26th June 2007
A superb South Bank show documentary on Marianne Faithfull; film from a recent concert, and a couple of interviews, the main one being conducted by Bragg (not a favourite of mine, but I must admit this was a good, fairly self-effacing interview). All the main events were covered – the discovery, As Tears Go By, the heroin, the ‘Wall’ days, the recovery, cancer. But at the heart of the programme was a detailed exegesis of four songs, and it was this which made the programme.
Faithfull explained that Broken English came from her looking over the Berlin Wall into East Berlin in 1979 and then reading about Baader-Meinhof and Ulrike Meinhof especially (she is the ‘cold lonely, puritan’ with who’s voice the song opens); over the years however the song has transformed in meaning and is now about Iraq – ‘What are you fighting for? Its not my security’.
The Ballad of Lucy Jordan was, Faithfull explained, originally a hit for Dr Hook (I had no idea of this) and she said that she heard the song and knew that she could turn it around and present it from the woman’s point of view; make it into a kind of anthem. The ending of the song does not mean that Lucy Jordan commits suicide – rather she is taken away to an asylum …
>>The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of lucy jordan
On the roof top where she climbed when all the laughter grew too loud
And she bowed and curtsied to the man who reached and offered her his hand,
And he led her down to the long white car that waited past the crowd.
At the age of thirty-seven she knew shed found forever
As she rode along through paris with the warm wind in her hair …<<
But I should have begun with the beginning…
>>The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of lucy jordan
In a white suburban bedroom in a white suburban town
As she lay there neath the covers dreaming of a thousand lovers
Till the world turned to orange and the room went spinning round.
At the age of thirty-seven she realised shed never
Ride through paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.
So she let the phone keep ringing and she sat there softly singing
Little nursery rhymes shed memorised in her daddys easy chair.
Her husband, hes off to work and the kids are off to school,
And there are, oh, so many ways for her to spend the day.
She could clean the house for hours or rearrange the flowers
Or run naked through the shady street screaming all the way<<
I imagine that in the original version Lucy is condemned for these dreams of riding through Paris; Faithfull said that she could perfectly identify with her. I have been, at last, viewing some more of the Pallisers DVDs (the adaptation of Trollope’s Palliser novels by Simon Raven et al.) and have reached The Eustace Diamonds. Raven presents Lizzie Eustace’s reading of poetry (Shelley) by a Scottish loch as an absurdity; I had questioned whether this was so in Trollope’s original and Ellen pointed out that I was (as often) misremembering; Trollope is mocking too. He has, for contrast to Lizzie, a character called Miss Macnulty, a woman forced into the dreadful role of ‘paid companion’ by her economic circumstances – she is a simple woman “For poor Macnulty, if she could only be left alone, this was well enough.To have her meals, and her daily walk, and her fill of novels, and to be left alone, was all that she asked of the gods. But it was not so with Lady Eustace”.
Lizzie Eustace, like Lucy Jordan, “asked much more than that”. Trollope is highly suspicious of this ‘more’. In Can You Forgive Her he writes..
>>What should a woman do with her life? There had
arisen round her a ___flock of learned ladies___ asking that
question, to whom it seems that the proper answer has never yet
occurred. Fall in love, marry the man, have two children, and live
happy ever afterwards. I maintain that answer has as much wisdom in
it as any other that can be given-or perhaps more. (I 109-110)”<<
Now it must be pointed out that this is not wholly simple anti-feminism (though it is to some extent). In the first place Trollope is careful to contrast Lizzie with another woman, and to defend that woman – a woman who due to economic circumstances was powerless (much less power than Lizzie herself). And this is important because a defence of the Lizzies and Lucys can topple over into a condemnation of the ‘ordinary’ and become elitist nonsense (a very unfortunate quotation from Woolf regarding the ‘middlebrow’ which appeared in The Times this weekend does precisely that*).Secondly Trollope is often, if not always, suspicious and critical of men who want ‘more’ where ‘more’ means money, wealth, status and above all power. He is a brilliant portrayer of how both the desire and possession of these things can corrupt and destroy. But I do not think he would condemn a man for wanting to read poetry. No his condemnation of Lizzie is masculinist – and he would have condemned Lucy Jordan too ; I am pretty sure he would have told her to get on with re-arranging the flowers.
Returning to Marianne she was very amusing about Why’d Ya Do It revealing that Heathcote Williams had written the song for Tina Turner – it had taken them a long time to persuade him of the blindingly obvious fact that Turner would not record a song like that in a million years!
Finally she turned to Vagabond Ways and revealed that it came from her reading an article concerning the fact that up until 1976 there was still enforced sterilisation of women in Sweden – there were several categories of women who could be subjected to this but the final one was those who had ‘vagabond ways’ (it probably sounded less poetic in Swedish!). Faithfull added that over the years she had realised that the song was as much about her as about her original inspiration. By chance I actually heard some fascist (when we talk of forced sterilisation I contend the term is accurate) pig call for the enforced sterilisation of drug addicts in the UK on Monday. Anyway here is the whole of the magnificent song/poem…
Oh, doctor please, oh, doctor please.
I drink and I take drugs, I love sex and I move around a lot,
I had my first baby at fourteen,
And yes, I guess I do have vagabond ways.
Yes, I guess I do have vagabond ways.
Oh, doctor please, oh, doctor please,
I think you’ve made a mistake, I’m fine and I don’t need people,
You don’t understand all my choices,
But yes, I guess I do have vagabond ways,
Yes, I guess I do have vagabond ways.
Please, don’t lock me up,
Please, let me stay free.
If you let me go I promise I’ll never come back,
I’ll take a ship across the sea.
I’m young and poor, and yes I’m afraid,
But I’ll stay myself and keep my vagabond ways.
It was a long time ago, they took her child away and she was sterilised.
She died of the drink and the drugs
And yes, I guess she kept those vagabond ways,
Yes, I guess she kept those vagabond ways,
Yes, I guess she kept those vagabond ways.
Absolutely magnificent. As was Faithfull herself – tolerant, self-deprecatory, wry, clear sighted. And that glorious voice.
*the quote from Woolf…
>>VIRGINIA WOOLF HAD NO time for “middlebrows”. In a 1932 letter to the New
Statesman she gushed about highbrows and lowbrows and laid into the “betwixt
Their lives, she suggested, were banal and suburban; they lacked taste and
originality; and, dear, oh dear, read the wrong sort of books and bought the
wrong sort of furniture.
“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares calls
me ‘middlebrow’,” she concluded, “I will take my pen and stab him, dead.”
Fortunately perhaps, she never posted the letter,<<
One hopes that is was merely a momentary aberration.