Chances are, it'll rain on the Fourth of July this year. That would be just perfect. In August of 1969 a young woman with long hair, a pug nose, beaming grin, and acoustic guitar stood in the stormy weather at Yasgur's Farm in upstate New York, alone with a half-million people. Melanie and her music cut through the drizzle and brought the steamy masses to their feet. She sang about beautiful people, universal love, and, of course, about peace, all in a warbly, preternatural voice that was at once charismatic and annoying, depending on the listener's mood.
The mood at Woodstock was positive, and something happened that would forever alter American culture: members of the crowd began lighting candles and holding them above their heads in an impromptu salute to the hippie folk singer on-stage. Ever since, popular musicians have received similar lighter-held-aloft treatment at concerts everywhere.
Other musicians took the stage at Woodstock and wowed the collected mass of humanity. The first act of the event was Richie Havens, who lied "Here Comes the Sun." Country Joe McDonald and the Fish led the audience in a chant of "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" during their signature song, "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," an anthem for those who fought against the war. Canned Heat brought a Top 20 hit - "Going Up the Country" - to the festivities and firmly established themselves among the vanguard of blues-rock progenitors.
A year later, however, Canned Heat co-leader Al "Blind Owl" Wilson was dead of a drug overdose. But there still exist survivors of the Sixties; and on Thursday Melanie, Havens, Country Joe, and the Heat will reinvent Woodstock, on a much smaller scale, as a tribute to the real meaning of peace and love and freedom - or so the organizers say - in an event dubbed Rockin' Freedom Fest, which begins at noon in Tamiami Stadium. At best the concert is an anomaly, at worst a marketing ploy that goes against everything Woodstock stood for - or, rather, what it was perceived to stand for. In fact, Woodstock itself turned out to be an illusion, a washed-out spectacle of uninhibited stupidity whose true fame lives only on film and record. (Neither Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning documentary nor the album were given away free, by the way.)
"This concert is a test," says Rockin' Freedom Fest promoter Trisha Nowrouzi. "We aren't trying to re-create Woodstock. I don't think anyone could ever re-create Woodstock. It just happened. We're not going to draw 500,000 people. I hope we can get half of what Tamiami can hold [the capacity for this event is 20,000]. This is about a mood. I salute our troops, but that's played out. We're saluting our troops in a different way." One element of that salute comes in the person of Jennifer Sauders, Miss Florida of 1987, who will sing the National Anthem.
Nowrouzi and her partner, Elaine Salley, decided to organize Rockin' Freedom Fest right about the time the United States began bombing Iraq. She hates to be called a "promoter" - "they're all shitheads, cutthroats, and very political," she explains - and insists the war was "a coincidence" that had little to do with her motivation. "After a three-month vacation, I flew into Miami on January 6," Nowrouzi recalls. "And we began talking about this idea. It bothered me that this country was going into war again. But I knew in my heart that the war would be over by July 4. If we were still at war - I can say, from my gut, the event would not be changed at all if the war was still going on. There's nothing political about this event. I'm not political. It's about the true meaning of peace and love. Of course we'd like to make money. But we wanted to do something that means something, that has a meaning. We don't do things just for the green."
Two decades ago Melanie Safka - who will close Rockin' Freedom Fest, most likely with the Woodstock-inspired "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" - was a superstar. "Lay Down" was not only the ultimate anthem of the Sixties generation and one of the most evocative rock songs of all time, it was a hit. At the Isle of Wight fest in 1970, she volunteered to close the show - the Who, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and others on the bill were afraid to go last. By the time she took the stage, which was already being dismantled, the audience was dozing. By the time she finished, the crowd was on its feet. Soon after, she placed two albums in England's Top 10.
The hits poured like summer rain - "Lay Down," "Beautiful People," "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," "Brand New Key" - and Melanie sold more than twenty million records. Then peace and love fell out of fashion, and people who Melanie thought were friends, people she had helped with their careers, people such as Jackson Browne and Neil Young, would no longer associate with her.
The major labels abandoned her, too, but Melanie never looked back. She and her husband/producer/manager Peter Schekeryk had formed their own record company, Neighborhood, and "Brand New Key," that goofy, infectious ditty, was the label's debut release. It went to Number One and wound up triple platinum - her biggest hit ever. Without saying a word, she shoved the industry figures' rejection right down their throats.
Twenty years after "Brand New Key," Melanie is again releasing material through her own label. Both the label and her new album are called Precious Cargo. "I don't want to sell myself to a major," she says today. "It's so much more wonderful to put out something when you want to do it, where you can declare when you want to do it. With a major label it's, `There's another girl coming out this month, the timing isn't right.' You have to kiss the right ass, play a whole game. I don't play that right now. They can shelve you for a year, and you just sit there waiting."
The last time she played live in Miami was a decade and a half ago, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Her unique voice and underrated guitar prowess were used to deftly execute a concert rich in warmth, wit, and whimsy as she womanhandled an adoring audience. At one point she turned her back on the crowd as if something had gone wrong. Then suddenly she spun in the air, slammed the opening chords of Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy!" and proceeded to blow the roof off the joint.
But that was fifteen years ago. "Every summer they say I'm making a `comeback,'" the singer/songwriter says from her home near Tampa. "I've never stopped working. Let's get this straight - I didn't retire. I didn't go out and do drugs. I wasn't an alcoholic who had to recover. I'm sorry, I know those things are so juicy. I worked. I wrote. I've traveled. I did stuff I didn't get to do back when I was on the road 300 days a year. Now I'm struggling. And I love it."
In fact, Melanie won an Emmy as recently as 1989, for "The First Time I Ever Loved Forever," used in Beauty and the Beast. The new album, Precious Cargo, includes a song called "Show You" that speaks volumes about Melanie's defiant stance. Angelic background harmonies, soft guitar, and gentle voice give way to a compelling rock out consisting of riveting piano riffs, percussive uppercuts and combinations, powerfully sung lyrics that seem to address the pressing issue: "Still here, still alive/Lost it all/And showed the poor survived/I had money and I watched it slide/There go my friends, too."
One of the best tracks on the album is called "Rock and Roll Heart," and she expects to play it live. "It's a rock song," the ex-hippie notes, "and I'm a rock and roller. I don't go out and do the whole number with the black leather. I have folk roots, jazz and blues, Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya. The French chanteuse emerges. Maybe it's cabaret rock." Early in her career, "What Have They Done to My Song Ma" was a hit in France before the New Seekers covered it and took it to the top of the U.S. charts.
Precious Cargo is certainly worthy of any major label - A&R reps could note that it includes a reworking of "Ruby Tuesday" and a wild cover of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Famed talent scout and label boss Clive Davis recently signed another Tampa-area resident, Roger McGuinn, who'd also been without a deal for many years. McGuinn wanted a deal, Melanie is less interested. "Look, I've been on Columbia, Buddha, MCA, Paramount, another label that I later found out was a tax shelter, Portrait, Epic, Atlantic, Arista," says Melanie. "I was with Clive Davis twice. That's enough."
Melanie accuses at least one former label of flooding the market with a "greatest hits" package just as she was releasing new material on a different label. Recently, record companies have sought to use her voice over prefabricated tracks of whatever was trendy at the moment. She declined. "I didn't want to lose all my integrity," she says. Another label offered a song called "Breakfast in Bed," which was reportedly an ode to oral sex. (She passed on that one, too.) And advertisers have tapped her tunes to sell their merchandise, including "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," which was the ultimate indictment of those who put money above the music. "There was, `Look what they've done to Ramada,'" she says, "and `What have they done to my Life Buoy.' I never gave my permission. The publishers did this, slipped it by me. I never wrote a song to be in an ad."
On the other hand, she doesn't mind endorsing products she believes in. The Fisher-Price toy company thought "Brand New Key" would work in a jingle, and for once Melanie actually appeared in a commercial. "I loved the company." Advertising strategists, she says, were intending to hire an imitator and rip off just enough of the song so they wouldn't have to pay her. But company officials refused to go that route. "They hate it when their ideas are ripped off by other toy companies," Melanie explains. "So they called me personally and asked permission to use the song, and I said sure. I thought that was pretty noble of them." Besides that, "Brand New Key" is more open to commercial use than "What Have They Done to My Song Ma." Melanie sighs. "I don't care. `What Have They Done' is a folk song, so it'll be used for eternity. The best thing was that Ray Charles sang it. The worst was when it was used for oatmeal."
Apart from her continuing musical endeavors, Melanie's time is devoted to her children and to charity. Twenty years ago she toured the world as a spokeswoman for UNICEF, even performing at the United Nations general assembly. Now she works with a foundation established to help artists "who got screwed by the industry." A few weeks ago she played at a fund raiser for the All Children's Hospital in Tampa. She doesn't make much of her charity work, content with the knowledge she's helping people. She's not interested in using charity work to further her career. "I don't go to Liza Minnelli's parties," she says. "Being `visible' is nonsense."
The other stars on the Rockin' Freedom Fest bill have had their share of ups and downs, mostly of the low-visibility variety. After Al Wilson's death on September 3, 1970, Canned Heat pushed on, teaming with blues legend John Lee Hooker and issuing their own albums. But in 1981 the group's other leader, Bob "Bear" Hite, also died. The current line-up is led by Adolpho "Fito" de la Parra, who joined the band in 1968, and guitarist Harvey Mandel, who's been with the Heat since 1969.
Country Joe McDonald began his career in high school when he wrote a campaign song for a friend who was running for class president. (He won.) While recording and performing with the Fish on a regular basis, he went solo for Woodstock. After years of family and financial problems, McDonald is back at it, playing solo. And continuing to write about Vietnam - one of his more recent compositions is called "A Vietnam Veteran Still Alive."
Richie Havens has had the best luck of the lot. He's turned his attention to environmental concerns, his live shows remain spectacular in their abandon and virtuosity, and he currently has two albums out - Now consists of new material, and Live at the Cellar Door and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is a collection of live work recorded twenty years ago. Havens sees no problem with digging into the past, because he believes that songs should survive the generations, that music made twenty years ago can be as relevant as material fresh from the hopper.
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Melanie, whose performance Thursday will be capped by the releasing of a thousand white doves, just like at Woodstock, recently released a song about the war in the Persian Gulf. "(We) Stand By You," which lifts the melody and arrangement of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me," is a yellow-ribbon waver if ever there was one: "Oh, you put your life on the line/And we stand by you," Melanie sings. "We are brothers and sisters/And we stand by you."
"Basically I'm a pacifist," the Woodstock veteran explains. "War should be avoided. This was a different war. Vietnam was immoral. There was no backing of our people." Melanie learned a lesson during Vietnam that helps explain the sentiment of her new single (which isn't included on the album). While insisting that war should be protested - preferably before it begins - she adds, "One real tragedy out of the [Vietnam] war demonstrations was the poor guys in the military. While doing peace demonstrations, I also sang at West Point and at bases in Europe. It was really sad. They hated the idea that nobody supported them while they were out there risking their lives. I feel for people in that situation."
The Sixties survivor is convinced she entered the world already equipped with compassion. She doesn't think for a minute that peace and love are passe, even in the face of America's outrageous celebration of war. "When I was born," she says, "and I actually remember this, I knew I was going to help people. When I got older, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but they didn't want me. They didn't want a singer, they wanted engineers and agricultural people. But I could have sung to people. That would have been good."
ROCKIN' FREEDOM FEST with Melanie, Richie Havens, Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, and four local acts begins at noon on Thursday, July 4 at Tamiami Stadium, 10901 SW 24th St, 223-7070. Tickets cost $10.50 and $13.50.