Rediscovering Melanie; Singer: Fans will be happy to hear even her new songs reflect her grounding in the '60s.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You find a vintage bauble, wine-hued and faceted, in a tin of old buttons. The bauble appears antique, quaint, redolent of another time. You're not sure what to make of it.

Imagine Melanie as that quaint bauble, the radiant waif with the big voice who briefly graced the Billboard charts at the peak of peace and love and Woodstock, only to fall, as have many musical compadres, into button-box obscurity.

Now, hold that bauble to the light, and all kinds of surprising visions shine through: A trippy flower child. A sultry chanteuse with a Piaf-tinged voice. An uncanny lyricist who touches your soul. A funny, earthy grandmother. A cult favorite among some boomers, gay men and European teens.

Rediscovering Melanie, composer of "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" and "Brand New Key," is a delightfully unpredictable experience, especially for those skeptical about baubles and buttons in their past. The singer/songwriter, 52, has made the transformation from flower child to "Old Bitch Warrior" -- the title of her recent overseas release -- gracefully, humorously, securely.

Melanie performs tonight at 8: 30 at Mays Chapel United Methodist Church in Timonium. She will be accompanied by her son, bluesy guitarist Beau Jarred Schekeryk. And the house may just be full of fans eager for a rare glimpse of their quixotic heroine.

Melanie Safka Schekeryk speaks of life by phone from Clearwater, Fla., where she lives with Peter, her husband of 31 years, and 16-year-old Beau. Two daughters, folk-rock musicians in their mother's tradition, live within a block and a half.

Perhaps because she never believed that talent must serve fame, Melanie has led a quasi-normal life in which she frequents yard sales, stands anonymously in grocery lines and fusses over her 2-year-old granddaughter. "The catch phrase of the '60s was 'Make it real,' " Melanie says. "I didn't want to be ever not true to myself and to how the music felt."

Other rock stars seek "to be spectacles, to be gawked at," but celebrity was never her ultimate goal, she says. "I just made music, from as long as I can remember, but I didn't think that would be a way I would earn a living or a way I would spend my life."

Safka was a rebellious but shy kid who went her own way while growing up in Queens and Long Branch, N.J. She remembers returning to high school one September circa 1963 wearing knee-high fringed boots bought on an Indian reservation and being sent to the principal's office. "My early idea of my 'mock-up' was Princess Summerfall Winterspring, from the 'Howdy Doody Show.' That was considered totally mad at that time ..."

The 1960s hit full force, and in a series of serendipitous twists, Melanie became the 'mock-up' for hippie chick chic. Before graduation from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1967, she started belting tunes in a smoky cabaret voice on Greenwich Village streets and in clubs. Along the way, she met Peter, a music publishing insider, who became her mentor and husband. She landed a contract with Columbia in 1967, and recorded the memorably fey "Beautiful People," which became an FM alternative radio favorite.

Then came Woodstock in 1969. Melanie's rainy-day appearance there inspired "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," her righteous ode to the festival. The hit launched Melanie's surreal journey from folkie to Ed Sullivan headliner to UNICEF ambassador to jingle composer to last year's "Boogie Nights" soundtrack.

She secured her following in Europe with a dawn appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. She logged sell-out performances from Carnegie Hall to Royal Albert Hall. And she released a stream of albums and modest hits, including 1970's "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)," which plateaued at No. 32; 1971's "Brand New Key," her only No. 1 hit; and 1972's "Ring the Living Bell," which peaked at No. 31.

But success was a mixed blessing. Melanie's lush beauty and flower-power message pigeonholed her as a big-hearted lightweight. Her bubble-gum image was exploited by executives at Columbia Records and then Buddah, and perpetuated in a Rolling Stone magazine piece that compared her to teeny-bopper heartthrob Bobby Sherman.

Melanie's lyrics, which actually could skewer as readily as celebrate, were dismissed as precocious prattlings. Critical accolades and multiple vocalist awards didn't neutralize the sting. The whole effect, Melanie says, was "too confining for my sense of humor, for my sense of how to be outrageous." She quit Buddah. "I was not going to be the victim the rest of my life, the singer who is unwillingly a star."

To forge an edgier identity, Melanie formed the Neighborhood label with Peter. But her quest backfired with "Brand New Key." The whimisical tune went to No. 1 but "doomed me to be cute the rest of my life."

The album that included "Brand New Key" went gold and prompted Buddah to issue unreleased Melanie material in direct competition with Melanie's new label. After a Billboard battle with her "other" self, Melanie stayed busy recording (she has made 30 albums) and touring, but never enjoyed the same popularity in the United States.

Yet, she has remained an underground favorite. Scott Delp, 45, of Harrisburg, Pa, a fan of 30 years, will be at tonight's concert with his family, including daughter Melanie (named after the singer). By e-mail, he sheepishly confesses to "teen-aged groupie" emotions: "Once I saw her in concert, I was totally hooked. Not only can the voice give me chills at times, but she is such an unpretentious, genuine and charismatic performer."

When Melanie recently celebrated her birthday with a small concert in Clearwater, Pat Swayne, a software engineer, drove 435 miles from outside Atlanta to attend. As soon as he got home, Swayne posted an account of the intimate concert on his Melanie Web site. By phone, he lauds Melanie's ability to communicate "from soul to soul."

While she is not one of those rock icons who bounces back decade after decade, Melanie's presence is consistently felt in popular culture. In 1989, she won an Emmy for writing the lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever," the theme song for the television series "Beauty and the Beast." She sang "Brand New Key" for a toy commercial, and it has made cameo appearances in "Chicago Hope" and "Boogie Nights." Two Rhino Records re-releases have also returned Melanie's older material to the contemporary slipstream.

After her heyday passed, Melanie just kept living her life. She passed on the hard drugs and rock-oblivion routine to raise three children. "We moved all over the world looking for the perfect hometown, but we never found it," she says. Eventually, she and her family settled in Clearwater.

This became home base, from which Melanie continues to launch tours, and plot new albums, either released independently in collectible batches or in Europe, where she remains more widely appreciated.

Earlier this year, Melanie and Peter opened a restaurant offering Melanie's "Floribbean-style recipes" in a Victorian house painted chartreuse and periwinkle. Losing money, it closed, but she hasn't given up on reopening.

Melanie's children -- Beau, Leilah and Jeordie -- perform as Safka, with their mother and separately. Last year, they released their first CD. Peter is still Melanie's business manager and album producer.

And Melanie's voice remains a wonderfully versatile instrument that growls and purrs and warbles.

"It didn't die of abuse so it got better," she says.

Her lyrics are perhaps more sophisticated, but still favor emotion over intellect. "Old Bitch Warrior," just released, ranges from the scary title song, about a fearless woman who "sleeps in the grave," to the lament "No Time to Smell the Flowers."

For the most part, though, Melanie's themes remain familiarly upbeat: "I think I still write a lot of hopeful, 'Come on everybody, we're in this together' " songs.

Woodstock continues to echo for Melanie. She hopes to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year on a "Working Legends" tour. And she still wears its aura like a favorite fragrance: "It seemed magic. The feeling that we were going to change the world for the better."

Night to remember

Melainie performs at 8:30 tonight at Mays Chapel United Methodist Church, 11911 Jenifer Road, Timonium. Tickets are $18. Call: 410-922-5210. Pub Date: 2/12/99

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