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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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Eddie Van Halen, Justin Townes Earle, and the rough edges

Eddie Van Halen.

It’s unwise to judge someone on the basis of a 30-minute phone call. Over the course of my long career, I conservatively estimate that I’ve done about 4,000 phone interviews with musicians. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of those conversations left me feeling like I’d been talking to a real jerk. And that total would include two interviews each with Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons.

One of the better ones was Eddie Van Halen.

This was maybe 15 or 20 years ago. He was relaxed, funny, eager to talk, a regular guy. Like someone you’d hang with. And he gave me one of my all-time favorite stories from an interview.

As Van Halen told it, he and a few other folks, including his then-wife Valerie Bertinelli, had rented an Atlantic Ocean beach cottage owned by the theater and film-score composer Marvin Hamlisch. Over the course of a month or two, they were partying pretty heavily. And as they were getting ready to move on, Van Halen said he was worried about the condition of the grand piano in the living room. They’d been using it as a table for their drinks over the course of many evenings. Now the instrument’s lid was marred by dozens of cocktail-glass rings.

Consumed by guilt, Van Halen hired a woodworker to come out to the house, to sand and re-finish the piano lid. Hamlisch never knew.

That’s what I remembered of Eddie Van Halen when I heard on Monday that he had died of cancer at age 65. Not the amazing electric guitar solos, or the hit songs. I thought about a millionaire musician fretting over having wrecked the finish on Marvin Hamlisch’s piano. In the grand universe of careless acts, maybe not such a big deal. But, for the duration of that half-hour conversation, Van Halen was a man with a conscience, he was a decent guy.

Musicians, they give you the straight talk. Sometimes it’s funny. A little self-deprecating.

And sometimes, it’s a little scary. Musicians are the hurricane bells of society. Ringing plaintively, and with increasing urgency, as the winds escalate.

That wasn’t in the forecast when I was in Austin, Texas, probably around 2008 or so, for the South by Southwest Music Conference. It was a beautiful March afternoon. The best time to be in Austin. I was in an alley behind a funky art gallery called the Yard Dog. Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based label of mostly alt-country hellbellies, was putting on a showcase of its musicians. They each got 30-minute sets. Maybe 45 minutes, if they were already a proven cool commodity, like The Waco Brothers.

People were drifting around the alley, slipping around the small stage, sipping beer from plastic cups, examining each others’ tattoos. A few dogs wandered in and out. I was standing in front of the stage waiting for the next act. I greatly admire Steve Earle, and someone suggested I might want to be there, at that moment, to check out Earle’s kid. Justin Townes Earle.

Standing next to me was a tall guy in a sharp-looking, powder blue, western-cut suit. A lot of these rockabilly types go all out with the vintage clothing, thick-framed Buddy Holly eyeglasses and carefully retro hairstyles. I don’t recall if I said anything to the guy, we were just nursing our beers and waiting. Then the day’s emcee walked onstage and gave the usual “Let’s have a big hand for Justin Townes Earle” intro. And the guy in the powder-blue suit and Buddy Holly glasses stepped up onto the stage.

So now I was a fan of both Earles.

Justin Townes Earle.

The conventional wisdom suggests that Justin was fruit that didn’t fall far from the tree. That could be true, but it depends on what landscape you’re looking at.

In some ways, they seemed such opposites. Steve Earle, in his Leo Tolstoy beard and flannel shirts. Justin Townes Earle, a clothes horse who GQ magazine would go on to name one of the “25 most stylish men in the world.”

But the similarities were a little alarming. Both had gone through periods of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as civil disobedience. Justin was 12 when he started using drugs and, as best as I could determine, he’d survived five overdoses by the time he was 21, and had been in rehab 13 times. He ended up in an Indianapolis jail in 2010 after an obscenity-fueled show ended in a brawl with the club owner and damage to some property.

Rewarding domestic partnerships did not seem to be a specialty of either man. Steve Earle – he’s been married seven or eight times to date – had left Mrs. Earle No. 3 by the time Justin was 2 years old, so the influence was perhaps negligible. Except as song fodder. “Absent father, now he never offers even a dollar,” is how Justin put it in “Single Mother,” one of those tortured compositions that seems to pour so naturally out of the Earle family songbook. “He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he’s forfeited the rights to his own now.”

Still, there was a relationship, although it sounded more professional than personal. Justin played guitar in his father’s band for a while, and they appeared together in an episode of HBO’s “Treme.”

Justin had been releasing some excellent albums by the time he was booked for a show at Rochester’s Water Street Music Hall in 2014. I set up an interview and did the usual research that journalists do these days, checking out his Twitter account. I saw that Earle was fuming over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.

When I got Earle on the phone, I asked him about it.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where the police liked to harass us, they had definite reason to be scared,” he said. Earle figured some of them were returning vets whose thank-you for their patriotism was Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As Earle watched the Ferguson news, the conflict that he witnessed while growing up in Nashville still resonated.

“There was a lot of separation between races there, Black and white,” he told me. “People who support the police, who don’t say anything, they’re from all-white suburbs. They didn’t go to school with Black people. If they did, it was like a token thing. The police are so disrespectful to common people now. I’ve been beaten up by cops, a lot my friends were severely injured by cops. We’re all Americans. This militarized America, this killing of unarmed Americans is absolutely out of this world to me.”

Remember, this conversation took place six years ago. Nothing’s changed. You could substitute a dozen or two names in place of Michael Brown. A dozen or two towns for Ferguson.

It’s a hard world that fuels hard-times troubadours like Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle. Steve’s songs were frequently more political. But like his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, the characters in Justin’s songs were often relationship train wrecks you can’t turn away from.

Now I was talking to Justin about that latest album, “Single Mothers.”

“A lot of the songs on that album were the result of a rough time the past couple of years,” he said. “I had a really nasty breakup with a really nasty person, the kind of person who literally went around to my friends and spread a lot of bullshit.”

Earle was 32 years old by then, his soul was up for grabs, and he talked like he knew it. “I realized I can’t be the guy I was trying to be,” he said. “Which wasn’t to say I was that bad a guy. I was messy as hell, I ate dinner at 2 a.m.

“A lot has changed.”

What?

“I wasn’t doing drugs then. I’ve always smoked reefer, but I was clean. I guess it was my relationship with women. I had lost complete faith in that idea. That I could sustain a positive relationship.”

Earle’s response was classic American. Road trip. Run away.

“I took a trip to the mountains,” he said. Park City, Utah. “Disneyland for adults. I met a woman there that is amazing. I always wanted girlfriends from outside of my world. I always had a lot of faith in women like that, due to my mother.”

Sober since that dust-up and night in jail after the Indianapolis show, and the month of rehab that followed, he married that woman he met in the shadow of the Utah mountains. His first marriage. I counted it out on my fingers; he was still six behind dad. She was tattooed and tall, like Earle, but otherwise an outsider from his world.

Sometimes you just need to get away.

“Any environment will get ugly on you after a while,” he said. “When I went out West, I could breathe mountain air, see different scenery. I felt the same kind of wonderment as the first time I set foot in Manhattan and San Francisco. Driving out there, I actually saw the purple mountains majesty and the golden waves of grain. I’ve never been a pro-American person. But for the first time, I felt the beauty.”

I’ve gotta admit, that was another one of my favorite interviews. A lot different than Eddie Van Halen. Darker, for sure. But I liked the guy, and the words rang true.

But that hurricane bell can stay silent for only so long. Musicians hear it ringing for society, and they write about it. Or it’s a personal warning for a guy who doesn’t hear it. Maybe he chooses to not hear it. Maybe he hears it, and writes about it.

In August of this year, Justin Townes Earle died. He was 38. No official cause of death has been publicly announced, but the police were investigating it as a drug overdose.

Steve Earle says he’s going to record an album of his son’s music.

Sometimes you can sand down the rough edges. Throw on a nice, new finish. But you can’t always help what’s underneath.

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