Melanie Comes to Chicago and Rips the Joint—at 72

Forty five years after her best-known hit, the pop songstress still has stories, energy and charisma

Melanie Safka in 1975. (William Morris Agency)

If you’ve seen Boogie Nights—or just happen to love perfectly crafted pop confections that seem virginally innocent but are drenched in sexual innuendo—then you already know Melanie. Her 1972 number one song “Brand New Key” (sometimes called “The Roller Skate Song”) sold over three million copies worldwide and was featured in the 1997 film. It was banned from many stations for its cheeky “I’ve got a roller skate / you’ve got a key” but its composer, the Queens born Melanie Safka, has actually had a long and varied career that includes an Emmy, a theatrical musical, a theme song to a tv show and a bunch of memorable albums.

A couple years ago, when Melanie and I started talking on the phone back and forth I had to pinch myself.  It all started when author, musician and friend, Pat Thomas had posted something on Facebook about Melanie and I responded gushing with love for her. He connected me with Azalia Snail, a vocalist and musical comrade of Melanie’s and voila the alchemic beauty of connecting through music took place.

Being on the other end of the phone with Melanie just a few weeks after that Facebook post seemed like one of those improbabilities, the kind that if someone had told me when I was 10 and listening to her best known song on repeat, that this would happen, it would have made my teenage years way more tolerable.

A couple weeks ago, she sent me a text to let me know she’d be performing in Chicago the very next day. She had sold out the later show but was inviting me to the early show, and I was excited to see her live after years of fandom and correspondence.

So my friend Jeanine and I headed to the Old Town School of Folk Music to see Melanie. We both left buoyed by the experience. I am deeply moved by people practicing their craft long past the point where most call it a day. A much more common thread in the hit-making pop realm than in other genres—and especially so for women—is they are presumed to “age out” of wide appeal. Even as Stevie Nicks is selling out arenas and possibly about to be admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist (she’s already in as a member of Fleetwood Mac), so many other female musicians see their careers tied to their presumed sex appeal in a way that male artists never do.

In Melanie’s case, we are lucky she is still at it.

Melanie today, with the author in Chicago.

At the performance, Melanie was charged with the energy of history, resilience and charm. She said she is making music that’s “better than ever.” I am not sure that assertion is perfectly accurate, but I am happy she feels that way. Melanie at 23 is not the same as Melanie at 71. She has a different story to tell now and her way of conveying it is also different.

That being said, It is no less powerful. In some ways it’s fiercer and in others more fragile. Her voice is rough and uncontrollable at times. She mentioned a frog that, if it became any larger, she would have to give it a name. She attributed the visiting frog to her challenged journey between the previous night’s show in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Chicago. On a whim she says, she ordered a stretch limo to take her to Chicago, but what showed up was something more akin to a frankensteined truck with bench seats and no shocks.  It seems she and her son Beau, who almost always accompanies Melanie on stage with guitar, along with radiating kindness and love for his mom, had not gotten the sleep they needed. Still, her voice conveys something deep, deep as the day she sat on the stage at Woodstock.

In fact, Melanie was one of three solo women who performed at 1969’s legendary Woodstock Festival (Joan Baez and Janis Joplin were the others). Her very first Top Ten hit, the nine-minute Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), is said to have been about the crowd at Woodstock holding up lighters during her performance. That song hit No. 6 and was followed by “Peace Will Come (According To Plan)” and a haunting cover of Ruby Tuesday.

And then came “Brand New Key,” the No. 1 song that’s forever associated with the folk rocker. “Brand New Key,” she tells us with amused indignation, has been used for everything from “Brand New Oatmeal” to “Brand New Tires.”  She has a conflicted history with the song.

Instantly identified as a potential hit by her producer/manager and husband, Peter Schekeryk, when she first played it for him, she quickly felt weighed by its sudden success. It took Melanie from comfortable music rooms to stadiums where the audience would have been “happy to hear “Brand New Key” for the whole show.”  Years later the song continued to give her trouble when, for the premier of Boogie Nights, she suggested Beau, a teen at the time, ask his friends to join her for the screening. She had no idea it was a film about the 1970s porn industry. After the credits rolled she insisted the accompanying friends swear to her they not tell their parents about what they had seen.

All this history was just prelude to the varied and productive career she’s led ever since. Over 50 years performing, her depth as an artist has not diminished, it’s just a depth from a different well. She has proudly become, as she told the audience was her dream as a young girl, “A woman with a past.”

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Janet Beveridge Bean

Janet Beveridge Bean is an artist and musician. She is a founding member of Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater and a current member of Mind Over Mirrors.

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