Rediscovering Melanie

Singer: Fans will be happy to hear even her new songs reflect her grounding in the '60s.

February 12, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

You find a vintage bauble, wine-hued and faceted, in a tin of old buttons. The bauble appears antique, quaint, redolent of another time. You're not sure what to make of it.

Imagine Melanie as that quaint bauble, the radiant waif with the big voice who briefly graced the Billboard charts at the peak of peace and love and Woodstock, only to fall, as have many musical compadres, into button-box obscurity.

Now, hold that bauble to the light, and all kinds of surprising visions shine through: A trippy flower child. A sultry chanteuse with a Piaf-tinged voice. An uncanny lyricist who touches your soul. A funny, earthy grandmother. A cult favorite among some boomers, gay men and European teens.

Rediscovering Melanie, composer of "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" and "Brand New Key," is a delightfully unpredictable experience, especially for those skeptical about baubles and buttons in their past. The singer/songwriter, 52, has made the transformation from flower child to "Old Bitch Warrior" -- the title of her recent overseas release -- gracefully, humorously, securely.

Melanie performs tonight at 8: 30 at Mays Chapel United Methodist Church in Timonium. She will be accompanied by her son, bluesy guitarist Beau Jarred Schekeryk. And the house may just be full of fans eager for a rare glimpse of their quixotic heroine.

Melanie Safka Schekeryk speaks of life by phone from Clearwater, Fla., where she lives with Peter, her husband of 31 years, and 16-year-old Beau. Two daughters, folk-rock musicians in their mother's tradition, live within a block and a half.

Perhaps because she never believed that talent must serve fame, Melanie has led a quasi-normal life in which she frequents yard sales, stands anonymously in grocery lines and fusses over her 2-year-old granddaughter. "The catch phrase of the '60s was `Make it real,' " Melanie says. "I didn't want to be ever not true to myself and to how the music felt."

Other rock stars seek "to be spectacles, to be gawked at," but celebrity was never her ultimate goal, she says. "I just made music, from as long as I can remember, but I didn't think that would be a way I would earn a living or a way I would spend my life."

Safka was a rebellious but shy kid who went her own way while growing up in Queens and Long Branch, N.J. She remembers returning to high school one September circa 1963 wearing knee-high fringed boots bought on an Indian reservation and being sent to the principal's office. "My early idea of my `mock-up' was Princess Summerfall Winterspring, from the `Howdy Doody Show.' That was considered totally mad at that time ..."

The 1960s hit full force, and in a series of serendipitous twists, Melanie became the `mock-up' for hippie chick chic. Before graduation from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1967, she started belting tunes in a smoky cabaret voice on Greenwich Village streets and in clubs. Along the way, she met Peter, a music publishing insider, who became her mentor and husband. She landed a contract with Columbia in 1967, and recorded the memorably fey "Beautiful People," which became an FM alternative radio favorite.

Then came Woodstock in 1969. Melanie's rainy-day appearance there inspired "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," her righteous ode to the festival. The hit launched Melanie's surreal journey from folkie to Ed Sullivan headliner to UNICEF ambassador to jingle composer to last year's "Boogie Nights" soundtrack.

She secured her following in Europe with a dawn appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. She logged sell-out performances from Carnegie Hall to Royal Albert Hall. And she released a stream of albums and modest hits, including 1970's "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," which plateaued at No. 32; 1971's "Brand New Key," her only No. 1 hit; and 1972's "Ring the Living Bell," which peaked at No. 31.

But success was a mixed blessing. Melanie's lush beauty and flower-power message pigeonholed her as a big-hearted lightweight. Her bubble-gum image was exploited by executives at Columbia Records and then Buddah, and perpetuated in a Rolling Stone magazine piece that compared her to teeny-bopper heartthrob Bobby Sherman.

Melanie's lyrics, which actually could skewer as readily as celebrate, were dismissed as precocious prattlings. Critical accolades and multiple vocalist awards didn't neutralize the sting. The whole effect, Melanie says, was "too confining for my sense of humor, for my sense of how to be outrageous." She quit Buddah. "I was not going to be the victim the rest of my life, the singer who is unwillingly a star."

To forge an edgier identity, Melanie formed the Neighborhood label with Peter. But her quest backfired with "Brand New Key." The whimisical tune went to No. 1 but "doomed me to be cute the rest of my life."

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