I have been listening to music since I was 11, and now I am gonna be 56 in December. Singers have always affected me – quite obvious, isn’t it? They use the instrument all of us have been born with, and many of them have little or no training, like most of us, in using this instrument. What makes them different as a breed is that they have the capacity of making emotional connects with us – an art that escapes the rest of us.
The singers I am going to write about are central to the way music affects me. With one exception, I have heard them since my childhood days. The exception is Marianne Faithfull, whom I discovered some 15 years ago. The others are legends – M S Subbulakshmi, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. Marianne is not in that category – in fact, I guess most music aficions have not even heard of her, beyond the fact that she used to be Mick Jagger’s girlfriend in the 1960s.
Marianne has moved on since then. Her bio
is published on wikipedia – the discography is well worth exploration, particularly her stuff from the 80s onwards. She sounds like someone who has been through hell and back, and has survived to tell what the other side is all about. Her voice is broken and gone – she shouldn’t be a singer at all.
But, she can convey the meaning of difficult songs like very few others can or could. ‘Difficult’ not is a technical sense – I have no musical knowledge to comment on technical difficulties of a song. But songs which take courage to sing, songs which can wrench your guts, songs you have to have lived life to the full to earn the right to sing – Marianne can do that like Piaf and Billie – and like nobody else.
Hearing her sing ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ still makes my heart lurch – and my wife, who is not a huge listener of music, understands the pain of having to sing this:
“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 she’d 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 daddy’s easy chair.
“Her husband, he’s 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.
“At the age of thirty-seven she realised she’d never
Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair
So she let the phone keep ringing as she sat there softly singing
Pretty nursery rhymes shed memorised in her daddy’s easy chair.
“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 she’d found forever
As she rode along through Paris with the warm wind in her hair …”
The pain in many of her songs is hard to take, but I am truly grateful that she has taken the trouble of going through the pain and struggle – and prevented me from going through it myself: I don’t have the strength to survive through what she’s been through and come out as strong. Jesuitical? Perhaps – but I really do feel this strongly.
Survivor she certainly is – through bouts of insanity, breast cancer, broken relationships, and an up-and-down fits-and-starts career. But in the last twenty odd years, she has challenged herself taking on the Brecht-Weill songbook, the role of Mother in Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’, the definitive version (to me) of Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’, and other triumphs. Diva she is not – but who needs another diva in the world of Celine Dion, when what we (make that ‘I’) need is someone who can touch your heart, guts and head with her voice and courage.
I am listening to her album “Broken English” as I write this – I recommend this really whole-heartedly to any one reading this. Not easy listening at all – but once she gets you, you’ll be glad you gave her your attention.