For many of the icons of the 1960’s, the 80’s were a time of reckoning. “What’s the deal with this permed hair and these synthesizers?” they thought. “How can I get in on this and prove that I’m still relevant and cool?” Let’s just say that there were a lot of embarrassing mid-life crises. For Marianne Faithfull, the opposite was true. She was one of the most iconic faces of the 60’s, but she spent most of the seventies with a needle in her arm, far too far gone to care about her own relevance or anybody else’s. For her, the 80’s were a time to finally take the reigns of her career, get her life back on track, clean the drugs out of her system and become an artist who wasn’t defined by her looks or her male companions. The series of rock albums she made starting in 1979 were a statement of purpose. They were angry, painful, mournful, disturbing and relevant in a way that her earlier work simply hadn’t been. Also, she was smart enough to know that at her age, she needed less hairspray and spandex in her wardrobe, not more.
Well, there’s one kind of blues I’ve never had to have. All the other kinds, yes, this one, no. Ahahahaha haha ha *weeping* “Always play to win, always seem to lose” is very true, though. Terry Reid was on it when he wrote that. Reid is one of those underrated talents who never quite got off the sidelines and into the spotlight, but some of his songs have had lives of their own. This one has been around the block. Marianne Faithfull recorded it in 1971, for an album that wouldn’t be released until the mid-80’s. Faithfull was dead on her feet in 1971, and she sounded it, but her song choice couldn’t be more apropos. She lived the blues. Every shade of the blues. However much I love her interpretation of things, in this case, I think it’s a little wobbly. There’s really only one definitive take of this song, and no, it’s not the original. The Raconteurs took it and blew it up. That’s likely where you’ve heard it, and you probably didn’t know it’s not a Jack White original. White is a great songwriter, of course, but he’s a great interpreter too, and when he does a cover, it’s always both unexpected and totally perfect. This duet with Brendan Benson is that, and one of the Raconteurs’ highlights.
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.
Many a singer has played the miserable wench Pirate Jenny, the prostitute who fantasizes bloody revenge upon her clientele. She’s been a figure in the public imagination since the early 1700’s, so she’s been around. The original, real-life Jenny Diver was well known gang leader and thief whose exploits included picking pockets at parties whilst wearing a false set of arms, being twice deported to America and bribing her way back to London, and, eventually, execution at the age of 41. She was still very much alive and active when John Gay made her a character in The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. That early template of musical theater proved surprisingly enduring, and Jenny’s immortality was assured. In 1928 Kurt Weill rewrote the play as The Threepenny Opera, composing brand new songs but keeping the story and characters. Weill’s songs have become popular standards, with Pirate Jenny being a particular favorite of singers with a taste for tragic glamour. It’s a song that every self-respecting interpretive singer tries their hand at, with various degrees of success. Judy Collins and Maddy Prior have tried, but it’s not a song for pretty-voiced singers. Lotte Lenya and Nina Simone’s versions are among the best known and the best, but for me, Marianne Faithfull’s is the ultimate. Nobody else has a comparable voice, rasping and angry and weary from a lifetime of abuse. Because it takes a real lifetime of hard living to bring to life a woman whose lot hasn’t changed much in 300 years.
What a lovely vision of domestic bliss, and, even more romantically, sky high city living. Whatever images the word penthouse gives you – be it raunchy porn or top dollar real estate – that is not this song. This being Marianne Faithfull, the grande dame of all things bohemian, what I picture is of course a garret of a kind that Manhattan doesn’t offer anymore. It’s a walk-up in a war-era brownstone, nothing like a playground of the rich. This being Marianne Faithfull, there’s probably cartons of cigarettes, unfinished paintings, a syringe or two in the kitchen sink. It’s a vision of love and squalor. Catnip for those of us who, as with every generation, believes that the previous generation’s artists were better for having had a more authentic squalor, and hence more authentic love, unshmeered by gentrification, hipsters and dilettantes. A fallacy, of course; today’s icon was yesterday’s dilettante. Still, the fantasy persists that bygone squalid rooms and broken hearts were somehow better.
Mostly because I haven’t listened to Marianne Faithfull’ early stuff in a while. It sounds dated, I know. On the other hand, maybe it shows the 60’s pop landscape better than famous songs from more famous artists do. Faithfull occupied a spot somewhere between the folk revival, Euoropop and the American standards showbook; her music didn’t actually have much in common with the British Invasion rock scene with which she is so associated. There was a market for that niche, apparently, though. Faithfull – by her own admission – didn’t make great choices in selecting her material back then; she favored songs by people she was friendly with, or ones that tickled her intellectually, rather than ones that were best for her voice at the time. I would say that she really didn’t have the vocal prowess for dramatic material, and this song wasn’t a good fit for her; still, it has its charm. Dramatic swelling strings need to make a comeback, if nothing else.
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.