I was very sad to learn of the passing of singer/songwriter, author and Oscar nominated composer Dory Previn. Her confessional approach to songwriting mixed with dry wit, dark humor and daring subject matter set her apart from many of her singer/songwriter contemporaries of the 1970s and her work struck a real chord with me.
Dory Previn born Dorothy Veronica Langan started out as a dancer and chorus girl as a child. A New Jersey native she came from a strict Irish Catholic family and weathered a troubled and abusive childhood at the hands of her father who suffered from post traumatic stress due to time served during the first world war. Much of the subject matter for her songs and her books would delve into her upbringing.
She had a chance encounter with producer Arthur Freed who signed her on to work as a lyricist at MGM where she was paired up with composer Andre Previn whom she would work with on such films as The Valley of The Dolls and Inside Daisy Clover. They were nominated for 2 Academy Awards for “Faraway Part of Town” from the film Pepe and “Second Chance” from the film Two for the Seesaw. She would marry and then divorce Previn- the topic of which would be subject to her most infamous song “Beware of Young Girls”.
Her solo singer/songwriter career began in 1970 in her early 40’s and after her divorce to Andre Previn. This was a time when women were finally getting the chance to express themselves honestly and given a real shot in the music industry. Songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Carole King and Carly Simon were enjoying immense success and demonstrated integrity and a real female point of view. Dory Previn’s approach went the extra mile producing some of the most shockingly confessional material of that era, touching on subjects such as abuse (“My Daddy in the Attic”), unconventional relationships, (“Lemon Haired Ladies”), one night stands (The Lady with the Braid”) homosexuality (“Michael Michael”), mental illness (“Mister Whisper”) and suicide (“Mary C. Brown and The Hollywood Sign”)
In her song “Beware of Young Girls” she depicts her very public divorce to Andre Previn who had left her for her friend a 24 year old Mia Farrow:
Beware of young girls
Who come to the door
Wistful and pale
Of twenty and four
She was my friend
She sent us little silver gifts
Oh what a rare
And happy pair
As she glanced
At my unmade bed
My unmade bed
In “Angels And Devils The Following Day” she boldly describes two different relationships and gets downright graphic
Loved I two men equally well
though they were different as heaven and hell
one was an artist, one drove a truck
one would make love the other would fuck
I can’t think of one artist male or female who dropped the F bomb in a song during that time, much less with those connotations!
Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the seminal brit pop band Pulp, has championed her work and chose her song “The Lady with the Braid” as one of his Desert Island Discs. He had this to say on her songwriting style,
” ….there’s a kinda emotional rawness to it, that it says things that really you shouldn’t say to another person, you should keep your thoughts to yourself, which she acknowledges when she says “Oh I don’t know what made me say that, I got a funny sense of humor….” [From “Lady with the Braid”] there is a confessional element to her work and sometimes that can be like “woah …back off” it’s like someone telling you their life story on the underground railway or something like that- it’s like I think we should know each other a bit better before you tell me those particular intimate secrets about yourself.”
He goes on to say how it influenced his work,
“I like it when people put things in songs that aren’t really what should be in songs, I realize that’s what I kinda look for in songs- I look for something of a person’s personality coming through- that’s what excites me about music. I would say she has influenced me in that way, as that is something that I look for in other peoples songs and I also try to do in my own- is to try and express those things that people recognize but don’t necessarily get covered. People don’t cover it because they think it’s too sad or too stupid or whatever- those are the interesting things.”
She didn’t posses a booming voice or the ability to demonstrate a wide vocal range. Her voice was simple and to the point much like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Neil Young. She didn’t put on the vocal gown- the songs simply spoke for themselves. They are engrossing because the stories she tells are so brutally honest, so full of raw emotion and often laugh out loud hilarious. She had an incredible amount of wit and sense of humor for subject matter that scratched the darkest depths. There are numerous times I have put on one of her records and have found myself laughing out loud.
Musically her work never gives an inkling of self-pity or despair. There are no morose minor chords blanketing these tales of misfits and discarded souls. The song structures seem to follow the lyrics and are often upbeat on the most downbeat of subject matter like that of the cabaret style “My Daddy in the Attic” or “Twenty Mile Zone” about scream therapy. These are songs you can actually swing your hips to.
She took a courageous no frills approach to songwriting that was unique in its structure as her songs tend to stray away from a pop verse/chorus style our ears are accustomed to hearing. She accommodates the feeling, the words and the theatrics to convey her message rather than a melodic hook. Nevertheless, you will find yourself singing along.
But while her song structures and subject matter were unconventional there is never a moment where you don’t feel connected to her songs. Many of her songs have resonated with me whether it be the experience she’s conveying, the character that she’s describing or simply the emotion. The honesty of her songs are comforting, relatable, funny and can often rattle you at your deepest core.
Jarvis Cocker comments, “She’s cornered that kind of thing of like the dark hours, the hours when you’re alone and you freak out, either because somebody’s left you or it’s 2 O’clock and you can’t go to sleep so all these crap thoughts go through your head. That’s the Previn hour, isn’t it?- of some time between two and five in the morning, that’s the time you’d put one of those records on to keep you company if you were feeling in that kind of mood. So it’s not happy hour- Previn hour isn’t happy hour. But it’s unique because it’s a personal thing to her”
No, Previn hour isn’t happy hour but what she contributed musically is timeless. She will be deeply missed.
Dory Previn passed away on Valentines Day 2012 at the age of 86.