“Help gets so unhelpful, near the end”
Marianne Faithfull can be kind of a downer sometimes. She gets into some of the darker corners of the average human experience, having lived them all, of course. She began performing this adaptation of a Caroline Blackwood poem in the 70’s, when it was still unclear whether or not her own substance abuse would take her down. It didn’t, because apparently Marianne Faithfull has a constitution unrivaled by anyone except some guy named Keith. This woman is going to sit and watch the world burn to the ground and then reach for another drink. On a realistic note though, Faithfull has had to face mortality in recent years. She is no longer about to drown in whiskey and heroin, but she’s facing the mundane reality that no one ever really survives. She’s undergone treatment for breast cancer and other health problems, and she’s seen many close friends pass away. The death of Anita Pallenberg last year was particularly hard. Those things lend a new level of gravitas to Faithfull’s latest work. (As if gravitas was a thing she was lacking.) She was never just playing at being one step away from oblivion, but now oblivion is inevitable, a burden of time, not a threat of her own making. No one comes close to Faithfull when it comes to exploring themes of shame and regret, desperate hope and longing, love and redemption. She has the optimism and black humor of a soldier who returns alone from the battlefield.
An Irish folk song that has been sung by every troubadour/Irish singer who ever sung for centuries, which Marianne Faithfull, in 1966, recorded with a prominent sitar accompaniment. Because it was 1966 and sitars were totally trending. It’s kind of terrible but it illustrates the odd niche Faithfull occupied as a pop singer. Keep in mind that teenage girl pop singers didn’t get to make very many creative decisions vis a vis their own careers, then as now. So this weird combination of very traditional and very on-trend was considered to be a product that record companies were confident in selling. Faithfull herself was a fragile product whose image was in many ways the creation of her management. With her fallen-aristocracy background and convent-school education, and of course, those looks, she was the embodiment of a certain centuries-old ideal of an English rose of a girl – pristine but plucky, virginal yet dead sexy, upper class but hardworking, etc. – but updated for the times, modern and hip, down with the trends, mod for the sixties. Edgy, even, with her dangerous friendships and her habit of saying and doing controversial things. Of course the real meat of Marianne Faithfull’s story is how she systematically sabotaged that image, how she very nearly killed herself on her journey to becoming a real artist. But it’s important to examine just what a seamless and appealing product she was at her pop star height, what a beautiful gleaming pedestal she leaped off of. Today, of course, no one wants to hear a girl in a Peter Pan collar trilling Irish folk songs in a thin reedy voice accompanied by dignified acoustic plucking, but the appetite for virginal teenagers with big eyes and innocent hearts is no less voracious. It’s the eternal fantasy of a girl who is ripe with unplucked sexual promise, with a full heart and an empty bed, a blank slate too young to have a real identity, too innocent to be wary of romantic entrapment, too full of love to hold herself back, just ready and waiting to be claimed and defiled and too dumb to know better. She doesn’t have a story of her own, she doesn’t have any needs except to be filled with whatever a man fills her with, she doesn’t have anything to express but longing. She’s basically not a person, she’s a trope. The music might change, but the trope does not.
Just as we’ve established that all songs are about sex, we now see that most songs are about women, some are by women, and a select few are all of the above. Now, we explore those things in more depth. We will confront the dreaded ‘male gaze’ and its female sidekick ‘the muse’, and what we can learn from them both, and, of course, what female artists have to say about it from their side. Who better to kick that thesis off than Marianne Faithfull, who still has the words ‘professional muse’ stamped at the top of her resume decades after she walked out of that job and slammed the door. There is a lot to unpack in Faithfull’s embodiment of the muse, and she unpacked it very well herself. (Hint, read her book.) The short of it is, it’s impossible to be a fully flowered artist when you occupy a pedestal of other people’s making, and in order to become one, you have to kick your youthful, pedestal-occupying self into the dirt, and having destroyed her every vestige, move on with your life. What Faithfull has to offer, in her second life, is real hard-won perspective on a woman’s inner life, a clear view of what scars we carry as we move away from our prime muse years and into our real prime. Love, sex and romance aren’t what songs written by men make them out to be. In fact, they’re often the opposite, and men’s romantic gestures are very often just plain abuse dressed up with flowers. That’s something that has to be learned the hard way, and it makes the allure of pop song romance fade quickly. Romantic pop songs come from a place of unquestioned privilege or from the deeply naive. Torch songs and the blues are where it’s at. That’s what Marianne Faithfull’s torch songs have to teach us; they’re love songs for when we’ve become too grown up to fall for love songs anymore. We know that to be fully creative and self-sustained, we have to reject the romantic fantasies we pursued as girls – the ones that got us walking blindly into growth-stunting, manipulative, abusive situations with men who offered us pop song platitudes – and choose sometimes to be lonely, unsupported and sexually frustrated because it’s still preferable to ending up in a cage gilded with romantic gestures.
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.
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.