Melanie, The Queen of Woodstock: Performing at America Celebrates The Beatles concert (February 8th, 7:30 p.m.)

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Woodstock was a happening, and to some is the symbol of the 1960’s. As with any big event, there’s always a standout moment or two, and MVP of a show, and to many, Melanie’s performance was just that. It seems unlikely that a girl who had studied to be an actress and who had no real experience in music, much less how to handle a big crowd, would be made into an overnight sensation because of her time on the Woodstock stage, yet that’s what happened. Melanie is not that scared girl anymore. She’s evolved as much as her music has, and she continues to produce. She may be best known for songs like “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)”, “Beautiful People” and “Brand New Key”, but her wit and humor have guided her through a career that has spanned decades. The first woman to have three concurrent hit songs is coming to New York City to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles coming to America, and she will be lighting up the stage with a slew of popular performers (check back for interviews with other performers from the show!) on Saturday at The Town Hall.  100% of ticket proceeds will be donated to The Autism Think Tank as well as The Children’s Music Fund. 

(For tickets and more information on the performers, please visit http://www.nycfab50.com/TownHall.htm)

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Me: The first question, and most obvious one, is how did you get involved in such an event?

Melanie: I got a phone call. (laughing)  It went through and didn’t go to voicemail. Charles [Rosenay] called me and he thought I could do something. He said, “I saw you on Youtube. 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”. 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 asked Charles, “You haven’t seen the picture [of me and John Lennon performing]?”  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) 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)

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 “Candles 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 a Gulf and Western company, very big conglomerate, 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. 

Me: Are there any favorite people you’ve gotten to work with who stand out to you as people who really impressed you?

Melanie: Joan Baez. Joan Baez was my hero. She was at Woodstock and I was there as 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 [Melanie’s producer and husband] 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.

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. 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!”

Performers 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 to someone in our little tent, “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, this beatific hippie girl, who came to my tent door and said, “Excuse me, Joan Baez heard you coughing and thought you might like this.”  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 are the queen of festivals. I couldn’t find a festival you haven’t played…(laughing)

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 inarticulate: “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”.

To see Melanie and other iconic artists perform together in a once-in-a-lifetime event, please visit: http://www.nycfab50.com/

 

For more information about Melanie, please visit her official site: http://www.melaniesafka.com/

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~ by Jennifer Dodge on February 3, 2014.

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