Marianne Faithfull

Park West, February 5

By Monica Kendrick

In her hilarious 1994 autobiography, Faithfull, Marianne Faithfull tells the story of the time she OD’d on sleeping pills, shortly after Brian Jones died. She writes that she “spoke” to Jones before lapsing into a six-day coma, then hints wryly that it would have been better for the Rolling Stones’ mythology–and her own–if she too had died. Such is the quandary of people who manage to outlive their legends.

Stated flatly, it sounds like a horrible cliche. But no one’s more aware of that than Faithfull, whose own legend–she survived Mick Jagger and several other nasty habits–she embraces and satirizes by turns. On her 1979 comeback, Broken English, her voice sometimes seemed to be cracking under the weight of her rage, yet she had to be getting a great big hoot out of singing lines like “‘Why d’ya do it,’ she said, ‘when you know it makes me sore?’ / “Cause she had cobwebs up her fanny and I believe in giving to the poor.'”

Reviewers at the time zeroed in on the bad relationships and the drugs and neglected to notice other directions in which the album wandered–like the straightforward pagan hymn “Witches’ Song” or Faithfull’s character-study take on Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” about a stifling suburban-housewife life she never lived–or that the most genuinely raging song on the record was a vicious rendering of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” Many more since have tried to write Faithfull off as a tragic character in some kind of rock ‘n’ roll morality play, but she continues to evade them–she was too honest and bawdy to play the fallen virgin then, and she’s too robust and alert to play the faded diva now.

In 1991, Faithfull played the bitter, raunchy prostitute Jenny in a Gate Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera–typecasting if I’ve ever seen it, but oddly ironic. Brecht insisted that the audience should not be allowed to identify with or romanticize any of Threepenny’s characters, much as Faithfull refuses to sentimentalize her own lurid past. Yet his and Weill’s affection for the lowlifes in the play is obvious: they get all the best songs. It’s hard to imagine one of the sanctimonious petit bourgeois characters as the singer or subject of something as memorable as “Pirate Jenny” or “Mack the Knife,” and it seems Brecht and Weill didn’t even try.

On her new album, 20th Century Blues, most of which she performed at Park West last week, Faithfull sings Weill’s songs and other cynical yet romantic show tunes of the same period, including the Noel Coward title track; Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which she first recorded almost ten years ago; and Friedrich Hollaender’s “Want to Buy Some Illusions” and “Falling in Love Again,” both sung most famously by Marlene Dietrich. Faithfull’s rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” a murderous revenge fantasy (which in the play is sung not by Jenny but by another character imitating her), is particularly effective, with its pregnant pauses and its soaring, worshipful tones for the imagined pirate ship; it’s clear that she thoroughly enjoys singing it, much as her younger self loved “Why D’ya Do It?” The same glee was evident in her surprise live version of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which isn’t on the album. She smiles generously. Oh, she knows now why ya did it–ya couldn’t help yourself, ya poor weak bastard.

Faithfull’s other versions of Weillian odds and ends are at least serviceable. If her lusty “Alabama Song” doesn’t quite match up to Lotte Lenya’s delightfully eccentric phrasing, it does at least erase the ghastly specter of the Doors’ version, which is all anyone could really ask for. Her take on the final verse of “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” was a little over-the-top live–the tragedy is inherent in the lyrics and doesn’t need to be worked so hard. But her “Complainte de la Seine” (written during Weill’s brief exile in Paris, with lyrics by the French poet Maurice Magre), an evocation of the soul of a city as seen from the bottom of its river, was perfectly melancholy, slightly sinister, one of the high points of the show.

Conceptually, Faithfull was walking through a minefield. The show was billed as “An Evening in the Weimar Republic,” which raises more (and more political) expectations than, say, “Marianne Faithfull Sings Kurt Weill.” It conjures images of economic rack and ruin, of bloody upheaval, of Nazis coming to drive our brilliant, hard-drinking, polysexual von Trapps into exile or worse. To get misty-eyed about the Weimar Republic as a sort of creative Camelot is to mourn all sorts of lost bohemias–New York bohos have even been known to equate gentrifiers with Nazis. Ghosts make good rhetoric, but sometimes they make bad art. Neither, fortunately, was the case at Park West. What came through is that impending apocalypse adds a certain poignancy to everyday life. That’s something Faithfull has said she felt in the late 60s, though of course her apocalypse was personal. But it’s that personal Gotterdammerung that gives her the feel for this material.

For her second encore–right before her third standing ovation–Faithfull chose to do an a cappella rendition of the traditional Irish ballad “Love Is Teasin'” (which she first recorded on the Chieftains’ 1995 celebrity-packed album The Long Black Veil), completely devoid of kitsch and deeply affecting in the respectfully silent room. She said, “Imagine the Chieftains around me for this one,” but I don’t think anyone bothered. Though Faithfull likes to invoke ghosts–she called up Harry Nilsson’s with a snifter of Remy Martin and a spotlight on an empty chair while she sang his bittersweet “Don’t Forget Me”–she doesn’t really need any of them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by David V. Kamba.