From The Times
February 2, 2008
Has time eased Dory Previn's pain?
Dory Previn was queen of the Seventies confessional songwriters. Has time eased the pain?
An irregular inclusion on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show over the years has been a quaint song about a girl’s bumbling advances to a date: “Would you like to stay ’til sunrise? It’s completely your decision.” In spite of the prettiness of the melody, though, it is clear there is more to the song than freshman student embarrassment. Wogan is wont to comment: “Here comes that strange lady again.”
Jarvis Cocker, picking The Lady with the Braid as a Desert Island Disc, said: “I remember very vividly first hearing this record. I had moved to London. I was living in this squat and I was trying to put a curtain rail up. I was listening to the radio and it’s one of those moments where you have to stop what you’re doing and pay full attention.”
A clue to the song’s subtle power is in the name of the performer, Dory Previn. She was the wife of André Previn in the Sixties, and worked with him on music for films such as Inside Daisy Clover, Valley of the Dolls, and The Sterile Cuckoo – which won her an Oscar. When André left Dory for Mia Farrow she had a breakdown. One way out of her crisis was songwriting for herself, not for the movies. She was already in her mid-forties by the time her first, deeply confessional LP, On My Way to Where, came out in 1970. “They were all based on true experiences,” she tells me. “The music I write for films is not. These songs were for me. I know myself better than anyone else, so it helped me. It was self-revelation.”
Songwriting as self-helptherapy after a break-up or a breakdown has produced some of pop’s more startling works. The splendour of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black can be pinned on her jagged relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil. Thirty years previously, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours documented two disintegrating relationships – within the band, as they were recording – with trillion-selling melodies such as Go Your Own Wayand Dreams. Yet the drawn-out demise of Abba’s two couplings, laid bare on 1981’s The Visitors, produced one of their worst-selling albums; maybe if the reticent Swedes would admit that songs such as One of Usand the eerie Like an Angel Passing Through My Room aren’t fictional, they could gain kudos.
Dory would not back away from admitting that The Lady with the Braid et al are autobiographical. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t say. I don’t want to sound like I’m always talking about myself, but I’ve been there. In life and on stage. I’ve been in mental hospitals, I’ve been up and down those stairs.”
Her New Jersey upbringing is still audible in her voice. She was born in 1925 and, after a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, decided to become a chorus girl.
“When I was a kid I was the star of Woodbridge, New Jersey. I thought I could do the same thing in other towns, so I did. I was a walk-on and each night I’d add things and get laughs. I was getting more laughs than [main act] Rust Hills, the comedian. One day he said ‘I wanna talk to you, in my office.’ I thought he was going to say what a good job I was doing but he said, ‘Don't do that again, ever.’ He got me fired. I’ve got his picture on the wall. When I get bum raps I like to hang ’em on the wall!”
Chastened, she took a train to Hollywood in the late Fifties where she landed a job at MGM. “André was head of the musical department at MGM. We became partners.
“It was nice. He was a bit miffed when I showed up because in those days women didn’t know very much, apparently. He said, ‘Show me something.’ So I played some material I’d been doing – I was very shy about this – and he said, ‘These are good.’
“Like I didn’t know! Next thing we got married.” For a while life was sweet. “I’m not the kind of person where things happen and everything’s wonderful. But me and André started fooling around, I asked if he would accompany me, and suddenly we were doing a movie. We did songs for Judy Garland and men and women of that ilk. It was wonderful.”
At this point, Mia Farrow arrived on the scene. Dory expressed her outrage in Beware of Young Girlsa few years later:“She was my friend, my friend/ oh what a rare and happy pair, she inevitably said/ as she glanced at my unmade bed.”
“André and I were married. But he had a long-term commitment to work, not to marriage. I understand that. She was young and beautiful and blah, blah, blah.
“He went to South America or somewhere and got a divorce. It frightened me, being alone, having to write with people I didn’t know.”
Does she know if Farrow ever heard the song?
“With her ego? Of course she did. She’s probably got the record framed in the bathroom! It’s OK. These experiences do us a lot of good. I got through.”
Though she was twice their age, Dory Previn made albums that sat well on sensitive student shelves in the early Seventies alongside the work of Janis Ian and Laura Nyro. “Who else was I listening to? I was listening to myself. If your father says you’re not his child, if your mother had terrible experiences, a life like that is so outrageous . . . you begin to reveal in songs what you don’t reveal even to your friends.”
Stories surfaced from her memory such as Left HandLost, a song about being born “sinister” but being forced by the nuns at her school to write with her right hand. “Yes, they hit me, those darling girls. When you write a song, you can get an answer to something that’s been bugging you for years. Over time I’d begin to feel I wasn’t using my correct hand, like I needed to get a better grasp on a pen, on a word, an idea. It resulted in my nervous breakdown.”
Like those of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman, Dory’s songs drew largely on Americana, leavened with black humour. From the same year as On My Way to Wherewas John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album, which was shorter on laughs. The breakdown in Lennon’s case was partly owing to his split with the Beatles, and he tried primal scream therapy to write songs such as God, Motherand My Mummy’s Dead.
Maybe it was something in the posthippy 1970s air; Dory Previn’s Twenty Mile Zone was about an occasion on which she “was screaming in fury and frustration in the car. This ‘shout’ therapy lead to the unwanted attentions of the law.”
Lennon’s childhood had been a mess – abandoned by his mother, she was later killedin a car accident within weeks of them reuniting. Previn likewise had an alcoholic father. That relationship is recounted in the extremely unsettling With My Daddy in the Attic.
“He locked my mother and me up in a room for several weeks. He was like a lover but I wasn’t old enough then to understand. It was tough stuff. Later I realised it wasn’t just me – I was it for him. My mother was ignored. When she had another child it was better because she had someone too.”
Even now it seems hard for her to break out of her mental binds. Trying to explain where she lives these days, she says: “That’s a question that’s hard for me to answer. I’m where I live. I’m in the country, on a farm, with horses. Where I live inside myself, that’s quite a different question.”
It seems hard to square this person with someone who could have played Carnegie Hall with just a piano. “They had to escort me down the stairs, I was so nervous I couldn’t stand up. I was on stage, alone! Strange? I can’t begin to tell you... The best part was that I was a strictly raised Catholic singing on stage to a whole row of nuns. They must have planned it, because whenI sang Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister? they all got up and walked out! All in their nunny caps. Everyone started laughing.”
We’re Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx in 1976 is Previn’s most recent album. Her autobiography, Midnight Baby, was published in 1977, and music took a backseat. In 1997 she was working once more with André Previn on a piece called The Magic Number, performed by the New York Philharmonic. This could have felt like “closure”.
Art therapy for Dory Previn now consists of keeping a small pile of books handy “so that if a thought goes through my head I can look into it to see if I can make sense of it. I’ve got this Pope encyclopaedia by my bed, though I’m not religious at all. And The Book of Lilith, which I love; one called Mind Prophecies, and one of my own to remind myself that I can do it.”
Yet in spite of all the redraw confession in her songwriting, I start to think I may have been prying too much. “Listen,” she laughs, a little fiercely. “The world has delved into my life. It knows all my secrets! That’s what I’m here for.”
The Art of Dory Previn, compiled from her 1970-72 albums, is out on EMI