“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.
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.
Sex with strangers is a taboo, one of the milder ones. It’s a not-uncommon fetish. It’s a profession. For some people, it’s a symptom of the corruption of traditional values; for others, it’s just something you do on spring break. Nearly any way you look at it, there’s the implication that for people who have sex with strangers it’s because they lead lonely and broken lives. They’ve failed, somehow, to know the people they have sex with. That may be nearly true. It’s probably true that most sex workers, for example, didn’t arrive at their position by skipping down a path strewn with daisies. There are the confirmed lonelyhearts of the world, the people who find sustained relationships impossible for whatever reason. Too busy, too ugly, too traumatized or too antisocial, they’ve just given up on partnership and domesticity. There are the fetishists, whose fetish exists outside of how functional or not they might be in other areas of their life, and then there are people who simply get a thrill from the breaking of a mild taboo. Then there are those who think they are being brave new girls, feminist trailblazers lifting the stigma of promiscuity one drunk stranger at a time, carving a new society by their rejection of good girl standards, claiming their place alongside men in the arena of meaningless fucking. Until they realize that their behavior has calcified into fetish, they’re too old to learn relationship skills, all of their peers have disappeared behind their white picket fences, and all they’ve done is repaint the old taboos a different color. They find that they’ve become the nighthawk at the diner.
One day I’m going to be a sexy older dame, and I only hope to be half as sensual and edgy as dame Marianne Faithfull. There have been many, many songs sung about being old and weary, if anybody can claim to have seen too much, it’s Faithfull. She owns the persona of the rueful old street singer. The other side of that persona is the unrepentant sensualist who savors her experience and can’t wait to live more. Which is incredibly inspiring, for anyone who doesn’t aspire to curl up and die once they’ve passed their golden child years. Life is still full of adventure, even if you’ve outlived your usefulness as an ingenue. There’s the promise of late life romance, free of the shame and stupidity of youth. There’s the satisfaction of wisdom well earned, the pride of self sufficiency, the relief of leaving the young woman’s pedestal behind forever. Once you’ve lived it all and seen it all, the world is your oyster.
After Radiohead, I think that Beck is the most overrated artist of the ’90’s and beyond’ era. I just cannot understand what the big deal is. Somehow he remains immensely popular and well respected by his peers, critics and 90’s kids who want to show that they have serious tastes. The opinion of critics and pretentious 90’s kids I couldn’t give less shits about, but peer respect has to be respected. When Marianne Faithfull picks up one of your songs and lets you play on it, you surely must have something of value going on. I can’t quite see what it is, but Marianne Faithfull is a master at picking gems, sometimes out of pure rubbish. She can find the broken soul in a song that the original artist never even meant to put there. In her inimitable way, she breaks this one wide open, and she owns it forevermore.