May 10, 2020

Strange Something, Anyway


At some point in late March, it was reported that singer Marianne Faithfull had been hospitalized in London with COVID-19 symptoms. It was very grim news, but reminded me of my one and only encounter with her.

            Beyond her status as a stained cult icon of rock’n’roll excess, I never cared much about Marianne Faithfull prior to the late Eighties. Apart from her first single, the Rolling Stones-penned “As Tears Go By,” I don’t think I could even name a single one of her songs. Then in 1987 she released Strange Weather, which amounted to a second comeback album. The first had been 1979’s Broken English, which she recorded after a decade’s worth of chronic laryngitis, homelessness, heroin addiction and alcoholism. Strange Weather was recorded after a stint in rehab and the suicide of the man with whom she was having an affair. After being known from the start as a rock and pop singer, the album found her reinventing herself as a jazz and blues singer, covering songs by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Tom Waits. Almost twenty-five years after she first recorded it, the album also included a reworked version of “As Tears Go By”. Strange Weather received a good deal of mainstream press and praise, and in that rarest of cases, the praise was justified. Good album. In the rocky two-plus decades since her mid-Sixties heyday, Faithfull had evolved into a kind of British Marlene Dietrich, with a smoke-scarred throat and a vocal range that took no chances. She was only forty-one when the album came out, but sounded like she was in her seventies. More specifically, she sounded like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She’d been through various hells in the preceding years, they’d all taken their toll, but she made the damage work for her.

            I picked up the album when it was first released, liked it, and pulled it out for a listen every now and again. Yes, I was a drunken and dissolute twenty-two year old punk rock kid, but even then I listened to a bit of everything. The hardcore purists were always mortified by my record collection, which included jazz, crooners, opera, pop and Irish folk along with the Angry Samoans and Russian Meat Squats, but so be it. By the late Eighties punk had become dull and repetitive, my attention was waning, I was running out of patience for a scene that had become so fucking generic, and my interest in other kinds of music was growing. I found myself listening to Don Ho and Slim Gaillard far more than Black Flag. I had a few Dietrich and Lotte Lenya albums as it stood, so Strange Weather fit right in.

            A year or two after the album came out—I think this must have been 1989—it was announced Faithfull would be playing Philly’s Theater of the Living Arts.

            Now, TLA was located on the eastern edge of Center City, over toward the river. It was a nice, if dingy, fairly intimate theater space with seats and everything, perfect for acts too big for the little clubs on or near South Street, too small for The Orpheum, or whatever that big West Philly venue was called, too mainstream for the Painted Bride, and generally more adult-oriented in its performers than those you’d find playing the standing-room-only Chestnut Cabaret. More than just a music venue, the TLA hosted theater, performance, even the occasional award show. I’d seen a bunch of things at TLA during my stint in Philly, from Bob Mould’s first solo acoustic tour, to The Cramps, to performance artist and monologist Eric Bogosian, to Mink Stole’s one woman show. So when it was announced Marianne Faithfull would be playing there in a few weeks, I decided to check it out. It was a good space to see someone like her.

            My friend Michael was a tall, broad-shouldered guy with a large leonine head and long blond hair who fronted a local metal band. His boyfriend Peter was slighter, a chain-smoking poet, theatrical set designer and sometime director who was always ready with a witty and deliberately shocking quip. I was honestly never clear about how publicly open they were about their relationship. Being gay was certainly never a part of Michael’s metal persona, but in private it was a simple given and no big deal. They both loved all things campy, loved Keane paintings, Mercedes McCambridge, Bette Davis’s late career, and would later collaborate on a one-man (well, one drag queen) show about Joan Crawford. In those terms, Marianne Faithfull , especially in her new role as a wasted jazz singer, was just a shade shy of Judy Garland, so I figured they’d be going to the show as well.

            Only when I brought it up did I learn that along with his set design work, Peter had a side job running the sound and lighting board at the TLA. For all the times we’d talked about his work, Peter had never mentioned it before. As it happened, he was going to be working the Marianne Faithfull show, so they invited me to tag along and sit up in the booth with them. (“Best seats in the house,” Michael said.), and I accepted the invite. It’d save me the cost of a ticket, and I was more interested to see what went on in the booth than I was in the show.

            The show was scheduled for a Tuesday night, which was perfect. My wife at the time was working on her Masters in linguistics at Penn, and every other Tuesday she took the train up to New Haven to work at an acoustics lab that was somehow connected with Yale. She’d stay at the lab overnight and return the next afternoon.

            This of course meant that every other Tuesday when she headed to New Haven I was free. I could eat whatever I wanted (it usually meant a Styrofoam takeout container filled with assorted deep-fried wonderments from Lee’s Fish and Steak across the street), watch whatever filthy, depraved movies I wanted, hit the bar for a few hours, hang out with those more degenerate friends she could not tolerate, wander the streets, go a little (or extremely) crazy. All the things I generally couldn’t do when she was around. Many terrible and wonderful things happened on those nights. And given she wouldn’t be home until the next afternoon, I’d have time in the morning to clean up the mess and let the hangover fade. I always looked forward to those Tuesdays.

            That particular Tuesday, the plan was to meet Michael and Peter at their place around six, and the three of us would head over to the TLA so Peter could do the sound check before the eight o’clock show.

            Knowing Michael, Peter, and myself, I figured there would be some drinking involved along the way, so thought it would be best to put a bottom on my stomach before heading out. There wasn’t time to get over to Lee’s, so I just whipped up a quick pot of Ramen and gobbled it, had a swig of Thunderbird and a couple of beers, slipped a half-pint of Wild Turkey into the pocket of my tattered army jacket, and headed out. I forget exactly where they lived now, but it was about a ten minute walk. Along the way I popped into a Wawa and bought a Mars bar, which I also slipped into my pocket.

            When I showed up at their small but very neat apartment, they had their own bottle of bourbon sitting open on the square, formica-topped kitchen table. Peter fired up a hash pipe and we passed it around, then they went off to get ready, and I kept drinking.

            We got to the theater about seven, already pretty fuzzy, and headed upstairs to the control booth on the second floor. Three large windows looked down on the stage and Peter took his seat at the console. The booth was larger than I would have expected, with a couple of chairs, a table and a bathroom along with the small central control board. The dim lighting in the booth left everything a bluish gray, save for the desk lamps shining down on the switches and knobs of the console. Somehow it reminded me of the balcony in my junior high gym, but I couldn’t say how or why.

            “There’s nothing fancy tonight,” Peter said as he hit a few buttons and a couple of spotlights illuminated the stage, where two stools and a microphone had already been placed. “She only has her husband or boyfriend or whoever the fuck he is playing guitar, and that’s it. I won’t have to do a fucking thing.”

            They lit a joint and I removed the Wild Turkey from my pocket. Things got a little blurrier.

            There wasn’t a big crowd there that night, the theater was only about two thirds full, which surprised and saddened me a little, but Faithfull, as I recall, was gracious. She sat on one stool, singing her songs and telling her stories, while the guitarist (whoever he was) sat on the other stool behind her to the left. I can’t recall now if Faithfull smoked cigarettes during the show, but something tells me she did. If not, she should have.

            Meanwhile up in the control booth, more pot was smoked, I kept hitting the half pint, and at some point I ate the candy bar, being careful to tear the wrapper open as neatly as possible, flattening it out, folding it, and slipping it into my pocket when I was done. I wondered idly if Faithfull would be able to see all that was going on in the booth from her vantage point, but doubted it given the spotlight.

            About ten minutes into the show, I suddenly didn’t feel well. Something very wrong and unexpected was happening in my head and guts. I felt warm, then a moment later was soaked in sweat. Waves of warm nausea rushed over me, and as quietly as possible I made a dash for the bathroom. Thank god they had one up there, because there was no way I would’ve made it down the stairs to the lobby.

            Just as I wondered if she’d be able to see what was happening in the booth, as I hung desperately to the sides of the toilet retching my guts out I wondered if Faithfull, or anyone in the audience, would be able to hear me, and if they’d take it as a commentary on the show.

            I didn’t think it would ever end, as everything I’d ingested over the previous two or three hours sprayed out of me in wave after wave of cold vomit. When it was at last all over and I’d been wrung dry, I blamed the Ramen.

            Legs a little shaky but my head suddenly clear, I returned to the chair behind Peter and continued watching the show. Neither Michael nor Peter said a word about my comically theatrical retching. I took another swallow of the Wild Turkey to clean out my mouth, and it felt good.

            After the show, a few stragglers hung out in the theater’s main aisle, clearly hoping Faithfull would make an appearance. Once Peter got everything squared away in the booth, we went downstairs to loiter with them.

            Sure enough, a few minutes later Faithfull and her guitarist emerged from their backstage dressing rooms and worked their way up the aisle, Faithfull stopping to chat with fans and sign autographs.

            As the other fans slowly drifted away once they said their piece or snagged that autograph, and it looked like she might be able to escape at last, Faithfull was cornered by a large, clearly unbalanced woman with stringy hair and a shabby pink dress. She wasn’t wearing shoes. The deranged fan had clearly been hanging back and waiting for those other nobodies to leave, ensuring she would have some quality time alone with the ragged chanteuse. As the crazy lady began detailing how she came to understand the two of them had a deep spiritual connection, I could see the slow pain edging into Faithfull’s eyes. This was not what she needed after a show. It went on for five minutes or more, way too long, before her guitarist, whom nobody wanted to talk to, stepped between them and began leading Faithfull toward the exit.

            Seeing my chance, and being a drunk, slightly stoned young asshole, I pulled the pen and Mars bar wrapper from my pocket, stepped into her path, held them out and asked if I might get an autograph.

            She saw what I was holding, got the joke, and wasn’t amused. That old urban legend (and it was an urban legend) that had done so much damage to her career in the late Sixties would never go away. She’d been through enough in her life that she knew a stupid shitheel out for a cheap yuk when she saw one. She glared at me for just a moment and walked away without ever signing my damned candy bar wrapper. After the crazy lady and the asshole, I wondered if Faithfull was beginning to reconsider the whole tour.

            On my way home that night, I remember thinking it had been a good show, exactly what I expected, though apart from “Strange Weather” and “As Tears Go By,” I couldn’t recall a single song she’d performed.

            When I left Philly for Brooklyn in 1990 I completely fell out of touch with Michael and Peter, the same way I fell out of touch with a lot of my friends back there. I didn’t see them again until 1999, when I made a stop in Philly on a book tour. They came up to chat afterward, and I was happy to see they were still together, even as my own first wife back in the day was long gone. They seemed exactly the same as I remembered them a decade earlier, until they introduced me to the eight-year-old African-American boy they’d recently adopted. That was unexpected, especially back then.

            Well, that’s all. A rambling, absolutely pointless story that only came back to me now after hearing Faithfull had been hospitalized. She was deemed healthy and released on April 22nd. Now I’m just trying to remember where I heard that story about her going on tour with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison in 1965.


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