Singer-songwriter Melanie doesn’t need TV specials or articles about the resurgence of interest in the 1960s to know that a growing number of young people today are finding much to love about those paisley and patchouli infused counterculture days of history.
“Oh, my God — half my audience is kids,” says the artist born Melanie Safka, whose songs include such hits as “Brand New Key” and “What Have They Done to My Song Ma.” “I call them ‘Born-again hippies.’ I’m seeing young people and sometimes really young people — 12 years old — at my concerts. Little kids.”
No doubt many in her audience will be happy to find that a 45th anniversary, four-hour director’s cut of the Oscar-winning film “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” has been released on Blu-ray. It includes heretofore unused footage of acts including Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joan Baez, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sha Na Na — and Melanie. The famous concert, considered one of the pivotal events in music, changed her life in a matter of minutes.
However, she tells us now, she almost cancelled out.
“My husband was my producer and he had an office right in the same building as the people who were putting it on, and we were talking about it, and we all thought it would be a great idea for me to be there — three days of peace, love and music. I’m picturing a pastoral setting with families with picnic blankets and crafts. I thought, ‘I’ll do a little shopping,’ you know?” She laughs. But as the date neared, she was consumed with another commitment — what she thought would be her big break — an assignment to write the score for a British feature film starring Tom Bell and Olivia Hussey, then a very hot name due to the success of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I’m in England and I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll skip this concert.’ We talked about it, and my husband said, ‘I’ll finish up here and you go. Maybe it’s a good idea.’ So I decided I’d go.
“My mother picked me up at the airport, and again, we had no idea, no clue about what was about to happen. We’re heading off to the event, then we hit some traffic. I swear, I thought, ‘There’s an accident somewhere.’ It’s the weekend, you know how things go when you’re heading upstate New York.” Eventually, they made their way to their hotel, where Melanie was stunned to find media trucks outside and Janis Joplin, surrounded by microphones and reporters, swigging Southern Comfort, inside, and Sly Stone walking by.
“I’d never met a famous person before,” says Melanie, whose only recognition at the time came from her song “Beautiful People” being played by one DJ at one underground New York station. She had never performed before more than 500 people. Soon she was frantically directed to “Go to the helicopter!”
“We start running toward the helicopter, me and my mom, and we get to the door and the guy says, ‘Who’s she?’ Oh no, no, no. No moms. Just artists and managers.’ I didn’t even have the sense to say, ‘She’s my manager.'” So, leaving her mother behind, the singer got into the helicopter and off she went. Soon, she says, “I look down and I see these colored things. And I go, ‘What is all that stuff?’ and the pilot says, ‘People.’ And I say, ‘It can’t be people. There’s miles of it.'”
But of course, she was indeed looking down at some 400,000 humans who would hear from some 32 bands before the rain-soaked music festival was through. The acts performed on a massive stage. “I have one guitar and me, and that’s it. Nobody else. I’m totally alone. The terror was unbearable,” she admits. “I got led to this little tent with a dirt floor and a box. And that’s where I stayed. I didn’t have an artist’s backstage pass or anything. If I wandered too far from the area, these Hell’s Angels types would try to throw me out into the crowd.”>/p>
She ended up spending hours in that little tent, developing a cough (Joan Baez sent over tea when she heard Melanie’s hacking — a golden memory for her). Night fell and it began to rain. “Ravi Shankar was on. And then they made some kind of inspirational announcement that Hog Farm was passing out candles and to keep our candles lit — pass out the candles and keep the candles lit against the rain. I was thinking that with the rain, people were going home, and maybe I’d just go back to normal, back to England and finish the film score, and things would be just like they were.>/p>
“And then, right there, someone came in and said, ‘You’re on next.’ Then I went on that stage and I was so absolutely, horribly, terrified — sick scared. I mean, nobody knew who I was. I was like this little girl.”
But she did it. The bubbly 67-year-old songstress from Queens smiles and pauses a moment before picking up her narrative. “It was incredible. I got on that stage just at that those moments when people were lighting the candles and it was raining, and I could see the flickering coming toward me. I was never afraid of large crowds again. I had this incredible, almost religious experience. And I’ve been of course forever linked with the lighting of things at concerts.” She laughs.
Melanie says that before she even left, she had the anthemic part of her “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” song half-formed in her mind. The tune would go on to become a huge hit for her, embraced as an anti-war anthem.
Just back from a sell-out tour of Australia, Melanie has never stopped performing. “I go to Europe a lot,” she notes, in addition to her domestic concerts.
But she has been going through major changes. In 2010, she lost her manager-producer-guiding light-soul mate and husband (since 1970), Peter Schekeryk. “We were entirely different types of people. He was Eastern European and had a very big personality. He would go into a room — at a party or something — and before he left he’d know everybody. He’d know the names of their children, everything. And me, I would rush to the farthest corner and sit there until someone needed to introduce me,” she recalls.
They had three children, Leilah, Jeordie and Beau-Jarred — all of whom became musicians. Indeed, Beau-Jarred is a guitarist who has “actually played concert guitar solo all over the world. He plays with me and we have been writing songs together. We’re still doing it. I just wrote a song called “I Tried to Die Young,'” she reports.
She also collaborated with Blackfriars Theatre director John Haldoupis on a musical about her and Peter’s love story, “Melanie and the Record Man,” that debuted in Rochester, New York, in 2012. She’d love to mount it again, but “I haven’t the vaguest idea how to do this. I’m looking for maybe more representation, she says. Peter, her late husband, “did everything. He’d just say ‘Go here, Go there,’ and I did. For 40 years.” She is sure he’d want to her to keep on keeping on.
So perhaps now, along with the ’60s resurgence, it is time for a re-appreciation of Melanie. Miley Cyrus is already aboard — she has been performing her own version of “What Have They Done to My Song Ma.” And sadly, the time is ripe again for “Candles In the Rain.”
“I once said in a concert, ‘It’s so nice to do an unnecessary anti-war song.’ I was so wrong,” she notes ruefully. “I really believed we were poised and ready for a new renaissance on earth and that we would see the end of war and cruelty. But you know what? I still have hope.”