and she said she was content to reach smaller audiences with her more adult music.

Melanie attributed her “flower child” image to marketers at Buddah Records, her ‘60s label.

“What’s a flower child?” she asked me. “I was very into creating things, making them real and not phony, telling people what I was going through and feeling and seeing, mirroring whatever times were going on and what seemed to be happening. Some essence of that must have come out or nobody would have thought of it in the first place, but it certainly was a little bit limiting.”

Kevin and I went to see her perform soon after that interview, and I listened to “Precious Cargo” quite a bit, but I have to admit I always gravitated back to her earlier work. Maybe it’s just what I knew and was comfortable with; maybe it meant more to me, imbued as it was with those memories of rattling down the highway in my father’s Volkswagen, awash in cigarette smoke from his Larks.

Melanie autographed my copies of “Affectionately” and “Garden in the City,” and I still have them, even though I no longer have a record player. (I’ve managed to get several old Melanie albums on CD. My “Candles in the Rain” CD, strangely, doesn’t include “Alexander Beetle.” Did Disney wage a copyright battle?)

Now I hear that Melanie will be performing upstate in August, and I hope to be there.

My Dad still likes Melanie, too. He remarried, but he still drives Volkswagens, still has facial hair, and still smokes -- too much.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

(This photo is a less skillful ripoff of / homage to Chedwick, whose recent Melanie post inspired mine.)

14 comments:

Reya Mellicker said...

I forgot all about melanie! I's so good to be reminded.

Must go check Ched's blog.

Great post, Steve! In the 70's I did everything your dad did, except for facial hair. Everyone has to draw the line somewhere!

dennis said...

Dennis says he like Melanie too. That song about the ring around the moon.

Q: do they still make Larks?

dennis said...

PS
hi there Armenia! Looking Good!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

ched's melanie post sparked all sorts of melanie brain worms to emerge in my head and now your tribute!!

I sense a melanie renaissance....I'm sure she has a website, I need to find it and see if she's playing around here in the days and months to come....

enjoyed reading about your reflections on you dad....hope you try and urge him off of the smokes (I'm assuming you mean cigarettes) - my mom quite on her 65th birthday! she's of the mind that one is never too old to quit! she's now 83 still in excellent health except for the 'typical' aches and pains that accompany an aging body.

I always drove vws - and if I ever get another car, I'm sure I'd want a vw (but only if they made one with excellent fuel efficiency.) right now I'm so happy I can be car-free!

my wordverification is: wearkarr - is that some subliminal message?

Steve said...

Dennis: No, RJ Reynolds stopped making Larks years ago. My Dad switched to another brand - Marlboros, maybe?

Armenia says hi back. But don't get any ideas.

Gary said...

You have been successful in igniting my curiosity and interest in Melanie. I think I shall see if I can download any of her music in iTunes. I remember 'Brand New Key" very well from my youth - it was constantly on the radio and I loved it. Wasn't it used in that Dick Diggler movie?

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Hmmm...not sure how much older you are than I am, but I have no recollection of your beloved Melanie. I bet I know her music when I hear it, though. The music of my parents divorce (in 1982) was ABBA, a group I still adore to this day!

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

OK, so you are 2 years older than I am, and I should remember Melanie. Oh well. I didn't know you were an accountant, either!

Merle Sneed said...

Steve, Alexander Beetle is available through iTunes, on Candles in the Rain.

Steve said...

JDZS: Ha! I am NOT an accountant. But I see that my profile says I am. Guess I better fix that!

Merle: You're awesome! I'm going to download it as soon as I get home!

Barbara said...

I grew up with Melanie too. I remember so distinctly when "Candles in the Rain" came out. My roommate had a tambourine and we would sit around for hours singing along with Melanie and thinking about wanting to get stoned. Melanie had (probably still has) a uniquely soulful voice.

Barbara said...

P.S. That was the summer of Woodstock, oh yeah!

lettuce said...

what a cool post.

Roller skates, thats the one i really remember.

so steve, did you ever do the hippy "hairy" look yourself?

(and the subsidiary question: do you have photos? ;op)

IntangibleArts said...

ah, there was no better way to size up your 6th-grade classmates than to grill 'em on their musical tastes. When I made the leap from ELO and Queen to the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Nurse With Wound, my social status died immediately. And never recovered, I daresay.

But many of the 60s/70s folkies are coming back around to very appreciative audiences. Tom Rapp (Pearls Before Swine) was a favorite of mine, and he's supposedly back on the scene. And Roy Harper is still with us, bless him...