Melanie on ‘Candles in the Rain,’ ‘Brand New Key’ & More

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In the first half of our interview with Melanie Safka (better known simply as Melanie), available here, the singer-songwriter talked about her early days in the music business and her appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969. Here in part two, she recalls the top 10 single that came out of her Woodstock experience, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” and her 1971 #1 smash, “Brand New Key.”

Best Classic Bands: How did you come to write “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”?
Melanie: I had the anthemic part of that song in my head as I left [Woodstock]. I was seeing this hillside come toward me with this flickering light. It was a vision, an absolute vision of this flow of humanity coming toward me, and I was totally OK up there. I never saw footage of myself at Woodstock because it never came to light until about 15 years ago. A camera crew came to my place where I was staying in Florida, and they wanted to do this footage of me talking about Woodstock. I was supposed to be on the History Channel and they spent like six hours in my house filming me talking, and they said, “Well, you’ve seen the footage, right?” I said no, I never did, and they put it on. I was so surprised because I didn’t even remember that I did a whole set. So here I was thinking, Oh, I’m going to be on the History Channel. Finally, I’ll be vindicated in some way. Then, sure enough the History Channel came on and I was not there.

How did the Edwin Hawkins Singers get involved with accompanying you on “Candles in the Rain”?
That was the most amazing thing, just recording that song. My husband [Peter Schekeryk] was the producer. We were on Buddah Records. We were in that office building and I said, “Peter, I can hear the gospel choir singing, ‘Lay down, lay down.’” I could totally hear this and he said, “Well, the Edwin Hawkins Singers just had a big hit, ‘Oh Happy Day.’” So, Peter contacted Edwin Hawkins because they were on Buddah Records too. I talked to Edwin Hawkins and said, “I have this song that came to me at Woodstock.” I wasn’t the most articulate person in the world. I’m still not but I can I can get by. But I was bumbling and he said, “I’m sure it’s a very nice song but we only do songs with Jesus and the Lord and the mention of Jesus’ name.” I said, “Yeah, but he’s in there, you know?” Basically, he said no. Then Peter came to me and said, “Oh the Edwin Hawkins Singers really want to do it,” and I said, “Really? They said no.” Anyway, we were out in Oakland, California, after recording “Lay Down” and he said, “We’re going down to where they’re rehearsing so they can rehearse with you.” I went, “OK,” and I’m going down there with my guitar, and we walk into this high school gymnasium where they’re rehearsing, and they look at me like who the hell is this? Little white girl coming in with her guitar, and a white guy. They’re in the middle of the song and then little by little kind of taper off and Edwin Hawkins looks and Peter runs over to him and starts talking. Obviously, they don’t want to do this song and he’s making me do this song. He said, “Melanie, come here,” so, I mean, I had no choice. I started playing the song and I swear, by the time I got to the chorus the second time the group was singing with me. Edwin Hawkins threw up his hands.

Watch Melanie sing “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” live with the Edwin Hawkins Singers

A year after Woodstock, there was a little known festival in Connecticut called Powder Ridge that got canceled at the last minute by the local authorities. I was actually there and you were the only name artist who played. What do you remember about that?
I was ready to leave. I was living in New Jersey and I heard on the radio it’s canceled. We made calls and [they said], “No, don’t come. Any performer who’s caught here will be arrested. Do not come.” Peter said, “OK, Melanie, we’re not going on.” I said, “What are you talking about?” There’s like 40,000 people or something that were gathering. They had sold a lot of tickets and there were people there. So I said, “No, we have to go up.” So I went I went there and they said, “Oh, yeah, Melanie, we’re having a press conference up at the ski lodge,” and I went there and they said, “No, you can’t go to the field. If you go to the field you’ll be arrested for sure because it’s illegal. You cannot do it.” I don’t know, that thing in me got stirred, and Peter said, “Melanie, no, you can’t do that.” I got into a car that the WNEW news team was in. They stuck my guitar in the trunk and because I’m not a band, I didn’t have equipment to set up. It was just me, and they hooked me up to the Mr. Softee generator and I sang and I was like Santa Claus. It was pretty amazing.

Your cover of the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” was a big hit in the U.K. but didn’t do that well in the U.S. Then your song “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” also wasn’t a big hit for you here, but the New Seekers had a hit cover with it. What was going on at the time?
I was really well-known for “Candles in the Rain,” not so much for “Look Ma,” because ‘Look Ma” was covered by the New Seekers and they’re the ones that had the hit. It was never said, “That’s a Melanie song.” I was just Melanie, the cute flower child person. To the hip people, the real hipsters, the hardcore Rolling Stone heavy rockers, I became the person to bash. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but it definitely did. I became the cool girl to bash, and with that came “She couldn’t write songs.” In fact, I got a review once in an underground paper—and this is funny because you would think they would know—but it said, “And then she did her stupid song that she wrote, ‘Ruby Tuesday.’” That was a bigger record than the Stones’ in Europe. Melanie is associated with “Ruby Tuesday” there. But my whole thing, my image, was this beautiful flower child, not as much intelligence as pretty. Rolling Stone bashed “Candles in the Rain.” The review of “Candles in the Rain,” I remember the line. It said, “The Edwin Hawkins Singers are great but when Melanie comes in it’s like a pencil scratch on a chalkboard.” I thought these are my people, and there I was being bashed. That’s when I realized something was definitely afoot. It was unbelievable. It was an agenda. I didn’t see the ’60s as a political movement and there’s a beautiful scene in Forrest Gump where the girl who believes in humanity and the ideals of making a better world is in a room with these political, humorless types. They’re screaming and yelling and then they look at her and they attack her verbally. I felt like that person. The real true feeling of what was going on was not Abbie Hoffman. That was coming out of it but it wasn’t that. It was a true awakening to the goodness of us. Somebody said, “Joan Baez is an activist; Melanie is a humanist.”

Watch Melanie perform “Ruby Tuesday” on The Ed Sullivan Show

Then “Brand New Key” came out in 1971 and went to #1. It was actually banned on some radio stations because some people thought it had sexual connotations and others thought it was about drugs.
It was so crazy. That was quite controversial. “Brand New Key” became the song. It took me from singing in smaller venues to stadiums. Sometimes in a want-to-please mood I would do “Brand New Key” twice and sometimes I wouldn’t do it at all. I was kind of angry with the song. I became a reactionary against it.

What was the original inspiration behind it?
I was on a fast, 27 days of nothing but water. My fasting guru, Dr. Bernard Jensen, said, “It’s time to stop, Melanie,” as I left my body for the first time. That’s what happens; you become a little less attached to the body you’re walking around in. After 27 days, I broke the fast. I was drinking nothing but distilled water. The way to break the fast is gradually: a teaspoon of juice and a tablespoon of parsley, cooked grated carrot. Little by little you introduce food into your system. I did this for a week or so and then I went home to my life in New Jersey and I went to the Englishtown flea market. It was like 6:00 in the morning. You go with your flashlight. I’d ask for the dealers’ price. And on my way back, I smelled the aroma and it just reminded me… When you’re so cleansed you’re very in touch with a certain kind of memory that brings all your senses into it. I looked and it was a McDonald’s and I was hungry and Dr. Bernard Jensen said my perfect diet is going to occur to me because I’m so cleansed. I was completely a vegetarian. I was every kind of -arian. We ordered, you know, the combo with the fiberglass milkshake surprise and all things. I no sooner ate my last bite of burger when the song pops into my head, the whole thing. I had with me this little practice guitar and in the backseat of that van, I wrote “Brand New Key.”

Watch Melanie perform “Brand New Key” live

What was your reaction when it hit number one? Did you expect that?
When I first wrote it, it was like a slow ditty and my husband said no, we’re going to speed it up and maybe add a background vocal part, syncopated and percussive. He was a genius in the studio and he made it a hit record and I was angry with him for doing that. How could you do this to me? And of course coupled with pushing me as the silly non-relevant person, it worked, the perfect, silly cute song. We went in the studio. We did it and it was speeded up and we recorded it and it became a hit. I became a reactionary to it. I hated it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want it to be my hit record. I didn’t want it to be the song that people knew. But now I love it. What an amazing production and it’s timeless. It has the vintage thing. I love the song. I love that I wrote it. I love that it was a hit. It meant a lot to a lot of people and I understand. It’s not like my finest poetry. It’s a cute song.

After that, you got on Ed Sullivan, you got on Johnny Carson and you also got to sing with John and Yoko at a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. What was that like?
I was in New York, and it was a real spur-of-the-moment thing. I got a call from John Lennon. “Come down to Madison Square Garden.” “OK.” So I went and I sang with him. He was such a sweet, charming guy. I’m not sure if Yoko liked me or not. He gave me a rose, a black rose. I wish I had that rose. I do have the drumsticks that Keith Moon gave me.

Melanie (left) with Judy Collins and Richie Havens

Most people probably don’t know that you’ve made more than 40 albums.
There is a lot of music and after 47 albums, I stopped counting. Unless we have a renaissance on Earth, you probably won’t hear those songs. Thanks to the internet, people can hear them, and every once in a while, a radio station will get a hold.

What would you like to do that you still haven’t done?
I’d like to have a mainstream hit again, because it brings attention to the work you’ve done. I would like to do a Broadway show and I would really like Melanie and the Record Man [a musical based on Melanie’s life with her late husband] to go on Broadway. The life I had with Peter was like the original Odd Couple. He was the complete extrovert, PT Barnum. I was a shy girl who didn’t want any of it. And I married this guy. He saw something there.

Watch Melanie perform “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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