Staying Alive: Melanie at Green Wood Coffee House
Melanie wowed audiences at Woodstock back in the summer of ’69 with her hit "Beautiful People." On that rainy night, spectators lit the night with candles, inspiring her song "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which sold more than a million copies in 1970. Billboard, Cashbox, Melody Maker, Record World, and Bravo responded by naming Melanie female vocalist of the year.
Her single "Brand New Key," an almost-innocent sexy delight, topped the charts in '71. She appeared on Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett. She played the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Cher and Dolly Parton are among those who covered her songs.
To those who enjoyed folk music, and even some who didn't, Melanie was a household name.
Now, at 70, she tours and tries to stay afloat, which includes a sold-out show at Green Wood Coffee House in Ann Arbor on Friday, Nov. 10.
Still, she says, “I’ve been carefully airbrushed out of history."
This isn’t something she takes personally. The music industry, she suggests, doesn’t want audiences to get too attached to anyone. “They don’t want you to get real upset if the artist retires or dies. Somebody like John Lennon, that was a major event. He helped formulate people’s opinions. Now, artists are disposable and replaceable."
Still, Melanie continues to write and perform. “I’m in the middle of writing a song now that occurred to me about 20 years ago. You evolve, though, and what I thought was the reason for this particular song is no longer the reason.”
Melanie Safka-Schekeryk, her full married name, has changed in many ways over the years. “I was so timid and so shy and such an introvert. I was afraid to say my true opinion of something. I shied away from publicity. My husband [Peter Schekeryk] was my producer, manager, and agent. He would push me to be at the right parties, to get my picture taken. I didn’t want to be out there. I didn’t want to be a celebrity,” she says.
“But there’s a strange inconsistency. You want to be heard, to communicate your creations. You want people to get you. But then you’re so tempted to play yourself, to play what your press is. I guess because I was real young when I started, I didn’t know who I was yet, and I didn’t want anyone to meddle.”
Melanie had been touring with Schekeryk and her son, Beau Jarred, a composer/guitarist, when the unthinkable happened. It was October 2010. “We were in one of those Residence Inn-type of hotels. I had two shows in Massachusetts, and we were going to use that as a base. I was going to stock up. My husband dropped me off at Whole Foods,” recalls Melanie, who likes to cook. “Beau Jarred was in the hotel room, and my husband went to Best Buy to upgrade his phone.” Minutes later, Schekeryk was dead. A Best Buy clerk told Melanie her husband had spent his last moments promoting her gig, talking animatedly just before he said he didn’t feel well. His heart attack was sudden and severe -- he never made it to the ambulance.
“The saddest thing under the sun is to say goodbye to the ones you love.” So starts a song that was a mega-hit in South Korea, where the people associate it with the divide between North and South. "The Saddest Thing" appeared on Melanie’s first album. Now she finds it hard to get through it. “When I wrote it, I hadn’t lost anyone really close to me. A mother, a father. Now everybody’s dead. I didn’t know what I was writing about when I wrote it.”
Melanie had to take on the logistics of a career in music herself. “I didn’t even have a bank account. I didn’t drive a car. I sometimes feel like the oldest little girl in the world. I married him when I was still in my teens. He arranged the concerts, the tours, the hotels, the press. Now there was no Peter to ask,” she recalls. “The first weeks were impossible.”
She began work on a dark musical, Melanie and the Record Man, but when she tried to use her own songs in it, she experienced another shock. Turns out, she didn’t own rights to any of her songs -- so she wrote new ones.
“Those first weeks were unbelievably funny and eye-opening. I found out I didn’t own anything. There was a huge ad campaign for HP computers and printers, and they used 'Brand New Key.'” When she heard her song, and her voice, she expected a check -- it wasn’t forthcoming.
“It’s humorous to think I was still clueless. Sometimes I would sense there would be financial situations -- I’m sure he had some loophole, he never told me. He loved me and he loved the family.” In the musical, the Peter character sings, "How Do I Tell Her?"
“Do I look like a woman with a past? That’s what I want to be, a woman who has lived an authentic life, following dreams and passions and here to tell about it,” she says. She continues to tell about it through song, playing small venues across the country, accompanied by Beau Jarred. “The reason I’m alive is because I need to connect with people. I don’t ever see myself retiring. It’s not a job. I do it for love.”
Davi Napoleon is a freelance journalist and theater historian; her book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of American Theatre, explores the onstage triumphs and offstage turmoil of a theater dealing with cuts to arts funding.
Melanie performs at 8 pm on Friday, Nov. 10 at Greenwood Coffee House in the First United Methodist Church, 1001 Green Rd., Ann Arbor. Sold out. For more information, visit greenwoodcoffeehouse.org and melaniesafka.com.