I laugh off the idea of keeping up-to-date on new music. I can’t even keep up with the past and its unsettling habit of change. I have come to see the musical past, not as a mountain range with fixed major and minor peaks, but as a continuously renegotiated, reconstructed city skyline over which all kinds of corporate and grassroots interests tussle for control. Sometimes, a “people’s skyscraper” rises, a Big Star or a Nick Drake (or a Franz Kafka or an Emily Dickinson), and writes itself into your childhood memories like a new sister appearing in old discolored photographs in full period attire. Now she shows up at family events with pasta salad and some fellow named Don, all “remember when…” and “Johnny, you were good at math until you hit your head on the jungle gym.” I am suspicious, but everyone else seems to remember her fine.
For example, until about two years ago, the Zombies were nothing to me but two charming if somewhat stiff R & B-wannabe megahits and a critical reputation as an underrated jewel of their era, not unlike the Small Faces, Love or Fred Neil. Now, Odessey [sic] and Oracle has redefined my entire understanding of the ‘60s, psychedelia and the roots of prog. It has become one of my three or four favorite records from the period. And I am not alone. My 15-year-old son watches YouTube videos of Kevin Barnes leading a parade of neo-glam kids through the streets of Paris, all singing “Care of Cell 44” as if it were “All You Need Is Love.” And the same kid – something of a taste-setter amongst his peers – has no compunction about declaring the Zombies “better than the Beatles.” Are you ready for that future past?
When you think back to your inherited memories of Woodstock (assuming that you weren’t there), is Melanie on the stage? Better put her there now; remove Sha Na Na if you need to make room. You probably know Melanie mostly for “Brand New Key,” the sprightly folk/rock awkward-sex-metaphor radio classic. But her Woodstock appearance was a full two years before the release of that song. No one-hit wonder she; rather, an icon of the Flower Power era who somehow did not graduate with the supposed top of the class into “classic rock.”
Why? Well, why did the Zombies not make that grade either, at the time? I blame John Bonham, mostly, who straightened the entire river of rock out with his heavy devil’s hoof, in one kick transforming the Zombies and the Melanies from cities on the banks of the mainstream to ghost towns on an oxbow lake. What we now call “classic rock” had little room for the brainy, baroque swing of the Zombies or the ornate, soulful chamber folk of Melanie’s best records. What was in some ways musically superior sounded quaint and dated to our denim-tough ‘70s ears, as big-bottom rock raged on the mainstage with the Who and…uh, Bad Company? No offense to Mick Ralph and the boys, but I hereby change sides to Melanie.
Do yourself a favor and listen to Melanie’s 1971 classic Gather Me (and to its equally-exquisite-but-much-less-heralded follow-up Stoneground Words). Steer clear of “Brand New Key” for a moment and instead enjoy luminous stunners like “Baby Day” – a song about staying up all night – or the ridiculously moving “Some Say (I Got Devil),” a defiant song sung by a pregnant girl. And remember this: If it sounds dated, that’s your fault. You have accepted the winners of history too uncritically, as something deific and inevitable. Or listen to “Center of the Circle” (which all major online retailers now list as “Canter of the Circle,” for some reason). The Modernist chamber orchestra arrangement on this beautiful track is essentially too good for us, too cool, too intriguing. We got what we deserved: timeless things like…uh, “Big Ol’ Jet Airliner.”
Melanie Safka is playing the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock on Saturday, June 2. She has never stopped writing, recording, touring and servicing the many, many people for whom her music is essential and alive. And if her peak output of the early ‘70s might rise, Zombielike, to its rightful place, restoring some nuance and detail to our memory of the era, let it begin modestly, right here, with me. I only knew the hit. I see now the error of our ways.
Melanie’s June 2 Bearsville show begins at 9 p.m. Ticket cost $35 to $50 for reserved seats and $25 for standing room, which will become available later. For more information phone (845) 679-4406 or visit www.bearsvilletheater.com.