021. Dangerous Acquaintances: Marianne Faithfull, August 15, 1983Posted: June 6, 2012
Marianne comes to town on a steamy August Monday evening. It was a night of thigh-slappin’ rhythms, contented smiles … and dangerous acquaintances.
021. Dangerous Acquaintances: Marianne Faithfull, Fryfogle’s, London, Ontario, August 15, 1983, $12.50
Marianne Faithfull has occupied mental real estate in my consciousness since I was but a wee lad. As someone who grew up in a household where the music of the Rolling Stones was ever-present via my older sibs (“Dandelion” was one of the first singles I ever owned; Out of Our Heads, my first album, was gifted to my four-year-old self from a visiting aunt and uncle from the UK), I was always following the Stones-related headlines and hijinks. Mick and Marianne’s exploits throughout their time as a couple in the late 1960s always got a profusion of ink.
She’d of course recorded a hit version of “As Tears Go By” in 1964, and we all knew she’d largely written Sticky Fingers’”Sister Morphine” (Faithfull famously said in the late ‘70s: “I’ve been living off the royalties to ‘Sister Morphine’ for ten years which is really bizarre — don’t tell me drugs don’t pay.”) But by the time of Sticky Fingers’ release, she and Jagger were long estranged, her music and acting careers were over, and she had unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
The 1970s were not kind to Marianne, a time marked by her debilitating heroin use, alcoholism, and anorexia nervosa amid shifting from squat to squat in Soho. She would occasionally emerge from seemingly nowhere, such as when Faithfull memorably performed with David Bowie as part of his 1980 Floor Show television special in 1973, duetting with him on an off-the-cuff cover of “I Got You Babe,” wearing a backless nun’s outfit. Her mid-decade, country-tinged Dreamin’ My Dreams album was a curious hit in Ireland followed by a plethora of press mentions regarding her planned appearance in the never-filmed Sex Pistols movie, Who Killed Bambi?, to be directed by sexploitation legend Russ Meyer and written by Roger Ebert (!). Marianne was to play Sid Vicious’ mother, complete with a made-to-shock incest scene.
Marianne Faithful, in a nun’s habit and a backless robe, and David Bowie, dressed as “the angel of death,” perform a shaky take on Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” for Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show at the Marquee in London, UK, in 1973. (Speaking of David … see Next on Stage at the bottom of this entry)
But these were blips during an era when her raging addictions overtook her life, predominantly relegating her to the “Where Are They Now?” files of the time.
As the decade lurched to a close, there were reports in the UK music press that she’d signed to Island Records and was launching a comeback proper. Reinvigorated by punk’s anger and energy, this purported record was said to tap into a more contemporary, new wave-ish sound. While the prospect aroused curiosity, seeming as interesting as it was unlikely to actually come to fruition, virtually no one was prepared for the game-changing tour de force that was Broken English when it indeed appeared in October 1979.
Arriving on the cusp of the ‘70s morphing into the ‘80s, Broken English was not only leagues superior to anything anyone had anticipated but was also a surprise international hit (it did particularly well here in Canada, landing in the Top 30 and going platinum.)
Broken English is a signature, soundtrack album of its time for me. During that December ‘79/January ‘80 decade morph, just about everyone I knew owned it along with these other four time-and-place albums which I always group together: London Calling The Clash; the eponymous debuts from the Pretenders and the Specials; and Drums and Wires XTC.
It was a difficult-to-classify genre-blend, pulling from punk, new wave, disco, rock, blues, and reggae, presaging the hybrid nature that was emblematic of much of the early-1980’s best music. Gone was Faithfull’s soft schoolgirl serenade, replaced by an altogether more expressive, gravelly, cigarette-and-whiskey-soaked instrument: knowing, world-weary, and weather-beaten.
Even though she only had a partial hand in writing three of the LP’s eight tracks, Broken English came off as a distinctly personal expression. Each song was carefully selected, resulting in an autobiographical work that reflected Faithfull’s life, struggles, and interests. It ran the gamut from definitive interpretations of Shel Silverstein’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” through the title track, dedicated to the late German journalist-cum-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof gang/RAF, to her own heroin addiction (“What’s the Hurry?”).
The disc also notably featured sexually explicit language that was shocking for a pop record from that time in the form of poet Heathcote Williams’ raging “Why D’Ya Do It?” as well as her insouciant, non-gender-reversed delivery on “Brain Drain.”
Aesthetically and thematically, it’s a perfect album.
Broken English’s controversial, explicit “Why D’Ya Do It?” (you’ve been warned, those unfamiliar with the song and of delicate constitutions). Jeebus, you don’t want to cross Marianne.
How does one follow something like Broken English? Well, you don’t, really, but that’s not to say that Faithfull’s output has been shoddy or inconsequential since, nor that her earlier, innocent pop recordings from the 1960s are without merit. When I interviewed Marianne in 1989, I asked her,
VA: How do you regard your early pop hits from the 1960s today?
MF: I like (that material). It’s not stuff I would do now except for “As Tears Go By.” I never kept my records and I never listened to them. I just made them and then they went out, and I’ve never held on to them. But I did (recently) happen to hear them. The other day, Decca sent some CDs to my mother’s house as she wanted to hear them. So I played them, and I came away feeling “Well, that was a lot of work.” Some of it was alright. I could see that it was quite good. It was okay, you know? It was rather sweet.
VA: It was of its time.
That interview took place on the occasion of her second trip to London, when she was road-testing the show that eventually became the live release, Blazing Away (I’ll be covering that gig down the road as no. 063). Six years earlier, though, she had made this first stop in my old hometown, fortuitously playing my key watering hole/second home during that year, Fryfogle’s. Her appearance at Frys (just ten days after I’d attended that third and final Police Picnic at CNE Stadium in Toronto) was certainly the big buzz gig in my world for that summer in London, Ontario.
Fryfogle’s (or Fryfogles as it sometimes spelled online — can any Londonian’s from the time confirm?) was colloquially known as “Frys.” Here is a promo badge, courtesy of Ms. P.
In the period between this gig and Broken English, Marianne had released two more Island albums: 1981’s Dangerous Acquaintances and 1983’s A Child’s Adventure, which she was touring to promote. The official line held by many is the two subsequent discs made for wan successors, lacking the topical or musical bite of her 1979 masterpiece. While I am not going to argue that either follow-up is their predecessor’s artistic equal, I’ve always rejected the aforementioned thesis that they were duds. I’m quite fond of them. A recent re-listening to each for the first time in a long time confirmed just how good they are.
Both performed well commercially too, with Acquaintances just missing the Top 10 here in Canada, and Adventure hitting the Top 50 in a variety of markets.
Dangerous Acquaintances (1981) and A Child’s Adventure (1983).
Everyone I knew was pretty amped about her coming, more broadly so than even that summer’s visits by John Cale and Flipper. In the London Free Press’ review by Peter Laurie, he mentions that “Advance tickets for the Fryfogle’s show sold out in two days … and a good six hours before Faithfull came on stage, there were fans lined up outside the bar to get in.” I recall having dinner with my sister and brother-in-law (and possibly Lady Bump) prior to the gig, arriving mid-evening at a Frys shortly after openers, rockabilly act The Wise Guys, had left the stage.
The club was the most packed I ever recall seeing it, with attendees almost having to be shoehorned in to this den of human saturation. Forays to the bar and back required strategic navigation and optimum patience on this steamingly hot August night. It was still fun, though, as the bar was peopled with high-spirited familiar faces, and waiting-to-be-served times passed via casual, exaggerated exchanges — very, very inebriated casual, exaggerated exchanges — with those you ran into.
Above: The original review from the London Free Press. I’ve reconfigured it for readability below.
By the time we arrived, owing to so many turning up hours in advance to stake out a place and get the festivities rolling, there was nary a soul in the joint who wasn’t massively toasted from the resulting cumulative intake of whatever each was drinking/snorting/ingesting/smoking that night. “Erupting in jubilation” might be an apt phrase to describe the packed, partying patrons’ passionate welcome for Faithfull when she eventually appeared on stage.
The Free Press writer’s observation that “Monday’s crowd seemed almost out of place with their screams and shouts” when paired against a “mellowing” Faithfull is an accurate one, although I’m not sure that “out of place” is fair, given that the enthusiasm was genuine, albeit stimulant-tempered. Still, there was an amusing, contrasting gap between the largely mid-tempo, sedate dynamics of the music vs the crowd’s overtly demonstrative party-time response. Not that Faithfull seemed to mind one iota. Remember, this a lady who’d seen it all, conveying an impression of cheerful bemusement, entertained by the sea of barstool love. As Laurie put it, she “seemed content with a smile.”
My former brother-in-law reminded me of her decidedly casual stage attire on this oppressively humid night, composed of cut-off blue jeans and an ill-fitting black tank top (and “those pendulous breasts!!”).
Burnt into my brain is Faithfull up at the mike, neither wanting nor able to move much upon the compact performance space, sandwiched with musicians and equipment, holding the mike with her right hand, and keeping time by repeatedly slapping her thigh to the rhythm with her left, throughout the show.
“Broken English” kicked off the night. This title cut from her astonishing 1979 musical rebirth was written about the German journalist-cum-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, who had committed suicide in prison in 1976.
“Broken English” launched the set and, unsurprisingly, selections from its namesake LP featured prominently throughout the night. The churning, syncopated opening riff of “Why D’ya Do It?” triggered walls of hurrahs, and her recasting of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” concluded with Faithfull looking upwards, shouting something to the effect of “That was for you, Johnny,” although my brother-in-law remembers her dedicating it to “Johnny, wherever you may be.” What she actually said is probably a combination of both or somewhere inbetween.
The number I most recall is “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” but for the wrong reason: the synths just couldn’t get in sync with the rest of the band, resulting in an off-kilter performance that never properly gelled.
“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (above), and a live version of A Child’s Adventure’s “Times Square,” preceded by an interview (below).
Of course, A Child’s Adventurewas well represented too, with the smokey “Times Square” coming to mind as not only well-performed but also standing as an example of one of the evening’s particularly incongruous moments of artist/audience dissimilitude, the song’s sombre delicacy greeted by the crowd’s “YEE-HAW S’NVABITCH!!” riposte.
Marianne seemed genuinely pleased throughout it all, grinning and taking in the adulation. She looked and sounded terrific and together, as befitted her public persona from the early ‘80s which emphasized that she was now all cleaned up, her life harnessed. As I was to find out shortly thereafter, that mantra was more marketing than reality. I was privy to some backstage info via one of the gig’s organizers that made it clear Faithfull was far from abstemious as advertised. I don’t wish to be indiscreet to dear Marianne, so I will simply point to what she herself long ago revealed about her still being very much immersed in a number of the harder substances at this time, sustaining a broken jaw in the mid-‘80s after taking a tumble down a flight of stairs while intoxicated. Whatever was going on off-stage in her life at this time certainly had no bearing on her performance on this night.
Following this tour, she had an extended career lay-off, devoted to a more serious and successful stint in rehab before another career return and period of renewal for her. She resumed full-time recording in 1987, recasting herself as a torch singer with the excellent, Hal Wilner-produced Stange Weather (they had met via her participation in his Kurt Weill project, Lost in the Stars).
Meanwhile, Marianne’s faithful departed Frys, full of giddy goodness. While almost everyone I knew socially at that time was there that night, the only specific interactions I can remember were with my pal M. Zeppelin and another person we knew from that era. MZ had been one of the folks to arrive there good’n’early to get her shine on, and ended up a-drinkin’ with Chubby Junior, as a few of us had dubbed him. Chubby J was one the key dealers on the scene (and one of the few overweight speed freaks I’ve ever met or can think of, save Brigid Berlin). CJ had just come into a windfall of acid that he’d been personally sampling as well as trying to flog. Amid copious beeridge and what not, he indulged MZ in a few tabs so they could trip together. By the time I arrived, MZ and Chubby Junior were well into their LSD merriment.
Post-show, she and CJ were still flying the friendly skies when they discovered a pastime of maximum amusement. In the centre of Fryfogle’s, there was a stairwell leading down to the bathrooms and a sometimes-utilized second, smaller bar. A partial wall, standing approximately three or four feet high, surrounded the other three-quarters of the stairwell perimeter. The ledge atop the partial wall was generally used as a place for people to set their drinks on and lean against during a performance, with patrons often congregating around it. The dancefloor existed in the space between the stage and stairwell.
It was the norm that by any night’s end, the ledge was usually densely populated with empty beer bottles. CJ and MZ were yucking it up in and around the ledge area and accidently knocked off one of the empties, sending it plunging and smashing into pieces at the base of the stairwell.
Gales of chuckles from the tripping twosome ensued, leading CJ & MZ to pitch one empty down the stairs after another, their cackling mirth increasing with the sound of each successive crrrr-ashing bottle. Meanwhile, revelers carefully tried to avoid the carnage and flying glass as they made their way up and down the stairs en route to and from the bathrooms.
Talk about dangerous acquaintances!
“Falling From Grace” from A Child’s Adventure (1983).
“Truth, Bitter Truth” from Dangerous Acquaintances (1981).
Next On Stage –> In my piece on The Clash, I wrote that seeing them made for the most-anticipated gig I had attended up until that time. Well, this David Bowie concert one year later — at the same venue but utilizing the full stadium — left that prior show’s sense of anticipation in the dust as I finally got to see the performer who had long occupied the No. 1 spot on my “Must See” list. Bowie and his seventies output made such a seismic, and enduring, impact on my life that I am setting aside a whole first part simply to extrapolate on how formidable it was. Part Two will look at the actual show, featuring the great Rough Trade as opening act, on that gorgeous Labour Day weekend in 1983, ending one of the most memorable summers of my young life with an unforgettable climax.
I will also continue to bring my blog up-to-date regarding recent shows, concluding my look at the conclusion of 2010’s Ottawa Bluesfest via a crackling set from The Hold Steady and a unique, partially live presentation of the horror classic, Night of the Living Dead.
© 2012 VariousArtists