MOJO’s Andrew Male pays tribute to a truly unique songwriter who found inspiration from the voices in her head.
Looking back on the emotional over-investments, free-love profligacies and karmic withdrawals that took place out in Hollywood’s neon plains in the late 1960s it now seems inevitable that a crash was coming. Many were too bound up in their own private psychedelic reels to see it, but there was one harbinger of the nation’s collapse who had no choice but to look, and record.
Dory Previn, who has died at the age of 86, at her home in Southfield Massachusetts, was born in 1925 to strict New Jersey Irish Catholics, deeply affected by the religion’s strange union of guilt and devotion. Dory was caught in the push and pull between an alcoholic mother and a violent father, who - thanks to a gassing during the First World War - believed he was sterile and Dory was not his child. Although he doted on Dory - writing songs for her, putting her into talent contests - when another child came, dad flipped and held his family at gunpoint in their home for over a month.
An already delicate Dory left home, and worked as a lyricist for MGM before meeting fellow studio staffer André Previn whom she married in 1959. The couple worked together throughout the 1960s but following a nervous breakdown on a plane in 1965 (“Somebody in my seat is screaming”, she told the stewardess) Dory developed a dreamily detached song-style on such classics as Valley Of The Dolls and Come Saturday Morning. Then, in 1969, at the news that her friend, Mia Farrow, was pregnant with André Previn’s child, came a period of electro-shock treatment and gestalt therapy in which Dory was encouraged to write about her life. The result was 1970’s On My Way to Where, a collection of vaudeville noir sketches that included her Farrow character assassination, Beware Of Young Girls (“So young and vain…but I’m wise enough to say/She will leave him one thoughtless day”), Michael, Michael - about the scenester hunk who’s really a woman-hating heap of mother-love - and Twenty Mile Zone, which begins with Dory screaming, alone in her car and ends with us all screaming for release from the human zoo.
Whether writing as herself, or through one of the many voices she heard in her head, Previn’s sinister riverboat chansons revealed the pain, games, lies and loneliness behind the L.A. free love myth. 1971’s Mythical Kings And Iguanas was, perhaps, the peak point of Previn’s eerily confessional style containing the searingly honest Lemon Haired Ladies and The Lady With The Braid, both of which recount encounters between young men and single older women in chilling detail. Her third album, Reflections In A Mud Puddle was a concept album based upon her life with her father, and contained the astonishing Doppelganger, a Weillian Sympathy For The Devil in which the world’s evils are found to lurk in all of us.
After moving from United Artists to Warner Brothers in 1974, Previn’s style became more abstract and optimistic and both albums from that period - Dory Previn and We’re Children of Coincidence And Harpo Marx - are worth tracking down. But if you really want to experience the spooky intimacy of Dory at her best, check out the Carnegie Hall live double vinyl album she released in 1973. She stopped recording albums in the late 70s, but wrote two brilliant autobiographies, Midnight Baby and Bogtrotter and a one-woman play with songs entitled Schizo-phren. In 1984 she married actor and artist Joby Baker and continued to write but few tracks saw the light of day. In 2002 she released Planet Blue, a royalty-free eleven-minute montage of old and new material addressing the Gulf War and the destruction of the planet. Imagine what she could have done with a whole album on the ills of modern America. Despite the avowedly personal nature of her work, Previn’s songs stand as a valuable record of a nation’s crack up, from a writer who documented the events in black comic detail and sharp, terrible relief. She will be much missed.
I interviewed Dory over the phone at the end of 2007, keen to learn more about her songwriting style and why she stopped releasing albums. She was witty, skittish, charming and, perhaps to be expected, there were some voices in her head other than mine…
The songs you started writing at the end of the 1960s came out of psychotherapy. Why make them public?
Well it was not a pleasant experience [but] there are plenty of people who have been out of their minds and it’s a terrible thing to go through but if you come out of it without too many scars and you learn something from it then it was worth going through, especially if you were a writer who can share it with other people who say, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I went through!’
Did this new songwriting style develop out of the songs you were writing for the cinema and for the theatre in the 60s?
I didn’t always have [that ability], but midway in my career I began to write about people who aren’t myself, but who are of course because if you are writing out of yourself you are still writing about yourself.
You’ve said in the past that the voices in your head were writing the songs…
Well certain things surfaced, which I didn’t know were buried down there, things that I was not able to articulate [and] the voices began to teach me, and explain what I was going through, and that it wasn’t that unique, and then one day it ceased to be something that threatened me and became something whichcould teach us [about] things that we don’t want to face. The songs surprised me when they came out. I felt that there was another voice inside of me that was clammering to get out and if it happens with me then it must happen with many people.
Is that why your songs still have a power, because they resonate with people on a personal level?
That’s sweet and nice, but I think that they should just spread it around. They don’t have to give me credit. Let’s face it, we live in an insane world now. We’re all going to sound crazy because the people that rule us say things that, My God, if you really read them out loud you’d go ‘This is impossible! This is an insane world!’
You never totally removed yourself from that darker, insane side. A song like Doppelganger recognizes that we all have that potential for darkness within us.
Exactly! When that part of me began to come out, the truth came out. The other side of me was nourished in a sick way by my parents. They were as crazy as I was, both of them. They both died young. My sister, who was ten years younger than me, died young. How come? And then I realised, those voices released me. Absolutely. And that release saved me.
You were also writing explicitly about your own life. A song like Beware Of Young Girls is about Mia Farrow takingyour husband from you. Did you ever hear what either of them thought of your songs?
No, and I wasn’t interested, because I knew what the situation was. I mean people don’t set out to hurt you, I don’t think. Especially people that you’ve known for a while and I’ve always believed that situations [background noise] Are you listening to me? Can you hear that?
Yes, if you heard a whistling that was somebody in the MOJO office…
Well I just wanted to check that it wasn’t in my head. These voices are much more incisive than we are. And so when I try to avoid something it comes back to me, you know, the voice says ‘Re-examine that for a minute’ and I go Ok ok! and I find myself talking to that voice in my head again and it doesn’t hurt me. It’s not cruel, it’s helpful.
How aware were you in your creative peak that these songs were reaching other people? What kind of correspondence did you have from fans?
Very few. It’s as if people avoided them, because the people who needed it most, who needed to be contacted most, were the people who were afraid to bring it up. People who interviewed me would say, ‘Is it true you were in a mental hospital?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, but we don’t address it. A lot of people have been’. And at first it was terrifying and then it was something that began to be kinder to me. My voices were kinder to me than the people I knew. We live in such an insane world now ch, ch, ch…but I mean, like, I stuttered just now there with you, but at the same point I’m released. To own it, to own it. There’s an old saying ‘It starts with me’, and people say to me, ‘Well, what’s “it”?’ and I say, You figure that out, what is your ‘it’?
You were recording at the height of women’s liberation. Did you feel that you were singing more for women than for men?
No. I was singing for myself. Always for myself as it turned out, and that’s when I hear from women too, ‘My God I did that same thing, I thought nobody else felt like that’. I’d get these notes and calls from people going through what I went through and If I can help anybody I’m very happy because, Boy, I went all over trying to find information, to find anybody who would talk to me and help me with what was happening to me (laughs).
I suppose one question that been bugging me is, why did you stop releasing albums?
Hmm, no one’s ever asked me that before. No, seriously, they haven’t. I think perhaps, I’m going for what immediately occurred to me is I thought at that point I had said everything that I could say that needed to be said. There is a lot of stuff that is admitted [in my songs] and once you admit that, other people start admitting it. I see [my influence] in other people’s lyrics now and its so interesting to me and I think well, it hasn’t been a total loss.
Do you still write songs? Is the need to express yourself in that way something that is still with you?
It never leaves me, no. And I never leave it. Because I don’t wanna lose that.
These songs that you write, where do they go?
Well, I’m writing a book, and that’s where the lyrics go. I can’t say when it’s going to come out because it’s got to be polished. If it’s not, then I should be taken to task. ‘Not as good as the last album’. But I never let anything go. I’ve got unfinished things on my desk, in my bedroom as well as in my office. I never lose anything.
Will there be any more live dates?
I don’t know. Nobody has asked me. Somebody did ask me in England and uhm, it’s very strange because I went over and played some great magnificent hall and people were there in very elegant clothes and I was there in my own clothes, and your not gonna believe this but [the live gig] didn’t record. It’s gone.
If someone reads this interview and thinks it’d be great to put on a Dory Previn concert in London, would you be up for it?
Not in a big gold and silver place, no. I don’t need that. I’m up for playing any small places for people who can’t afford a lot of money.