Scenes From a Class Struggle Starring Marianne Faithfull

I love Marianne Faithfull with a truly irrational passion, but had decided to skip this show. It is southwest of San Jose, in a suburb of a suburb known as Saratoga. In the past, I have flirted with ideas of attending Lucinda Williams and Leonard Cohen shows in the same town, but each time concluded that the journey was just too long. Faithfull plays San Francisco or Oakland most every year. Is one more show really worth the bother?

Then a friend alerted me to the availability of comp tickets. Ticket cost hadn't even been a factor in my decision not to go, but (as anyone who has ever worked in media can tell you,) the psychology of the free ticket is strange, nuanced, mysterious and powerful. Suddenly, I'm in.

The drive to the venue is a peculiar and almost singular experience. We pass through a residential neighborhood that screams of conspicuous -- but for the most part tasteful -- consumption. Mansions are packed together, as if trying to elbow one another out. It crosses my mind that some parts of Saratoga (current median sale price $1,586,750) make Brentwood ($1,677,500) and the Beverly Hills ($1,355,000) look like dumps. Still, most of the people in these houses probably wish they lived in Los Altos, where people no doubt dream of living in Atherton or Ross. There are signs indicating that a free shuttle stops at the end of a couple of the drives to deliver occupants to the venue. This makes me assume that parking at said venue is more limited than I will later discover. There is no parking near these stops for out-of-towners. We park at the local community college, where a shuttle is waiting to deliver us to the show, which is taking place on a hill far overlooking these mansions, mini-mansions and other forms of domestic immodesty.

Unaware of the shuttle situation until it is too late, we arrive after the show has started. She has just finished a performance of Cohen's Tower of Song. I kick myself for having missed it. If only I had been aware of this shuttle situation a few hours earlier...

The venue is gorgeous, but only filled to around 40 percent capacity. This is very different from The Fillmore or Yoshi's, where she sells out and often does multiple nights. But, then, you can only fit so many homes of a certain size directly under any venue. From the seats, it doesn't take long to gather what Faithfull, from the stage, cannot: that the crowd is composed almost entirely of season ticket holders. A Faithfull audience is usually significantly more mixed: young, old, goth, bougie, punk and chic. This crowd is much more homogenous. It is a bit like a very high-end concert in the park. Only, instead of a local Journey cover band, we have Edina Monsoon's God. Most live within earshot of the venue and just popped out for a few drinks and a little music in the evening sun. They are Berkeley hippies turned San Jose networking gurus, with their second wives and teen children in tow. Many come in not-quite Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and Sephora sunscreen. A few have beach towels that suggest not that they intended to picnic but that they just emerged from the pool. Some of the more adventurous attendees are probably thinking about smoking a little pot when they get home, but would never dream of doing it here.

Faithfull finishes the lead single from her most recent album and proceeds to address the audience. If you've ever seen her live, you know that the opening numbers are not her friend. She seems nervous and a bit stiff through the first two or three songs of a show. At that point, you can almost see her think, Yeah, I can do this, as she eases into a more confident groove. She has now calmed, but rather than reassured, she seems... baffled. Who are these people and what are they doing at my show?

She cracks jokes and smokes a cigarette. For obvious reasons, I am reminded of Marianne Faithfull's Cigarette, by Gerry Gomez Pearlberg. I am also reminded of a tale someone once told me about a shopboy who unwisely confronted her for lighting up near the Gucci. I can't figure out if tonight she is the shopboy or the Gucci. I suppose she's really herself. The crowd is responding well to her casual banter, and she knows it. There will be more--much more--of it to come. She announces that she isn't promoting an album so she can do, "whatever the fuck," she wants. She intends to do a lot of covers and a few obscure tracks.

She cradles us into She, a song she wrote with Angelo Badalamenti. It's lovely. It suits the venue perfectly. Her performance is flawless. The audience borders on intrigued.

Then, she tells them all about her post-pop-starlet days living as a junkie on the remaining half of a bombed-out wall in London, "shooting smack." A wave of Is she serious? washes over the crowd. Yes. Yes she is.

During that post-Stones, pre-Broken English time, Faithfull recorded an album that she's never been particularly fond of, given its associations. She intends to perform a song from it. I hope for Lady Madelaine or Dreaming My Dreams. No. She sings Rich Kid Blues. Rich Kid Blues.

Well. That was awkward. A woman sitting near me -- and there aren't many of those -- looks personally offended.

Sister Morphine, a song she wrote with Mick Jagger, somehow comes up. They know it, as any audience of a certain age would, from the Rolling Stones version (which was released after her version was pulled, because only boys were allowed to sing about drugs). She does not intend to perform it. In fact, "I spit at the very mention," she says--and does.

She then explains, with a heavy seasoning of black comedy, that the next song is about the victims of Sweden's forced sterilization program, which continued 30 years after the Nazis taught us that such aspirations were perhaps not particularly noble. In the '90s she read a piece about them in the New York Herald Tribune. The list of target "undesirables" included addicts, the promiscuous and those who displayed "vagabond ways." I can't help but get the impression that the woman slightly to my right in the row in front of me thinks this isn't such a bad idea. Faithfull's irreverent set-up might excuse some uncomfortable giggles when the song opens with, "Oh, doctor please / Oh, doctor please / I drink and I take drugs / I love sex and I move around a lot." Which is, by the way, the greatest album opening since, "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine."

Luckily, the pianist screws up. Badly. She excoriates, he sweats bullets, and they start again from the top of the second verse. The fog lifts, a bit. The audience knows that it's okay to laugh when something like this happens, so they do.

Her next song is the reason they're here, though they don't know it until it begins. As Tears Go By, perhaps the first Jagger-Richards composition, was written for her in 1964. (Its status as their very first seems to be disputed by the Wiki Gods, but is by now pop canon.)

Aha! Now, they know her.

She name-drops Nick Cave, who co-wrote the next song. They do not know him. I am filled with righteous indignation.

She momentarily forgets the name of the album the forthcoming song is from. It is 2004's Before the Poison, undoubtedly my favorite Faithfull disc. For some reason, I am reminded of how much I love its cover art, which calls to mind the fantastic tracks "No Child of Mine" and "Last Song."

She might have done better to explain that this song, Crazy Love was inspired by Les enfants du paradis. Probably not, though. I remind myself that I must upgrade my copy to Blu Ray. The crowd doesn't give the song the reception it deserves, but seems to like it well enough.

A lightheartedly bitter John Prine song gets the audience once again on her side. Of course, this cannot last.

She announces that she will be performing a Randy Newman song (Newman will be performing at the same venue in a few weeks). Political Science probably would have gone over like free weed, but she's going with In Germany Before the War. The song presents the crimes of Peter Kürten, Vampire of Düsseldorf (or, rather, his fictionalized portrayal in Fritz Lang's M, which I also remind myself to upgrade,) as a prologue to the rise of the Nazis. "I'm looking at the river," it explains, "but I'm thinking of the sea." It is a beautiful, chilling and brilliant song. It often crosses my mind when I read the news.

You can probably guess how that goes over. People are wandering out. The man in front of me is checking his email.

Things are about to get a whole lot more surreal. Her cover of John Lennon's Working Class Hero, ironically enough, gets the evening's best response. Everybody in this crowd knows it, of course. The major theme of the song has always struck me as being the trauma the artist endures throughout life, but it is rather difficult to shake the class themes in this situation. You would think a bit like, "You think you're so clever and classless and free / But we're all fucking peasants as far as I can see," might hit a little too close to home, but they cheer it. The crowd rocks (relatively) out as she continues, "There is room at the top they are telling you still / But first you must learn how to smile as you kill / If you want to live like the folks on the hill." We are literally sitting on a hill above that hill, with the folks who live on it.

She jokes before the next song that she has forgotten where she lives. "Oh, that's right," she quips, "I live in Paris." I wonder if this means she's figured the crowd out when it is revealed to be The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. It opens, "In white suburban bedroom, in a white suburban town," where a woman is going mad because, "At the age of 37 / She realized she'd never ride / Through Paris in a sports car / With the warm wind in her hair."

Only then do I realize how very, very few non-white people are in the audience, and that they all appear to be in the few, scattered groups of young people from out of town.

She closes the set with "Strange Weather", a song about the awkward distance between humans that may well describe the evening. She leaves the stage to applause that is enthusiastic, in a what-the-hell sorta way.

There is an encore. "Well, that was odd," she laughs as she re-emerges. "But I enjoyed it. I really did." Having not ridden up with the crowd, she still can't figure out what these people are doing here. "Oh, I know," she speculates. "I did that festival." She is referring to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, where a few years prior she dropped the astonishingly NSFW Why'd Ya Do It on a completely unsuspecting audience, savoring each profanity as she did. It was amazing. I wish she'd do that again, right now.

Instead, she closes with Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It's lovely. The remaining audience seems to enjoy it, but has mostly checked out.

The shuttle that takes us back to the parking lot is one of those limo hybrids, with a curvy couch for seating, napkins tucked in wine glasses and champagne flutes for more than it could possibly seat, and bottles of water sporting the company's logo suspended in deep wells of fresh ice. It's tacky, in that it has an uncomfortably Vegas feel, but I cannot deny that it's also exceedingly comfortable and infinitely better than the itself rather nice mini-bus that took us up. Facing the long ride home, I find myself wishing it stopped at the end of my drive.

Someone on the shuttle wonders aloud what Faithfull's net worth is. A satirical article is pulled up that reports Faithfull has Madonna-like "endorsement deals with CoverGirl cosmetics... the 'Fat Faithfull Burger' chain... a Football Team... her own brand of Vodka (Pure Wonderfaithfull - UK), and is tackling the juniors market with a top-selling perfume (With Love from Marianne) and a fashion line called 'Marianne Faithfull Seduction'." Everyone agrees it isn't true, but in this setting, no one gets the joke.