Thurs., Nov. 1, Infiinity Music Hall, 20 Greenwoods Road West, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com
I've had people make fun of me because I like Melanie. Seriously, good friends, co-workers, even in-laws have ridiculed me for listening to Melanie's music. There's something about the combination of her unsettling vibrato, her childlike coo and her angelic hippie poster-girl looks that turns some people off. Like the voices of Tiny Tim, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, Melanie's singing can just irritate people. And then there was her big hit, which didn't help.
Melanie, born Melanie Safka, had people making fun of her voice early in her career in the '60s. But it's a voice that's gone on to influence, knowingly or not, singers like Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush and Jewel.
"When I first started, I had all kinds of comments 'Oh it sounds like she's singing under water,' 'she sounds like a duck,'" says Melanie, who spoke with the Advocate by phone from the road. "People said it was a weird sound. At first it went against me, and then it went in my favor, and now just a whole slew of girls grew up on me — and they don't even know it."
She played Woodstock. (She'll play Norfolk's Infinity Hall on Nov. 1.) She was labeled the "female Bob Dylan." She's toured the world, but today Melanie, 59, registers as sort of a two-and-a-half-hit wonder. A few popular songs, "Beautiful People" and her cover of the Stones "Ruby Tuesday," got some airplay at the time. Another band had success with her song "Look What They Done To My Song, Ma." And she had a genuine hit with the gospel-fueled "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which you can still hear on oldies radio today. And then she had an even bigger hit in 1971 with "Brand New Key." You know, or your parents might know, or maybe even your grandparents might know it: "I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key." The song's plain sexual metaphor caused some radio stations to ban it. Despite that, it's remembered as a bouncy bit of pop bubblegum. And it changed everything for her.
"For me it was just a song, but it was such a hit, for some people this was their first knowledge of me. ... I've come to terms with it, but there was a time when people would say, "Oh you're the person who did Brand New Key — my mother likes that song.' I was like, 'Oh, please, enough of it.' It was a hard song to live down."
Though she may be known mostly as the singer behind "Brand New Key," Melanie may be better remembered (if hazily) among music fans of a certain age, in this area, as the sole national artist who performed at the ill-fated Powder Ridge Music Festival in August 1970 in Middlefield. Set to be the follow-up to Woodstock, Powder Ridge got shut down by a court injunction (the two dozen or so performers risked incarceration if they played), but that didn't stop the 30,000-or-so acid-addled attendees from converging on the site, which famously became a scene of bad trips; there were vats of "electric water," into which concert-goers would dump their LSD, making a cocktail of indeterminate potency.
"I just took a chance and I went," remembers Melanie. "They hooked me up to a generator off a Mr. Softee truck. And I sang. I got to sing. I felt like I was Santa Claus. I didn't get arrested but it was a close call."
The concert business was different then, following the attention of Woodstock and Altamont, where a man was killed. "People now just can't even fathom what happened," says Melanie. "After Woodstock, different states created laws. In New Jersey, festivals were outlawed in general. ... I was booked at the Garden State Arts Center, and they cancelled my show because they said 'Melanie constitutes a festival.'"
She might have constituted a festival in 1970, but in a few years, Melanie was disappearing from the pop charts. "They were putting me under wraps for a while," she says. "I didn't feel it — I didn't know if there was something I could take for it, but I seemed to be vanishing."
She didn't entirely disappear. She released records. They just weren't hits. "I felt like a relic — a real relic, not a cool relic," she says. Her old hits and cheery image may have kept listeners from exploring the darker strain in her lyrics. "When the camera came at me I would always smile," she says. "There I was bouncy and cute and cherubic. I didn't have enough angst in the face." Record labels had tried to capitalize on that. "They kept pushing me out there as this bliss-ninny, peace-child kind of person — I didn't want that."
Melanie's time may have come, though. She's toured with all three of her children backing her. "We were the Partridge Family from hell," says Melanie. In 2004 she released a CD recorded with her son, Beau-Jarred Schekeryk. She released another album in 2010. "There's some kind of creative surge within me. I kept heart and I kept performing and it seems like it's time."
Several artists have covered Melanie songs in recent years. The Norah Jones-ish singer Robinella released a version of "Brand New Key," in 2006 and the much-loved indie songwriter Will Oldham recorded Melanie's "Some Say I Got Devil" backed by the band Tortoise on a 2005 CD that also included covers of songs by Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Richard Thompson. And, most recently Myley Cyrus did a version of Melanie's "Look What They Done to My Song." Maybe the biggest reflection of how Melanie's music and story continues to ripple in contemporary culture is the fact that her musical memoir, "Melanie and the Record Man," which she stars in, just premiered last month at Blackfriars Theatre, in Rochester, New York.
"It seems like my music is gonna be heard again," she says. "And that's all I care about."
Editor's note: this story is an updated version based on one that first appeared in 2006.