Thursday, January 25, 2024

She wowed audiences at the Canberra Theatre in 1976. Now, 48 years later, the final curtain falls for Melanie

Singer and songwriter Melanie in the early 1970s. Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

by Tony Magee

US folk singer Melanie, aka Melanie Safka has died.

Safka passed away on January 23 in Nashville. No cause of death was given.

Appearing in Canberra on March 24, 1976 at the Canberra Theatre, she performed a string of hits including Lay Down, Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma, Brand New Key, Ruby Tuesday, The Nickel Song and Ring The Living Bell.

Her Australian tour that year also included Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston, Newcastle, Perth and Sydney, with an extra performance due to demand being staged at Sydney Town Hall, March 25 1976, one day after her Canberra concert.

In 1995 Max Sharam covered Lay Down and made the song a hit again in Australia.

Born in New York City in 1947, Safka studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but it was her interest in performing at the folk clubs of Greenwich Village that would lead to her ultimate career path.

Rising to fame through her performance at the Woodstock music festival in the summer of 1969, she appeared as a relative unknown, following Ravi Shankar, who had just delighted the audience with his brilliant sitar playing.

It began to rain as she came on stage and her show looked as though it would be a performer's nightmare. 

But as she sang, accompanying herself on guitar, lights appeared in the audience as people responded by holding lighted candles above their heads.

This was the inspiration for her song Candles in the Rain (aka Lay Down), a gospel infused collaboration with the Edwin Hawkins Singers and one of her biggest successes. It also became one of the theme songs of Woodstock. 

Candles lighting up became a trademark of her shows for about a year after that. “That song became so connected with my concerts that my shows were getting banned because fire departments wouldn’t approve them,” she said.

It was to be 38 years before Melanie would grace our shores again. 

Preparing for her 2014 Australian tour she said: "Since we started talking about coming back ‘Down Under' I've been looking at a photo of my two daughters and me with a koala that was taken last time we were there.

"I remember clearly how beautiful the country was and how warm and welcoming you Aussies are. My son and guitarist, Beau Jarred, was not born then but he'll be with me this time and, hopefully, we'll get the opportunity of meeting another koala."

Alas, Canberra was not on her itinerary that time.

Melanie later in her career. Photo: Yui Mok, PA Archive

Safka had been in the studio earlier this month working on three new recording projects: 

A record of cover songs, "Second Hand Smoke", for the Cleopatra label. It would have been her 32nd album. Tracks already recorded include Nine Inch Nails' Hurt, Radiohead’s Creep, the Moody Blues’ Nights In White Satin, Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence and David Bowie’s Everyone Says Hi.

Also, a tribute album celebrating the music of Morrissey. Safka had only recorded one track for that so far - Ouija Board, Ouija Board.

And finally, the re-issuing of her entire recorded music catalogue since 1971 (not including songs recorded for the Buddah label in 1970 and ’71).

Only hours before her death, the singer-songwriter announced the re-issue of her 1984 live album, “One Night Only - The Eagle Mountain House”, as a limited edition 12 inch gold vinyl LP, a CD equivalent and streaming via Bandcamp. 

The offical release date is scheduled for February 16.

Her three children, Leilah, Jeordie, and Beau Jarred posted: “We ask that tonight [Jan. 24], at 10pm, each of you lights a candle in honour of Melanie. Raise, raise them high, high up again. Illuminate the darkness, and let us all be connected in remembrance of the extraordinary woman who was wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend to so very many people.”

Safka was an envoy for UNICEF and raised large amounts of money for that organisation through her concerts.

Melanie Safka was 76.

First published at Canberra City News, in a slightly edited format, January 25, 2024.