Saturday, 25 January 2014

An interview with Dory Previn

The second release on the Croydon Municipal label is Dory Langdon's My Heart Is A Hunter from 1958. It's a jazz vocal album with a rambunctious tomboy charm. It was originally titled The Leprechauns Are Upon Me! which probably did it few favours at the time as it sold very little, despite being on the prestigious Verve label. Dory married pianist and arranger Andre Previn shortly after they recorded the album, and her career took off from there. I interviewed Dory in 2008, before I'd ever heard this album, and reproduce the article here. Dory Previn passed away on Valentines Day 2012.

An irregular inclusion on Terry Wogan's breakfast show over the year was 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 was wont to comment "Here comes that strange lady again." Jarvis Cocker, picking the song for one of his Desert Island Discs, 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.”

The song was Lady With The Braid by Dory Previn. She had been the wife of Andre Previn in the sixties, and successfully 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 Andre 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, album 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-help therapy 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 was pinned on her jagged relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil; thirty years previously, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours documented two disintegrating relationships; the drawn out demise of Abba's two couplings, laid bare on 1981's The Visitors, produced arguably their best album, which included the eerie, fever-dream of Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.

Dory Previn would never back away from admitting Lady With The Braid and other songs 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 apparent in her voice. She was born in 1925 and, after a strict 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 it 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. "Andre 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 in a little club - I was very shy about this - and he said 'These are good'. Like I didn't know! Next thing we got married.

They recorded an album of Dory's songs, as Dory Langdon, for the Verve label in 1958. And for a while life was sweet, with regular film work through the sixties. "I'm not the kind of person where things happen and everything's wonderful. But me and Andre 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. I received an Oscar!  It was wonderful." At this point, Mia Farrow arrived on the scene. Dory expressed her outrage in Beware Of Young Girls a 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."
"Andre 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's early seventies albums sat well on sensitive student shelves alongside open-wound, female songwriters like 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 memory like Left Hand Lost, 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 Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman, Dory's songs drew largely on Americana, with vaudeville leanings that made them blackly humorous. Contemporaneous to On My Way To Where was John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album which was somewhat shorter on laughs. Maybe it was something in 1970's grey post-Aquarian air; Dory Previn's Twenty Mile Zone was about an occasion where she  "was screaming in fury and frustration in the car. This so-called shout therapy lead to the unwanted attentions of the law."

Lennon's childhood had been a mess. Dory Previn likewise had an alcoholic father. Her relationship with him is told 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 at the time. 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 whereabouts she lives these days, she tells me "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. And that's what it is. 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 for accompaniment. "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 when I sang Did Jesus Have A Baby Sister they all got up and walked out! All in their nunny caps. Everyone started laughing."

1976’s We’re Children of Coincidence And Harpo Marx was Dory's last album. Her autobiography, Midnight Baby, was published in 1977, and music took a backseat. In 1997 she was working once more with AndrĂ© Previn on a piece called The Magic Number, performed by the New York Philharmonic.

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 encyclopedia 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 red-raw confession in her songwriting, I start to think I may have been prying too much, poking at old wounds. "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."

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