Was Strange Weather Marianne Faithfull’s best album and Hal Willner’s finest production? MAGNET’s Mitch Myers defers To André “Records” Richard And 20th Century Jacques.
I was listening to my favorite podcast the other day, a program out of Quebec called Twin Peeks hosted by two insane music buffs, André “Records” Richard and his erstwhile compatriot, 20th Century Jacques.
On this episode, André was talking a mile a minute about Marianne Faithfull’s 1987 album Strange Weather, which he claimed was her finest recording. 20th Century Jacques countered that Strange Weather was actually Hal Willner’s most successful album production of a single artist—that being Marianne Faithfull.
André and Jacques agreed that Strange Weather defined Ms. Faithfull as a mature, accomplished performer, even more so than her comeback LP from eight years earlier, Broken English. Once again, Jacques credited Faithfull’s achievement to the production work saying, “When I listen to this record, I can hear Hal Willner standing there, eh?”
Jacques pointed out that Faithfull’s classic was something of a conceptual collection, but it stands in contrast to Willner’s star-studded tribute recordings. In this case, it was one artist performing an array of carefully chosen material, as opposed to a rotating cast of different singers showcasing the works of one composer.
Those crazy Canucks know their stuff, and they described how the album was made in NYC when there really was a strange weather brewing: culturally, socially and chemically. There were bohemians everywhere, the downtown music scene was thriving, the Lower East Side boasted artists like Keith Haring and Basquiat, but things were getting darker. The AIDS epidemic was raging and artists were dying. A lot of hipsters were into heroin and cocaine, and it was a time for some reconsideration and recovery.
According to André, Faithfull put in two stints in rehab for heroin addiction before the recording of Strange Weather. It was not the last time she went into rehab. Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), who played piano on the album, finally cleaned up for good two years later with the help of Narcotics Anonymous, and Willner himself didn’t get completely straight for another decade.
André knew Faithfull’s history leading up to Strange Weather. Born in Hampstead, London, of Austro-Hungarian nobility, she was a descendant of Leopold Sacher-Masoch, whose erotic novel Venus In Furs spawned the term masochism. Discovered by rock impresario Andrew Loog Oldham in 1964 at a party for the Rolling Stones, she soon—at age 17—had a hit single with “As Tears Go By,” written by Oldham, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Faithfull married in 1965 and had a son, only to be divorced a year later after starting an affair with Jagger. The famous pair soon lived in swinging London while she acted in fab films and made albums of traditional folk and pop covers. She stayed involved with Jagger and the Stones for the balance of the decade, including a notorious drug bust and the ensuing scandal. Faithfull also had a miscarriage and developed a cocaine addiction. After the romance with Jagger ended, she lost custody of her son and attempted suicide.
The 1970s saw Faithfull become anorexic, homeless and addicted to heroin. Laryngitis and substance abuse weathered and lowered the register her voice. She made a country-rock album but had little success or real direction until 1979, when she released the acclaimed Broken English on Island Records. The album was a powerful, rebellious personal statement, angry politically and sexually, and a near-total dismissal of her previous pop persona.
Showcasing her roughed-up rasp and mining the new-wave fad with rock production and electronics, Broken English boasted a punk-driven industrial throb—and Faithfull was the dissolute dance-floor diva. It was a resounding comeback but all was not well. André recalled that Faithfull was on her second marriage, still using heroin and gave a feeble performance on Saturday Night Live in February 1980. Of course, 20th Century Jacques felt compelled to remind André, “That’s the same year Willner started working at SNL, too, eh?”
Faithfull made another album for Island, Dangerous Acquaintances, but the record was less distinctive than its predecessor. She moved to New York City, continued to stay high, broke her jaw falling on some stairs and had another medical emergency where her heart stopped. A third Island album, A Child’s Adventure, was cobbled together with a different producer, but finally in 1985, she received treatment at two drug rehab facilities. It was also the year that Willner asked her to appear on an album he was putting together: Lost In The Stars: The Music Of Kurt Weill.
It was Willner’s third all-star homage, his second for A&M Records and the first one to actually feature vocalists. The earlier tributes were devoted to master composers Nina Rota and Thelonious Monk. Both were mostly instrumental records with immense scope, played by skilled jazz and rock musicians (outsiders and journeymen), using the compositions as stylistic launching pads with great insight and to fascinating effect.
“To understand Willner’s tribute albums just think of Phil Spector’s Christmas Album as the template, eh?” Jacques said. “He casts the featured performers, sometimes against type. He uses a group of trusted musicians and frames old songs with dramatic arrangements to produce a distinctive, identifiable sound!”
The next move for the eccentric Willner was exploring the theater music of German-American composer Kurt Weill, who was associated with the decedent Weimar era and best known for The Threepenny Opera. This time Willner looked to recruit popular singers to perform on Lost In The Stars. Faithfull was dubious when he first approached her, but came on board as she saw the earnest legitimacy of the project.
From arranger Steve Weisberg’s opening “Intro From Mahagonny Songspeil” to jazz doyenne Carla Bley and saxophonist Phil Woods embracing the title track, to cameos from the likes of Sting, Tom Waits and Lou Reed, it was truly an alternative cabaret. Accompanied by British guitarist Chris Spedding, Faithfull sang “The Ballad Of The Soldier’s Wife” (with lyrics by playwright Bertolt Brecht), originally performed by Weill’s then-wife Lotte Lenya at a 1942 concert in NYC promoting war bonds.
André ventured that Faithfull’s performance was one of the album’s wry highlights. Jacques replied that it set the stage for her next collaboration with Willner. “That’s where it all starts, eh?” Jacques said. “They were culturally intellectual hipsters! History and film, literature and theater, music and performance, drugs and alcohol, what’s not to like?” And Jacques was kind of right. There were bonds being forged between these people at that time, and their creative sensibilities would lead to collaborative friendships. For Willner, his dear alliances with Reed, Waits and Faithfull would sustain throughout their lives.
Jacques then gave a quick Hal Willner rundown leading up to Strange Weather. Willner was just a Philadelphia kid when taken under the wing of Atlantic producer Joel Dorn—a customer at his father’s delicatessen—and was still a teenager when he moved to NYC in the mid-1970s. While many people his age were hanging out at CBGB, he was busy in the recording studio assisting Dorn on albums by artists as varied as Leon Redbone, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Roberta Flack.
In 1980, Willner joined Saturday Night Live as coordinator of “sketch music adaptation.” Television producer Lorne Michaels wasn’t presiding at the time Willner was hired, but the cast included Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, and he was soon exposed to all sorts of SNL hipsters, hosts and musical guests. Willner became friendly with revered rebel writer Terry Southern, who was hired by SNL head writer Michael O’Donoghue during his brief second tenure.
Willner met Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein at SNL, and they soon performed on his first concept LP, Amarcord Nino Rota: Interpretations Of Nino Rota Music From The Films Of Federico Fellini. (Note: The translation of word Amarcord is “I Remember.”) Willner was getting deeper into NYC’s downtown scene and the avant-garde, and his next production, That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute To Thelonious Monk, was a sprawling double album that revealed an omnivorous artistic vision.
André concurred that the 1985 Weill project was the seed that led Faithfull and Willner to making Strange Weather together. The two shared similar interests, as Faithfull took pride in introducing Willner to heavy cats like Allen Ginsberg. There were meetings of the minds at every turn, and great prospects in the offing. Jacques said, “You have to remember, producing an album by Marianne was a big opportunity for Hal, eh? That was a high profile gig with real rock royalty!”
Island Records label owner Chris Blackwell was ready for something different from Faithfull, and the premise of a crafted concept appealed to him. Faithfull and trumpeter Mark Isham had already recorded a shimmering version of an old vaudevillian blues tune “Trouble In Mind” for the Alan Rudolph film of the same name. Tom Waits had even suggested a theme for her revolving around Storyville, the infamous red-light district of New Orleans in the early 1900s. Of course, Willner and Faithfull had discussed thematic possibilities at great length themselves. So, thanks in part to recommendations from Waits and actress/producer Ellen Smith, the die was cast; Willner would produce a new Marianne album for Island.
André again claimed Broken English was a tour de force but that Strange Weather was a more cohesive whole. That Broken English was an agro push back, kicking against the pricks, but Strange Weather was more mature and accepting, displaying hard-fought wisdom. As opposed to a party vibe of shock and rage, it was a weary, reflective, after-hours feel. And while her harsh vocals were a revelation on Broken English, the intimacy of the material on Strange Weather suited her battered voice to an even greater degree.
Strange Weather saw Faithfull reassume the stance of an interpretive singer as she had done earlier in her career. She also reined in her ravaged vocals to suit the softer, pop-noir mission at hand. “Sometimes you find your voice, other times your voice finds you,” said Jacques, maintaining this was Willner’s influence. “Hal was like an auteur film director, eh? He cast Marianne as a bruised chanteuse—a modern-day Billie Holiday-type—and turned the faded postmodern cabaret singer role on its head!”
Using a small group setting with string and horn arrangements, Strange Weather exuded a hazy, narcotic vibe and a timeless, cohesive sound. Recorded in both NYC and Woodstock, the band’s initial “demo” sessions were so productive they were used in the master recordings, which followed Willner’s favored Buddhist/Allen Ginsberg dictum, “First thought, best thought.”
The musicians were handpicked and reflected Willner’s appreciation for close camaraderie. Guitarist Robert Quine and bassist Fernando Sanders had been in Lou Reed’s band, while trumpeter Lew Soloff, saxophonist Chris Hunter and pianist Sharon Freeman were all veterans of the Gil Evans Orchestra. The eternal Garth Hudson played accordion, and the legendary Mike Gibbs provided string arrangements. J.T. Lewis played drums and also did the horn arrangements. Mac Rebennack was on piano, and guitarist Bill Frisell was featured prominently, as his distinctive sonic palette was woven into the fabric and the mood of Strange Weather.
“Frisell had been on all of Willner’s early tribute albums too,” Jacques explained. “He understood how to use Bill’s unique guitar sound even before Bill did, eh?” Indeed, Willner was the first producer to ever “cast” Frisell for a recording session, and now his old friend is acknowledged as one of the world’s finest musicians. Rounding out the recording sessions were violinist Michael Levine, master accordionist William Schimmel and saxophonist Steve Slagle.
Picking cover songs wasn’t a new approach for Faithfull, but the selection process with Willner was immersive, nuanced and inspirational. They spread a wide net with her making final choices narrowed down from hundreds of tunes as he looked on with his fingers crossed. Drawing from Tin Pan Alley, old blues, classic Americana, popular standards and vintage film music, it was not unlike what contemporary jazz singer Cassandra Wilson would be acclaimed for trying a decade later. Not saying that Willner and Faithfull were the first to do such a thing, but they sure did it well.
At age 41, Faithfull was a decade older than Willner, but they shared much common ground, as revealed by their prudent selection of old and new tunes. “The ’80s were a time when folks like Hal and Marianne understood the origins of blues and other folk forms because they were closer to those actual beginnings,” said André. “They came of age when the roots were still showing!”
The cinematic sound Willner conjured in the studio was a prime example of what New York’s savvy music scene could still provide. With the songs selected, mostly covers but two important originals, their initial recording sessions were either set around Rebennack’s piano or Frisell’s guitar. Despite beginning with limited preparation and no rehearsals, their minimal song sketches evolved organically into the finished takes.
André made much of Faithfull’s performances here. He said other critics compared her with Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday near the end of their respective careers. As a veteran singer whose voice was a damaged incarnation, she injected the emotionality the songs demanded, along with an extra-musicality and world-worn experience. Beyond that, there was the context and continuity of their song choices, which amplified this conceit.
The album opens with an atmospheric intro by Frisell followed by “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” which was a hit back in 1933 and then sung a year later by Constance Bennett in pre-Code musical film Moulin Rouge. Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Yesterdays” was a song about nostalgia, and Holiday’s version circa 1939 was quite possibly Willner’s favorite performance. Faithfull had already covered Dylan compositions in her career, but the floating version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is like no other. Her a cappella rendition of Leadbelly’s “I Ain’t Going Down To The Well No More” is a blunt standout, as is the bare-bones treatment of Kid Price Moore’s old gospel blues “Sign Of Judgment.”
The melancholy title track was an early songwriting collaboration between Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan. Penned for a romantically exhausted Faithfull, it expresses the disposition of the entire record. Another pair of close associates, Rebennack and legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, composed “Hello Stranger,” a slow grooving lament of self-alienation. Faithfull even reprised her original performance of “As Tears Go By,” with a sadder-but-wiser display that clearly shows how meaningful time can be to an interpretative singer. There are more songs, of course, but with Frisell’s ethereal sound as hovering counterpoint, Faithfull closes out the album with a forgotten Sid Feller tune once performed by Dinah Washington, “A Stranger On Earth.”
Strange Weather wasn’t a commercial success, but it was an auspicious encounter and a harbinger of future activities for both Faithfull and Willner. Willner briefly booked TV show Night Music, where he furthered his penchant for playful contexts and ingenious combinations of artists. There were more “tribute” records like Stay Awake: Various Interpretations Of Music From Vintage Disney Films, lots of music supervision for films, all-star concert presentations the world over and album productions of uncompromising artists like Lou Reed, William Burroughs and Lucinda Williams, as well as his longstanding role at SNL.
Faithfull continued her music career, releasing another dozen albums and occasionally acting in films like Marie Antoinette. She even recorded of another collection of contemporary cover tunes produced by Willner in 2008, reconvening their collaborative rapport two decades on with Easy Come, Easy Go. It was a wonderful album, but it was no Strange Weather.
Looking back, a few folks who helped make Strange Weather have passed away. Rebennack is no longer with us, nor is Robert Quine or Lew Soloff. Sadly, Willner is gone, too, a casualty of COVID-19. Thankfully, Faithfull survived her own bout with the virus, but the world is going through another phase of strange weather now.
Faithfull was to have appeared on Willner’s final production, Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs Of Marc Bolan & T. Rex (another Allen Ginsberg reference, eh?), but she had been unwell and her performance didn’t make the cut. Not that Willner didn’t try to make it work, because he always loved to include his friends.
André and Jacques wrapped it up lamenting that nobody reads old liner notes anymore. The 1987 liners for Strange Weather were from Willner with an additional essay by hipster elder Terry Southern. He’s gone now, too. Most journalists agreed with Southern’s warm appraisal of the album.
But André said old-school critic Greil Marcus felt differently, preferring Faithfull and Willner’s later collaboration, Easy Come, Easy Go. Marcus actually disliked Strange Weather and said the only thing more pretentious than the music were the liner notes by Southern. To which, 20th Century Jacques rebutted Marcus with a classic line from Southern’s book Red Dirt Marijuana and shouted out loud, “You’re too hip, baby!”
Faithfull and Mark Isham recorded this wistful piece for the soundtrack of 1985 neo-noir film Trouble In Mind, directed by Alan Rudolph. Fits right in, doesn’t it?