Marianne Faithfull @ Camden Roundhouse. 5 Stars! The Grand Dame of Exquisite Excess!
‘What makes a man a man?’ sang iconic, French chansonnier Charles Aznavour in his coded, ground-breaking 1972 song breathtakingly covered by Marc Almond. But if the song brilliantly evoked the psychological texture of homosexuality for non-gay listeners, it left its’ gay, cultural context tantalisingly vague. So, frankly, what is gay culture? The answer’s screamingly obvious – any art, music or literature that takes shocking liberties with rigid social dogmas.
And few artists, ever- in any medium – have taken more grandiose liberties than Marianne Faithfull. Once only viewed as Mick Jagger’s muse by a constipated, chauvinistic press, she’s since emerged as a consummate diva beyond the dreams of misogynistic midgets.
It’s not surprising. Even capable – wearing fetish nun drag – of stealing peak-period Bowie’s limelight at London’s Marquee club in 1973, she further annihilated carping critics with her Broken English album.
Released in late 1979, it’s a brutally beautiful, tough survivor’s album, a shatteringly crow-voiced, cri de coeur of revenge sex, sublimity and furious angst. No longer some saccharine, sappy, spun-sugar angel, Faithfull triumphantly re-emerged as a furiously conflicted marriage of Janis Joplin and Lotte Lenya, all luscious sonic hedonism and savage political bite.
Has she stopped since? Of course not – Marianne anticipated and eclipsed Gaga long before that sly mistress of niche, musical marketing was even a spasm in her parents’genitals. No wonder towering artists Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Roger Waters swarmed to write Marianne songs, like besotted drones flocking to a Queen Bee.
And Camden Roundhouse, quite properly, is hushed with expectant reverence, the stage washed with oceanic, indigo light. In physics, blue-lit objects are receding from us, and the stage lighting forms a deliberate, if elegantly subliminal message. Everyone we have ever valued – hello, Bowie and company – is constantly receding from us at the speed of life. And make no mistake, right here, right now, it’s time to relish Marianne while we still can.
Sure, physically, she’s diminished – as we all eventually are – with age. But still magnificently queering vapidity in heart, body and soul, she’s the ultimate, transgressive vamp kicking against the stale pricks of rock ‘n’ roll orthodoxy. And Marianne’s voice – no matter how deeply you’re acquainted with Madame’s louche, cavernous drawl – remains completely spine-chilling, the rasping rapture of an angel dementedly buggered by Lucifer.
So please, don’t expect – or even dare to be offended – by Madame’s complete lack of castrated, politically-correct niceties. Totally unrepentant, all raw, savage reality, Marianne simply adores shafting complacency and publicly crucifying it on her microphone. ‘I last played here in ‘68’ she drawls, ‘In Tony Richardson’s production of Hamlet. Spanish Tony would come with a jack of smack during the interval, I’d snort it, then do the mad scene…’
Oh, thank Christ. Passion. Overwhelming, savage passion, the polar opposite of Gwyneth Paltrow, the patron saint of carefully-vetted vacancy. But, indisputably now, Marianne’s thrown the dice and upped the ante, and any remaining, faint-hearted punters better leave or relish her virtuoso art attack.
‘My life has been Paradise to Hell, but I don’t want to bang on about it too much’. She doesn’t, and in the space of an exemplary actress’s masterfully timed, micro-second pause, the air’s shredded with napalm guitars. The song’s Sister Morphine, and intoned in the ravaged howl of a dying dog that’s barely a ghost of eviscerated idealism.
There’s no false glamour here, no easy cock-rock worship of a drug that barely buffers excruciating pain with no appreciable rush. Far sharper than Lou Reed, Keith Richards and other once-frenzied users of anything injectable, Marianne knows it’s the other opiate – heroin – that warmly cushions despair.
‘We try to be as close to Billie Holiday as possible’ she confides. Well, sisters, always, have been doing it for themselves – the most courageous, always, with a spike of singular self-determination in their veins, the Holy Sorority of Sister Smack. It’s the price, perhaps, of women following their art with absolute integrity, no matter where – beyond pain, beyond dignity – in a world of blatant, male contempt.
No wonder then, that tonight’s show is shockingly fearless and emotionally raw, an open confessional wound. Marianne, quite simply, has no more time to waste on this earth, and every instant bleeds with the urgency of approaching mortality. She may not – like us all – know the exact moment of death’s arrival, but it’s a ferocious spur to her shattering, onstage charisma.
Gorgeously assaulting song after song in a virtuoso, take-no-prisoners orgy of interpretive brilliance, Marianne – like late-period Dietrich – has no slightest mercy for mediocrity. All the expected highlights – Dylan’s ‘Baby Blue’, ‘Broken English’, Nick Cave’s ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ – cut to one’s heart with the bleak punch of a cancer diagnosis. So they should; any art worth the name is simultaneously savage and joyful, and Marianne, on this form, is the unquestioned, Francis Bacon of cabaret.
An exquisite, biting cocktail of grand dame graciousness, booze, piss and attitude, Marianne’s artistry, quite rightly, is sure to kick in the teeth of those resisting its’ charms. But of course, inherently genteel, she’s never gratuitously brash, and often delights with flashes of meltingly tender magic. During ‘As Tears Go By’, for instance, she casually applies lipstick as if in the comfort of her most beloved boudoir. The now unmatchable icon of sustained, late-age subversion, Marianne’s pointedly achieved an awesome, tidal gravitas lesser rivals would simply kill to possess.
And my advice to you all, dear readers? Drown – slowly, perversely and ecstatically- in madame’s oceanic mystique while you still can. Gloriously fulfilling and exceeding the promise of every stellar, prematurely dead female icon, from Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse and beyond, Marianne’s charting unprecedented territory. Long may she reign.
Long may she reign.
By Fraulein Sasha de Suinn | @MsSashaDarling