“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.
Marianne Faithfull really knows how to find cool people to hang out with her in the studio. Old and young, they all line up for a chance to guest star on one of her records. Everyone wants a touch of that louche glamour. On her cover album Easy Come Easy Go, Faithfull had a neon-name guest on nearly every track. Some of them were trusty old sidekicks like Nick Cave and Keith Richards, some – like Cat Power and Anohni – are spiritual offspring. She’s had a particularly fruitful friendship with Jarvis Cocker over the years. They’ve written some great songs together, and he’s exactly the kind of soulful dandy she would have been in the arms of in her younger days. One thing they share is their conviction that being sad in a cloud of smoke is a high art form. I love hearing the old queen trade mournful sighs with the young acolyte. They chose an old chestnut from West Side Story that’s been handled by everyone from Aretha Franklin to The Pet Shop Boys, and it’s exactly the kind of song that generations of sad sacks have been drawn to for its mix of mournfulness and hope.
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 didn’t record much in 1969, for reasons that are readily apparent if you watch her promotional appearance on The Rollins Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus. Her dazed look and difficulty moving were the red flags of a person high as a kite on heroin. It’s also evident in the cracking of her formerly high voice around this time. Fans, if she still had any, didn’t know the the depth of her problems, but anyone could have guessed that Marianne was a hot mess. The irony was rich that she was still singing wistful tunes about striving for something beyond ‘living in a cage’. She was nothing but in a cage, and being wistful was no longer very cute. It is, in hindsight, a poignant performance, but it could very easily have been a fare-thee-well one.
Marianne Faithfull’s entire career is built on songs about being sad, starting when she was a teenager with very little to be sad about. She’s gained plenty of sorrows in the meantime, though, making her a perfect traveling companion for people who love to be sad. I’m not saying that I love to be sad, or that anyone should wallow in sadness just for the sake of being contrary, but… But it’s healthy to accept that sadness is part of life, and it’s something that you, a human being, are going to cycle in and out of, sometimes for years, so learn to take it for whatever beauty or inspiration you can find. It’s accepted wisdom, anyway, that there’s been more, better art created by people trying to navigate their way through sadness than by happy people. Happy people like to just sit there and smell the daisies or whatever. When you’re happy you don’t need to justify or explain it or somehow hammer it into something more meaningful. It’s sadness that needs to justify itself by being creativity juice or forming into pearls of wisdom or providing that big breakthrough in therapy that makes everything else make sense all of a sudden. Therefore we treasure sad music for making our sadness sound more like a state of grace and not so much senseless and overwhelming.
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.
The mournful sound of Marianne Faithfull’s voice is perfect for a day so dark that at 9 a.m. it felt like midnight and the rain has made sinkholes in the yard outside. Sleep, incidentally, is what one should do on a day such as this. Some of us have to get up and ponder the cosmos, alas. Still, the mood is set. Let your mournful spirit guide take you on an existential walkabout.