“We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other’s wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep the dark away
So, raise the candles high
‘Cause if you don’t, we could stay black against the sky
Oh, oh, raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain – Melanie Safka, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”
These days we don’t often check our phone messages. I mean, most of the time it’s just bill collectors or phone solicitors. But one evening in 2012, upon coming home from a long day at work, I was glad I pushed the red glowing button on my old school answering machine. The voice on the recording said “Hello. This is Melanie Safka for Sam Tweedle. I was given your phone number and was told you wanted to do an interview with me. Call me back tonight and we can talk.” She recited her phone number, and the phone went dead. It’s not every day that one of your favorite singer-songwriters leaves a phone message on your answering machine, but here we were. After my heart stopped thumping out of my chest, I called the number, and I had a lovely hour long visit with the singer the world only knew as Melanie.
On Friday, August 15th, 1969, Melanie Safka, then only twenty-years-old, took the stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. With only one album out, and no songs on the Billboard charts yet, the small quiet girl with big brown eyes and long, straight hair was slightly out of her element playing the same stage as musical giants such as Jimi Hendrix; The Who; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Janis Joplin in a show which would become the iconic event of the era. However, by the time that she finished her seven-song set, Melanie was a star, and she would go on to become pop culture’s most famous flowerchild.
With a whimsical singing style unlike anyone else from her era, and poetic lyrics that can mean many things to many people, Melanie tapped into the consciousness of peace and love which were the hallmarks of her era. Rising out of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the impish, shy girl with a sweet voice had a string of hits following her Woodstock debut. But while her records did well on the music charts, her strength was found in her cult appeal. Audience members would sit at her feet, and light candles at her shows as they emulated her Woodstock performance. As the sixties morphed into the seventies, Melanie became that last breath of the era as the public attempted to grasp on to the ideals she represented. But over the years, while other figures of the sixties have found iconic status, Melanie seems to have missed out on the same level of stardom that other musicians of the Woodstock generation had. Music critics overlooked her, dismissing her as a bubble gum act, and as Melanie refused to go against her nature in order to stay on top, the changing music and hedonistic philosophy of the seventies seemed to brush Melanie away into the mist, making her like a far-away soul from a distant past.
But how did that unlikely Woodstock debut come to be? It really was a case of luck and being in the right place at the right time. In 1968, the year her debut album “Born to Be” was released, Melanie married her producer Peter Schekeryk. As Melanie would explain the night she spoke with me, they were very much opposites, but together they created a lifetime of music. “Peter was my producer and my partner for forty some odd years and there would not be a Melanie if there was not a Peter,” Melanie told me. “He was the force. I was an introvert and shy. Driven, but shy. He was the one who would always push me out, and get me to the right places, and be there.”
Well, there was no way the mismatched pair could have imagined the opportunity Peter had stumbled upon when he found out that two men who had an office in the same building he worked were organizing a rock festival. Friendly with the pair, he talked them into putting Melanie on the roster despite the fact that her album had gone unnoticed. Nobody involved in the organization of Woodstock had any idea what sort of social and cultural impact the festival would have on American history, nor the symbol it would become of the 1960’s. Even as she approached the stage area from the helicopter, Melanie was unprepared for the sheer magnitude of Woodstock. Looking down at the field, Melanie recalled during our interview that she didn’t know what she was looking at. “’What is that,” I asked the pilot. It looked like balloons or a weird crop,” Melanie told me. “The pilot said, ‘Those are people.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. That mass down there.’ He said ‘People.’ It didn’t look like it could possibly be people because you didn’t see anything that looked like heads. It was just round things. Then he showed me the stage from the air, and it looked like a football field. I had never been on anything other than a little box stage on Greenwich Village. I had never done anything like this.”
As the rain continued pouring that Friday night, Melanie took the stage at 1 am, soon after Ravi Shankir completed his set. The crowd assembled were waiting for Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, who were still slated to go on before the festivities were to stop for the night. But an odd thing happened as Melanie took the stage. Candles had been passed out amongst the crowd, and through the rain she could see the flickering of flames all the way up the hill. The beauty of this unique spectacle stuck strongly with her, and before she left the festival, she had written what would be her musical masterpiece “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).”
While Melanie seems to be best remembered for her hits “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” and “Brand New Key,” which have both been dismissed as being pop fluff despite both having strong social subtexts within the lyrics, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” was actually her breakout hit and her first single to hit the Billboard charts, peaking at #6 in 1970. A passionate and moving chorus, it captures the poetry of Melanie’s lyrics mixed with the intensity of her spirit. Giving it an extra unique push was that it was recorded with the gospel group The Edwin Hawkins Singers backing her up.
However, as Melanie told me during our interview, Edwin Hawkins almost didn’t get on board with the recording. With their own single, “Oh Happy Day” being an unlikely Billboard hit in 1969, the chorus was a religious choir, and Hawkins was concerned in maintaining that element within the music that his group put out.
“When Peter and I talked to Edwin Hawkins, he asked if The Lord was mentioned in my song,” Melanie told me. “I said ‘Well, not by name, but he’s in there.’ I wasn’t into structured religion. I had given up on all of that. But I had to convince him to do it, because he only did church music. I had to convince him that it was a spiritual song. So, he said ‘Let me hear the song and we’ll see.;”
But even without Hawkins officially on board for the recording, Melanie and Peter traveled from New York to California to persuade Hawkins and his group to record the song. It was a gamble that paid off and turned into the most important recording session of Melanie’s career. “Peter and I went out to Oakland, California where the Edwin Hawkins Singers were rehearsing in a school gymnasium,” Melanie continued. “I was really shy. It was really hard for me to get up in front of forty amazing singers and sing my song. I was this little white girl, singing and sweating, but after the second chorus the choir was singing with me, and Edwin Hawkins was really outnumbered. We all marched up to the studio and recorded it in one take. t went on for eight minutes, and I still remember Peter doing that universal hand signal for ‘One more time,’ and we kept going and going, and everybody was getting high off of this song. It was powerful. You live for moments like this. It was an incredible eight-minute record. Of course, they had to cut it down for mainstream radio, and they had the three-minute version, but some radio stations did play the eight-minute version.”
Although most people are most familiar with that three-minute version of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” the full eight-minute version is really the masterpiece, with the Edwin Hawkins Singers raising Melanie’s voice and music to supernatural heights. But, in one of the best stories I ever been told, Melanie told me during our interview, the eight-minute version proved important in a life changing way to another very special group of fans.
“About ten years after the Viet Nam War ended, I was doing a little concert, and the owner of the hall said to me, ‘There is a very special audience member out there, and he has a story to tell you, and he booked the entire first two rows.’” Melanie told me. “After the show this man came back and met me and he introduced me to his daughter, whom he’d named Melanie, and told me, ‘She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
“He said that he was a head of a platoon in a helicopter mission during Viet Nam, and they got caught behind enemy lines and lost radio contact,” Melanie continued. “They were being shot at and they were going to go down, but then they caught a faint signal on their radio that was playing ‘Lay Down.’ They followed that signal to safety, and because it was the eight-minute version, they made it back alive.”
“It wasn’t the content that saved their lives,” Melanie stated. “It was the fact that it was the sheer amount of time that I took making this record ended up saving this whole company. They all meet and have reunions and play “Lay Down” and cry. The man was crying when he told me this and his daughter was crying. You never know how your music is going to soundtrack somebody’s life.”
For many of us, Melanie wrote the songs that did, indeed, become a part of the soundtrack of our lives. Her words and music, despite sounding like a throw back, continued to be important and relevant to us who collected her records. For me, it has always been the poetry and the intensity of songs like “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” as well as songs such as “Leftover Wine,” “Beautiful People,” “Peace Will Come” and “Ring the Living Bell” which have kept Melanie in my heart.
Today it was revealed in a social media post written by her children that Melanie passed away on January 23rd. I remember when I interviewed her in 2012, she spoke a lot about how much she missed her husband Peter, who had passed away two years earlier in 2010. Although I found her to be fun to talk with, the grief was still so prevalent in her, and you could hear the loneliness in her words when she spoke of Peter. I like to think that wherever Melanie is now that she is playing her guitar while Peter shines the living light upon her making her the brightest star. More today then ever, we need Melanie’s words of peace and brotherhood to unite all people in all countries and of all beliefs. Tonight, we light a candle for Melanie, to keep out the darkness in our hearts, and protect us from the rain in our soul.
“Little sisters of the sun
Lit candles in the rain
Fed the world on oats and raisins
Candles in the rain
Lit the fire to the soul
Who ever knew its friend
Meher Baba lives again
Candles in the rain
To be there is to remember
So lay it down again
Oh, lay it down
Lay it down
Lay it down again
Men can live as brothers
Candles in the rain.”