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Author: Jeff Spevak Page 1 of 160

Remembering Melanie

Melanie was a pop singer best remembered for radio-friendly pop hits such as “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” I spent some time with her when she came to Rochester to debut a play about her life. She was a cool person. Melanie was 76 when she died Tuesday. This is the story I wrote when she was in Rochester, which appeared in the local daily newspaper. I left in the references to the show at Blackfriars Theatre, even though the show, and the interview, was more than a decade ago.

‘Brand New Key’ singer’s improbable journey to Rochester

By JEFF SPEVAK

The clerk at the Best Buy phone counter is helping out a 68-year-old man who, incomprehensibly in the 21st century, in November 2010, is asking the clerk if he’s ever heard of Melanie. The pop singer.

Then the older man leans on the counter and tells the clerk he’s not feeling well. The kid gets him a glass of water. It was Melanie who started the idea of people holding up lighters at concerts, the old guy is saying as he drinks the water, trying to compose himself. When she played Woodstock, in 1969. Of course now, in the 21st century, people hold up their cellphones at shows …

Melanie: We remember.

Then he slumps over, store employees ease him to the floor and call 911. He’s had a heart attack before. A year ago to that very day, in fact, during a plane flight from Germany. But Peter Schekeryk won’t survive this one at the Best Buy in Framingham, Mass. He’s apparently still trying to explain the lighters when he utters his last words. “It was Melanie…”

Not far away, a 63-year-old woman is sitting on a decorative haystack outside of the Whole Foods supermarket with her overloaded shopping cart, waiting for her husband to pick her up. He has been gone a long time. She calls his cellphone, but gets his voicemail. She’s annoyed, and also concerned. A police car pulls up and a cop gets out. “Are you Melanie Schekeryk?” he asks.

This is how pop stars who have sold more than 25 million albums get the news that their spouse of 45 years has died. The same as you or I.

That scene could have been the end of the story for Melanie. That much seems obvious, her eyes reddening and a catch in her voice betraying the heavy emotions she still carries when she talks about Schekeryk. However, the opposite has happened. It is the beginning of the story. Her husband’s death is the opening scene of the autobiographical musical Melanie and the Record Man. And his death has allowed the story to continue, in an improbable way.

Improbable because it is a small community theater group in Rochester, people she had never had contact with before, who pulled Melanie from a sidetrack of pop history, created a play from her blogs and journals and ultimately convinced Melanie that she must be a part of it, tell the story herself, write new songs and sing many of the old songs.

The play begins its world-premiere run from Friday through Oct. 28 at Blackfriars Theatre.

“It would be so much simpler if I were dead and they got some frumpy, gorgeous person to play me,” Melanie says, while sitting in the theater lobby on East Main St. “I have doubts and fears.”

Inside the theater itself, a small crew is pulling together the doubts and fears, assembling Melanie’s story. Tall ladders reach into the ceiling lights. Curtains are draped across the red-fabric chairs of the 126-seat theater. The high whine of electric drills will soon give way to songs such as “Beautiful People” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” inspired by what Melanie saw as she played Woodstock in 1969. Four-hundred thousand people, many with flickering lighters and candles, just as Peter Schekeryk described to the cellphone clerk.

Melanie’s biggest hit was “Brand New Key,” an air-light No. 1 record in 1971. It is what she is best known for. But she was not a one-hit wonder, releasing 35 albums, the latest in 2010.

Sure, she meditated with Indian yogis, but so did The Beatles. Melanie still has a little bit of mystic in her. Sometimes, she admits, she senses that Schekeryk is in the room with her, guiding her. She once wrote a song called “I Don’t Eat Animals.” The quintessential flower child, she was a reluctant celebrity, she says, who resented being cast as what she calls “a beautiful bliss ninny.”

And, Melanie now eats animals. Studies have shown, she says, you’ll live longer with a diet that includes meat and fish.

“A pretty girl is a target,” she says. “You can’t be very smart and beautiful at the same time. Rolling Stone waged a war against me. They always put me on the same page as Bobby Sherman. I was on the Buddha record label. That’s the same label that had The Archies. Leon Redbone and Captain Beefheart were on the label, too, but I guess that didn’t count.”

It’s as though those old hits don’t belong to her anymore, because Melanie hasn’t seen any royalties on them in years. “I’m a very wealthy woman,” she says. “I just don’t receive the wealth that I generate.”

Despite constant touring, her finances are no longer sound. “Peter made deals on a handshake,” she says, “and the handshakes fell through when he died.”

For years, John Haldoupis envisioned fashioning a story cycle from Melanie’s songs. He was a fan, he admits, and as a young man with artistic dreams, painted while listening to her music. Now, as a middle-aged artistic director at Blackfriars, he tried contacting Melanie through her website in spring 2010, never hearing back.

Then one day, he opened up the blog on her site and saw that Melanie had written that this would be her last entry for a while. He read about Schekeryk’s death, closed the computer and had himself a good cry.

The play Haldoupis had in mind now had a focus: a love story. He renewed his efforts to contact Melanie, finally tracking down her oldest daughter, who agreed to approach her mother about the idea. After a few more months, Melanie called. The collaboration was under way.

Schekeryk, an immigrant who fled the Soviet-dominated Ukraine as a child with his family, met Melanie in 1969. He became her producer, her manager and then her husband. She was his only client for the next 45 years. “His entire motivation,” Melanie says, “was to keep the creation going.”

Just as he was doing when he was talking to that clerk at the phone counter.

A young, slim, blonde woman walks by. She is Mandy Hassett, who will play the young Melanie. And also Melanie in her 60s, when the play circles back to the death of her husband. This was a conceptual staging issue that Haldoupis couldn’t solve until the solution came one night, almost as though had been whispered in his ear, and he awakened with the sudden thought that Melanie didn’t have to age at all. This was how Schekeryk always saw her, Haldoupis reasoned, and inserted a line in a play in which young Melanie is asked, “How is it you’re not getting any older?”

“When Jack told me that idea,” Melanie says, “I said to him, ‘Well, that’s how Peter always saw me in his eyes.’ ”

Melanie was at the first reading of the play. “Seeing someone who was going to play her husband speak the words, it was a really powerful evening for her,” Haldoupis says. “The actors who I brought in to read, they didn’t know the show was going to be such an emotional wallop. I think they thought they were just going to come in and sing some songs with Melanie. I think they thought the play itself was going to be a train wreck.”

The day after Schekeryk’s death, the Best Buy salesman met with Melanie. They hugged. “We were sobbing,” she says. “He said, ‘He loved you so much, all he could talk about was you.’ ”

“Sometimes you don’t know there’s a story,” Melanie says, “until it has an end.”

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Why do scientists hate Santa?

Watkins & the Rapiers at The Little.

An appearance by Watkins & the Rapiers this time of year is always preceded by the Rochester band’s reputation: The audience is in for two hours of a Dr. Demento Christmas.

And once again, civil society is bracing itself for Watkins’ annual “The Big Little Christmas Show,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at The Little Theatre No. 1. With about 300 seats, it’s the largest of the artsy venue’s five theaters.

That’s a big step up from the band’s usual venue, the intimate Little Café. And last Monday’s show at the café was a reminder that, with Watkins & the Rapiers, the joke’s on us.

Appearances, as the old saying goes, can be deceiving. This time of year, the audience must look beyond the band’s couture of choice, garish sweaters, to find the true meaning of Rapier Christmas. Beyond Scott Regan’s sweater loudly proclaimed “Take Me Gnome Tonight,” with a cartoon image of a gnome holding a beer mug in each hand. It probably doesn’t take much to get one of those little fellas drunk. Gnomes, I mean.

And the audience at Wednesday’s show must look deeply into the short films, featuring the band members, that will be projected on the screen behind them. While I voiced the narration for one of the films (it is a letter supposedly written by a soldier in the American Civil War), I have yet to see what the band has created. But if the shorts of Watkins Christmases past holds true, these visuals will be a mix of humor and heartfelt Christmas sentiment.

Well, mostly humor. Watkins & the Rapiers is generally not a chorus of Hallmark cards. Its signature sound is sardonic, warped humor. Which is the season at its best. As Kerry Regan recalled during Monday’s show, Philadelphia Eagles fans during the 1968 NFL season, sick of their team’s losing ways, booed a halftime appearance by Santa Claus. And threw snowballs at him.

Tapping into that same malevolent keg is a Watkins fan favorite, and typical of the band’s mindset, “I’ll Be Drunk For Christmas.” On that one, the Regan boys, Scott and Kerry, and fellow guitarist Steve Piper, swap lyrics like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Including a line about the mischievous disruption of a tiny decorative display depicting Santa and his deer-driven sleigh, with the figures rudely re-arranged as “reindeers having sex.”

Who hasn’t done that with Grandma’s favorite Christmas tchotchkes?

Watkins & the Rapiers sift through its Christmas catalog with electric and acoustic guitars, drums, chimes, electric bass, mandolin, trombone, clarinet, electric keyboard, accordion, and a smattering of Christmas lights. Six of the seven band members write the songs. Only drummer Marty York does not write. But York’s  day job is manufacturing dental implants. And as I have an example of his work in my smile, he gets a pass. Plus, during the Christmas season, York’s drumsticks are striped red and white, like candy canes.

Irreverence being in the band’s bones, there is a gentle prodding of religious themes, yet tempered with a respectful fear of God’s reputation for irritable retribution (hurricanes, earthquakes, famine and locusts). And yes, a Ukrainian flag did appear as a Christmas tree decoration in one of the songs introduced last year. But that’s a line that remains relevant today, as Kerry Regan sadly noted. Wars don’t go away with the flip of a calendar page.

It’s all balanced by the loopy musicality of Tom Whitmore’s “Season of Joy,” a tribute to post-party cleanup with Joy dishwashing soap.

Watkins & the Rapiers has written five new songs for this season. I asked Whitmore how many Christmas songs it now has in its arsenal. “One-hundred and seven,” he said, although a slight hesitation in his voice suggested a little uncertainty. Precision aside, the band has certainly written and rehearsed more than 100 Christmas songs, which it believes is a world record.

No band or artist has disputed that claim. What band or artist would not want to command such mastery of its craft? A singlemindedness that remains undistracted by … Easter songs?

Science does not escape the Watkins war on Christmas. In one of his songs, Rick McRae wonders, how much time does Santa spend at each good kid’s house? And McRae does the math. It’s impossible, he concludes, to travel the world on a sleigh, propelled by reindeer, stopping at every house, in a single night.

Yet in the chorus, McRae poses another, more significant, question. “Why do scientists hate Santa?” And therein lies the suspension of disbelief that carries the season. Such scientific calculations, McRae sings, “take the magic away.”

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I’ve run out of excuses

It’s over. And now it can be confessed. I am a fraud. For decades, I’ve been writing about the arts, while never creating much of any arts myself. No music. Or oil paintings. Or marvelously clever bird houses. Or even provocative graffiti sketches on the walls of public restrooms. Just words, words, words. That’s all I did. The world is overflowing with words. Too many of them. Watch cable news, and you’ll see.

Enough, already. So I retired last week. There was a big party at Abilene Bar & Lounge. With people I had worked alongside just days earlier, and people I hadn’t seen in years. People who had previously been simply sources on the phone, and now I could connect to a face. And many of my favorite musicians playing all night long. Phil Marshall, and his raging version of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” A serious guitar player, who many years ago introduced me to the joy of vintage cocktail music.

I listened to each musician’s music, even as I tried to engage everyone in conversation; there was not enough time or breaks between songs to really do it right. And I nearly fell off my bar stool when I spotted my long, long, longtime friend, Mike, making his way through the crowd.  A relationship that goes back to our high school days. He’d driven from Alexandria, Va., to be a part of this.

Eager to celebrate my departure, friends gave me bottles of bourbon and favorite wines, re-christened “The Critical Mass,” with new labels featuring a caricature of me (fairly accurate). Along with other cool stuff like a peace-sign key ring, which I immediately put to use.

At age 66, I’ve never before owned a respectable key ring.

Lots of WXXI and CITY Magazine swag, including travel mugs, a baseball cap and a Lawrence Welk holiday DVD. Promises of future dinners. And my final story, a career retrospective, nicely framed and preserved behind glass, like an extinct bird.

Shot glasses of Jamison’s whiskey magically appeared in front of me.

I was thinking: I should retire more often.

And yet, “retire.” That’s the wrong word.

Recalibrate, that’s the word I’m looking for.

I’ve done it before.

Phil Marshall and John Kelley jamming at the retirement gig.

Here’s a biographical bit that I don’t often share: I began this journalism journey as a sportswriter. So yeah, I’ve seen Pete Rose naked. After a decade of that, I moved on. To writing about music. One of my first interviews was with Stan Ridgway, who’d had an MTV hit a few years earlier, in 1982, with “Mexican Radio.” Kind of an offbeat song: “I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbecued iguana,” he sang, accompanied by an image of an iguana – or a questionable representation of one – roasting on a spit over a fire. I went to Ridgway’s show at the old Rochester music club, Red Creek, and gave him a copy of my story. He was genuinely excited about showing it to his mother.

I hope a lot of the people that I wrote about over the years showed my words to their own mothers.

Times change. No one watches MTV anymore. I won’t be reporting on the arts anymore. But music will continue to be a focus of my life. Here’s Suzi Willpower at the party, blowing away the crowd…

 

Last weekend, I stopped by Record Archive. I’ll always be grateful to the Archive, and co-owners Alayna Alderman and Richard Storms, for hiring me for a few months after I was laid off by the local newspaper. It filled a void, until our public radio station, WXXI, and CITY Magazine, picked me up off the junk pile and squeezed a few more years out of my carcass.

While at the Archive, I also grabbed the new CD by The Third Mind. A super group that includes a favorite singer, Jesse Sykes, and a favorite guitarist, Dave Alvin. It is glorious psychedelic rock, one of the best things I’ve heard in a while. I also found an old Thelonious Monk vinyl album from Italy; I’ll bet he never saw a penny from it. And, an impulse buy: Jungle Feast, a debut album by something, or someone, going by the name Exotico Paradisio. A 2020 re-creation of that old cocktail music that Marshall first introduced me to, with exotic instruments accompanied by screaming birds and monkeys.

Then I swung by a bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Little Book of Aliens, by a University of Rochester astronomy professor, Adam Frank. In the book’s introduction, he promises to explore the beer-fueled debate (that’s how he frames it) on the minds of his fellow astronomers: Are we alone?

To further explore that question, I also picked up investigative journalist Garrett M. Graff’s UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There. Frank’s book didn’t bother with such a weighty subtitle, but both should work together to answer questions that have intrigued me for much of my life.

Martha, Jennifer and Spevak.

So there you have it. Recalibration, or whatever you want to call it, offers the opportunity to casually investigate my odd interests. Cryptozoology, that’s one. The Loch Ness Monster. And Bigfoot. The history of the Flat Earth. For all of these pursuits, I don’t take the position of “prove they exist.” I prefer, “Prove they don’t exist.” It’s much more exciting that way.

And I’ll take on one more re-recalibration. Write. Two bouts of COVID over the last couple of years, and a general world weariness, led to me drifting away from The Critical Mass. I’ll start plugging away again. Right now.

I’ve had one book published, 22 Minutes: The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island: A Lifetime Survival Story. See, Garrett M. Graff isn’t the only writer who needs two colons for his subtitles. Now it’s time to hit the accelerator pedal on the word processor. I have 2½ book manuscripts in the works, both non-fiction and fiction.

So, write. With little else to occupy me, I have no excuses.

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