Dory Previn, An Appreciation by Kenyon Gordon

The following appreciation article was written by a good friend of mine, Kenyon Gordon, who you might remember wrote a similar article on the death of Amy Winehouse last year.  Mr. Gordon has lived a very interesting life and is full of unique opinions about music that I'm always excited to share on here.  This article is about the legacy of singer/songwriter Dory Previn who passed away last month at age 86.  Previn's music has had a profound influence on Mr. Gordon's life and he considers her his favorite artist of all time.  When he handed me this hand-written, ten-page essay on Previn I knew it had to be something special and it definitely is.  So while this article is more extensive than just about anything we've ever posted on Oh So Fresh, it is very much worth your time to read it. Through Kenyon I've come to appreciate the beautiful, powerful music of Dory Previn and I can definitely see why he is so in love with it.  After reading this, I hope that you will appreciate her music as well.

One Sunday, in the early Seventies, I came across an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review, which was so mawkish, so heavy-handed and so artlessly blunt, that it leapt out against the surrounding sophisticated copy.  It advertised a book of auto-biographical lyrics, and the accompanying photo showed a hard-faced woman staring rather threateningly at the camera.  The ad copy mentioned, "her tragic divorce," "her nervous break-down," and "the sad death of her father."  The book was On My Way To Where by Dory Previn.  It had all the hallmarks of a vanity production, although I noticed that it had been released by McCalls, at that time a reputable publisher.

So awful was the advertisement that a week later, when the subject of the New York Times came up in conversation, a friend leapt in with, "Speaking of The New York Times ...", and I knew excactly what he was going to say.  We both agreed that the advertisement served more as a warning than an invitation to potential readers.  

A week or so later, a friend told me she had just bought three albums.  Since she operated on a somewhat limited budget, I expressed surprise and asked whose.  When she told me, I suppose I was baffled.  Since my friend was out of town and I had keys to her apartment, I found myself there one night, casually flipping through her record collection.  I came across Ms. Previn's albums--again I was surprised by the fact major labels were involved.  (MediaArts and United Artists).  An air of amateurishness seemed to hang about her. I noticed a song entitled "The New Enzyme Detergent Demise of Ali McGraw", and wondered what was going on here.  I put the record on.

"The New Enzyme Detergent Demise of Ali McGraw":

By the third number, I was transfixed.  Here was a brilliant mind working a hitherto un-mined vein: a person's inner landcape.

Remeber, this was the early Seventies; such troubadours as then existed spoke only socially, every problem was exteriorized.  Even among the general public, people tended to be guarded in all but their opinions.  The hallmarks of her work were sincerity, clarity and even a certain sentimentality--things totally lacking in the murky and portentous work of Dylan and Cohen, and the last of which had been totally absent from popular music since the turn of the century.

Artists protested, but it had not occurred to them that the human condition might, itself, be something worthy of delineation.  There was a smug and aggressive aridity in the air which was almost Maoist.  I could find no mirror of foothold in the culture.  All of this was about to change when Ms. Previn kicked open the door to the self.  After her came the deluge; and we have her to thank--and to blame--for the tear-soaked talkshows of today, for the "Me Decade" and for A Chorus Line.

By the time the evening was over, and I had peeled myself off the floor, I knew two things: I had encountered a great writer, I also knew I wanted to meet her.  I later found out that this was a common reaction for those upon first encountering her work.  John Lennon, Anais Nin, and one of the Apolo 11 astronauts, all expressed a desire to meet her; and all, eventually, did.

I was right about the amateurishness, however.  The Spanish have a saying: "Bad is closer to good than it is to mediocre," and we are used to saying that something is so bad it is almost good.  Ms. Previn's work was so good it was almost bad.  A friend of mine, who's opinion I respected, dismissed her writing as doggerel, and I must admit it takes some combination of naivety and nerve to begin a song with the lines: "I'm always loving someone/ More than he loves me."

"I Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile":

But the baldness, as well as the honestly imperfect voice, were part of the beauty.  Certain people didn't get it.  On the other hand, The Denver Post proclaimed her, "The greatest female poet America has yet produced--including Emily Dickinson."  (I'd have kicked out the males as well).

Then, there was the astonishing backstory, which I soon learned: A demure and obscure Beverly Hills housewife, married to a world-famous composer and conductor, finds herself, in her forties, traded in for a more recent model, a beautiful young movie star, who is a friend of her's (Mia Farrow).  She boards a plane to London, in an attempt to save her marriage.  While the plane is taxiing to the runway, she begins screaming and ripping at her clothes.  She is removed and placed in a mad house (with which environs she is previously familiar).  Therein, she is encouraged to write down her feelings.  Since her only writing experience consists of writing occasional lyrics for cartoons and bad movies, her writing takes this form.

At loose ends after her release, she attempts to interest various singers in the resulting work (to which she has added melody, having never previously composed).  No artist is interested, finding the work too personal or embarrassing.  She decides that she will release the songs herself, and uses her demo recording, slightly enhanced, as her first release.  Three years after being dragged off an airplane and being placed in confinement, she is standing center stage at Carnegie Hall, before an adoring, full-capacity crowd.  Has any life ever had a more dramatic turnaround?

And her work is embarrassing; embarrassment being the effect of unwelcome recognition.  It is also Shakespearean in its depth and concision.  I consider "The Talkative Woman and The Two-Star General" to be the best lyric written in the English language in my lifetime--at least, of which I am aware.

"The Talkative Woman and The Two-Star General":

"The Game" is so concise a statement of existential futility that Beckett is rendered, thereby, superfluous.  All of her words are weighted and every shadow falls in just the right place.  Singlehandedly, she forged the path our culture is still pursuing; the mind of a forty-odd-year-old Beverly Hills divorcee (where nervous breakdowns are as common as second cocktails) proved an unlikely Nazareth.  Kafka stated that the purpose of art was to take an axe to the frozen sea within us, and no one since Lizzie Borden has wielded an axe more effectively.

"The Game":

Understandably, she had only a cult following.  She was hard sell, and producer Nik Venet (who later became her lover) did the best possible job of doing so.  And if she was hard to sell, she was even harder to package.  When she appeared at The Bitter End, she was billed as "The Incredible Dory Previn!", as if she were a two-headed singing dwarf.  (Which in a certain spiritual sense, she was.)

There was only one way in which Ms. Previn's life did intersect with the times; she was, after all, a woman suddenly removed from male authority, finding her own voice.  There is not so great a distance between questioning paternity ("I Ain't His Child") and questioning Patriarchy itself.  Yet, her popularity among feminists was probably no greater than among other groups.  A record store salesman described her audience as consisting of: "black men, old women, teenagers, business types."  She cut across lines.

"I Ain't His Child":

In it's paltry and inaccurate obituary, The New York Times made use of the word "influential," but this is to understate the case!  She was the first person to use the term "inner-child," the first person to refer to a breakdown as a breakthrough, and the first person to put forward the theory that war is a form of menstrual envy.  Quite simply, if we do and say certain things today, it is because she did and said them, then.

In Bog-Trotter, one of two of her autobiographies, she told of how a friend discovered a stack of her albums in a film producer's office.  There had been films about the Hindenburg, the Hollywood Sign, a remake of King Kong, and about seven other films which subject matter seemed to originate from her work.  The producer admitted he was looking for ideas.

"Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign":

Having familiarity with her work myself, I had noticed the phenomenon.  For a brief moment, around 1973, she seemed to be driving the consciousness of society.  Her Carnegie Hall Concert that year marked her career's public peak.  The air was electric and when she bravely and beautifully sung about fucking with truck drivers on the floor, you could feel the taboos and social tyrannies tumbling.

"Angels and Devils the Following Day":

In a lifetime which has included Coney Island side-shows and Quentin Crisp, it is still the strangest act I have ever seen.  The Carnegie Hall dressing room was, at that time, one of the hardest places in New York, to which to gain admittance.  I had brought a tough friend with me, and, together, we strong-armed our way backstage.  I was however, so dumbstruck I could barely speak.

I met her on several other occasions, similarly, after concerts, and twice by accident, in the elevator of a Broadway agent's office building and in the fifth avenue branch of The New York Public Library.  Eventually, we came to a warm, nodding acquaintance.  (As she was spending little time in New York during this period, I must consider these later meetings providential.)

She was amazingly prolific and produced seven albums, two autobiographies, a Broadway musical, a screenplay and several film theme songs over the course of about 12 years.  In the late eighties, she remarried and lived, thereafter, in semi-retirement.

She died on Valentine's Day, 2012--a date which would have, and perhaps does, amuse her.

Yet, there is a thing I regret.  On the occasion of her Carnegie Hall concert, as I forced my way backstage, I noticed a lipstick-stained paper cup, which she had placed on the edge of the stage.  I thought to take it, drink its remaining contents, fold it and place it in my jacket pocket; but, I suppressed the the impulse as juvenile and fannish.

Ms. Previn, basically, created a conceptual musical out of her life.  Thus, the movie remains to be made, as I'm sure it will be.  Eventually, when things are assessed, Ms. Previn will be recognized for what she was; a very great artist and one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.  Her effect upon the culture was immense and remains incalculable.  Without realizing it, we live, and our artists create, in a post-Previn society.

And I should have taken that cup.


Connect: Kenyon's Facebook


Wonderful insight to an artist's life who only months before her death, had i been introduced to her work! I had no idea she was such an influential poet. Fantastic writing! The inclusion of her songs throughout created such an excellent experience!

It was all Kenyon, I just typed it up and found the songs on youtube. He's a very talented man and had a lot of admiration for Dory Previn.

Excellent. I hadn't heard of Dory Previn until I met Kenyon and he played me one of her CDs and I decided I really liked her too. I feel richer in life for that.

What a wonderfully written article. Easy to see that you admired her very much. You are a marvelous writer!

Exquisite writing! Not only does it shine light on a relatively obscure yet influential artist, it also has a deeper inlook on her work and what it represented. As a commenter before me pointed out, the inclusion of the videos added a nice touch.

Tragic that more people didn't get to experience her before her death.

Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More