SAFETY HARBOR – When singer-songwriter Melanie was booked to perform at the Woodstock music festival in 1969, she “pictured a pastoral scene with people on picnic blankets,” she said. “All ages, all kinds of people, all colors, a gathering of humanity.”
She told promoters, “That sounds like me. Put me on the bill.”
Of course, in reality, Woodstock wound up being nothing like the festival she signed up for, she said. Though organizers expected about 100,000 concertgoers, it’s estimated that more than 500,000 people attended the festival at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, the weekend of Aug. 15-17, 1969. Thousands more than that clamored to get to the concert just to be turned away by police or to get stuck in traffic.
A pivotal moment in music history, Woodstock was headlined by many of the era’s heavy hitters (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) as well as up-and-coming musicians, including Melanie.
Decades later, as the iconic music festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the former Safety Harbor resident reflects on her place in music history and celebrates Woodstock — and her 72nd birthday — with an intimate concert Friday, Jan. 25, at the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, 706 2nd St. N.
After booking Woodstock, Melanie, who hadn’t yet recorded her hit “Brand New Key,” left for England. Her career blossomed overseas, where she worked on a film score (in a studio just down the hall from where a young Rolling Stones were recording) and performed at venues throughout Europe. Things were going so well for her that she nearly didn’t make it back to New York for the festival.
“A lot of my career started happening in Europe,” she said. “There was an industry buzz. The public hadn’t really heard me, but in the industry, it was, ‘Melanie is gonna be the new thing.’ It seemed like (England) is where I was gonna be. So, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t go to this thing (Woodstock).”
Ultimately, though, she and her husband/manager Peter Schekeryk decided she would fly back to the United States for the festival and he would stay behind in England. When she landed, her mother picked her up and the pair drove up to Woodstock.
“As we were driving, we hit some traffic, and that’s when I realized this thing was going to be bigger than I’m picturing,” Melanie said.
When she arrived at the hotel for festival performers, she ran into Janis Joplin in the lobby. She was surprised to casually run into the famous singer. Melanie was just 22 years old at the time and “had never met a famous person,” she said.
She added, “Except Rod Stewart who (was in Small Faces at the time) and wasn’t even Rod Stewart, yet, and Bruce Springsteen, but he wasn’t Bruce Springsteen, yet.”
When a helicopter arrived to take her from the hotel to the field where the festival was held, she was separated from her mother. As the helicopter got closer to the festival site, she saw the crowd for the first time.
“When I got to the field, I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I had never performed for more than 500 people in my life.”
Sitar player Richie Havens was on stage when she landed and she was escorted to “a little tent with a dirt floor and a box,” she said. “And that’s where I spent the day.”
Melanie was accompanied by other lesser-known musicians, “the little people,” she said, including folkie Tim Hardin. While waiting, as it rained on and off, she “developed a deep bronchial cough.”
Folk icon Joan Baez, who was hanging out nearby “in the upper echelon” tent heard her cough, and sent over an assistant, “a little hippie girl,” with tea, lemon and honey.
The girl told Melanie, “Joan heard you coughing and thought you might like this.”
Melanie was star struck by the offering.
She said, “I thought, ‘For me? Joan? Joan Baez? My idol?”
She waited for hours in that tiny tent. With each minute, her stage fright grew.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I was so afraid that I was at the point where I was thinking, ‘this is where you end your life. This is where it’s over.’”
Without her mother or husband, she felt alone while waiting for her performance time.
“There was no one to answer me when I wondered what should I sing, what should I do,” Melanie said. “There was no one. I was in my own terrified head space and it got worse and worse and worse.”
She was so scared of performing in front of such a large crowd, unlike one she had ever seen, that she disassociated during her performance.
Right before she took the stage, it started to rain again. Emcee Wavy Gravy made an announcement that candles were being passed out and spectators should light them to ward off the rain. The sea of candlelight in front of her brought Melanie back to reality.
“I left my body because of that fear,” she said. “I left my body and watched myself ascend that stage on that wooden plank and I was hovering over my right shoulder and everything was silent. I was not in my body. I saw myself sit down and, at some point, I came back and started singing ‘Beautiful People’ with the image of these candles flickering. It wasn’t just a gig, it was something else, something really magical.”
She added, “That’s the uniqueness of my performance at Woodstock. I had an epiphany in front of 500,000 people. Whether they know it or not, 500,000 people saw someone leave their body that night.”
And, no, drugs were not involved, she said. Her experience was purely a reaction to fear.
“When I think back on it, I was probably the only person at Woodstock that wasn’t stoned,” Melanie said.
After Woodstock, within 24 hours of arriving at the festival, her career trajectory had changed completely.
“I walked on stage a fairly known person and walked off the stage a celebrity. The very next day, I was on panel discussions with anthropologists discussing the social significance (of Woodstock,)” she said. “I had never been on television before. I was so mortified. But nothing compared to the fear when I was on stage, when I had that out-of-body experience. I was never as afraid ever, ever again.”
Inspired by her experience at the historic festival, she wrote “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” which sold more than a million copies in 1970. In 1972, she was named Billboard’s top female vocalist.
She’s written and performed music ever since, in recent years, mostly with her son, Beau. At times, though, she was affected by the stigma of being a Woodstock performer. For a couple of decades, “it was not cool to be a Woodstock person,” she said. “Then it became cool again, when all the people from that period got older.”
Melanie also found herself at odds with many record executives that wanted to change her musical and personal style.
“Every record label wanted to sign me, but they wanted me to be the ‘80s and ‘90s woman and put down the guitar,” she said. “The guitar was definitely too ‘60s for them.”
Really, she said, “they wanted to use the popularity of my name with hit factory type songs.” She couldn’t stomach this idea, and in what would be “an expensive decision,” she turned them all down, focusing, instead, on smaller labels and releasing the music she wanted.
The Queens native has lived all around the country – the world even – with her husband and children. Though she currently calls Nashville home, she spent a number of years in Safety Harbor.
She wanted to raise her children “in a nice place,” she said. “I didn’t want to live in New York and I hated (Los Angeles). I couldn’t even think about living in L.A. Peter (my husband) said, ‘How about Florida? It will be more quiet and maybe that’s a good idea.’ So we moved to Florida. When we lived (in Safety Harbor) it was just nothing. A street with a plumbing and toilet store, Rocco’s (Hair Studio), a pizza place, that was it. There wasn’t even a coffeehouse.”
A longtime vegetarian, she even owned and operated a “beautiful” restaurant in Tarpon Springs, called Melanie’s, of course, though if she had to do it again, she’d name it Roadburn Café, she said.
“It was pretty short-lived,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. I love to cook and have all these ideas for recipes. But I didn’t know what I was doing running a restaurant.”
She and her son intend to return to the Tampa Bay area and have been house hunting off and on. Her husband passed away in 2010 and the idea of moving without him “is a little overwhelming,” she said. “He always handled those kinds of things.”
As the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches, the Jan. 25 event in Safety Harbor is her first event this year that acknowledges the festival’s milestone. She’ll play a mix of new songs and old favorites, and also take audience requests, she said.
It feels strange to think that Woodstock was 50 years ago, she added.
“Sometimes it feels like it was just a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “But I have a good sense of (the time that’s passed). But it’s so weird because it seems like, oh, I’m an historic figure. I’m not just Melanie. I’m Melanie of Woodstock.”
She also isn’t always fond of celebrating anniversaries like this.
“I think saying it’s been 50 years is just giving it a name, just having those numbers attached,” she said. “But what does 50 years really feel like? ... I hate the importance we place on the numbers. I would like to have a 52nd anniversary of Woodstock."