The Authentic Hippie Chick

Originally posted December 10, 2007

I recall reading in an edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide an assessment of the Mamas & the Papas as a collection of late Sixties archetypes that worked in tandem with the group members’ undeniable talent. The reviewer, Paul Evans, said Michelle Phillips’ visual slot was a the “mistily gorgeous hippie chick.”

That’s true, I guess, but to those of us listeners and observers in the late 1960s and early 1970s who were fascinated by such creatures, the real hippie chick was Melanie. As good as the Mamas & the Papas were – and they were mighty good, indeed – their work often seemed to be all too carefully produced and packaged, a triumph of craft over creativity, and the group’s image seemed to be carefully crafted as well. Melanie, on the other hand, seemed a lot more free in her music, and she was as gorgeous in her dark way as was the blonde Michelle.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Mamas & the Papas’ music. It holds up well after forty years. But it always seemed – and still does, even as I sing along – to be carefully calculated. Maybe that’s why my favorite moment in their music is Denny Doherty’s errant entrance after the instrumental bridge in “I Saw Her Again,” an unplanned moment that worked so well that the group left the error intact.

Melanie, who came out of Queens, New York, in 1969, about two years after the Mamas & the Papas’ moment had ended, no doubt put as much care into her music and her recordings as did the California quartet, but the overall sense I got from her music was that of an artist a little more relaxed and a lot more experimental. And the content of her music was closer to the hippie ethos, it seemed to me at the time and still does today, than was the product of the Mamas & the Papas.

The most enduring of Melanie’s work, of course, is the result of her performing at Woodstock on August 16, 1969. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” a gospel-inflected 1970 single that reached No. 6, was written as a tribute to the Woodstock audience and was recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (fresh from their own Top 40 hit, “Oh Happy Day” in 1969). The single became the centerpiece of Melanie’s third album, Candles In The Rain. (The album’s cover, showing a portrait of the twenty-three-year-old singer smiling beatifically while strumming her guitar in candlelight, says “gorgeous hippie chick” to me more than any picture I ever saw of Michelle Phillips!)

The album itself went to No. 17, and two more of Melanie’s albums reached the Top 40 as well, with Leftover Wine going to No. 33 in 1970 and Gather Me reaching No. 15 in 1971 (at least in part on the strength of “Brand New Key,” a single that spent three weeks at No. 1 as 1971 turned into 1972). All-Music Guide notes that Gather Me, released on Melanie’s own label, Neighborhood Records, may be her best album (and gives her props for using “Brand New Key” to sneak Freudian imagery into the Top 40). The follow-up album, Stoneground Words, according to AMG, is “a mature, intelligent and ambitious work, easily as good as most singer/songwriter fare of its time.” Despite that, Stoneground Words failed to reach the Top 40, and Melanie’s time in the spotlight was done.

(Melanie has never quit recording. The AMG discography shows consistent entries released by a wide variety of labels nearly to the present, with the most recent collection of new work being – from what I can tell – 2004’s Paled By Dimmer Light, which appears to be available only as a download. Her most recent work available on CD, it seems, is 2002’s Crazy Love.)

Although it may not be quite as realized a work as Gather Me or Stoneground Words, Melanie’s 1970 album Candles In The Rain remains, to me, the foundation of Melanie’s work. Along with “Lay Down,” the album featured the lovely “Leftover Wine,” nicely done covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” as well as the original version of “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma,” a song that the New Seekers took to No. 14 in the autumn of 1970.

I’ve included in the zip file the long version of “Lay Down” that was released by Buddah in 1972 on the anthology, Four Sides of Melanie.

Tracks:
Candles In The Rain
Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)
Carolina In My Mind
Citiest People
What Have They Done To My Song Ma
The Good Guys
Loving Baby Girl
Ruby Tuesday
Leftover Wine

Bonus Track
Lay Down (Candles In The Rain) [Long Version]

Melanie – Candles In The Rain [1970]

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