Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin: Ladies in Waiting
Minutes from now, Sheila E. will begin pounding her magical drumsticks for 6200 howling fans inside the Universal Amphitheatre. Though showtime is imminent, the backstage greenroom at this Universal City concert hall remains packed elbow to elbow with assorted kings, queens and court jesters of the Los Angeles music kingdom. Rock & roll Annies, pressed between the walls and their escorts, nurse their complimentary drinks and grind out Gitanes at their painted competition’s feet. Funkified Barbie, Ken and Mr. T dolls fight for air space and each other, while a quickly panicking backstage guard shields the door with her body and announces, “No more, no room, no air, nobody else!”
Though few working the greenroom seem to know it, Prince is standing in a hallway not five feet away. After Sheila’s final encore, he and the Revolution – now twelve members strong – are scheduled to sign in for a still undetermined number of songs.
Prince, you remember, said last year that he might never again play live, that he was going to “look for the ladder.” There haven’t been many miracles in Los Angeles lately, and his surprise performance will be hailed by the committed as a return from the Other Side. For the rest of the audience, the evening promises to provide a damn nice show.
Upstairs from the stage, Revolution keyboard player Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin are waiting in their dressing room. Both are Los Angeles natives and the only members of the Revolution who commute to Minneapolis. They are also the Revolution’s only women and the only faces in the band that carry brand-name recognition. But they aren’t feminine adornments, tambourine-banging mannequins brought in to leaven Prince’s macho onstage swaggering. Above all else, Lisa and Wendy are wicked musicians, the only ones to whom Prince gives carte blanche in the private music-making regions of his head.
No, they both assert, Prince isn’t their boss; he’s their best friend and collaborator. “We don’t want to leave and start our own thing,” says Lisa softly, “because this is our own thing – I don’t feel like we’re just hired musicians taking orders. He’s always asking for our ideas.” And more. The group’s latest album, Parade: Music from ‘Under the Cherry Moon,’ contains two songs – “Sometimes It Snows in April” and “Mountains” — co-written by Lisa and Wendy. They have also begun writing songs for Prince’s third movie. They’re not sure what it’s about, but Prince has let it be known he’ll shape his film to suit their songs.
Together, says Wendy, the triad makes music no one can beat. “I’m sorry,” she says with conviction, “but no one can come close to what the three of us have together when we’re playing in the studio. Nobody!”
Wendy makes me seem all right in the eyes of people watching. She keeps a smile on her face. When I sneer, she smiles. It’s not premeditated, she just does it. It’s a good contrast.
Lisa is like my sister. She’ll play what the average person won’t. She’ll press two notes with one finger so the chord is a lot larger, things like that. She’s more abstract. She’s into Joni Mitchell too. -Prince
A lot has happened to the purple clan in the months that have preceded the Revolution’s surprise Los Angeles appearance. For lunch on the day of the show, Lisa and Wendy pick the Musso & Frank Grill as an appropriate Hollywood spot to talk. While would-be and real movie agents and producers drink their lunch at nearby tables, the two order salads and mull over the recent events. The Family, a band Prince godfathered through its first album, has just fallen apart in the wake of singer Paul Peterson’s walkout. Among those left stranded is Susannah Melvoin, the Family’s other exsinger, Prince’s current beloved (though, contrary to rumor, not his fiancée) and Wendy’s forever identical twin sister.
Then there’s Parade, the Revolution’s new record, and Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s new movie, which he directed and which will be out in a few months. According to Lisa, the film is a “boy-meets-girl love story, a kind of a Pygmalion in reverse. Instead of making a high-society dame out of a tramp, it’s about a man trying to loosen up a high-society dame.”
Right around the time the movie opens, Prince and the Revolution are planning to take off on a nine-month world tour, their longest ever. So now it’s time to start getting the live kinks out: except for a three-hour performance earlier this week at Minneapolis’s First Avenue club, neither Prince nor his band has played a note in public in a year.
“I’m not nervous,” says Wendy, “and I don’t even want to guess what’s going to happen. All I know is that this band is going to be together a long, long time.” Lisa nods in agreement.
Superficially, the two women’s offstage personalities seem very similar to their onstage auras. Wendy, in front and extroverted, embellishing whatever’s been said with a cracking verbal riff or some funny dialect. Lisa, hanging back, talking slowly, adding grace notes of reflection or perfectly timed tiny gibes to keep the two different story lines in electric rhythm.
That they talk the way they jam, says Wendy, makes perfect psychological rock-band sense. “There are actually different attitudes for different positions in a band,” she explains. “Keyboard players know when they join a band that they’re going to be in the second line. And guitarists know they’re going to be in front. So they get that guitarist’s attitude of being in front. When you’re up there, you know you can’t just stare down at your instrument and pretend you’re not there.”
Long pause. Lisa reflects, takes a drag on her cigarette, adds her chord: “I like it in the second line. I feel comfortable there. I call it my apartment.”
Half-beat pause, Wendy adds a hearty riff via a deep-throated laugh. “She calls it her apartment!”
Lisa says she doesn’t mind that “Lisa and Wendy” are a single entity in the rock public’s eye. She laughs shyly – her most frequent kind of laugh – as she remembers a solo shopping trip she took this week. “I was at the market,” she says, “and these two little girls, all decked out, walk by. They went past me, turned around, and yelled, ‘It’s Lisa and Wendy! It’s Lisa and Wendy!’ I had to stop and count how many of myself there were. Let’s see. One.”
Wendy has more trouble with the commingling of their public personas. “It’s hard,” she says thoughtfully. “It’s weird.” The two then engage each other in a dialogue that is one part Abbott and Costello to two parts longtime best friends busting each other’s chops.
Lisa: It’s fine. I couldn’t think of a better person to be linked with.
Wendy: (Laughing) I could.
Lisa: (Laughing) Yeah. Me.
Like Prince, Wendy and Lisa grew up in families headed by fathers who were professional musicians and who eventually were divorced from their wives. Jazz keyboardist Mike Melvoin and percussionist Gary Coleman are seasoned studio musicians and best friends. Their credits include Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”; they appeared together on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and on several early Jackson 5 albums; and they were the ones who played the instruments for half of the Partridge Family.
“Our parents were total beatniks, then hippies, and we turned into twelve-year-old hippies ourselves,” says Wendy, who’s now twenty-two. “They used to joke that to rebel we’d have to turn into staunch Republicans,” adds Lisa, who’s twenty-five. “But we just took their lives and went one step further.”
In 1971, all six Melvoin and Coleman kids joined together to cut a kiddie-hippie-bubblegum album. “But we weren’t the Partridge Family,” chortles Lisa, “we all actually played our instruments.”
The name of the album? “I forget,” feigns Wendy. “I think it was… Geek City.”
“Yes, I’m sure that was it,” says Lisa, mock soberly.
Both earnestly agree that their birthright as spectators into rock-business reality has helped them keep that ever-diminishing industry resource – perspective. “Growing up the way we did,” says Wendy, “really gave us an edge on people who were just starting in music. We know how to get around all the games.” She pauses. “There’s so much ego in the music business, especially when you first get started. The people who grew up around the business are more relaxed with it.”
And fantastic success, Wendy says, hasn’t changed her a bit. “I never think about it. I have a few friends and a few things I like to do. I never go clubbing. I’d rather just go home and play my guitar. Sometimes I can’t believe how boring I must seem to my friends.”
“A lot of people have this real glamorous vision of what it means to be a musician,” adds Lisa. “Sometimes it’s true, but what I learned as a kid is that there’s got to be a whole lot of work behind it. You have to practice, you have to have your chops, you have to know your music perfectly.” Sometimes it hits her that she’s Lisa – but never in public. Alone, at home, she occasionally thinks about it. Then she usually goes to bed.
Lisa began studying classical piano at an early age. Three years older than Wendy and Susannah Melvoin, she remembers the twins when they looked like “plucked chickens in diapers.” Wendy got her first guitar for her sixth birthday; Susannah received toe shoes. Surrounded by musical relations, Lisa and Wendy kept practicing. In private. Even after their bubblegum record, they refused to play in front of their classmates. Says Wendy, “People who went to junior high school with me at Cal Prep in Encino still come up and say, ‘I didn’t even know you knew how to play the guitar.’ The instrument was still so personal to me that I didn’t want to share it with anyone.”
In Hollywood, Lisa suffered similar junior-high phobias. Once, the drama department at her school needed a pianist to accompany a dance routine. Lisa was called out of class, placed on a piano bench and ordered to play “Mr. Bojangles.” Lisa shudders as she recalls the experience: “I don’t know what happened, but I sat down at the piano and couldn’t play. I mean I could play, but I pretended that I couldn’t. I was really depressed all day, then went home and sat back down at my piano. You know, that night I played the shit out of ‘Mr. Bojangles.”‘
She got through Hollywood High through the good graces of an English teacher named Judy Coleman, who gave Lisa ample independent-study credits for her music and Joni Mitchell-style lyrics. “I basically just stayed home from school and wrote songs,” she says. “Every once in a while I’d call up Judy and say, ‘Come on over and give me some credits.’ ” After graduation, she enrolled at Los Angeles Community College as an English major, pulled down a 4.0 average, “read everything from Vonnegut to Hayakawa” and dropped out.
Lisa then started work as a grunt on the shipping dock of a documentary-film company in Los Angeles. In 1979, a friend working for Prince’s L.A. management company heard that His Royal Badness – who was still a couple of years away from his big commercial breakthrough – was looking for a keyboard player. Lisa made a tape, sent it in and was quickly summoned to Minneapolis for a private audition. “When I got to Prince’s house,” Lisa remembers, “he sent me downstairs and said he was going to change clothes. There was a piano down there, and I just started playing, trying to relax. I got the feeling he was eaves-dropping at the top of the stairs, so I whipped out my best Mozart. He finally came back downstairs, picked up his guitar, and we started jamming. From the first chord, we hit it off.” Hired on the spot, she moved to Minneapolis.
Wendy, meanwhile, was gritting her way through high school in North Conway, New Hampshire, her divorced mother’s new home. She liked the country but felt marooned. “No one understood what I liked,” she says, “and no one knew I played the guitar.” Foiled romance finally gave her the gumption to get through. “I was sixteen and madly in love with a senior named David Merrill. I finally went up to him and said, ‘I can’t stand it anymore, I just have to let you know that I’m attracted to you.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘There’s a whole bunch of other guys in the school.’ After that, I said, ‘Forget it, I just want to get out of here.'”
Wendy graduated, then headed back to L.A. to waitress and play secretary while she figured out which music college to attend. In 1983, she went to visit Lisa in New York. The band was on the 1999 tour, and Wendy holed up for a few days in her friend’s hotel room. Down the hall, Prince heard someone playing a guitar. He knocked on Lisa’s door and found Wendy practicing. He asked her to play more, liked what he heard and later asked her to fill in at a sound check that guitarist Dez Dickerson had missed. Soon after, Dickerson quit to form his own band, and Wendy was in.
How does it feel being the only women in a twelve-member band? “It’s a little weird,” says Lisa, “but not really. When I first joined the band, I got solace from the fact that here were some other people so different that they only fit in there. That’s the thing – they’re all nice guys, and we all fit together.”
What about the explicitly sexual content of Prince’s lyrics?
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