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Terry Melcher - Terry Melcher

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Artist: Terry Melcher

Album: Terry Melcher

Label: Collector's Choice

Review date: May. 12, 2005

Something is undeniably fascinating about vanity albums made by great record producers. Take, for example, Jack Nitzche's self-titled album, recorded for Reprise in 1974 but never released until the Rhino Handmade anthology Three Piece Suite came out in 2001. Nitzsche was largely responsible for the sound of Neil Young's Harvest and countless other pop masterpieces, but who knew that he really wanted to be a singer-songwriter in his own right? Aside from the fact that it's a beautiful album, it's great to hear the voice of such a legendary figure in the history of American music.

Terry Melcher, who died last year, hasn't been canonized with the same kind of cult hero status as Nitzsche, but his discography is awfully impressive. Early in his career, he had been an integral player in the surf music scene, both as a producer and with his own groups the Rip Chords and Bruce & Terry. Terry's mother, Doris Day, was a major shareholder in Columbia Records, which probably accounts for the fact that he was one of the youngest producers on the label's payroll. Melcher's most notable credits are for the first two LPs by the Byrds, who have more or less confirmed that he came up with the instantly recognizable 12-string jangle of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and their other early hits. Terry was also a close friend of the Beach Boys and was with them while they were recording Pet Sounds; he's credited for playing tambourine on two songs. It's also worth mentioning that he co-wrote "Kokomo," but he was well past his prime by then so we'll have to forgive him for that transgression.

Toward the end of the ’60s, Terry Melcher was hired as an independent producer by the Beatles' Apple label. While working for that company, he produced several singles for a fantastic but largely forgotten group called Grapefruit whose primary songwriter was the older brother of Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC. Unfortunately, Melcher's experience with Apple was soured because of an artist that he auditioned for the label: Charles Manson. Things didn't work out between Manson and Apple, and about a year later Sharon Tate and four of her friends were found dead in the house that she and Roman Polanski had rented from none other than Terry Melcher. Debate continues to this day as to whether or not Manson's intended target had been Terry, who had moved out of the house three months earlier. Understandably, Melcher became paranoid and concerned for his life afterwards and began to travel with bodyguards. His chain of bad luck continued when he was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident that nearly made him a double-amputee.

On first listen Terry Melcher's 1974 solo debut is a glitzy and somewhat awkward country-rock effort, but with repeated exposure the underlying darkness and despair creeps up from behind the wall of pedal steel guitars. The professional sheen of the production contrasts with Melcher's unschooled but heartfelt voice, soaked most of the time with a pretty heavy echo effect. The band is comprised entirely of studio musicians, but the album remains intensely personal. The hired guns, after all, were some of Melcher's closest and most trusted friends and confidants, including Ry Cooder, Hal Blaine and Chris Hillman. The album deals directly with Terry's experiences in the L.A. pop/folk/country-rock scene and addresses a very specific audience that probably didn't exist outside of his immediate group of peers. It's difficult to imagine that he expected the record buying public to closely relate to the ode "Beverly Hills," in which he disses inferior suburbs such as Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, and reminisces about the good old days of “dinner and some drinks at the Luau, Sunday brunch at Nate & Al's.” Elsewhere, he complains that he "can't even get along with (his) guru" and implores his psychiatrist to help him "come to grips" even though he's unsure that the shrink will be any more helpful than his flirtations with Christianity and vegetarianism.

A version of the Jackson Browne song "These Days," famously covered by Nico, is one of the most gut-wrenching moments on the album. Accompanied by a sparse string arrangement and a harmonica that sounds straight out of a Morriccone score, Melcher sings the song as a duet with his mother. When he addresses the closing line to her, "please don't confront me with my failures, I have not forgotten them," it is absolutely shattering. Terry also covers some pretty bleak Bob Dylan tunes. Two of them, in a medley near the end of the album, pretty much sum up Terry's position in life and in the music scene in 1974. "They said they were my friends, but when I was down you know they all just sat there and they were grinning," he sings, paraphrasing the opening lines to "Positively 4th Street," before he goes into a searing chorus of "Like A Rolling Stone." He seems to be singing to the famous friends who weren't there for him during his time of need, but he could just as easily have been singing about himself. He knew better than anyone what it felt like to be "like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone." It's an apt climax to this rich self-portrait of a once-great Hollywood record producer in the wake of his extremely unpleasant fall from grace.

By Rob Hatch-Miller

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