Melanie recalls Red Bank High ('miserable') and Woodstock ('incredible')
Singer Melanie, who says her years at Red Bank High School were “miserable,” plans to visit her alma mater next year.
Peace — that's what Woodstock was all about, right? Singer-songwriter Melanie, who performed at the legendary 1969 festival, aims to make peace with her past.
And she aims to do it in Red Bank. Melanie is looking forward to her induction into the Red Bank Regional High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame next year. (She was class of 1966 at the former Red Bank High School.) The singer — full name: Melanie Safka — certainly qualifies as distinguished, with her '60s-'70s hits such as "Beautiful People," "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and "Brand New Key," which went to No. 1 in 1971.
Her breakthrough happened at the Woodstock festival, which will shortly mark its 45th anniversary and is the subject of a Warner Home Video release due out Tuesday.
As to why she needs to make peace, well, it's a story Melanie tells without sugarcoating, a story about a girl from Astoria, Queens, whose family relocated to Long Branch, where she was pegged as an outsider at Long Branch High School. "My dad wanted me to go to college, but I was having such a hard time," the singer, 67, said in a recent call.
"Back then, there was no word 'hippie.' They would call me a 'beatnik' or an 'oddball.' I just didn't fit in. It was a difficult time.
"So I ran away from home. And I really ran far. This was a time when you could get on a plane with an assumed identity. I got on a plane and went to California. I just thought I could solve the whole problem by running away."
In California, Melanie was eventually identified as a runaway. "I hadn't done anything wrong; I was just found," she says. "They put me in a girls detention so they could find my parents."
Melanie was returned to Long Branch, where people began to speculate about her absence. "In those days," she says, "when a girl was away for any period of time, people thought that most likely she was pregnant or had a baby or something like that. So my dad, to spare me, said I could go to another high school. We picked Red Bank. "Of course, this did not help at all. At Red Bank High School, the rumors were flying there, too. The powers-that-be at Red Bank decided I was a communist from New York sent down to Red Bank to cause anarchy. I mean, I was so not anything. I didn't have an affiliation of any kind. There I was, with this reputation for being a big troublemaker."
Melanie believes that because of this reputation, she was blackballed from marching in her graduation ceremony. "The last week before graduation, they told me I couldn't walk in the ceremony," she says. "It was all about an overdue library book. They didn't want me to walk in the ceremony, so they found this technicality. I didn't care, but my dad was heartbroken. "So I had a miserable high school life. It's ironic that I was inducted into the Red Bank hall of fame. Of course, this was nearly a half-century ago, and a different school — one that was incorporated into Red Bank Regional, explained Marianne Kligman, a spokesperson for the school, via email. "While Melanie graduated some time ago from the original Red Bank High School," Kligman said, "coincidently, that high school ... has evolved into one of the pre-eminent visual and performing art high schools in the state. We look forward to her meeting with our students who aspire to their own performing art careers." "Her songs endure to this day," said Jacqueline Caruso-Smith, who chairs the hall of fame committee, in a statement. "She also gave back generously to the world community with her charitable performances and as a spokesperson for UNICEF." Melanie plans to attend the induction ceremony, which Kligman reckons will be held in April. (The exact date is not yet locked in.) "I'm going to get my award," Melanie says.
The singer was hardly a household name when she set foot on the stage at the Woodstock festival, which was held Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, in Bethel, N.Y. "I was very shy, painfully shy, really," she says. "I had never been on a television show. They were not playing my record on AM radio. Just one underground radio station was playing 'Beautiful People.' So no one in the audience knew who I was. Maybe a half of 1 percent had heard of me." How, then, did Melanie get booked to play the festival?
She recalls: "I was in England, writing a film score. I had heard about it early on, from the originators of the festival; they were in same office building. It just came up. I said, 'Oh, three days of love and music — it sounds like me. Could I be part of it?' 'Yeah, you'd be right for it.' No one knew at that point how big it was going to be. This was before, even, investors got involved. I'm picturing a pastoral scene of people with families and love beads," she says with a laugh.
As the festival neared, Melanie was still at work in England. She discussed whether or not to attend with her then-husband, Peter Schekeryk. "Something told me I should," she says.
Melanie decided to fly to New York, where was picked up at the airport by her mother. The two proceeded to drive to the festival. "We began to encounter a lot of traffic," Melanie recalls. "We figured: It's the weekend. We were too far away from the site for it to be anything else. But the traffic was getting worse. Now, I'm getting concerned. We couldn't go past a certain point."
Somehow, Melanie made her way to a pay phone and reached a contact person, who instructed her not to continue driving to the festival, but instead to a hotel being used as a rendezvous point. "So now I'm realizing this traffic does have something to do with this thing I'm a part of," she says. "We get to this hotel. There are media trucks from one end to the other. I go inside with my mother. I'm surrounded by microphones. I'd never even met a famous person before. Then someone came up and said, 'Melanie! Melanie! Get in the helicopter!' 'What do you mean? I've never been in a helicopter!'
"I go with my mom to this entrance. They say, 'Who's she?' 'My mom.' 'No, no! No mothers. Just artists and management.' I didn't have the sense to say that she was my manager or my bass player. So I said goodbye to my mom."
The singer was flown to a field and led to a tent with a dirt floor. "This is where I stayed all day," she says. "Every once in a while, someone would stick their head in and say, 'You're next!' and then, 'Never mind!' I became so terrified all day that I developed a bronchial cough. I was in this weird terror all day long." When she finally got to perform, the experience yielded one of Melanie's best-remembered songs and an anthem of the hippie movement: "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)."
Recalls the singer: "I didn't go on until after Ravi Shankar. It started to rain. I finally got on. I went on stage, totally terrified. Right before, an announcer made an inspirational announcement about passing out candles. Somewhere in there, I absorbed all of that. "And then, I had an out-of-body experience. I did. I really did. I left my body. I watched myself. At some point, I was back in my body. I felt this incredible glow of human connectedness. I was not afraid any more. I sang my heart out for a half-hour. I did 'Beautiful People.' I was all inspired. I left that stage with 'Candles in the Rain' in my head. Because I was an unknown and went on that stage as an innocent, and I left that stage as an instant celebrity." "I had an out-of-body experience," says Melanie of performing at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
The singer did not appear onscreen in "Woodstock" (1970), Michael Wadleigh's subsequent movie that is part documentary, part concert film. But a Melanie performance will be included in Warner's gussied-up, extras-packed DVD boxed set, "Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Revisited" ($39.96). The release will also include a director's cut, featurettes and bonus performances.
Melanie says interest in Woodstock always spikes on anniversaries at five- and 10-year points. She believes she has a different perspective from many fellow veterans of the festival. "I am amazed at how cynical (other artists) are about it," the singer says. "I was undrugged. I didn't even drink Coca-Cola. I was completely natural. So I wouldn't have dared take anything that might alter myself. I thought: 'This is going to be bad enough, just getting up there.' "I was probably the only person who was unaltered," she adds, laughing again. "So I can trust my recollection more than some people's."
Written in Jersey
Do all of Melanie's songs have such interesting origin stories? She has a doozy for "Brand New Key," her biggest hit and a song that folks from 5 to 95 can love — a song she says she wrote in New Jersey.
Recalls the singer: "I wasn't doing well. I kept getting sick. I was a vegetarian for four years. I tried every kind of vegetarian regime. So I decided I needed assistance in my quest for the perfect health regime." Melanie says she decided to check into the Hidden Valley Retreat and Spa, a health farm then in Escondido, Calif., run by nutrition guru Bernard Jensen. "I was on a 27-day fast — just water," she says. "After 27 days, (Jensen) insisted I stop fasting. I was very happy. I didn't want to stop. He said, 'No, no, you're ready to face real world.' He thought I should eat at least once or twice a week. I was horrified. He said, 'Just keep thinking about it, and the right diet will come to you.'" Melanie says left the facility and contemplated Jensen's advice. Four or five days later, she was back in New Jersey.
"I went to the flea market at Englishtown," she says. "I'm on the way back home with my bag, and I smelled something. I mean, my taste buds were aching. I smelled something wonderful coming from this McDonald's. "I thought, 'A diet has occurred to me.' I ordered the whole package: a Big Mac and fries and a milk shake. No sooner did I finish that last bite, when the song occurred to me."Melanie believes the fast food triggered a flood of nostalgia that inspired the song, which has playful lyrics about roller skating. "It was just a magic biochemical reaction," she says. "I don't know whether the aroma reminded me of learning how to roller skate in Astoria. It was this whole 'whoosh' memory thing."
Some listeners believe the chorus of "Brand New Key" is a case of double-entrendre. (It goes: "I've got a brand new pair of roller stakes/ you've got a brand new key.") Melanie denies the charge. "I always carry a little guitar with me, a little, tiny guitar that you can throw in a car," she says. "I wrote the song in the car going home from McDonald's. There was really no thinking whatsoever. I take no credit for puns or sexual innuendos."