matt cain
what i watched last week

music friday: marianne faithfull, broken english

Again, I find myself wondering how much of a particular story is known to younger readers. I realize that I talk a lot about old music in these weekly posts. It’s not meant as a rejection of newer music, just a resigned acceptance that I know more about the old.

What does the name Marianne Faithfull mean to people who are, say, my kids’ age (36 and 34)? I have no idea, but I imagine she’s a nonentity for most of them. So I can’t just come on here, say a few words about her album Broken English, post a video, and be done, as if everyone knows about Marianne Faithfull already. I keep returning to the same point, that boomers act as if everything specific to their culture is in fact universal. Of course “everyone” knows Marianne Faithfull. But why would they? And why should they?

Before she was 20, Faithfull had already recorded several chart hits, most notably the Jagger/Richards song “As Tears Go By”. She had married, had a son, and run off with Mick Jagger. She was impossibly beautiful, the ultimate example of the “British birds” (although all votes for Julie Christie will be acknowledged).

In her 20s, she found drugs, was part of an infamous drug bust, out of which came a rumor that police “had interrupted an orgy of cunnilingus in which Jagger had been licking a Mars candy bar pushed into Marianne’s vagina.” Faithfull fell into a spiral of drug addiction. Still in her mid-20s, she was living on the streets, hooked on heroin. She gradually recovered, and even released a couple of nondescript albums. But by 1979, with punk having done its part to break down the iconography of the 60s, it is safe to say that no one expected Marianne Faithfull, now 33, no longer possessing the sweet voice of her folkie past, would release the best album of her life, indeed, one of the most remarkable albums of the year.

The title track to Broken English was dedicated to Ulrike Meinhof. The titles of the other songs on Side One gave a hint of what was on the album: “Witches’ Song”, “Brain Drain”, “Guilt”. Side Two opened with “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, a Shel Silverstein song previously recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. After Broken English, the song belonged to Faithfull. She also offered a cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” that reached close to the heights of the original.

Through it all, there was Faithfull’s voice. Yes, it was ruined, rough, scarred, very unlike what she had sounded like in the past. But she herself was not ruined. To be sure, she was rough and scarred, but she had come out on the other side, and she would not be denied. The power of the album was increased by our knowledge of where she had been, a one-time pop icon turned homeless junkie. As Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone, “The lyrics of Broken English are not autobiographical, but the album's power begins with Marianne Faithfull's old persona and with one's knowledge of the collapse of the woman behind it.”

At the end of the album was “Why’d Ya Do It?” It starts as a conversation between two lovers on the brink of separation. He gets in the first licks: “I had my balls and my brains put into a vice, and twisted around for a whole fucking week.” But She takes the song over, and in 1979, Marianne Faithfull is just the woman to play the She. “Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you let that trash get a hold of your cock, get stoned on my hash?” Not every line works … heck, half of them are silly at best. But the ones that work are unforgettable, especially as Faithfull presents them. “Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you do what you did?”, she asks, over and over, “betray my little oyster for such a low bitch.” Finally, she lays it down so that it will never get up:

Why’d ya do it, she screamed, after all we’ve said
Every time I see your dick, I see her cunt in my bed

It would be unfair to say that Marianne Faithfull has spent the last 30+ years living off of that moment. She has made some fine albums (and some not so fine), becoming a chanteuse in the style of Marlene Dietrich. But she can never startle us again the way she did in 1979.

Here is the original:

Here is where she was in 1964:

And here she is in 1973: