It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When Marianne Faithfull decided to finally and forever stop being a dollybird and become a real songwriter, she ended up writing one of the great drug epics of rock, an ode to deathly chemicals on par with Lou Reed’s Heroin. It was, of course, banned and pulled from shelves, while The Rolling Stones re-recorded it and took all the credit. (Faithfull says that it was a matter of copyright issues and that they did in fact pay her royalties, and it was those royalties that kept her alive during her worst years.) Faithfull always insisted that she wrote it before the worst of her drug addiction, and she was just trying to be literary, but she came to know the truth of her own writing soon enough. Besides the lyrical foresight, the song shows a singer literally metamorphosing as we listen from ingenue to rock star. She’s already done enough to herself that her voice is cracking. She wavers like pubescent boy between her old high vibrato and the husky croon we now know her for, and she doesn’t know what to do with it yet. That in itself belies any claim that of pure literary exercise. Marianne Faithfull was burning herself out, and she knew it. Years later she sang it again, now in full command of that barrel-aged croak, but it didn’t have the same fragile poignancy. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, mined many of the same trenches, although with considerably more cash in hand, and they turned Sister Morphine into their own confessional. It’s probably the most explicit look they’ve ever taken into the dark side of their hedonistic lifestyle, and it is, in its own way, almost as poignant. Mick Jagger, tough guy that he is, doesn’t do confessionals, but he watched the closest people in his life sacrifice themselves to addiction, and the hurt shows, sometimes. Sticky Fingers was one of the great drug records, and Sister Morphine was the sad centerpiece that highlighted the theme most starkly. It was a fitting coda for a tainted love story, and an era.
Yes, this makes sense and I understand the sentiment. If Marc Bolan sounds like someone trying to sing in English despite not knowing the language, well, he was English and therefore spoke the language and that’s just the way he sang. It took him a few years to develop his elocution. Maybe he was embarrassed because his lyrics were about unicorns a lot? But honestly, having seen the actual lyrics (see below) everything kind of makes sense, at least in a poetic way. The images are great, so great I want to see them illustrated, I want them expanded and detailed and written out into a book.
She was born to be my Unicorn
Robed head of ferns
Cat child tutored by the learned.Darkly ghostish host
Haggard vizier of the moats
Seeks the sandled shores of Gods
Baby of the moors.The night-mare`s mauve mashed mind
Sights the visions of the blinds
Shoreside stream of steam
Cooking kings in cream of scream.Jackdaw winter head
Cleans his chalcedony bed
A silken word of kind
Was returned from Nijinsky Hind.Giant of Inca hill
Loosed his boar to gorely kill
The dancing one horned waife
In doublet of puffin-bill.The beast in feast of sound
Kittened lamb on God`s ground
Ridden by the born of horn
Jigged like a muse on life`s lawn.
Much as I hate to take Abbey Road songs out of context, I have to examine this one. I’ve always wondered about it, obviously. So many questions. Who is she and why did she come in through the bathroom window? Is Paul McCartney a police officer in this scenario? I want to hear more. One of the wonders of the medley half of Abbey Road is that there are so many fascinating fragments of ideas that I really want to hear more about. It’s like opening a notebook filled with some great writer’s ideas for stories that they never got around to writing. In the Beatles-inspired movie Across the Universe, there’s actually a character who does come crawling in through the bathroom window, with the explanation that her boyfriend was abusing her and she used the fire escape to make her escape and then later it turns out she’s a lesbian, which is pretty straightforward and makes a lot of narrative sense. But it’s also a little bit literal-minded, because New York City fire escapes are the most obvious explanation for why anyone would be coming in through a bathroom window. I like to imagine something a little bit more fun, like a thwarted museum heist. I’m imagining a Pink Panther-style caper, with Paul McCartney in the Inspector Clouseau role and Jane Birkin as a dancer/criminal mastermind.
Who still listens to the Doors? For me they are like musical comfort food, because I’ve listened to them all of my life, and they will never not be relevant to me. But who else are they relevant to, besides nostalgic baby boomers and people who think that doing a lot of psychedelic drugs is a valid lifestyle choice? I like to write about forgotten recordings by long dead artists as if they were new releases freshly unleashed upon the world, often ignoring their actual historic legacy. Thinking about historic legacies can really dampen the intuitive enjoyment of music, so it’s good to listen to them as if they didn’t carry baggage. But do we still have a cultural place, where we are right now, for the kind of rock star persona that Jim Morrison represents? Do we need an icon who fancies himself as an actual shaman, a larger-than-life mystical being who promises that there’s an ‘other side’ to break on through to? We don’t take self-proclaimed rock star shaman’s as seriously as we used to. That kind of swagger, today, would only come off as pretentious and absurd. We can’t accept rock singers who think they’re too mystical for this plane, just as we no longer accept the kind of movie stars who couldn’t do a day’s work without ‘their lighting’. But I think we also need to have icons, and if nothing else, we cling to Jim Morrison because we miss the days when icons were more iconic.
I think that the world throws up certain kinds of figures. Sometime in abundance, sometimes very rarely, and that some of these figures act as archetypes or prototypes for another generation which will manifest these characteristics a lot more easily, maybe a lot more gracefully, but not a lot more heroically. Another twenty years later she would have been just like you know, the hippest girl on the block. But twenty years before she was – there was no reference to her, so in a certain way she was doomed. – Leonard Cohen
That is a very lyrical and generous way to characterize what is, simply, the poet’s own memory of a person who struck him when he was young. And he’s right about it; the one person who lives differently, alone and unprecedented becomes the precedent for the next generation. Which is, in a small and lonely, heroic. This woman Nancy, whatever became of her, she sounds like someone I would know.
Comfort-music is part of a much-needed psychological self-care arsenal, along with your tea, your macaroni-and-cheese-adjacent-substance, your responsible self-medication and your small furry animals. I think it’s very called-for in times like these, and even when times are good. So on that note we’re on quite a roll with the psychedelic folk music this week, and I’m warning you, it’s not about to end. I have a lot more coming up in a similar vein, so you might as well make it a playlist. Relax, fire up a bong or whatever it is you do to unwind, and let the #bigmood take you. Because Tyrannosaurus Rex well never not be what the kids call a ‘big mood’ for me. Marc Bolan’s voice just gives me a deep sense of comfort and well-being. Psychedelia and fantasy provides an escape from the grind of reality, takes the sharp edges off a little, makes the hours go by a little more smoothly. Reality just conspires to bring you down.
Tyrannosaurus Rex is, apparently, not a universal taste. Later-era T. Rex is highly accessible and well known, but those pre-name change early records mostly elicit confusion. Maybe listeners are put off by Marc Bolan’s mushy mouthed delivery, or, if they can get past that, the odd subject matter. You’re just not high enough to really dig the bongos and children’s lit references, my friends. Listening to Tyrannosaurus Rex is like being absorbed in another world – you have to surrender to it and accept its weird rules.