That summer in 1970, my next door neighbor, who reminded me of Joan Baez with her long black hair and olive skin, especially after we took a picture of her on my Polaroid Swinger with a friend’s folk guitar, gave me the strangest album for my birthday. Entitled “On My Way to Where,” it featured original songs by a brand new folksinger named Dory Previn.
I didn’t know at the time that Previn was the ex-wife of Andre Previn, the classical pianist and composer, and that she had a breakdown after he left her for Mia Farrow, the former star of Peyton Place, night time’s first scandalous soap opera. Farrow was, of course, the same young actress who had caused a stir by sleeping with Frank Sinatra.
Dory Previn had written a lot of famous movie theme songs in her decade or so as a lyricist with MGM, some with and others without, Andre. They included “The Faraway Part of Town” from Pepe, Theme from Valley of the Dolls from the movie of the same name, and “Come Saturday Morning,” my personal favorite, from The Sterile Cuckoo.
She emerged from her breakdown, and the subsequent therapy she underwent, a different kind of songwriter. She suddenly wrote to keep herself sane.
I wore out the grooves on that album. I had never heard songs like those. They were painfully autobiographical. The most stunning was “Mr. Whisper,” a song about Dory’s descent into madness and back. A second song about that breakdown was recounted in a more humorous way in “Twenty-Mile Zone,” in which a screaming Dory is stopped by a cop while driving on the freeway. “I Ain’t His Child” and “With My Daddy in the Attic” both examined a tortured childhood in which her father, who believed that being gassed in a trench in WWI made him sterile, denied that she was his kid.
But the song with the most impact on me personally was “Michael Michael.” As a young gay man not quite ready to come out of my closet, I identified with the hippie man who flirts with the young women he’s turning on, but “makes it best with men.”
I collected all her albums. She never disappointed me. Release after release, Dory went where no lyricist had gone before. Whether it was singing the praises of androgyny or raising the question of whether Jesus had a baby sister, Dory was on top of it. Sometimes her lyrics were as blunt as could be, as in “Who do you have to fuck to get into this picture?” from “Starlet Starlet on the Screen, Who Will Follow Norma Jean?” Other times, they were poetic as in “Mythical Kings and Iguanas.”
I got my big chance to meet her once. It was over the phone. I was writing for several publications in the late 70s when her first autobiography, Midnight Baby, was published. I contacted her publicist about an interview. To my complete surprise, I was granted one. I was told to call her at a certain time.
I can’t describe the sensation of speaking to this woman whose work I admired so much. I stumbled through my questions, feeling like a complete fool. She was great. She never let on that I came across more like a doting fan than a journalist.
Dory Previn died this Valentine’s Day on her farm in Southfield, Massachusetts. She was 86. I found out this morning when a friend, a Previn fan like myself, emailed me.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of deep sadness and loss. Though she stopped recording decades ago, I have her albums in my iTunes and I listen to them often.
Like her, they help keep me sane in an insane world.