The Singer Not the Song: Greil Marcus on Marianne Faithfull

By Marcus, Greil | Artforum International, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The Singer Not the Song: Greil Marcus on Marianne Faithfull


Marcus, Greil, Artforum International


MORE THAN TWENTY YEARS AGO, in 1987--eight years after her shocking punk album Broken English, already twenty-three years after her worldwide smash hit "As Tears Go By" offered the angelic face and voice of a seventeen-year-old who soon enough didn't just happen to become Mick Jagger's girlfriend--Marianne Faithfull made Strange Weather. It was an album of cover songs, a collaboration with the producer Hal Willner--and it was leaden, labored, even the lightest arrangements buried under layers of self-consciousness. The idea, it seemed, was to use experience--that is, Faithfull's notorious life as a longtime heroin addict ("a junkie on the street," as she put it in her 1994 autobiography) as a concept. Faithfull would throw herself at Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It with Mine," already indelibly plumbed to its depths by both Dylan and Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention, at "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from the Jose Ferrer-Zsa Zsa Gabor version of Moulin Rouge, Lead Belly's "I Ain't Goin' Down to the Well No More," Billie Holiday's "Yesterdays," Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's title song, even back at "As Tears Go By"--and the songs would be transformed, because she had lived. But the only thing more pretentious than the music was Terry Southern's liner notes: "The fabulous Marianne Faithfull takes up where Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich leave off. In fact, she might well be called the 'Rhythm and Blue Angel.'"

The first sign that Easy Come Easy Go (Decca), the new Faithfull-Willner collaboration, is different is plain on its face. The album's front shows a drastically young-looking Faithfull, standing behind a drastically ancient-looking studio microphone, apparently expressing boundless devotion toward whatever it is she's singing. The tones are muted brown, just past sepia. "12 Songs for Music Lovers," reads a line below the title ("18 Songs ..." on the two-disc British version)--just like a generic '50s album of recent hits by any of the sort of sub-Tony Bennetts and Patti Pages who filled the record stores in those days. And the same sense of humor--of play--is at the heart of Faithfull's first song, long before the set explodes all over the place with her outrageous duet with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) on the Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby."

The first song is Dolly Parton's 1970 "Down from Dover." There's not exactly room for fun in it: The girl who's singing keeps telling herself the man who got her pregnant is coming down from Dover, to save her, to give their baby a name, to give them a home, to marry her, to show that he hasn't completely forgotten she exists, which her parents already have. She all but counts off the days, and finally the baby is coming, he's not there, and the baby is born dead. You can't sing this song without overdoing it; you can't throw it away, not without condescending to it. You can't make it into a pun by, say, dropping the signature riff from Petula Clark's 1964 "Downtown" into it--and Faithfull's performance of the song is so strong you may not immediately notice that that's what she and Willner have done. "Down from Dover," Faithfull keeps crying, quietly, as if this plea for deliverance is ordinary life, something that happens every day, as opposed to something that will never happen, and right in the middle of the song, mocking her, beckoning her, is the wordless invocation of "Downtown, downtown!"--precisely where, as Dolly Parton made clear a year before "Down from Dover," in her unbearably soft "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy," the girl in this song will end up: downtown, on the street. As opposed to what they did on Strange Weather, Faithfull and Willner aren't layering Faithfull's own story over the song, to give the performance a legitimacy that is, you can hear, spurious almost to the degree that the song validates itself--in other words, to rob the song of its legitimacy in order to transfer it to the singer. They're taking the song as territory to walk through, eyes open, listening, somehow leaving the singer and the territory changed when the passage is done. …

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