November 01, 1996

Broken German

Filed under: Archive,Music


Marianne Faithfull

with Paul Trueblood

Space, October, 1996

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Marianne Faithfull has gone arty. It is not the first time. Even as a teenage waif, under the murky guidance of Andrew Loog Oldham, she was given to recitations of Jabberwocky and Full Fathom Five. She even returns to The Tempest again in A Secret Life, last year’s disappointing collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti. And, of course, she is no stranger to European cabaret- whether on The Boulevard of Broken Dreams or contributing some of the most memorable tracks on the late eighties Kurt Weill tribute, Lost in the Stars.

But now she’s gone the whole nein yards. Her current tour promises an Evening in the Weimar Republic, a showcase of Kurt Weill, Bert Brecht and Hans Eisler with a little help from Friedrich Hollaender and Noel Coward. No more pub gigs, none of that middle-aged grunge, Marianne Faithfull has gone legit. She’s in the thee-aytre.

There is a black chair and a table with a scarlet cloth, there is even a droll little string of lights from Martin Sharp. Ms. Faithfull is dressed in black brocade with a plunging cleavage, vertiginous high heels and a microphone cord that she negotiates like a coil of barbed wire.

Alabama Song opens, as it does on 20thCentury Blues, her current CD of the show. Faithfull’s voice is familiar as ever, rasping, vulnerable, defiant, and sardonic. Trueblood’s piano is bright and vigorous and Kurt Weill’s song rings with all the familiarity of the first Doors album. Want to Buy Some Illusions follows, with an ambling, crooning rhythm which suits the singer’s narrow but distinctive range. When she sings about romantic illusions there is a querulous edge to it all.

Introducing Pirate Jenny from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Faithfull enthuses over Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’s heavy-handed new translation and spends rather too long in explaining a song which so eloquently speaks for itself. Professor Faithfull, as she archly refers to herself, takes us on a rather shaky history of the Weimar period and even Trueblood’s eyebrow arches at the factual approximations. Better to get on with the songs- a quirkily phrased Salomon Song, an over-raucous Boulevard of Broken Dreams and an eerie reading of Complainte de la Seine.

The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife, a grim Eisler/Brecht/Weill  composition remains one of Faithfull’s best renditions of the German music theatre. The jaunty phrasing and the bitter satire sits well with her and she brings an intelligence closer to her own best form. More Weill works follow- Mon Ami, My Friend and  a rather wonky Mack the Knife– along with Falling in Love Again and Noel Coward’s monde-weary 20th Century Blues.

Interestingly, the most engaging item is Harry Nilsson’s Don’t Forget Me, preceded by a truly macabre anecdote about the songwriter’s funeral. Apparently his coffin disappeared into the ground during the California earthquake, never to be seen again. It may be an urban myth but Marianne Faithfull tells the story without a flicker of irony.

Since the release of Broken English, Marianne Faithfull has established herself as a most singular writer and singer. Her literate, worldly lyrics and the smoky fragility of her vocals have made recordings like Guilt, Strange Weather, Sister Morphine and Blazing Away into classic portraits of a survivor, despatches from her own exquisitely annotated section of purgatory.

Watching her tottering around in her chaunteuse slingbacks doing a dotty version of Marlene Dietrich, I pined for her set at the Old Lion a few years ago when she and Barry Reynolds revisited the Faithfull canon. There too she played the faded Edwardian actress routine- the shy coquetry and the Venus in Furs aestheticism. But she created knowing ironies out ofWorking Class Hero and scurrilous comedy from Why’D Ya Do It. It was mannered and self conscious but, in the rough ambience of a beer hall, it worked brilliantly. It was unashamedly part of rock and roll. It wasn’t ersatz bohemianism, or kitschy salon pop.

The evening in the Weimar Republic has many enjoyable moments. Paul Trueblood is a fine pianist and Faithfull a likeable performer. She is astonishingly gracious, and unfazed with a sometimes  pesky audience which is, in turn, unfazed by some notable eccentricities in the performance. But I’m disappointed that  Faithfull has surrendered her hard won ground for this simulacrum of sophistication. When, at the Old Lion, she sang her sixties hit, As Tears Go By,  it was unexpectedly stunning- a song of innocence transmuted into a slow blues. When she sings it as an encore this time it sounds pallid and denatured. Marianne Faithfull seems to have left the building. It is as though the spirit of Pirate Jenny has not made any real sense to her. Let alone the dark wisdom of Sister Morphine.

“Broken German” The Adelaide Review, No.158, November, 1996, p.39.

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