Some rock stars burn out or fade away, but for a performer like Marianne Faithfull, each year means more legendary appeal.
Faithfull always satisfies her regular devotees and manages to bewitch new fans. She is as Establishment as 1960s mod fashion and yet--because she chooses to play intimate venues--she also is fringe enough to be a grand doyenne of the demi-monde. Indeed, much of Faithfull's staying power comes from her double persons.
Faithfull presents two sides of herself in her two act show Don't Smoke in Bed! Act One is a cabaret in which she performs songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, accompanied by Paul Trueblood on piano. Faithfull initially had to struggle with the Kurt Weill Institute for permission to sing his songs. This obstacle seems ironic--for much publicized bouts with despair and heartache, not to mention drugs, make her a perfectly cast character.
Faithfull commands attention even before she opens her mouth. Having partied her way through the '60s on both coasts, she conjures an aura of terrific decadence. But Faithfull is as well an accomplished songwriter and her distinct voice has also made her an icon.
Opening her September 23rd performance with Bracht's "Alabama Song," her husky alto did more to suggest masculinity than femininity. And yet Faithfull looked serenely womanly, with long snow-white hair, red lips and black velvet gloves.
In her second song, "Pirate Jenny," her voice became a subdued staccato. Slowly she began to unwind, which took noticeable effort. By the time she was on the floor finishing an aria, she was out-stretched in order to breathe more freely. When she sang the jazzy "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," her breathy voice conveyed the song's suffering. Though Faithfull usually knows her range, holding a note sometimes produced a self-effacing strain in songs which require crackle.
The first act also included the French song "Complainte de la Seine," a litany of the refuse at river's bottom. She thus moved strangely from Weill's world of caviar and champagne to mucky vomit and severed limbs. Even more disconcerting was how, after she finished each melancholy song, she beamed a queer smile at the audience's hearty applause
Although most of the pieces in the first act recount the woes of glutton, Faithfull shows neither regret nor bitterness. She is assertive and fearless, especially in the show's title song in a deadly serious tone, her voice grows dark and low as the song becomes a fiendish incitement rather than a cautionary word of advice. For this number, she naturally lit her first and only cigarette of the performance, hardly drawing on it.
Though Faithfull moved quickly through the first act, spending little time to chat with the audience and even less with the piano player, she whipped through the second even faster, showing no trace of her first act elegance. She was the trademark rock and roll queen, roaring along with funky, bluesy cords. Her "Sister Morphine" and "Night Nurse" were filled with enough anxiety to send shivers down the spine.
Due to much onstage signalling and Faithfull's blatant note-checking, the last half of her performance felt like a work in-progess. Her ensemble for that set includes a percussionist, electric guitarist, bassist and trumpet player--as harmonic as the New-Age-sounding synthisizers, chimes and cymbals were, they were rather ordinary next to Faithfull's cathartic voice.
In the show's penultimate song, "Ruby Tuesday," Faithfull hopped about the stage, strutting and shimmying with abandon. No wonder she fidgeted at times during the first act. It was a prologue of innocence lost that required restraint. The second act was an exercise in reclaiming hedonism.