If you could genetically engineer the perfect human female to interpret the decadent Twenties-era cabaret music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, you would probably come up with Marianne Faithfull.
Faithfull, whose fresh blond beauty as a Sixties convent-girl-turned-pop-princess has since given way to a burnished, worldly, hard-edged appeal, has a new album of mostly Weill/Brecht songs, 20th Century Blues, on her new label, RCA Victor. The album was recorded live in Paris. She's also midway through a brief cabaret tour of the U.S., which includes two performances this weekend in Miami Beach.
Faithfull's mother Eva was half-Jewish, an Austro-Hungarian aristocratic descendant of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose novel Venus in Furs helped popularize the term masochism. Before she fled Germany ahead of the dominance of Nazism, Eva was a dancer in Max Reinhardt's Berlin dance troupe, a group that also gave a young Marlene Dietrich her start in show business. So if Faithfull, with her pale bangs and sleek French twist, tip-tilted eyes and burnt umber voice, offers a whiff of Dietrichian style when she sings "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" or "Falling in Love Again" in her new show, she comes by it naturally.
Beyond having the right genes to interpret Teutonic melancholy, there isn't much Faithfull hasn't done in her life since she put that virginal rendition of the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards tune "As Tears Go By" to wax back in 1964, landing her on the British TV show Top of the Pops as a teenager and in the American Top 30 singles chart. Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham "discovered" a young Faithfull at a party; he was intrigued by her shy good looks, and couldn't have known that she had some musical training and a flair for drama. After "As Tears Go By," she had hits with "Come and Stay with Me," "This Little Bird," and other light folk-pop songs.
Although she was married at eighteen to art dealer John Dunbar, eventually Faithfull accepted not only Jagger's song but his affections as well, thus beginning an affair with the Rolling Stone that would last for years, result in more than a few songs (the two co-wrote "Sister Morphine"), and a notorious drug bust (Faithfull was wrapped in only a rug while relaxing with Richards, Jagger, and a few others at Richards's house).
Although last year saw a commemoration of the 1969 Hyde Park concert in which the Stones paid tribute to the recently deceased Brian Jones, Faithfull's memories of that summer aren't exactly idyllic. Jagger tried to liberate a box of butterflies, but somebody had failed to put breathing holes in the lid and all the insects were dead. And, as Faithfull told a British reporter: "Mick went off with [actress] Marsha Hunt that night, and I was just about to take 150 sleeping pills and go into a coma for six days. So don't talk to me about cheery nostalgia for that time."
By her own admission, it was a self-destructive streak that caused her to break with Jagger, clearly the love of her life. She obviously regrets leaving him. "The moment I fell very deeply in love with him, I felt I had to leave," she told a reporter. Although he repeatedly tried to contact her in the ensuing years, she rebuffed him, and when he married Bianca Perez Morena de Macias in the early Seventies, Faithfull ducked into a bar, where she downed three vodka martinis in rapid succession. Things got worse very quickly. Acting jobs were canceled because of her "illness" (read: substance abuse), and her singing career was relegated to best-of collections of her Sixties pop. A downward spiral into drugs, homelessness, and punk rock culminated in 1979's bitter, brilliant Broken English, and her marriage to punker Ben Brierly.
In her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull says a u90,000 royalty check (about $180,000) for Broken English went for drugs (a lingering heroin habit), clothing, and general decadence. A third marriage ended six years ago, and now Faithfull lives serenely in rural Ireland with a cat in a cottage overlooking a garden designed by eighteenth-century English landscape master Lancelot "Capability" Brown. She enjoys Ireland's thriving artists' community and counts Van Morrison among her friends.
Artistically, Broken English was her salvation. Musically, it was very much of its time -- a combination of jagged punk rock and dance rhythms. The song "Why D'ya Do It" gave shocking voice to postromantic rage and bitterness, a startling turnabout for the sweet-voiced dollybird of "As Tears Go By."
It wasn't until 1987, when she'd overcome most of her bad habits, gone through rehab, and was approaching her art with a new seriousness that she produced Strange Weather, a first step into postmodern cabaret. Faithfull ditched the punk pose and had settled more into the guise of the mature, seen-and-done-it-all chanteuse, well on the path to the nicotine-stained romance of 20th Century Blues. She covered "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" on that album, and included a new, whiskey-sour version of "As Tears Go By" in which she truly is the sad woman watching children "doing things I used to do...."
There had been hints of Faithfull's future as a cabaret singer all along, of course. Before she became a pop star, she had a promising career as an actress in England. Faithfull was in rehearsal for a play at London's Royal Court Theater in 1964 when she was whisked off on a rock and roll bus tour of England that included Gerry and the Pacemakers and Gene Pitney (who was her pre-Jagger boyfriend). She did play Ophelia -- a particularly apt role -- in Nicol Williamson's 1969 London staging of Hamlet, and she went on to make a few iconic, pop-trashy movies such as The Girl on a Motorcycle with Alain Delon. But an early first marriage, pop stardom, her life with Jagger, and later, her personal problems forestalled a continuing acting career.
All of her life experience -- the good, the bad, and the sleazy -- is put to use in her continuing adventures with Weimar-era, pre-Hitler German cabaret. For her version of Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny," Faithfull uses a fresh translation by her friend, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. And the version of "Mack the Knife" she delivers is full of gloom and darkness, unlike Bobby Darin's finger-snapping, hipster version from 1959. Faithfull's Macheath is dripping with blood; altogether it's a sinister, nasty little song. Having played Pirate Jenny in a recent Dublin production of The Threepenny Opera staged by McGuinness, Faithfull inhabits that song now as surely as Dietrich ever inhabited "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
She doesn't confine herself on 20th Century Blues to a period piece of Brecht/Weill numbers, though; Faithfull also delivers a heartbreaking version of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me." Certainly her current image as a cabaret star suits the 50-year-old Faithfull far better than the torn fishnet stockings and bitten-down fingernails of her late-Seventies incarnation as the damaged, heroin-addicted ex-convent girl who recorded Broken English.
The voice is no longer the high soprano of "As Tears Go By"; it's quite deep and husky, but only partly from cigarettes and her former life on the edge. As the singer herself likes to point out, early on it was predicted that she would be a mezzo-soprano or contralto. But thankfully it's also no longer the cracked, ragged, punk-ready instrument of Broken English or even Strange Weather. Faithfull worked hard on honing it ("If they give me reviews saying my voice is raspy, I'll kill them," she notes), and on 20th Century Blues her labor has paid off in a bruised, vulnerable, but supple and surprisingly strong instrument, all the better to interpret the tatty glamour of Weimar Germany.
Marianne Faithfull performs Friday and Saturday, February 7 and 8, at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 531-3747. Tickets cost $25
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