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.