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If you don't know who Dory Previn was, you missed out


Slug: Previn. Sack# 17455. Morgue folder#: 64-616. Caption: Dory Previn performing at "The Bitter End" 11-9-73.       NYTCREDIT: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Slug: Previn. Sack# 17455. Morgue folder#: 64-616. Caption: Dory Previn performing at "The Bitter End" 11-9-73. NYTCREDIT: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Slug: Previn. Sack# 17455. Morgue folder#: 64-616. Caption: Dory Previn performing at "The Bitter End" 11-9-73. NYTCREDIT: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

Dory Previn had a froth of red hair, a winsome smile and a guilty disbelief in religion. She wrote songs for broken hearts and souls with battered wings.

She had all the credentials - Catholic-Irish from New Jersey with an alcoholic mother and a father who'd never managed to clamber out of depression after he'd returned from the First World War, dragging his terror behind him.

She moulded great songs from her miserable childhood and from the madness which, for a period, seized her mind. She died last week, aged 86.

Dory was nine when her father barricaded her and her mother and baby sister into the dining room for five months, letting them out into the kitchen for maybe half an hour a day. He had come to believe that she wasn't his child: 'My daddy says / I ain't his child / ain't that somethin' / ain't that wild?'

She must have been close on 60 when I got to know her a little, which took me aback when I made the calculation from the weekend obits.

She was more a friend of my former partner, the late Mary Holland, so I got to hang out. I recall her clapping her hands with high excitement and girly delight as she came off stage at the Olympia in Dublin, eyes wide with disbelief that almost everyone had sung along with almost every song.

There was the sense of a closed community in the theatre, as if we knew that nobody outside had any idea that something to make the heart lurch sideways was happening.

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That was one of the things about Dory. You might win a knowing smile from a passing stranger as you hummed The Lady With The Braid and you'd smile back.

There was an element of smugness about it, but we were entitled. The late Jill Tweedy wrote in the Guardian, "People who don't know Dory Previn have only themselves to blame."

Two years after her incarceration in the kitchen, at 11, she was being taken to saloons by her father to sing for the noisy clientele. By 17, she had escaped and was sleeping on floors in New York, working as a waitress and in the chorus lines of Broadway shows.

She tried out as a singer in a New York club, but didn't get the gig. The manager told her, "You are wasting your time, but your material is brilliant. Who wrote it?"

He sent a folder of her songs to MGM. A week later she was hired as a lyricist to work with Andre Previn. They were nominated three times for an Oscar, married and spent years of love and turbulence together before he left to live with Mia Farrow.

Break-up led to breakdown and she was consigned to a mental hospital. I'd hated Andre Previn for years for that, but she would have none of it. "I really was mad. Andre didn't leave me, I left reality."

I still have a signed copy of her autobiography, Midnight Baby, somewhere. The first time I read it, I decided halfway through to ration myself to a few pages a night so as to prolong the pleasure.

Her other memoir, Bog-Trotter: an autobiography with lyrics, is a brilliant oddity, successive chapters beginning with quotes from Virginia Wolff, Clark Gable, Mairtin O Direain and Ira Gershwin, anecdotes, poems and snatches of lyrics strewn everywhere.

My main purpose here is to proselytise, to persuade as many as possible to make her acquaintance, call her up on YouTube, or whatever, and listen.

From Mythical Kings And Iguanas: 'Cry for the soul that will not face / the body has an equal place / and I never learned to touch for real / or feel the things iguanas feel / down, down, down / where they play / teach me, teach me / teach me, reach me.'

Lady With The Braid: 'Would you care to stay 'til sunrise / it's completely your decision / it's just the night cuts through me like a knife / would you care to stay a while and save my life?'

Her Mother's Daughter: 'See the genteel lady / sipping lemonade and lime / once she wanted princes / out of tales that happily ended / now the grocery clerk befriended her cat / and she is grateful for his time.'

Coldwater Canyon: 'And she ran ran wild / like a paranoid child / and nothing was aware / of her flight / except the eye / of the sleeping sky / and the ear / of the infinite / still and silent night.'

It's nobody's fault, really, for not knowing Dory Previn. But there's no excuse either, now.