Dollar bins are full of yesterday’s best-sellers and award-winners, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that this week’s showcase artist, who enjoyed early career success with a pair of Academy Awards, was just an ordinary singer-songwriter product. Yet by the time Dory Previn recorded her solo debut, she had endured half a lifetime of scandal and trauma. Released in 1970, On My Way to Where looks on the surface like typical early 70’s folk-pop, but it reflects a fascinating, tortured life.

Previn’s lyrics are confessional to the point of primal scream therapy—more than apt for one key track. Opener “Scared to Be Alone” is fairly self-explanatory. “We take a Polaroid picture/ To find the human being” reads like ‘70s indulgence, but Previn pulls off the tricky balancing act of a haunting voice without self-pity. The playful arrangements help; “Alone” begins as introspective coffeeshop acoustic folk before careening through music hall and burlesque. When she camps it up with “Sweet Marilyn Monroe/ On the silver screen,” she takes the quintessential tragic movie star and plays up the sexpot persona to get at the song’s core: “Did you ever have a headache…/ Did you like to be an actress/ Were you scared to be alone?” Previn, who thrived and then fell apart in Hollywood, knows all about the pitfalls of show business, and that tension between glamour and death, seduction and anxiety, gives the perfectly pleasant melody a personal edge. Monroe may be as obvious an image as it was when Andy Warhol tapped its potential, but Warhol and Previn both recognize that the very pervasiveness of that image gives it an unexpected power; it’s common and beautiful, and all the more bittersweet for what came of her—both in Monroe’s early death and her relegation to mere commodity.

That’s just one song. “Esther’s First Communion” recalls her strict Catholic upbringing with more than a little ambivalence, and “With My Daddy in the Attic” feeds its childlike—yet somehow sinister—melody with a tale that becomes even creepier when you learn that no less than Woody Allen blamed the song for contributing to his late-career scandal. You see, Dory Previn’s second husband was composer André Previn; with her husband, she scored big screen success collaborating on songs for Inside Daisy Clover and Valley of the Dolls. But André Previn would have an affair with the much younger Mia Farrow, which led to Dory’s psychotic breakdown—and the song “Beware of Young Girls.”

Given the woman’s family background, the breakdown may not have been a surprise. Born Dory Veronica Langan, she was the oldest daughter of a frustrated Irish-Catholic musician who had been devastated by his service in World War I, where he had been gassed. The elder Langan believed that the gassing left him sterile, and that Dory could not be his daughter.

You can read about Dory Previn’s troubled life in her 1976 memoir Midnight Baby—and you can hear about it in the lyrics she wrote as part of her psychiatric therapy. “Twenty-Mile Zone,” also known as “The Screaming Song,” revisits an episode in which in the middle of a commercial airplane flight, she started screaming at the top of her lungs. She doesn’t turn the experience into a primal-scream noise fest: “Screaming at the night/ Screaming at the dark/ Screaming at fright” is delivered with the gradually increasing tempo of a cosmic folk song; the acoustic finger-picking is a fantastic counterpoint to emotional terror. Closer “Mr. Whisper” ends with a multitracked spoken-word coda in which Previn seems to free-associate, either as part of her therapy or part of a chilling mental episode; the dialogue with herself ends with the title phrase, and the effect is as startling as if an unassuming folk singer suddenly broke into the equivalent of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”

In retrospect, both Inside Daisy Clover and Valley of the Dolls seem like apt projects for her music; both films reveal the dark underside of show business. According to a 1972 Los Angeles Times interview, psychologists used some of her songs, like “Attic” and “Twenty-Mile Zone,” in therapy. The singer-songwriter went on to release several more albums throughout the ‘70s and had a late-career effort in 2002 with the download-only Planet Blue, about a nuclear holocaust. Previn died in 2012, after living a long, eventful life, and On My Way to Where reveals the Hollywood veteran at her idiosyncratic best—and you can get it for peanuts.

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