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.
Like most of Marianne Faithfull’s work, this strikes a graceful balance between morose and uplifting. It’s an unlikely balance, but it sums up Faithfull pretty well. Her entire life, actually, is a lesson in unlikely balances. Misery breeds strength and self-destruction breeds creativity. She hit rock bottom as hard as she could, and has spent the years since finding beauty it hard lessons. A Child’s Adventure is postcard from an artist in the throes of rebirth. Not in any corny Hallmark sense either; Faithfull was coming out of a decade of drug addiction and poverty, struggling to revive a career wrecked to nothing. She lived a life that was extreme even by rock star standards, and the work that emerged from those experiences was unprecedented. While A Child’s Adventure hasn’t earned the universal critical praise of Broken English, it is a worthy companion piece. Less fiercely angry, it is moody, introspective, and surreal. It’s depressing and goes to some pretty dark places, yet the melancholia is comforting. Even life between the cracks has hope and beauty.
Marianne Faithfull brings you a genteel Swingin’ London take on The Mamas & The Papas feel-goody California groove. Can this song get any more cafe au lait chipper and inoffensive? Or could it be quite the opposite? Given that The Mamas & The Papas were representin’ the kindest, gentlest, most misleadingly wholesome seeming contingent of sixties counterculture? Oh yes. The Mamas & The Papas’ ‘harmless hippies’ image was tarnished by the Three D’s (Death, Divorce and Drug Abuse) long before we were all collectively squicked out by revelations of what John Phillips did to his daughter. Which lends their Scooby-Doo-level corny music a sick veneer of unintentional irony. Marianne Faithfull, of course, is the convent girl who leaped into the abyss, and even before the poison, she knew well enough how to find the dark side in the apparently sunshiny and inane. She wasn’t as soulful in 1966 as she is today, but she was secretly morbid at the very least. I think this song is corny as a bag of tortilla chips – it can only be enjoyed with the understanding that its harmonies are a facade for very dark secrets.