Melanie Safka: “I went out and tried to imitate Joan Baez and I got it wrong!”

•July 3, 2015 • 1 Comment

melanie

In February of 2014 I was given an opportunity to speak to several of my musical heroes in order to promote a Beatles-related series of charity concerts in New York City (which marked the 50th anniversary of the group’s arrival in the United States). Tommy James, Gene Cornish, a member of The Spin Doctors, several new, up and coming artists, and Melanie Safka. Here I am, a new interviewer who still fumbles her way through questions and I’m talking to musicians who I grew up listening to. Thankfully each was an interview pro and through their warmth I was able to eventually get comfortable. Melanie Safka, who recently did a duet with Miley Cyrus in a backyard video that has gone viral at almost 4,000,000 views in just one month (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GX9A5vv-jOM), was so welcoming on the phone that we talked for an hour and a half, and could have kept going if we both didn’t have other interviews to take part in. This is the interview, in full, that was conducted last winter.

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February 1st, 2014

Me: The first question, and more obvious one, is how did you get involved in such an event? [The Fab 50 concert series that coincided with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles landing in America]

Melanie: I got a phone call (laughing).  It went through and didn’t go to voicemail. I got it right in my ear. Charles I knew from…When my husband passed away, he called me to give his condolences and see if he could help me out because Peter, my husband, three years ago passed away. He was my producer from the very first record I ever made. I’d never been in the music business. He recorded all of my hits and non-hits and he continued to do that right up until the end. We were actually on the road when it happened. You don’t want to hear this, but I just have to put it in sequence. Charles called me and he thought I could do something that didn’t work out, but when he was organizing this he said, “I saw you on youtube.com. You had youtube reviews singing some Beatle songs.” It was from a French television show and I did “Rocky Raccoon” smoking a cigar and “We Can Work It Out,” a really rocked-out version of “We Can Work It Out”. It was some bizarre television special they were doing in France. Richie Havens did “She’s Leaving Home”. And that was what Charles saw so he thought I would be involved in this.  Then I said, “Did you know I sang with John Lennon?” It was at the One-to-One Concert at Madison Square Garden and he and Yoko gave me a rose. A black rose (laughing). That’s why it was so significant. Actually she was the one who handed it to me. A strange Yoko story. I didn’t know if it was a warning (laughing). Keep away from John.

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: That’s one of the memories I have of that. I know he really liked my songs and had a kind of special interest. Anyway, I did that show and Charles had no idea. I said, “You haven’t seen the picture?”  I have so few photo moments because I’m pretty shy. I’m really an introvert, so I’m not the one who’s standing next to the famous person and gets her picture taken. Unfortunately, because I could have had a dynamite book (laughing), but I still might have a book because books do consist of words and I do write so I might still write a book with a few pictures (laughing). I notice that most people writing books have a lot of pictures and few words. But I wasn’t the kind, again, who got the photos, but I was lucky enough to get this one of me and John Lennon, so I sent it over to Charles. Who doesn’t have a Beatles’ affinity? I wasn’t an early-on Beatles fan, I wasn’t one of the screaming girls. I was in high school. I watched screaming girls listening to and watching The Beatles. It wasn’t my thing. I was into Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.  The Beatles didn’t interest me…yet.  When they did “Revolution” and The White Album, Abbey Road, my spirituality was awakened and I got very interested in The Beatles. I didn’t do a whole lot of their songs. I was asked to do a Beatles song on this French television show so I just picked two of the odd ones. They’re all pretty odd, really, and that’s what I love about them.  Jerry Leiber of Leiber and Stoller said to me the one thing he loved about my songs, and this is a great honor and I don’t say this lightly, is that like The Beatles, my songs intersect in a place where commerciality meets art.  I thought that was, “Wow, thank you!  Can you print that?”. (laughing) He told me that on the telephone. I thought that was interesting because their songs are all over the map and fortunately they had such a tremendous PR machine. I did not. (laughing) But my songs are all over the map. I’d go from “Beautiful People” to a black gospel choir singing “Candle in the Rain”, then it was “Brand New Key” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma”.  Nothing followed a line. In fact when my records were being distributed by RCA, it was like a Gulf and Western company, very big conglomerate, the president of Gulf and Western, and they came from a tire place. Jim Judelson, the president of the company, called me personally and said, “Do you think your next record could be more like ‘Brand New Key’?” Me being young and naïve and not that diplomatic, I don’t know how I handled it, but I was very outraged that somebody would think that they can special order a song (laughing). “Can you do another one like ‘Brand New Key’?” Now I probably would have said, “Yeah, Jim. I will give that some serious thought. I will do some of those same things that I did the moments before the song came out and see what happens.” (laughing) But I didn’t have that experience then. I probably just wasn’t too diplomatic about it, but again, I’m usually pretty nice. I’m sure I didn’t do anything rude. You never know, maybe I did. I definitely remember being outraged at the thought that somebody who owns a tire manufacturing company could decide I should write another one of those. My songs just came from wherever. To me it’s a sacred thing. It’s almost like a sacred responsibility or something (laughing). I have to put out what comes and I can’t just special order them. That’s what’s so strange about Nashville. They have these people who write together. People are always saying to me, “Oh, you should write with so-and-so or you should write with this one.” I can’t do that. I’ve done it, but I’ve never really loved the songs that came out of it. It feels a little bit contrived.

Me: That’s something I wanted to touch upon. I was doing some research for the interview and I was born in 1975 to put this in context, so I’m catching up on a lot of the good music I missed by not being born. (laughing) Thankfully my parents were both music aficionados and they really filled the house with all of the good stuff from their high school years. Just looking at the immense output you have, it really does seem like the songs are more written in the moment than written for a theme or some kind of pattern. With some artists you can see the evolution of the music. For example, The Beatles from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, it’s a huge gulf.

Melanie: Yeah.

Me: With your music it’s not like it doesn’t evolve because it’s constantly an evolution, it’s constantly in the moment, more like a Buddhist approach to writing…

Melanie: Right.

Me: …rather than going for an album theme. I was looking at your album list, too, and you’ve got so many albums out, too. It’s incredible. I think that my absolute favorite album title of all time is now Old Bitch Warrior.

Melanie: (laughing) I love that one, too. I think I scared a lot of men away…

Me: (laughing) That one just kind of jumps out at you. I’m like, “Go, girl!”

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: You mentioned your husband and my condolences on your loss. It’s such a beautiful thing to me to work with somebody that closely and live with somebody all that time and love somebody that much. Why did you guys decide to work together so closely and basically spend every part of your lives together, professional and private?

Melanie: I’d like to say it involved a lot of thought, but it didn’t (laughing).

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: I was very young. I was swept off my feet. It was a Cinderella story, not that I was really in cinders. I went to New York, I was an actress. I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and hadn’t ever done anything professional. The only thing I had was I came armed with one season of summer stock in Hyannis in Cape Cod. That was it. I was very shy so I would read the trade papers and read what the casting calls were and think, “No, that doesn’t sound like me.  Mmm…no, I don’t think that’s me.” (laughing) One day it looked like an omen: I read in the trade papers that they were looking for a girl who played guitar and sang to play the part of Barbara Allen in “Dark of the Moon”.  I was a person who knew every verse of Barbara Allen from every person’s version. I knew about 82 verses of Barbara Allen. (laughing) I thought, “Oh my God, this is me! This is so me!” “Dark of the Moon,” the play, was pretty obscure and it happened to be one of my favorite strange plays. That I knew it was odd enough. That they needed somebody to play the guitar and sing…now, we’re talking about then. Then no girls played guitar. There was Joan Baez, and that was it, and on and off Judy Collins. And that’s how it was for me. Judy Collins was also second, the runner-up to Joan Baez. I thought, “Oh, she’s just trying to be Joan Baez!” (laughing)  There were no women playing guitars. In fact, you didn’t see people with guitars. You didn’t see advertisements for homeowner’s insurance with guitars propped against the wall. A guitar was something you hung over your shoulder. There was no case. Only people who went to Julliard carried a guitar in a case. It just wasn’t a street instrument. It wasn’t an instrument of the people. It hadn’t caught on as a way of life yet. I was a girl who played guitar so this audition sounded like me. I went to the audition. By that time I had already graduated and was living at home in New Jersey with my parents. I came in by bus and realized I didn’t have the room number of where the audition was being held. So I went up to the doorman, and he had what they now call Tourette Syndrome. He would mumble little things at people. He’d say good morning to somebody, and I was watching him (laughing). In front of the Brill Building he’d say things to people like “Good morning. How are you sir?” and then I was thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God…”  I walked up to him and said, “Do you know where they’re auditioning for ‘Dark of the Moon’?” and here I am, a girl with a guitar strapped to her back, probably in my buffalo hide sandals, and beatnik. I was a beatnik. I was not a hippie yet. There wasn’t such a thing yet. He looked at me with an intensity that was otherwordly, and he said, “Try 511. They’re always doing weird things in 511.”

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: So I walked into the Brill Building, went directly to 511 and met the receptionist/secretary, Joyce, in the outer chamber of an office and I said, “Are you doing the audition for ‘Dark of the Moon’?” and she looked at me like I was from another planet (laughing). She said, “No, this is a publishing company. We’re Hugo & Luigi. You have the wrong office.” Right at that moment I broke down and sobbed. I said, “No, no!  I have to be at this audition! You don’t understand! This is the part I know I have to have!”  She asked, “Who’s putting the audition on?” I said, “I think it’s the director of The New Yorker, the artist and director or something like that.” And she helped me. She actually went through her building directory and found where the audition was being held, and she wished me good luck. In the meantime, two men walked in, and they were Hugo and Luigi themselves. They were huge music publishers who’d written many hit songs including songs for Elvis. They wrote “Fools Rush In”. I didn’t know what a music publisher was. If anything I thought they were those people who stamp little images on sheet music and sell it on the street corners. Anyway, they came in and they saw me really upset, with a guitar, and they said, “Oh, are you here for an audition?” and I replied, “Yes, for ‘Dark of the Moon’.”  They looked at me again like, ‘What a weirdo!’ and they said, “Joyce, put her down for Thursday,” and I thought, “Yeah, Thursday.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Joyce said, “Ah…okay,” and she put me down for an appointment. I came back after my acting reading audition and I knew I’d got the part.  I was so perfect for this part. they had me reading with different people.  So I came back and thanked Joyce and she told me I had an audition with Hugo & Luigi on Thursday. I said, “Oh, that’s nice.”  (laughter) I said, “Well, I’m an actress,” and she replied, “You sing, right?”  I said, “Yes, and I write some songs,” and she said, “Okay, just play them the songs.” So I came back on Thursday and I went into their inner office. The inner office was decorated in Louis XIV antiques and chandeliers, two inch thick carpets, gold-guilded desks facing each other. They had these giant desks facing each other, and they said, “Okay, sing something you wrote,” so I started singing some songs that I had, up to then, only sung to a few people, you know, my mother, boyfriends, but not, I wasn’t really a person who sang out. I did go to the Village sometimes and I would sing on Washington Square, but I wasn’t really pushy enough to pass the hat or anything. I sang them some songs and I could see them looking back and forth at each other. I’m facing these profiles of people looking back and forth at each other, and I could tell that they didn’t get it. They didn’t see it. Anyway, I didn’t care because I’m an actress! (laughing) They said, “Well, you know, you’ve got an interesting voice. Where did you get that style?” And I don’t know. They said, “We just hired Peter Schekeryk,” and this is where the story is coming together, “who we hired for our production company because we’re writing a Broadway musical,” and I thought, “Oh, very nice.”  So they had me come back to audition for Peter Schekeryk to see what he thought, and Peter Schekeryk was absolutely smitten. (laughing) Peter asked me to do a song again, and he was a scary intense guy. He was listening, and he definitely heard something that made him, his imagination, whatever go wild. That night we ran off to Atlantic City (laughing). We were together ever since.

Me: Talk about fate intervening!

Melanie: Strange. It was a movie. It really was a movie. And the way the doorman looked at me and told me to go to 511. I mean, how can you ignore advice like that? (laughing)

Me: That really is an absolutely wonderful story.

Melanie: So we were together ever since, and he produced all of my records and organized everything. He was the manager and the agent. At first we had major agents, and as things tapered…I had ups and downs three times because of the inconsistency of my songs. Peter, who totally supported everything I did, I mean, he was a one-sided manager, all for me. He wasn’t being a businessman from any sort of a ruthless business place, which is probably, career-wise, what I needed to keep a consistent, high-visual thing going. As I look back now I see he was as much of an artist as I was. He was constantly creating and making these deals. He just loved making the deal. He didn’t care about accumulating or what would happen afterward. His background was…he was like a P.T. Barnum person, of the moment. When he passed away, Beau and I were the two so-sheltered artists, Beau was up in his room, creating and writing, playing guitar, he’s a concert guitarist, a concert-level guitarist. He’s played all over the world as a solo, as well. He backs me, we write together. He produced the last album. If you like Old Bitch Warrior, you might like this title: Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me. Peter produced that with Beau. Beau says he’s grateful he got to do that because he can run it past Peter’s ears. He knows what Dad would have listened for.

Me: That’s a beautiful thing to see that continue on in your children. All three of them are involved in music, is that correct?

Melanie: Yes. My girls, in fact, Leilah just did a video. If people could watch that it would be great! (laughing) I’m trying to get as many viewers of that video as possible! She’s working all independent. She’s in Nashville. My other daughter, Jeordie, I just saw her play last night. She’s in Phoenix, Scottsdale. She plays a lot out here. She’s more like me, very quirky writing. She’ll go from a ballad to a strange little song about a chicken (laughing). She’s a real unique person. I love to help them as much as I can, but I’m not even able to help myself (laughing). Since Peter’s gone I’ve been without representation. I met Mike Gormley and I’m hoping that, that becomes the person who will help me get this all together. I intend to keep having my career because so many people in my position are doing it to do gigs, which is different than having a career. I’m not interested in doing “Brand New Key” for the rest of my life (laughing). I mean, I do it and I don’t mind. I actually have come to terms with that song. It became so ridiculously big that, that’s all anybody knew of me, they forgot about “Candle In The Rain” or all the other songs that I wrote. They forgot about all of the album cuts that have nothing to do with any of it. You can’t help feeling a little bit resentful about that at first because I was really young and didn’t know how to deal with it, but I outcreated it, continued to write, produce, sing so I’m still doing it, but without someone to front you…”Hi, I’m Melanie. I’ll have $5,000 please.” (laughing) How do you do this? People who book things or venues, they’re not used to dealing with the artist. I think it scares them. In fact I think it scares them double when it’s a woman.

Me: I’m so glad you brought that up, because here I go now. Being of the female persuasion myself, what I was really wanting to touch upon a little bit, because I’m a bit of a political activist myself, is that you are, in a lot of ways, an innovator for females in the music business. If I’m correct, you were the first female to have concurrent hits.

Melanie: Yes, it’s true. At the time, and this is something interesting, major radio, mainstream radio, wasn’t playing more than one female an hour. That was just written doctrine. No more than one female an hour. I wasn’t in the mindset of political activism, I was just, “I’m going to keep doing this. I’ll be that female.” (laughing) What’s so horrible about that is what that does to women, dividing them. You’re competition. You’re not considering other females as artists, you’re considering them as competition. If it was just treated as, “Is this a good song? Should we put this on our radio station?” instead of “Is this a female? We can only play one…” You’re pitted against each other. That’s true of booking concerts, and it’s even true now, because I was talking to a man who owns a theater in Tennessee, and he openly and honestly says, “Women don’t sell tickets as well as men.” I said, “Are you kidding? Is this something everyone knows and I don’t?” (laughing) He says it’s just the way it is. He doesn’t like it, but that’s just the way it is. He’s talking very openly, not having any kind of agenda with me. He says they have to consider two people, pretty much on the same par, and they have to decide who to book, they’re probably going to go with the man because he’ll sell more tickets.

Me: That’s ridiculous, but that’s why it’s so impressive looking into your career, to see how many doors I believe you opened for women coming after you.

Melanie: Thank you. I thank you for noticing (laughing).

Me: It’s hard not to, especially, and this is where I’ve got to tell a little bit of a backstory, too. I’ve told you my parents are big music fans and my dad is especially big on The Rolling Stones, and because he pushed them on me so much growing up that I rebelled by not liking them.

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: So what happened was I was watching a movie called The Royal Tenenbaums

Melanie: Oh, I LOVE The Royal Tenenbaums!

Me: Yes! I love Wes Anderson’s films so much, and that’s one of my favorites right there. I’m watching and really enjoying it, and all of a sudden this beautiful song comes on and I thought, ‘What is this?’ It gets to the chorus and I look up the words on the internet and it’s “Ruby Tuesday” and I thought, I’ve got to download this song. And I saw it was by The Rolling Stones and I thought, “Oh crap!”

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: I called my father and told him, “Damn you! I finally like The Rolling Stones.” “Ruby Tuesday” is the song that got me into The Rolling Stones.

Melanie: I’ve sang two of their songs in my life. “Ruby Tuesday” became bigger than theirs in Europe, as far as my record. It was the biggest hit I had up until that point in Europe. My version of “Ruby Tuesday,” to the point that people thought I wrote it because it wasn’t as big a hit for them as it was for me. A lot of people knew I wrote songs, I mean it wasn’t pushed that I wrote songs. They didn’t have the term “singer/songwriter” yet, so they just called me “The Female Bob Dylan”.

Me: Which is not a bad thing to be called, mind you.

Melanie: No. But I wondered if they called him “The Male Melanie”.

Me: (laughing) That’s a wonderful question, actually.  There’s some wonderful female artists that have come into play since then, and again I credit you with a lot of that, to your success. One of the semi-current artists that I would equate to you would be The Indigo Girls who’ve done some amazing work politically, but also songwriting-wise. Females powered by guitars in the vein that you also worked. Are there any current artists who you look at and think, “They’re doing the right thing.”

Melanie: I’m sorry, I got hooked on your “females powered by guitars”.

Me: (laughing)

Melanie: (laughing) That’s a good line. I love that. You know, I’m picturing that symbol. You know, the female symbol? Imagine somehow turning that into a guitar.

Me: Oh, that would be cool, wouldn’t it?

Melanie: Females powered by guitars…that’s a really good concept.

Me: That can be your next album title (laughing).

Melanie: I actually sang with The Indigo Girls when they did a show in Florida. My friend was there and she said, “They really want to meet you,” so we went backstage and talked and I sang them some new songs. It was really cool. I liked them a lot. It was a nice meeting.

Me: (laughing) Are there any artists who are currently out who you think are doing it the right way, who you see as the torchbearers?

Melanie: That’s hard now. What I’m hearing mostly, you know, somebody has to let me know because so many people sound exactly alike. I can’t tell one from another. I feel partially responsible for it. There’s this thing girls are doing with their voices, it’s demonic. I don’t know what in the hell are they listening to? I feel responsible a bit because my voice had that little gravelly feeling and that sense of in-your-ear thing. I was trying so desperately to communicate, and my voice had that…in fact Hugo and Luigi told Peter before he met me, “She sounds like she’s singing underwater.” (laughing)

Me: You don’t really hear that anymore because, as I think you’re alluding to, you have this slick production quality so the emotion is kind of cut out unfortunately.

Melanie: Auto-tuning has become…our ears are going to be ruined because we’re going to hear everything so perfectly pitched that we aren’t, we won’t even be able to hear a human voice anymore. You don’t hear the little imperfections anymore. Recording is so pasteurized you don’t hear a human voice much. It’s all got so many effects. That’s why it’s really hard for me to know. I love my daughter Jeordie. She’s the coolest thing I’ve seen! (laughing) She’s also got a website. I’m not kidding! I’m not just saying this because she’s my daughter. Honest and true!  I loved Joan Armatrading but she’s not current anymore. She had the real deal. She was really her own person, she had things to say. It was coming from her, it wasn’t coming from “What’s going to make me famous?”  Which is all I’m hearing is “What’s going to make me famous?”

Me: I was talking to somebody yesterday, I think it was Tommy James, about the idea that, I don’t honestly think that you’re going to (hopefully) ever see a 50th anniversary of Justin Bieber concert.

Melanie: I hope not! (laughing)

Me: Or Britney Spears. So the question is what is it about the ‘60s and ‘70s that is timeless, and that is still gaining new fans every year?

Melanie: I think it really comes down to an awakening. It was like a new renaissance on Earth at that time. People were investigating the source of things. People were going for different kinds of musical sounds in pop music. People were experimenting with different types of drums or, “Ooh, look! A plastic saxophone!” (laughing) for the sake of making it go further, not for the sake of being famous.

Me: I noticed in the publicity materials for the upcoming event, I noticed that you had been on Ed Sullivan and some of the biggest TV shows of, well, forever, but the one that I was most impressed by because any time you’re with Johnny Cash your cool points raise up a 1,000 fold…

Melanie: (laughing)

Me: …was The Johnny Cash Show.

Melanie: I think twice I was on The Johnny Cash Show because he really liked me, and he was such a cool guy. He was such a rebel and I did his show from The Grand Ole Opry when it was the original Grand Ole Opry. Here I am, from a New York sensibility place, and here I am being popped into Nashville. I mean, Baby June Carter had a bouffant hairdo, and Baby June with all her sisters all had bouffant hairdos and they looked at me with great suspicion (laughing). Everybody, people just didn’t know what to make of this. I mean, Johnny Cash and Baby June and what’s Melanie doing on the show? But again, the cool factor. He just loved music. He really got it. On my new album, Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me, I have a cut that Beau used Johnny Cash’s actual intro of me and the little applause before a song wrote called , “Working Legend”. In that song, Beau actually put Johnny Cash’s voice on the record. It’s amazing. We sang “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” together. He was definitely one of the greats. He had his own thing which is so rare. I think that’s what’s so missing right now. People are going out as the next whatever happened before instead of inventing anything or being who they are, or finding who they are and expressing it. It’s difficult for me to find somebody now other than my daughter Jeordie, and I don’t mean to lay her out, but she’s much more in the loop of what’s happening. Jeordie just does her own thing. I don’t…there’s so few people…It’s a kind of bravery. The powers that be have done a good job of making people behave well. Even politics. I feel a good distraction. I’m not so sure. I feel there’s two sides to keep us busy, making us think there’s only two sides. There’s really four hundred thousand sides. How can a country like America, with all of our population, all of our diversity, have two parties? (laughing) It seems unbelievable. How could they possibly represent us? And then people say things like, “Well, it’s the lesser of two evils,” but it’s still evil! (laughing)

Me: Oh, it very much is. I think George Orwell would be rolling over in his grave right now if he could see what’s happening in our country.

Melanie: Yeah!

Me: So really, there aren’t really many people in the Top 40 you can pluck out and say, “Now that’s somebody!”

Melanie: I’m getting to the point where I’m rediscovering people from the ‘60s, like Tim Buckley. Oh my God. I’m listening and thinking, “I remember that, I can’t believe I didn’t know that was a Tim Buckley song.” I love “The Hobo”. There are so many great people I never got to hear because I was so busy.

Me: Are there any favorite people you got to work with who stand out to you as people who really impressed you for whatever reason?

Melanie: Joan Baez. Joan Baez was my hero. She was at Woodstock and I was a very low echelon person. No one knew who I was. I mean, if 1% of the audience knew who Melanie was, I’d be amazed. Really, I did not know what kind of event this was going to be. I was in Europe writing a film score. Early on, when the guys in the same office as Peter were planning Woodstock, I very naively asked to be there because it sounded nice: three days of peace, love, and music. There’d be booths with items, and I thought, “Oh good, I can go shopping!” There’d be picnic blankets and families, and I’m picturing this nice pastoral scene and music. It was before anything. I was in Europe. I debated, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t bother with this,” because I was in the studio with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Rolling Stones were in the next building, the next cubicle. This was big stuff. At night I was singing with Rod Stewart, and it was a happening thing there, so I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this.” Peter said, “You go and do Woodstock.” It wasn’t even called Woodstock, it was an aquarian exposition. “I’ll stay here and finish the production.” I thought, “Okay,” so my mother picked me up and I went to the festival with my mother (laughing). We drove up in a Chevy, my mom and me. I had my guitar strapped over my back. We hit traffic and had no clue what this was. My mother said, “I think this is because of the festival,” and I said, “No, it can’t be. We’re too far away.” But it was. Finally I reached somebody; I don’t know how. No cell phones, no texting, but I reached someone who said, “No! Don’t go there, go to this other place,” and so I went to this motel in Bethel and there, in the parking lot, are wall to wall media trucks. I get into the lobby of the motel and there’s Janis Joplin. I had never met anybody really famous yet. I didn’t meet The Rolling Stones, I just knew they were in the next cubicle. For Janis Joplin to be standing there slugging Southern Comfort in the middle of a circle of media with microphones, I knew something big was happening (laughing). I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” Sly Stone walks by and I thought “Oh my God, oh my God…”  Now it was becoming very real. This is something, I’m going to be singing with these people. Can I do that?  So I find someone and say, “I’m Melanie,” and they say, “Okay, get in the helicopter.” I thought, “The helicopter? What do you mean the helicopter?” I’d never been in a helicopter in my life. This wasn’t an everyday occurrence. (laughing) My mother and I are running toward the helicopter and right before we get in they say, “Who’s this?” and I said, “My mom.” They said, “No moms. Only performers and managers and groups.” I didn’t have the sense to say, “She’s my manager.” I said goodbye to my mother and I went to Woodstock all alone. All alone. Nobody there to encourage me. No Peter, no nothing. I’m delivered to a field and somebody says, “Go to that little tent there.” It was a little tent with a dirt floor. They told me to go there and I didn’t have any artist pass or backstage pass, and if I wandered too far from the tent these Hell’s Angels types tried to put me into the fields with the people and I’d say, “No! No! I’m supposed to be here! I’m Melanie! I sang ‘Beautiful People’!”  They believed me and let me go back, so I didn’t wander too far from the tent. Over the period of the hours and hours, the whole day…I got there when Richie was performing his 20th minute of “Freedom” (laughing) and I knew he was scared because I could tell. I knew him from The Village, and that wasn’t the Richie that I heard. He was screaming for his life up there (laughing). “Freedom! Get me the f___ out of here!” I’m thinking, “Oh my God!” People were running from the people who were trying to fetch them to perform. I heard stories of people running away from the person who was telling them to go on stage. Every other hour they’d say, “You’re next” because a person with a guitar is easy to throw up on stage while they’re setting up for Creedence, you know? There I was, in this tent, and I developed this deep, bronchial cough from hell. It became this nervous response, I was sure I was doomed. How could I possibly be singing in front of that many people? Me? Just me? I wasn’t a great guitar player. I was just a percussive strummer. All day went by, and during the day, Joan Baez from the upper echelon tent where they had some amenities, heard me coughing, and she sent over her assistant, or whoever, this beatific hippie girl, and came to my tent door and said, “Excuse me, Joan Baez heard you coughing and thought you might like this,” and she sent me over tea. She is truly St. Joan to me. She really is. She just goes on forever. Everything about her. I wanted to be Joan Baez, I just didn’t happen to have that kind of voice. I went out and tried to imitate Joan Baez and I got it wrong (laughing). I grew up with Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf, and I went out to imitate all of them, and it came out as me. I got it wrong (laughing).

Me: I noticed that you’re labeled as “The Queen of Woodstock” but really it seems like you were the queen of festivals. I couldn’t find a festival you weren’t at…

Melanie: The phenomenon of me is I walked onto the stage as an unknown person, nobody had heard of me, and when I walked off the stage I was an instant celebrity. The next day I was being put on panel discussions about the significance of what I had just done. Of course I was so inarculate, “Uh…I don’t know…” (laughing). But because of that, I became connected with the festival itself as an iconic image of the festival because I was a person that nobody heard of, and all of a sudden I was an instant known person.

Me: If you had your druthers, would you rather do a festival or a small, intimate venue type of show?

Melanie: It’s hard to say, I think I like the bigger venues, really and truly. Knowing that it’s big and having that fear factor, but for the sake of doing it. It’s so much easier when you have a huge crowd. Instead of three people clapping it’s 4,500 or 5,000, 10,000. It just amplifies it. People just want to do what everyone else is doing a lot of the time, so when you have a lot of them, they join. It gets harder to get real and intimate with a big crowd like that. I didn’t have any experience when I did Woodstock or other festivals. I hadn’t had much experience doing little things. I went from acting school and wanting to get a part in “Dark Side of the Moon” to having a hit record. I didn’t have the dues-paying part. I was just catapulted into it. Woodstock was the catalyst for it. I was just like I would be in my living room when I was up on that stage at Woodstock. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know about show business, I didn’t know about entertaining, I didn’t know about things to say, I had no in between stage patter, none whatsoever, so I was just as real as I could possibly be, and I really think the flow, the incredible power of the number of people being together, that in itself is a phenomenon, so I don’t know if I like doing that or a little intimate room where I can shoot back a couple of tequilas and get real with people. That’s nice, too. I don’t know.  Then there’s those nice performing arts centers where the seats are comfy (laughing). That’s nice too. Everything has its moment. Festivals are cool. Of course, I’m experienced (laughing). I kind of like them because they’re so instantaneous. There’s this amazing power of that much humanity gathered in front and all hearing at the same time the frequency. I really do believe that music is supposed to heal. I believe that. It’s a sacred charge that I have. I think it feels so much like what I’m supposed to be doing when I sing in front of huge crowds.

Me: That’s a beautiful thing. It does have this universal power to touch, excite, and heal at the same time, as I think you’ve alluded to. In terms of Saturday’s event, what are you most looking forward to at this Who’s Who of Good Music?

Melanie: I’m going to be singing with Roger Kellaway who did the original piano arrangement of “Brand New Key”. He’s the one who prepared the piano. I think John Cage was the father of the prepared piano maybe, and Roger was a very avant-garde jazz keyboard player. We went in and prepared the piano where we put little nails and tacks and rubber bands and pieces of chewing gum and put it on the strings of the piano. When you play it, it gives it other resonances, so we did that and really, I thought, “Well, this will be an avant-garde song. Not so…” (laughing).  We’re going to be performing together because he’ll be there. He’s either the musical coordinator or something, and I haven’t seen him for 40 years. We’re going to do “Brand New Key”. It’s going to be somewhat historic. Other than that, I just decided last minute to do “Let It Be” interspersed with a little bit of “All You Need Is Love”. I could only do a little bit as that’s going to be their finale. I changed the chords so it won’t be “Let It Be”. I don’t know if people will like me or hate me for that. They’ll probably hate me (laughing) I’ll probably also do “Candle In The Rain”.

Me: I’ve just got to put a plug in for “Lay Down”.

Melanie: Oh, okay.

Me: I mentioned to somebody yesterday that it’s going to be kind of like a high school reunion for a lot of you.

Melanie: Yeah, it is.

Me: It’s going to be a lot of fantastic energy and I’m so excited for Saturday. I’ve taken up so much of your time. Two quick last questions. Any upcoming projects you want to put a plug in for?

Melanie: Ah, I wish I did. I really wish I did. I’m just working. I’m a working legend (laughing). When I’m in New York, I’m going to do the Turning Point which I always do when I’m there. It’s very, very small. Intimate. If you really want to get to know an artist and they’re going to be at The Turning Point, that would be the place. Then there’s a place in Beacon, NY where Pete Seeger is from called The Town Crier and I’m going to go up there and do a show there on the 6th of February. On the 9th of February I’ll be at The Turning Point. It’d be really great if they were chuck full because it’s my birthday. I want a happy birthday (laughing).  I’m going to Australia, this summer I’m doing an Australian tour. I just do gigs.  I have a book called Tales From The Roadburn Café. It’s not a book, it’s a collection of journal entries that I would call Tales From the Roadburn Café. Sometimes I’d sum up a tour or talk about Christmas. I realized I had hundreds of these, so we put them all into a wanna-be coffee table book with color pictures that my son took. If people wanted to get that, they could. That’s it. I’m just touring. I’m hoping to do bigger and better things. Again, I don’t want to do gigs to collect money and watch television. I personally don’t watch television. I believe it’s a behavior modification tool. If I want news I have to go to the internet, but I’m not going to television.

Me: You really need to record yourself talking and put it into a book. (laughing) It’s just a pleasure to hear you talk! The last thing would be anything you want to say to fans, parting shots, anything.

Melanie: Oh, I don’t know! Stop watching television and buy my new album! (laughing)

Me: There you go!

Melanie: Somebody bootlegged my new album so it’s on iTunes of all things. The only real place, the real sequence and masters the way Peter, Beau and I put it out is on my website or at my shows. It’s called Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me.

Me: Thank you for your time!

For more information on Melanie Safka’s music, current shows, and other projects, please visit her official website here:

http://www.melaniesafka.com/

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Sir Paul McCartney Reaches Out To Help Team Davy Jones

•May 25, 2014 • 1 Comment

A SPECIAL MESSAGE:

Auction to Benefit Equine Charity is a Rock & Roll Family Affair

Jessica Jones Cramer

 

My mother was a child of the 1960s. I imagine her lying in her bedroom, contemplating what part she might play in what she describes as “a decade of revolution.” The decade of the Vietnam war, Woodstock, and Timothy Leary—who notoriously advised young people to tune in, turn on and drop out—the decade when young people realised that they had a right to a voice.

 

As a young teenager, my mum, Anita Pollinger, she was still trying to find her voice. Sitting around our kitchen table in rural Hampshire she tells me that her life in 1960s suburbia felt a millennia away from the revolution that was apparently happening everywhere but No.17 Elms Road, Fareham, England.

 

Sketching and drawing pictures of groovy-looking flora and fauna in her bedroom, she listened to the chants of The Beatles, The Stones, and The Kinks. “’People try to put us down. . .talkin’ ‘bout my generatiooooooooooooooon’, well this summed up how I felt that summer,” she says. “I had just been hauled into the headmaster’s office with my Mother and Father because I had failed my 11 Plus Exams.”

 

Nobody likes failing and nobody likes visits to the headmasters office en famille. but what had rocked her world for all the wrong reasons were her headmaster’s words: “Anita, why can’t you get your head out of the clouds and stop wasting your time with silly drawings, doodles, and dancing? You could have real potential as a secretary, with a bright future ahead of you!”

 

It was not the failing of the exam that floored her; it was the dimness of her so-called “bright” future. “Now I realise its moments like that which inspired kids from Fareham to Frisco to seek change in the world,” she tells me.

 

Mum carried on with her drawings and doodles, and went to ballet pretty much every night, and most of every Saturday. My grandparents did not have a TV, and use of “the wireless,” as they called it, was reserved for listening to the news or occasional radio plays. Mum was dependent on her friend Linda to keep her in the loop of the pop music scene, and in particular The Beatles.

 

“I had a picture of Paul McCartney on my wall because you had to choose a Beatle, and it was mandatory to have his picture on your wall,” Mum says. “You also had to choose between The Stones and The Beatles, and that was a tough one for me—I liked them both!”

 

The bands of the time made kids from coast-to-coast feel connected to the revolution. Rocking out to angry lyrics of the time, like “Why don’t you all just f-f-f-fade away? Don’t try to dig what we all saaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.”

 

Mum contemplated how different her grey little life was in comparison to the swinging 60s culture that was available less than 100 miles away in London. Little did she know that during her moments of rage and rebellion, she was actually a peace loving hippy chick in the making. She was just months away from wearing flowers in her hair, living in a commune, working in Biba, and running away with Mott the Hoople, best known for their counterculture anthem All The Young Dudes.

 

One day, sitting in the coffee bar with Linda, Mum heard song on the juke box called “Daydream Believer.” “Linda told me it was from a TV show called The Monkees, and that they were idolised around the world—they were about as big as The Beatles,” she says. “I always missed the show because it was on Saturdays, and I was teaching dancing to pay for my own dance lessons.”

 

“But that’s what my headmaster thought I was—a Daydream Believer—and listening to that song at that moment with my best friend and a cup of coffee in hand, I realised what a good thing that I was,” she says.

 

Months later, Mum was lying on her bed, flipping through her older sister’s teen magazine. She saw a story about a young man from England who was in The Monkees, and he was describing his life in Hollywood.

 

“I remember in particular being very impressed, but somewhat confused, by the circular bed he said that he had. It seemed incredibly ostentatious to me as I lay upon the top of the single bunk bed I shared with my sister,” she tells me. “But as I read it I thought, I am going to know this person one day.”

 

Mum largely ignored the advice of her headmaster, and carried on through the next two decades with her head very much in clouds, coming back to earth to meet and marry David Jones—that young man from The Monkees—and become a mother. Once in a while she would remember her drawings and doodles, and dance with her two little girls in the living room.

 

“After I married, family life kept me so busy. I didn’t make the time to sit and draw anymore, because like most parents, it always felt like there was something more important that I should be doing,” she says. “Then one Christmas, my husband bought me an easel and a set of water colours and brushes.” Time went on and finally and the age of 50, she did follow some of her headmaster’s advice, and buckled down to study, achieving a BA and an MA in fine art.

 

My Dad (or Davy, as you probably know him) passed away tragically and unexpectedly in February 2012, leaving behind four daughters (my sisters are Talia, Sarah, and Annabel) and a herd of 15 rescue horses. With the help of his many devoted and loving fans and other Daydream Believers, my sisters and I have been able to protect these horses, and have formed a charitable trust called the Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation (DJEMF).

 

It’s funny how life turns out, because Mum and her two poster boys from her youth have now come together in a charity auction of art and collectables to raise money for the DJEMF. Upon hearing about the horses and the foundation, Sir Paul McCartney stepped in and offered an original photographic print taken by his late wife, photographer Linda McCartney, of one of her beloved Appaloosas.

 

In addition to sir Paul’s donation, many other collectibles and works of art have been donated through the generosity of Dad’s loving friends and family, including my Mum, Anita Pollinger-Jones, rock photographers Henry Diltz and Nurit Wilde, actress Julie Newmar, my sister Annabel Jones, his fellow Monkees Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, and my own son, Phoenix.

 

When Sir Paul donated “Stallion and Standing Stone II” to our auction, my sisters and I were deeply touched. He wrote to us, “I am happy to donate this beautiful print of Linda’s that I hope will help to raise lots of money for your Dad’s charity.”

 

No doubt it’s big news when Sir Paul joins what we refer to as “Team Jones,” but here is the real story behind Team Jones and the DJEMF: My sisters and I are reminded every day that our Dad touched the lives of a generation of men and women, and so many of them have stepped forward to help his horses as a thank you to Dad. The stories they tell us about our Dad never fail to delight and surprise us. It seems to me these tales about Dad and his generation start and end with a twinkling smile, an act of kindness, and a dance and a song along the way. In my Dad’s words, “music mingles souls,” and his greatest legacy is the loyalty of those he left behind.

 

Thank you, everyone.

 

The DJEMF Art & Collectibles Auction fundraiser runs through
Monday, 26 May at
http://bit.ly/1jmOGKd.


For more information about The Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation,
visit djemf.com, or find us on Facebook!

 

Book Review: Rock Bottom by Geoff Baker

•May 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

rockbottom

Book Review: Rock Bottom by Geoff Baker

(Ragabond Press, December, 2010)

     I wrote this review in early 2011 once I’d had the chance to read Geoff’s incredibly twisted and entertaining freshman novel, and wanted to repost this since the book is now also available in Kindle form via Amazon.com for the bargain price of $5.99: 

http://www.amazon.com/Rock-Bottom-Geoff-Baker-ebook/dp/B004NNVWTS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1400343306&sr=8-1&keywords=rock+bottom+geoff+baker

     I’m not the kind of person who typically writes reviews, mostly because I have nowhere to publish them. However, I felt compelled to do so for Rock Bottom by Geoff Baker, mostly because from the moment I took it from my mailbox and out of the envelope it arrived in, I couldn’t put it down. Why? This is a book that breaks from the conventions of your typical fiction book. Number one, you’re not going to find a book with such gratuitous usage of profanities. Don’t worry, it’s not like a movie that covers up a weak plot with several sweaty sex scenes, although the book has those as well. Let me not forget the heavy drug usage, heavy drinking, and heavily-flawed main characters.

Shakespeare once mentioned that good wombs can bear bad sons. I would suggest that good books can bear flawed characters. It’s rare to find a book that is devoid of a real hero. Usually an author throws the readers a bone, we’re given a character to look up to, someone whose actions and thoughts tell us what we should think about the book’s events as they unfold. This book doesn’t. The author sets us adrift in a sea of the follies and foibles of the worst monster humanity can create: a celebrity. Actually, let me expand that to a celebrity and all their handlers.

This book focuses on a fading rock star, what a self-involved twit he is, and the employees he makes unrealistic demands of. He, Ian Taylor, has effectively ruined his life because of being famous, but he’s also managed to ruin the lives of those who work the hardest to keep him in fame’s glaring spotlight. And yet, this deluded rock and roller is given a human side by Baker. There are moments when his humanity shines through, mostly when he has a mirror held up to him by the hard times that befall him throughout the book. For all of Ian’s flaws, and believe me, there are many, he is competing for the Character You Most Want to Slap Six Times, Hard award with the other main character, Taylor’s PR man, Peter Forth.

Forth is the one I couldn’t stop thinking about as I was reading, mainly because it’s hard to nail my feelings down about him. He’s part knight in shining armor, part drug-addled, self-destructive loser. Perhaps he is frustrated by the fact that his marriage is falling apart or because it is Ian, and not him, who people worship like a demi-god, but whatever the reason, most of my reading time was spent saying, “No!” when Peter acted in a way that I knew, and I’m sure he did as well, would wind up harming him in the end. Like Taylor, Forth is not a one-dimensional character, which is part of his charm. Despite his redeeming qualities, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with the fact that I found so much in common with him, frankly. But that’s part of the charm of the book. No character is perfect, all of a plethora of flaws on parade, and that’s what makes them so fascinating.

    Rock Bottom is a book that is intoxicating with wit, humor, and plot twists and twirls, but also sobering with philosophical quandaries and moral dilemmas. I often tell my students that you know when a book is good because at its conclusion, you feel like you’re saying goodbye to good friends. I wouldn’t consider the characters in Rock Bottom as people I’d like to be trapped in an elevator with, but I do feel a touch of emptiness now that the story has ended.  As Neil Young said, “It’s better to burn out than fade away,” and this book is on fire.

DJEMF Auction features Linda McCartney photo donated by Sir Paul

•May 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation Announces
Art & Collectibles Auction

*Press Release–Poppermost Communications*

Sir Paul McCartney and Legendary Rock Photographer Henry Diltz Have Donated Works

                                  Image

 

The Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation (DJEMF), a California non-profit dedicated to providing sanctuary for rescued and retired thoroughbred racehorses, announced today that it will be holding an online fundraising auction on May 19. Focusing primarily on art and collectibles, the auction will feature works donated by supporters including renowned rock photographers Nurit Wilde and Henry Diltz, and former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney, who has donated a stunning and iconic equine photo taken by his late wife, Linda.

 

The auction will raise funds to further DJEMF’s work to protect post-career racehorses and raise awareness of thoroughbred and equine wellness issues. It will also enable the organization to begin working toward its goal of providing outreach to special-needs and at-risk communities. Others donating items to the auction include visual artist Emily Dolenz, actress Julie Newmar, equine photographer Darlene Brushwood, Monkees historian Gary Strobl, painter Anita Pollinger-Jones, and artist and costume designer Jennifer McLeod.

 

DJEMF was founded in 2012 by the four daughters of former Monkee Davy Jones, to protect and care for his herd of former thoroughbreds. Many he rescued from situations of abuse and neglect; others were unwanted and bound for the slaughterhouse. “When Dad passed so unexpectedly, we knew we had to act quickly in order to ensure that his rescue herd was safe,” says his daughter Talia Jones Roston. “Whenever he committed to an animal, it was a commitment for life, and with a passionate group of fans, family, and friends as supporters, my sisters and I have been working hard to live out his philosophy.”

Image

The DJEMF auction will begin on Monday, May 19, and run for seven days. More information is available on the DJEMF Facebook page, or at DJEMF.com.

 

 

 

About DJEMF
The Davy Jones Equine Memorial Foundation (DJEMF) was created in 2012 by the four daughters of The Monkees’ Davy Jones, to protect and care for the herd of 15 rescued and retired thoroughbred racehorses he left behind. Today, DJEMF works to expand on Davy’s legacy, providing a safe haven for the members of his herd (many of which have moderate-to-severe special needs), raise its voice to shine a much-needed light on equine wellness and thoroughbred abuse and aftercare issues, and to provide therapeutic and vocational opportunities for special-needs and at-risk communities. For more information, visit www.djemf.com.

Book Review: The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson

•April 22, 2014 • 1 Comment

the-fifth-beatle

The Fifth Beatle

Vivek Tiwary, writer

Andrew C. Robinson, illustrator

M Press (a division of Dark Horse Comics)

 

 

One of the first recordings that exists of me is a 4-year old Jen singing “Nowhere Man” into an old reel-to-reel recording device. I was smitten by The Beatles early on, obviously, maybe even fed their music through the umbilical cord, and so it was little wonder that as soon as I was allowed to walk there alone and was able to handle chapter books, I would start scouring the shelves of my local library for any information on the four British marvels who were such an imperative part of my life from the very beginning. It never occurred to me at that age that others were also aware of the Fab Four, that I wasn’t alone in my hero worship, but when you’re young, the world revolves solely around you, doesn’t it? To me, I was the only one who loved The Beatles enough to learn the words to all of their songs, to fall asleep with my Walkman going, and to get ready for school in the morning bopping along to Abbey Road.

While my friends were immersed in the happenings at Sweet Valley High or reveling in the highs and lows of the friends who formed The Babysitters’ Club, I was staying up late with a flashlight illuminating the literary land that existed under my covers, aiding me in my quest for knowledge about Paul, John, George, and Ringo, and everyone who was connected to them in any way, shape, or musical form. Thus it was that while tackling the academics and social realities of 5th grade, I first learned of Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles.  At the time I wasn’t savvy with the world of sexuality and was attending a Roman Catholic grade school which made sure all of us impressionable youths learned the way of The Bible and went to church once a month.  Even with the conservative messages we were receiving from the pulpit, however, the fact that Brian was gay and that I learned that fact around 2 a.m. one winter morning from the comfort of my blanketed “study” didn’t phase me for more than a few minutes. We didn’t really talk about being gay at my school (this was the 1980’s), though. I think the idea on the part of the nuns teaching us was that if we didn’t discuss it, it didn’t exist. Sex wasn’t really brought up in my classes, either.

Once I remembered what being gay meant, I thought, “Huh…so…he’s gay…”.  I didn’t really know how to respond, to be honest. I vaguely knew that it was supposed to be wrong, at least according to what I’d heard in classes, but I’d never met or heard of anyone who was gay. In some ways Brian Epstein was my first homosexual friend.  Ironic considering that Brian had to remain closeted throughout his life given that homosexuality was illegal in England when he was alive. When I continued reading and learned the travails and torments he went through because of his sexuality, I could feel something inside of me shifting. It was the first time I really questioned my religion, if everything in The Bible should actually be taken as fact. As I write this some 25 years later, I have to chuckle a wee bit. The Beatles were a part in some way of most of the formative events of my life, and Brian Epstein was the first cobblestone in my road to atheism. I just didn’t know it at the time.

In any case, this long narrative is my way of saying that Brian Epstein was someone I admired even as a kid, and the fact that it was nearly impossible to find information on him at my local library, in Beatle books, or anywhere else, really, was disheartening. Someone who had such a vital role in the fame of one of the most important music groups in the past 50 years (if not more) surely deserved some attention, or at least some accurate information written about him. Seriously, look up what is written about Brian in Beatle books and notice how the “facts” about his life are often contradictory.

 

the_fifth_beatle_the_brian_epstein_story_beatles_woman

For this reason, you can only imagine my sheer joy at hearing that Brian was going to be the subject of his own book, The Fifth Beatle, in 2013.  The fact that Brian would be immortalized in a graphic novel of all things only made me even more excited. You don’t grow up a geeky girl without enjoying comic books.  It’s practically a prerequisite when you’re given your official nerd membership card. However, The Fifth Beatle isn’t some campy comic with “Shazam!” or “Pow!” every other panel. This is not a book that takes any leads from the 1960’s Batman series.

It is obvious when you read through the first few pages that Vivek Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson (writer and illustrator, respectively) have taken care to give Brian the respect he deserves. It’s also evident that despite the high regard Tiwary holds Brian in (and when you speak with Tiwary, it’s obvious that Brian is someone he cares deeply for), he has chosen to talk about Brian in a “warts and all” way, not shying from the fact that Brian was known to pick up young men, the rougher around the edges, the better, or that later he turned to drugs to deal with the pressure of managing the most popular group in the world, not to mention the demons he himself was facing.

Brian’s personal life was, in many ways, made for a graphic novel, filled with ups, downs, tragedies, and in his professional life, trail-blazing successes and epic mistakes. Choosing which to highlight for The Fifth Beatle and which to leave on the cutting room floor was no small feat, part of the reason the novel took Tiwary ten years of his life to research and organize. Of course, Tiwary was doing a few things in the meantime like producing a revival of A Raisin In The Sun with Sean P. Diddy Combs and Phylicia Rashad in the two key roles, plus Green Day’s American Idiot for the Broadway stage. However, tracking down and communicating with Brian’s family, friends, and associates took up a great deal of time, not just to pick their brains, but to earn their trust enough for them to share their memories and thoughts of their fallen friend. Doing justice to the man who brought The Beatles to the world, whose unflagging faith in the band in the face of constant rejection from record companies and producers, who then engineered their global takeover and had to maneuver untested waters in trying to broker deals that before The Beatles had never happened, well, Tiwary was in the same spot Brian was in during the early days of The Beatles. How do you capture the essence of someone who has obvious, yet unique, talent, and bring that to a mainstream audience?

Tiwary tells a mercifully-brief version of The Beatles’ story in the novel because, let’s face it, you could fill a room with books, movies, magazines, and graphic novels about The Beatles. We’ve all been there, done that, and indeed bought the t-shirts and programs. While The Beatles are an important start of Brian’s story and he a vital part of theirs, this is Brian’s story. The Beatles, for once, are cast in the background, and rightly so. It’s a nice change, to be honest, for a Beatles’ fan who has read dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the Fab Four.

When you get right down to it, The Fifth Beatle does an incredible job of presenting the life of Brian with humor, honestly, respect, and love. Aside from the incredible graphics that create a visually-pleasing novel (Kudos to Andrew C. Robinson for his sometimes-subtle yet gorgeous images!), the story is well-written, moves along at a good pace, and manages to create a sense of understanding in the reader as to what Brian was about. It is apparent that the man who could create order out of chaos when it came to the lives of four international superstars couldn’t manage to do the same for himself, and that might be the biggest tragedy of Brian’s too-brief life. He managed a band that sang about and gave so much love to the world, and yet Brian himself was doomed to never find it for himself. He loved The Beatles in a way that only a father could, even though he was as flawed and fallible as they themselves were. He gave them all of himself, and at the end of the day he had nothing left for himself. If he hadn’t committed so fully to the band, would he have had an easier time dealing with his own life? That’s a question we will never be able to answer, even if Brian himself may have wondered as well. If he did dwell on the query, though, he certainly didn’t make any adjustments to his life. Perhaps he considered himself an expendable part of the Beatle empire.  John Lennon’s quote about Brian’s death, though, illustrates just how vital Brian was to the group: “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. [When Brian died] I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.’”  Indeed, it wasn’t long after Brian’s demise that the group imploded.

I’ve always wondered why it takes someone’s absence for us to fully appreciate their presence, and Brian’s premature and accidental death in the midst of The Beatles’ phenomenal run certainly exposed the band to exactly what he had done for them behind the scenes and also in front of the curtain. Brian was the cog that made The Beatle machine run, and after his death, it limped along before grinding to a jarring halt.

Beatles’ fans have debated for decades who should bear the moniker of “The Fifth Beatle,” and Tiwary has made a stellar case for Brian Epstein.  Thankfully Tiwary isn’t just stopping at the excellent and must-have graphic novel about Brian’s life. A major motion picture is in the works, a biopic that I intend to be in attendance for opening weekend. If anyone’s story needs to be told, it is the man who happily took his place in the shadows of the biggest band the world has ever seen. It’s time Brian stepped into the limelight, and if there is anyone who I trust to give him an accurately- and lovingly-told story, it is Vivek Tiwary.

Album Review: John Ford (of The Strawbs), No Talkin’

•April 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Album Review

John Ford of the Strawbs

No Talkin’

On the surface, you would think that writing an album without any lyrics would make for an easier task than needing to worry about marrying the perfect lyrics to catchy melodies.  At least, that’s what I thought when I first popped John Ford’s latest offering, No Talkin’, into my car’s CD player. Of course, I’m about as musically gifted as a dead hamster, so what do I know? Thankfully, however, I catch on quick, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that having no words through which to tell a story to the listener is probably one of the most difficult undertakings a musician can tackle. Certain rare guitarists like Laurence Juber do this well, but for every Juber or band like The Shadows, there are hundreds of albums that don’t rise to the occasion and wind up getting dusty on a shelf in the den or worse, in a discount bin at Wal-Mart.  Ford’s No Talkin’ is not destined to be one of those albums.

John Ford is a music veteran, having done time with The Strawbs and The Monks, working with Ian Lloyd (of The Stories) and Blackmore’s Night, as well as having a colorful solo career. He’s played shows with a Who’s Who of rock and roll royalty (Jimi Hendrix, The Eagles, Jefferson Starship, Frank Zappa, and more), and he’s written some classics such as “Part of the Union.”  In short, he knows his shit and isn’t screwing around when he arrives at the studio. Every time he picks up a guitar, something epic is guaranteed to happen, and yet he is still stretching out, pushing boundaries and challenging himself to discover the undiscovered. Because of this, No Talkin’ is not your father’s instrumental album, which I quickly found out as I drove the five hours from Vermont from New York City.

Because I’ve been conditioned like some sort of Pavlovian album reviewer by years of listening to music which features lyrics, at first I have to admit that I was a bit leery of an entire album fronted by guitars.  For the first 30 seconds or so of the first song on the album, I kept waiting for the singing to start even though I knew it wouldn’t. I even started making up my own lyrics in my head to fill the space where I kept telling myself words should be. Ring a bell and I drool, I guess.  Then it happened: I got caught up in the infectious rhythm, the powerful energy of the song, and I forgot my initial discomfort.  Ford and the musicians who play on the album (John Cardone, Richie Alan, and a skillful John Ford, Jr.) finally got through to me. I started to envision the story that they were telling through their chords and beats. Their instruments became the brushes that were creating a musical painting in my mind, and I was fully on board.

“The Reaper,” the album’s starter, feels like a song you would blare from your stereo as you roared down the road on a deserted highway which, ironically enough, I was doing at the moment it began to play. I got the sense of navigating the open road, of the pure freedom that you feel behind the wheel of the car with no particular destination in mind. As the first notes of “Spanish Jive” rolled out of the speakers, I could picture dancing with someone on a beach, at night, holding each other a bit too close to be friends, but not close enough to be lovers. Quite a cat and mouse game, but a sensual one.  As you can tell, by the album’s second number I had really got into the idea of creating my own story for each song.

The title track, “No Talkin’,” seemed a bit introspective, as if lamenting a problem that needed to be dealt with, one that was causing angst.  However, the melody is hopeful enough that it’s obvious that all is not lost. Perhaps I was bringing my own issues to the song, but that’s the beauty of music; you take away from it what you want to, and I did with this album. “Tomorrow’s World” was placed perfectly to bookend “No Talkin’” as the former seems a song of hope, an ode to something that you hold dear, and which you know you won’t have to live without.  “New Horizons” follows this theme of looking to the future, although it’s more a song of adventure, of exploration, or perhaps of seeing something you’ve seen a hundred times before, but this time you are looking with a fresh set of eyes.

I should mention that I purposely chose to not look at the song titles prior to listening to the tracks on the album, hoping to not have the names influence my interpretations. I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to the sixth song of No Talkin’, “Looking for Django,” and thought to myself, “Wow, this sounds like Django Reinhardt,” or at least a song you might have heard in a dancehall during the days when Django’s fingers flew over the frets. Sometimes I’m right on the ball.

The last four songs on the album form a pack that seems purposely placed together. “Joyce’s Song” is full of loss, both the pain of losing someone you cared for as much as life itself.  However, to love someone means that even during the ache you can rely on the comfort and joy of memories.  Ford comes out of the thoughtful mood with “36-24-36,” a fun-loving and frisky romp which lightens the mood and lifts the spirits. On its heels is “Lost Horizon,” something I could easily imagine being played while you lie in bed with the one you love, holding them as they drift off to a night full of pleasant dreams. There is tenderness present in the tune, almost like the feeling of watching your lover gently breathing while they are under the spell of the Sandman.  Lastly, “Dead Ending,” the cleverly-titled last song of No Talkin’ is a foot-stomper that will cause your face to split with a wide and happy grin that spreads from one ear to the other.  The album begins and ends with songs that will leave you wanting more, and the ones in the middle do not disappoint.

One of the greatest aspects of No Talkin’ is that I played it again a week after my first listen, and because my mood was different, I interpreted some of the songs differently.  Without lyrics inhibiting the stories of the music, I was able to bring myself into the album which turned me from a passive, Pavlovian listener to an active participant in what I was hearing, and I have to say that I was blissfully appreciative to John Ford for that gift. No Talkin’ gets two enthusiastic thumbs and one grateful imagination up from me.

Album Review: Walter Egan’s Myth America

•March 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Album Review

Walter Egan: Myth America

(2014)

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I’ve been reading for years that the concept album is dead, and yet the success of Green Day’s modern classic American Idiot proved that theory to be wildly inaccurate. Walter Egan’s latest effort, Myth America, does, as well. While I may be reading too much into the songs and tying them together so that they fit under the umbrella of a common theme, they come across that way (perhaps only in my mind).  I’ve recently been re-reading Jack Kerouac’s generation-shaping novel On The Road, and I was struck by how well Egan’s current album could serve as a soundtrack for that literary journey.  Kerouac and Egan both expose the seedy underbelly, yet also the beauty, of America, life, and the society we live in.  Both works are “warts and all” looks at existence, and both will leave you wanting more.

Myth America begins with a barn burning “Faith Comes Crashin’ Down,” a fast-paced condemnation of those who worship false idols, and given the album name, this could really be anyone in the Land of the Free, either the religious who sin in the name of an all-powerful deity, or those who worship at the altar of materialism, or even those who believe that they are the sun and the rest of the world revolves around them.

After such a high octane start to the album, Egan moves into a reflective song about love, “Cool Crazy,” and then into a song full of discord, “What Lurks Inside A Heart,” be it from the guitar chords or the lyrics:

Life, the joy and strife
So brief
But underneath the skin
There deep within
There dwells
Demons from hell

Egan does not let up, though, and next up is “Dyin’ For Love;” the dark side of young love is put under the microscope and opened up for all to see.

As the first few songs end, I am struck by how much of a vocal chameleon Egan is. Typically as a singer ages, their voice shows the wear and tear of long-term singing and, well, living. This isn’t so on this album, and having seen Egan perform in New York City recently, I can say that the voice on the album isn’t the result of studio trickery.  The other thought that goes through my mind is that Egan is also a wordsmith with a particular gift for wordplay, as is evidenced by this lyric from “Faith Comes Crashin’ Down”: “Young souls controlled, made prey as they pray/So evil, believers all led astray.” Some writers rely on turns of phrase to carry a song’s lyrics, but often the song winds up drowning in an ocean of puns.  Egan tempers his humor with philosophical concepts, his funny quips with intellectual ideas.  The balance fits and the songs (and listeners) are the winners because of Egan’s lyrical skills.

Not even halfway through the album, I hear what I instantly know will be one of the standout tracks: “Her Smile.”  It’s not a realization born out of knowing the album is going to drop off in quality from here on out, as that wasn’t the case. I knew once the first verse had gone by that this was the song that would resonate with me for whatever mystical or transcendent reasons we are drawn to some songs but not others. “Her Smile” was the track that reminded me I was listening to the guy who wrote “Magnet And Steel,” and not because this new song is a rehashing of the classic hit.  Both songs have a particular quality that makes some people stars and others panhandlers, and it’s that indescribable quality that, for lack of a better word, we label “charisma.”  In short, if someone wrote this song for you, you would know that you had indeed found true love.

After the beauty of “Her Smile,” Egan starts into “Nothing Can Save Us Now” which, on the surface, seems like an odd choice after leading us down the mellow and beautiful path of the previous song. However, given the Myth America title of the album, you shouldn’t expect a safe and sappy collection of songs. The album is wonderfully frenetic at times, introspective at others, much like life can be. Given that Myth America was recorded over a 3-year period, the up and down feelings expressed on the album make sense.

The album then moves from genre to genre, from the island beat of “Lililovin’” (an interesting love song about sex more than love, actually), to the blazing guitar on “Stop Bein’ You.” The latter is loaded with finger-pointing lyrics that should make you glad to not be the person being sung about: “You are an effect/Lookin’ for a cause/ Hoping for respect/Or maybe just applause.” “Time The Master” and “Like A Nail When It’s Bent” seem to be companion songs, with the first being my other standout track on the album. It’s a bit of a melancholy song and, as the title suggests, is about watching the time fly by as you are “running in circles.” “Like A Nail When It’s Bent” is more angry while “Time The Master” is more melodious and joyfully regretful, if that makes sense. “Like A Nail” releases the frustration of wondering what life is about, what the point of existence is, and given that Egan is not 25 anymore, his word on the topic holds more weight.  However, the song ends with hope that maybe our time on earth doesn’t involve us spinning our wheels: “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe life’s like a song/Though the record’s been played/The melody stayed.”

The last three tracks on the album are as diverse as the first ten. “Can’t Cry No More” begins with a lament about all of the time spent mourning an event that affected the narrator in a dramatic way. However, he’s ready to move on because he’s done his time grieving. The ending is happier, in sharp contrast to the first three quarters of the song, and features a Ray Manzarek-esque organ sound. You can tell things are getting better, that the journey to find the light again is coming to an end.  “Gone Away” is a fun ditty, sounding like it’s a long-lost relative of the music of the Summer of Love, or at least the late 1960’s.  Lastly, the album closes with “Yeah,” a song that screams out to be played on a warm summer day while you’re rolling your windows down and cranking up the volume on your car stereo.  Sunglasses are required, of course.

It seems to be easy to dismiss any album by a musician who is older than 40, especially by someone labeled a “one hit wonder,” and most music store shoppers seem to do just this, as the formula appears to be that your album sales decrease as your years on this planet increase (barring a few exceptions who truly are exceptions to the rule).  However, I would encourage anyone who doubts whether Myth America is worth the money it costs to buy a hard copy (or dare I say download it) to get your ass over to www.walteregan.com, and pick up a copy today. I’m on my fifth listen of the album and I love it more and more with each spin.

You can buy a copy on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Myth-America-Walter-Egan/dp/B00GTSVNX0/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1391335069&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=myth+america+walter+egan

 

And lastly you can keep in touch with Walter Egan news and events by joining his Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/eganwalter?sk=wall