High Times Greats: Marianne Faithfull

1960s darling Marianne Faithfull on the cusp of the 1980s.
High Times Greats: Marianne Faithfull
Marianne Faithfull by Dennis Morris

From the June, 1980 issue of High Times comes Jake Poobah’s critique of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, republished below in celebration of Faithfull’s birthday on December 29.

Once upon a time the Beatles were cute as buttons, Carnaby Street was in flower, and miniskirts made sex seem just around every corner. Even the Rolling Stones were young. In those days Marianne Faithfull was the princess. Ethereal beauty, childlike voice, innocent sensuality—she was the woman in the mid-’60s myth. She had it all, including a storybook romance with Mick Jagger. It seemed wonderful. A match made in Electric Ladyland.

But then the dream went as bad as rotting pork. As high as Marianne had been, that’s how far she slid down the greasy pole. Cast aside by Jagger, addicted to heroin, broke, she became an object of pathos and scorn. She used to tell sad stories of how the big Stone would use her suffering as grist for his hits. No one likes a victim. Losers bleed on other people’s dreams. Her comeback attempts seemed like bad jokes and no one paid much attention.

Against this background, her new album, Broken English, is extraordinary and unexpected. By all rights, Marianne shouldn’t even be alive and yet here she is with the most powerful album by a woman since Janis. The irony is wonderful.

For the most part, Broken English is not a confessional or even personal album. Four of the eight songs are covers. Three of the remaining four were written by Marianne and about a half dozen other musicians. The music is as slick and professional as a well-organized corporate program.

All of this contributes to the album’s power. Marianne does not tell you what it’s like to be used by Mick Jagger, humiliated in the crew bus like the lowest groupie, or to lose your child to the state. Yet, listening to the record, you would not be surprised if Faithfull had had such experiences. Broken English seethes with hate, fear, loathing, guilt, anger and jealousy. But the emotions are distanced and controlled. Marianne’s not singing just about herself. She’s an artist, not a freakshow spectacle.

Like an actress’s, Faithfull’s emotions are part of her craft. In fact, Broken English reminds you of what an excellent actress Faithfull is. It’s not surprising that Americans still talk about the decade-old version of Ophelia in a nationally televised production of Hamlet.

Her voice sounds like she’s been gargling bile for years. Imagine Marlene Dietrich with a cold. But even though it’s not particularly musical, that voice is a finely tuned dramatic instrument. Her interpretations of songs express subtle shades of meaning and feeling only vaguely suggested by the words and music. Her reading of John Lennon’s “Working Class Heroes,” for example, translates the self-pity and anger of the early ’70s into end-of-the-decade desperation and emptiness.

Marianne’s limitation as an actress is that she doesn’t express softness or love very well. Actually, she doesn’t try much. Tender people like the heroine in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” become victims. The implicit message of Broken English is that it’s better to be fierce and tough and take no shit from anyone.

The distillation of this point of view comes on “Why D’Ya Do It.” It is the most powerful expression of female jealousy, possessiveness, egomania, rage and hatred ever pressed on vinyl. If you listen closely, the number is a dialogue between a languid, unfaithful lover and the woman he cheated. But actually he’s just there to set her off and admire her performance. Listen to her bitch:

Why d’ya do what you said
Why d’ya do what you did
Everytime I see your dick
I see her cunt in my bed
Why d’ya do what you said
Why d’ya do what you did
Betray my little oyster
For such a low bitch

It’s the female equivalent of macho. A bravura tirade whose emotional range no other singer I know of could begin to duplicate. Even her boyfriend is impressed, moaning in the end: ‘‘Big gray mother, I love you forever, with your barbed wire pussy and your good and bad weather.”

The band, which throughout the album provides a crisp, effortless and synthesized reflection of all Marianne’s moods, is particularly effective here. Their bubbly, metallic disco reggae rhythms combined with dissonant guitar and overblown horn flurries make you want to dance and duck at the same time.

Marianne, if Mick could still sing, he’d want to sound just like you.

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