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Tammy Faye Starlite on Why She Built a Show Around Marianne Faithfull

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Tammy Faye Starlite knows few boundaries in her love for Marianne Faithfull, and the New York-based singer and performance artist is expressing it in two ways this season. For starters, she’s one of 25 performers who participated in a compilation album that came out earlier this month, “The Faithful: A Tribute to Marianne Faithfull,” along with other fellow fans ranging from Shirley Manson to Iggy Pop — a record earmarked to have proceeds go toward paying for Faithfull’s medical bills as she deals with long COVID.

But Starlite is taking her appreciation above and beyond these other artists, by doing a one-woman show in which she portrays Faithfull, and not for the first time. Starlite does the new piece, titled “She’s a Rainbow: Marianne Faithfull Sings the Songs She Inspired — A Cabaret Fantasia,” tonight (Dec. 22) at Pangea in New York City. Like her previous production of the show, it sold out weeks in advance. But even if you aren’t able to come up with a ticket for her theatrical take on Faithfull this time around (and surely it will be back), it’s worth hearing why Starlite thinks this particular heroine is such a vital figure in the history of rock.

It just so happens that this show — the second one Starlite has built around Faithfull — does have some degree of focus on the idea of the singer as a muse, as it includes some songs that were allegedly or definitely written for or about her, the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” being among them. But Starlite is a serious acolyte of the English singer’s own catalog, to say the least, which also figures into the dramatic piece.

As she prepared to present “She’s a Rainbow” live, Starlite spoke with Variety not just about her appreciation of Faithfull but also Nico, whom she has celebrated in one-woman shows at even greater length.

You’ve done a Marianne-based show before, and you’re also known for doing one-woman shows as Nico. Is it safe to say these are the women who most fascinate you?

Yeah, Marianne and Nico, I heard them both when I was in my teens and I had. With Marianne, I had gotten really into the Stones when I was in high school in the ‘80s, and so anything that was ancillary to the Stones, I would leap on. Like, I went to see Willie Dixon at Town Hall in concert. So the Stones were my gateway drug to all these incredible things. And I read about Marianne Faithful and bought her record “A Child’s Adventure.” It was her voice, just the depth of it… I hadn’t heard her wilting soprano yet (from her younger days). I heard the newly kind of…  you might say “ravaged,” as many have described it, or “whisky-soaked” voice. The sound of it is so beautiful to me. I’m such a fan of women with low voices. I love that sound that she gets. It’s really just a subjective thing. Because I’m not Barbra Streisand, I gravitate towards singers who I think, “OK, not that I can be them or do them, but it’s something I can aspire to.”

And with Nico, when I started getting into the Velvet Underground a little bit late, I heard her voice, and it just blew me away. I’d never heard anything like it. I remember buying a cassette at Tower Records. It was one of those ROIR live cassettes, and she was singing “Heroes.” She’s saying, “I wish I could swim like the Dolphins can swim.” And I thought, oh my God, the dolphins [said in a German accent] — like, I’m yours forever, because of that pronunciation!… Her version of “These Days” to me is one of the most beautiful vocals, and just her with Jackson Browne playing. It is haunting and stunning, and there’s a kind of lack of affect in her voice that that actually gives more emotional weight, I think, than people who kind of have all these trills and all the melisma. It’s a very kind of just head-on version of saying the words, which has that kind of breathiness, but there’s also the depth of whatever is specific to Nico’s experience, growing up during the war, whatever her emotional life was or wasn’t. I don’t think she ever sang anything that was false or put on any kind of affectation. She just did like the greatest actors — they don’t try to emote, and you don’t see them working up towards a big emotional scene. She’s just kind of singing from neutral and letting it go from there.

The material in this Marianne Faithfull show, it’s at least partly songs that were written about her, right?

Yes. That was my initial conceit. It’s deviated somewhat from that, although, actually, it ends up being about that. When it starts out, she says that it’s songs that she inspired, and the first song that we do is “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which she didn’t inspire, but in my show, she claims to have inspired it. She claims that Bob Dylan fell in love with her when he saw her on “Hullabaloo” and wrote the song in response to her eyes. But that’s not true; I just made it up.

Then we do “Carrie Anne,” which was inspired by her, by the Hollies — I found that out. She’d had an affair with Allan Clarke of the Hollies. But I hadn’t ever really listened to the lyrics of “Carrie Anne” — I just kind of knew the chorus— and they’re really kind of nasty. They’re a little bit cruel: “You lost your charm as you were aging / Where is your magic disappearing?” And I thought, well, that’s kind of mean. She was 19 years old! What do you mean she was aging? I know maybe she broke your heart, but… And “You use my mind and I’ll be your teacher.” It’s a little pedantic and patriarchal.

So I decided that since the meter of the lyrics also sort of fit the Brecht/Weill song “Pirate Jenny” from “Three Penny Opera,” and Marianne has done a lot of Brecht/Weill and does a brilliant, definitive “Pirate Jenny,” I asked my guitar player: Can you rework this in that style? Kind of foregoing the melody of “Carrie Anne,” but trying to get to the essence of the song —  of revenge, and the hatred so profound that it can only be assuaged by unfettered fantasies of humiliation of the object in question?

Tammy Faye Starlite
Bob Gruen

What other songs were inspired by her that you included?

We do “Wild Horses,” which allegedly she inspired when she overdosed in 1969, when she was in Australia with Mick Jagger filming “Ned Kelly,” and she was just exceptionally depressed, and she was in a coma for a week. According to apocrypha, Mick was at her bedside and he said, “Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away.” And they were also hanging out with Gram Parsons at the time, so they were leaning country… And “Sister Morphine,” which she didn’t necessarily inspire, but which she did write the lyrics to.

Then we do a few of her songs, including one that Barry Reynolds wrote. He’s her longtime guitarist, and he’s played with us since 2016, and it’s still wild to me that he’s the one who was on the records, and who has written some of these songs, and who has known her so profoundly. And we do “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which is just my favorite, which is the track I did for the Marianne Faithfull tribute album that just came out, which benefits her… And then another of her songs, “Why’d You Do It?,” which kind of has to be in there because I rarely do a show without the c-u-n-t word. You know, it’s for the kids.

And then “She’s a Rainbow” — I believe that she did inspire that, because Mick was writing songs about her and he was very enamored of her. The descriptions seemed to fit his vision of her as this kind of beautiful princess — I wouldn’t say medieval, maybe a little later than that; maybe Renaissance princess or something like that.

And then “As Tears Go By,” which was the one that they wrote for her. Because Andrew Oldham found her at a party and said she had a face that could sell records, and he didn’t really know if she could sing or not, but he told Mick and Keith to write a song for her. They wrote “As Tears Go By,” which apparently they originally titled “As Time Goes By,” but Andrew Oldham had to inform them that there was another song that was pretty famous called “As Time Goes By,” so he switched it. According to Marianne, he wanted a song with brick walls, high windows and no sex — like “The Lady of Shalott.” She and Mick weren’t dating and they didn’t know her, but they were just doing an assignment, based on Andrew’s impression of her as this princess in a tower. So the theme is kind of loose, but it does end with the song that that was written specifically for her and that kind of, like Helen of Troy, launched her career, like a thousand ship, into the world of rock ‘n’ roll, addiction, rehab, addiction, rehab, addiction, great artistic success, and legend, I guess.

What made you make the step from admiring Marianne and Nico to portraying them, and not just as a lark, but on and off over a period of years?

I found myself wanting to be them. I’ve never really liked to be myself, per se. I always, since I was a child, was pretending to be someone else, whether it was Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Ladd or characters I made up. But I was always happiest when I was pretending to be someone else. Jo March from “Little Women”… I remember seeing the Kinks on New Year’s Eve 1984 at Roseland and thinking, “I just wanna be him.” That power up there — he had that kind of romance. So that’s what it is with these two women. There’s something there because they’re so beautiful, and because they led such unbridled lives, maybe to their detriment. But there’s a sense of abandon that they have that I don’t really give myself, for whatever reason.

I like to be very much in control, but with those people… Marianne’s very outspoken, and she doesn’t hold back her opinions. And Nico said some things that could certainly not fly today, but that kind of inner subversion… You wonder with Nico about some of the things that she said, and even certain things about Jews — which being a Jew, I don’t know why, but I just love it. It’s that forbidden thing that you’re not supposed to say, and then it kind of allows the id to just to go free. So for those moments of pretending to be Nico or Marianne, I don’t have to control my own ill feelings or pettiness or anger or whatever. Those things can just fly and you think, “Well, it’s not me, it’s her.”

I’ve gotten into trouble for things that I’ve said as Nico. Certainly for things I’ve said as Tammy Faye Starlite, the right-wing evangelical country singer. I’ve gotten hissed at the Bluebird Café. I’ve gotten yelled at at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. It just comes out of that bizarre need to subvert anything that’s good. It’s not an admirable trait that I have, but it’s just, I think, the need to upend things a little bit.

Would you describe these pieces more as theater pieces than cabaret? Where do they fit?

The Nico show, I think of as a play. It could almost be called a jukebox musical because it’s based on a real interview she did with a DJ in Melbourne in 1986. AndnI just amended it, adapted it, put in other lines here and there from other quotes of hers — and some I made up. But it’s a conversation with another actor, so there’s conversation. So that’s more of a play. Because I come from a theater background primarily, most of the things that I do I think of in terms of telling a story, and that horrible word “arc.”

You can see a lot of the commonalities and, on the surface of things, they’re interesting in that they are are two women who are the main course for some fans, and they have their own cults, and their own people who love them more than the Rolling Stones or the Velvet Underground. And then, to other people, they’re just kind of these tertiary figures who are interesting in some way, but not a subject of real focus.

They both kind of started out as muses for these brilliant male songwriters. One was a model, and one was kind of a rock chick girlfriend and always in the papers, and then they both got into heavy heroin use. But their individual work, once they were kind of free of the pop shackles, really deepened. I think a lot of Marianne’s own compositions and the work that she’s done with Jarvis Cocker or Nick Cave or Damon Albarn, they’re really great songs, and she’s a really superb lyricist.

They’re both very, very smart, and Marianne is very erudite and very literate, and reads all the romantic poets. Performing as Marianne, the energy is very forward because she’s always talking… it’s not lecturing, she’s just bequeathing knowledge in a sense. Nico is kind of more reactive and she needs a kind of stimulus to react to. They both have the capacity for anger, but it feels like it’s justified anger. It’s anger at this kind of longstanding not having been taken seriously, either because of their beauty or because of their bad behavior, in quotation marks — when they’re both really magnificent artists, in different ways, and maybe not to the popular tastes.

Tammy Faye Starlite with Lenny Kaye
Rhonda S. Markowitz

Is Marianne aware of the shows and do you ever get any feedback that she’s heard about it?

Well, years ago, when I was doing the “Broken English” album in its entirety, Hal Willner had come to see the show and I believe he told Marianne about it. And apparently she said, “They’re doing ‘Broken Biscuits’” —  which is what she called it — “why can’t they leave me alone?” And I thought, oh no, she doesn’t like that I’m doing that.

A few years ago, I was talking with my friend, the producer, Russ Titelman, and he was saying that he was producing this classical pianist and wanted somebody to read Blake over one of the compositions. He said, “I’m thinking of Meryl Streep or Emma Thompson.” And I said, “No, Marianne Faithful. It has to be her. This is her life’s breadth.” So he was like, “Oh my God, that’s a great idea,” and he contacted her and she did the reading over this classical piece. And when I was at our mutual friend Penny’s, Marianne called and she spoke to me and she said, “Thank you so much… You know, I’d love to see your Nico.” So I sent it to her over Facebook, a clip. I don’t know if she watched it or not. I mean, why would she? But she’s like, “Oh, wonderful.” And then in 2019 I wanted to do “Broken English” again. So I messaged her though Facebook saying, “I’d love to do ‘Broken English’ again, but if you don’t want me to, if it irritates you in any way, just tell me. I love you, either way.” And she wrote back: “Do it darling, it’ll be great.” And I thought, oh, OK — now I have leave to do this. Now I’m allowed.

From what I’ve heard, she is glad about the album that came out — the Marianne Faithful tribute that I contributed to that also has Cat Power, Tanya Donelly, Shirley Manson, Peaches, the Bush Tetras and Joan as Policewoman.

Obviously you love a lot of songs on the “Broken English” album, so why did you want to do “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Faithfull’s cover of a Shel Silverstein song) in particular for the new tribute album?

I think it’s just a combination of certainly her interpretation of the whole story of this lonely, kind of lost suburban woman and her imaginings of what her life could have been — the kind of inherent yearning of it. The melody is so beautiful and Marianne’s interpretation is so powerful, but there’s also such a delicacy to it and to her voice. And that that synth part that Steve Winwood does is just so psychedelic and fits into this spinning world that she lives in. But I think really it’s just the lyrics, the melody and how Marianne’s voice drew me in. The story is heartbreaking to me. I think that it’s for anyone who’s feeling, “Is life gonna work out the way that I dreamed? Or am I going to lead this kind of mundane, forgotten existence where I don’t matter?” And it really is a story song, which appealed, because I love country music. I don’t know if that has much to do with it, but it’s a narrative, and not just a vibe, it’s not a feeling, which are also great.

I love the specific details of the story — she could clean the house for hours or rearrange the flowers or run naked through the shady streets, screaming all the way, which is kind of stunning. You think of sometimes people whose lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted, or people who’ve been ill and locked in bodies that won’t allow them to experience this kind of boundless joy of going through Paris with a warm wind in our hair. It’s just the life of the mind. I always imagine Lucy Jordan looking like Carrie Snodgress in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” just kind of lying on the bed like that, and her husband ignoring her and the kids not caring and she’s just left to her own devices and her own pharmaceuticals.

With the tribute album, is it more that she deserved one anyway, or do you feel like the long COVID is really a dire thing for her, based on what you understand?

I think it’s great to have a tribute record for her and for people to listen to it and then to listen to her own work. But I do think she’s in in need of more medical assistance, and certainly I don’t think the money could hurt. I feel for her, having long COVID and other physical conditions that she’s got. I think somebody who’s an an artist of her caliber should be celebrated. And if there’s a way to help because of how much she’s given, then we can all give that to her a little bit.

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