“Nico had tremendous injustice in her life, and I’ve had tremendous luck.” Marianne Faithfull isn’t the first person to notice the many parallels between her life and Nico’s. They both grew up in chaos and poverty, their families wrecked by the war, though Nico was older and had the misfortune of being born in Germany. They shared a manager, fraternized with the same people, abused the same substances, and each rebelled in her own way against the tiny little box she was placed in for being blonde and female. They had very different luck with it. Nico died in obscurity, bitter that no one ever saw her as anything but an accessory to Andy Warhol. Faithfull had the ability to dodge every disaster she got herself into, and now enjoys a comfortable life of great acclaim. Marianne Faithfull, being in the position of the survivor, has been pondering what it means that she has been so very, very fortunate while someone who was dealt a nearly identical hand in life had nothing but misfortune. One difference, obviously, was that Nico was kind of a bad person. She had a knack for alienating people who wanted to help her, and she seems to have been incapable of friendship, for whatever deep-seated reason. Dumb luck counts for a lot in life, but maybe being kind and idealistic counts for a lot more.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to listen to Marianne Faithfull’s 2002 album Kissin’ Time. If you have already heard it, please direct your attention to the very end. There you’ll find one of my very favorite songs out of Marianne’s long storied career. It’s a cover of a hit by Herman’s Hermits. The Hermits were a British Invasion band known for goofy, upbeat songs suitable for young teenagers. Most of their hits have been relegated to the nostalgia circuit or dismissed as novelties of their time. Hardly a match for the whiskey-soaked aesthetic of Marianne Faithfull, one would think. Therein is the surprise, and testament to Faithfull’s powers as an interpretive singer and her sharp ear for material. She takes a larky pop song about a date that went well, and makes it… exactly her aesthetic. It’s a life affirming coda on a record concerned with the ups and downs of life. In the hands of a woman who’s lived, suffered and learned it means something else than the fluffy, youthful optimism of the original. When you’re a woman of 57, you don’t take it for granted that you’ll meet a new guy who likes you, there’s no expectation that there’s going to be another new date with another new love. When you find love after a lifetime of losing it, it’s an unexpected gift, a thing to celebrate and treasure, with the knowledge that it may be your last hurrah. Love is different when you’re older, and love songs are different, even if the words are the same.
Let’s come back to the Heathen years. That was, of course, David Bowie’s big post 9/11 album, written and recorded immediately before, during and after that historical event. Those were rough days for people with an already shaky faith in humanity. Was the whole world just descending into madness? Well, yeah, but no more than usual, as it turned out. What we can hear reflected in this music is the emotional contradiction that was so apparent at the time; the contrast between the incredibly inspiring display of individual human courage and compassion; and alongside, a bitches’ brew of religious fanaticism, institutional failure and political corruption that made a person not want to live on this planet anymore. It was a hard time to hold on to romantic ideals about the little human heart’s resilience. Heathen managed to be both bleak and uplifting, as if quixotic romanticism was the only redeeming virtue in a world that was already undeniably halfway fallen apart.
Nothing is more underrated than early-2000’s David Bowie. David Bowie, of course, never flies under the radar, but it does seem like the material he put out in 2002 is due for a rapturous posthumous embrace. It may be because these are the Bowie records I grew up waiting for and running out to the store to buy. It may be my own attachment feelings. But I do think that Heathen, for example, is record that really needs to be held up. It has an atmosphere of sustained melancholy, and yet an uplifting warmth and grandeur. And, of course, iconic visuals. Sometimes I forget how much I loved this record in 2002. We’re always too busy listening to Ziggy Stardust for the fifteen hundredth time, but sometimes Ziggy is just too addled and wired. Sometimes the leper messiah comes in floppy bangs, reminding us to keep our heads warm, even though the world might be slowly burning.
Marianne Faithfull has for the most part left her gutterpunk mid-70’s persona far behind. She is a lady of class and gentility. But every once in a while that half-dead but foul-mouthed wraith still reappears. She who poured all her rage and her broken soul into lines like “Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.” In 2002 she made her most rock-oriented album in a decade, and it recaptured some the skin-tingling burning anguish of the Broken English years. She finally let it be known exactly what she thought of her longtime role as the ethereal muse, her iconic girlfriend-to-the-stars salad days; “suburban shits who want some class all queue up to kiss my ass.” It’s simmering with resentment for a lifetime as an accessory, a supporting character, a short chapter in someone else’s book, an icon for all the wrong reasons. Yet it’s also self-deprecating. She knows she got through on dumb luck and the kindness of strangers. She knows she went splat when she fell off the pedestal, but she’s still angry about being on that fucking pedestal in the first place.
I appreciate a good meditation on loneliness, solitude and alienation, especially when my own love life is on track. Loneliness and solitude, of course, are distinct things that only incidentally intersect. Alienation, longing, love and the rest are yet more circles in an imperfect diagram of the human condition. Many of us sleep just fine alone in our beds – in Moby’s case, most likely on organic whole wheat sheets. There’s always the dream, even for the most incorrigible loner, of finding someone to sleep with holding hands. I mean, sex is cool, but have you ever slept with someone holding hands? (As the meme goes.) We humans are just habitually oversexed and undersnuggled, I guess, and we want feel warm and safe in our sleeptimes. And loved.
Moby really makes the romantic yearnings of an unassuming schmuck sound, well, romantic. In the general scheme of things, as things stand today, mediocre dudes who have the sad feels are out of favor, let’s leave it at that. But Moby is not your average mediocre sad dude. He only looks like one. He has great things inside that eggy bald head of his. Artistic greatness, as we all know it, is taking your own mundane and inherently selfish emotional landscape, and transposing it into something that sparks other people’s souls with recognition. Great art makes you look anew at people you normally dismiss, barely visible people, people you would mock if you noticed them at all. Like that aging hipster with his vegan latte and his limited edition laptop and his beanie – he’s a person too, and he has the same great depths you have. He may even have great sounds and visions inside his head that could touch the world with their beauty and universal truth. All this because art is empathy. Art is awaking others to their own depths of feeling. Art is sharing those depths of feeling. (Art is shorthand for emotional communication for people who suck at talking about their feelings.)