She wrote songs for Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Doris Day, co-composed with Harold Arlen (Over the Rainbow’) – and was a pioneering singer-songwriter of the early 1970s.
She wrote a song called ‘Control Yourself‘, had a career defined by men – and became an icon of female strength and independence.
She had a number of well-documented and spectacular psychotic episodes and was committed to mental institutions several times in her life – and wrote some of sanest, most piercingly personal lyrics of the second half of the 20th century.
Funny, intelligent, vulnerable and talented enough to be hired my MGM as a songwriter within five months of writing her first lyric, Dory Previn never fitted into any category and until her death in 2012, few critics understood her (‘She’d never won the fight between self and soul,’ one wrote mysteriously).
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Dory Previn is less well- known than she should be.
Years before spilling your emotional guts in songs and in print became fashionable, she was writing bravely naked versions of her life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She had lived the life – parental abuse and weirdness, pills, stratospheric success, pills, marital betrayal (her husband Andre Previn ran off with the young Mia Farrow), breakdown, freakouts, insecurity – and, when she moved away from Hollywood after the break-up of her marriage, she made that life the theme of her songs.
It turns out that the album I listened to obsessively all those years ago, Mythical Kings and Iguanas, was written while Dory Previn was in a mental institution. In spite of its hippy-dippy title, the ten songs on the album give as clear-eyed a view of desire, love and insecurity (above all, that) as any collection of songs, then or since.
The tunes are good but not spectacular, the production is clunky (like many of the time, it couldn’t make up its mind whether to go pared back/simple or lush/sophisticated), but the lyrics and the stories they tell are distinctive and powerful.
Listen to ‘Lemon-Haired Ladies’ (a first crack at Mia – ‘Beware of Young Girls’ was to follow).
‘Those lemon haired ladies of twenty or so
Of course you must see them, just don’t let me know
Don’t let me know, whatever you do
For you are younger than I, younger than I, younger than I
And I am weaker than you.’
I like most of the songs on the album but have chosen ‘The Lady With the Braid’ as my Friday song. There aren’t many songs which capture the danger, romance and fear of one-night stands. Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Motel Blues’ has a stab at it but this song, with its edgy conversational tone, dipping occasionally into confessional longing and dread,, adds loneliness and longing to the mix.
I read Dory Previn’s first memoir Midnight Baby when it was published in 1976 and found it compelling if a little ‘spacey’ as we used to say – and I plan now to track down her second memoir Bogtrotter: An Autobiography with Lyrics (1980). Her reviews at the time and later, usually written by male critics, tend to be patronising – she was ‘a delicate, schizzy lady, ‘ according to a journalist in People magazine 1977, ‘schizzy’ being a first cousin to ‘ditsy’.
It’s difficult not to conclude that Previn was a victim not just of her own honesty but of gender attitudes of the time (and perhaps today). Her achievements were astonishing. She was hired as a songwriter in a Hollywood as a complete unknown at a time when few women, apart from Dorothy Fields, were writing songs for movies.
The songs for which she then wrote the lyrics were for films like The Valley of the Dolls and Inside Daisy Clover. They won Academy awards and Oscar nominations. They were covered by all the great singers and groups of the day. Yet look up on YouTube songs like ‘The Morning After‘, written with none other than the great Michael Arlen, or ‘You’re Gonna Hear From Me‘, sung by Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra among other, and she is rarely, if ever, prominent in the credits. It’s André Previn who is in the limelight.
Then think of the next stage of extraordinary self-invention. Who else has moved from Hollywood to being a singer-songwriter, creating an entirely different kind of song which was way before its time? In an interesting (date unknown) interview with Michael Billington on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope, she said:
‘I wrote “Control yourself, contain yourself/ Restrict yourself, restrain yourself” in 1959, I think, and in 1969 I wrote “Screaming in the 20-Mile Zone” – let it out, you know…. If you wanted to look at two songs and see the difference 50 years from now in what happened to women – you wanted to see in shorthand what happened – I think if you just took those two songs, you would see the difference.’
That is why she is such a key figure and so fascinating in herself. Not only was she responsible for some terrific songs, but she reflected her moment in history by moving moving successfully from the glossy, romantic world of film to the raw folky expression of her own uncertainties. No one else has had a career like that.
Dory Previn has a few devoted fans, among them Father John Misty who performs a cover of ‘The Lady with the Braid’. There are one or two clips of her playing live, like this hopelessly over-guitared 1974 performance of ‘Cold Water Canyon‘, but I’ve not come across a live version of this terrific song which lives up to the original recording.