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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Remembering Dory Previn

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Former Rolling Stone and New York Times writer Loraine Alterman Boyle remembers the remarkable singer-songwriter Dory Previn, who died last week——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

My dear friend of nearly 40 years, Dory Previn, died last week. She was a great songwriter who exposed her deep feelings about love and lovers, life and feelings, religion and paranoia in poetic lyrics that truly expressed her unique sensibility. Yet her writings illuminate all of us as we struggle to find our way in the dark. When Previn performed at Carnegie Hall in 1973, a friend of mine who had never heard her before, poked me and whispered: "How does she know me? How does she know those details about me?"

Born in New Jersey in 1925, Dory was brought to Hollywood by Arthur Freed, a famous producer of MGM musicals, to work as a lyricist. She was eventually paired with Andre Previn, who she married in 1959. During her film career in Hollywood as a lyricist, she earned Academy Award nominations for 'Come Saturday Morning', 'The Faraway Part of Town', 'Second Chance'. She also wrote — with Previn — 'You're Gonna Hear From Me' and the theme and score for Valley of the Dolls. On her own she wrote the title song for Last Tango in Paris.

I first met Dory in 1973, when she was in New York for Third Girl From the Left, a television film she wrote that Peter Medak was shooting. I had already been a fan of her albums, starting with her first for United Artists in 1970, On My Way To Where. It piqued the interest of listeners that the autobiographical 'Beware of Young Girls' addressed how Mia Farrow had wrecked the Previns' marriage. But if that song served to get the public's attention, listeners were blown away by a vision that grappled with deep emotions and frightening truths in songs performed by her as well as by Georgia Brown, Bobby Darin, Dionne Warwick and Tony Bennett. In truth her lyrics were pieces of theatre that told stories.

Her albums brought her a devoted audience who turned out to see this beautiful woman with her cloud of curly red hair onstage at clubs like the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall and at the Donmar Warehouse in London. She wasn't a trained singer but her voice had a gentle sound with satirical edge that underlined the black humor inherent in many of the lyrics on albums like Mythical Kings and Iguanas, We're Children of Coincidence and Harpo Marx and Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign.

My long friendship with Dory began in the mid-'70s, when I brought Yoko Ono to one of her shows at the Bitter End. That evening Yoko and I had been on a panel about women in music. I had just written a record review for the New York Times comparing three female singer/songwriters, Joni Mitchell, Yoko and Dory. Yoko questioned me about why I had liked Dory's LP better than hers — an awkward situation but I thought, "Why not bring her to the show". Yoko then invited Dory and me to the Dakota for tea the next afternoon. As I recall, it was not a relaxed meeting probably because both women were strong personalities competing for a similar audience.

After that Dory and I saw each other frequently when I was in Los Angeles with my late husband, Peter Boyle, or when she was in New York. She was someone who not only had something interesting to say but also listened to and respected what others said. She was always involved in self-examination, and eagerly read poetry and philosophy. She had a wicked sense of humor and loved to gossip. Her life with her husband painter Joby Baker was lived for the past 30 years in their home on a 100-acre farm in the Berkshires where she wrote every day. The house was filled with wonderful paintings by Joby as well as lovely works by major early 20th century painters, folk art and Dory's own needlepoint pillows. She had a great eye for visual art as well as an ear for language.

The New York Times obituary described her as having a history of emotional fragility, but Dory was tough despite her bouts with schizophrenia. She survived a full-blown breakdown in the late '60s and came out of a mental hospital having honed her writing skills to precision. Thinking about Dory, I'm reminded that the fragile ones are the ones who don't make it — the Whitney Houstons and Michael Jacksons whose demons got the better of them. Dory, on the other hand, examined herself honestly and went on to write powerful songs and books like Midnight Baby and Bog-Trotter detailing her life.

In 1974, she said to me in an interview about her work: "The more self-involved a song I write is, the closer it is to the centre of my being, the more people identify with it — or identify with something in themselves, which is better. I don't like people to identify with me. If they can identify with something in themselves in the song, then I think that's the best compliment ever and the best thing one can expect."

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