A funny thing happens once you have seen Tammy Faye Starlite perform many different shows in many different characters: you spot the thread of her real identity flowing through all her work. This is especially entertaining for me because I have seen her perform in character (heard her talk in accents) perhaps 100 times as much as I’ve ever heard her real voice. More like 400 times. I’ve spoken to the real her in person for a couple of minutes at most, but I’ve seen full length shows of her Nico, Marianne Faithfull and what I’m calling “Tammy Classic” (her original country persona — where’d she go?) And I’ve also seen video of her doing Mick Jagger. Underneath the funny voice and costumes, common denominators sneak through: those huge, unblinking eyes; a disarming quality of calm; and above all a love of unsettling patter in the tradition of Andy Kaufman, constantly hilarious, and occasionally so very “wrong” that the discomfort in the audience is palpable.
This is her at her best. (I was about to say she was brave, but it’s more like a compulsion. She can’t not do it. But I really cherish those moments where she defies this querulous, judgey age of ours). Jewish herself, she loves to make people of all persuasions squirm by saying provocatively anti-Semitic things. Genitals are always very high on her agenda. And she gets brutally political. Lindsey Graham was her particular whipping boy last night in her Marianne Faithfull show at Joe’s Pub, and she told a “hilarious” anecdote from country singer George Jones’ autobiography about how one time he freaked out black country artist Charley Pride by spray painting “KKK” on his car for a joke. These are all Tammy; it’s safe to say I don’t think Marianne Faithfull would go to any of these places.
Last night’s show was full of terrific singing and interesting choices. For one, it’s the present day, and while her “Faithfull” sings material all the way up to relatively recent times, Tammy performs the singer in what might be called “pre-dissipation” mode, before drink and drugs turned her voice into a mass of cracks and crags. In other words, her voice is still pretty, and the real Marianne Faithfull’s voice hasn’t been in many decades. I saw the real McCoy live at Avery Fisher Hall circa 1996 and listened to her record 20th Century Blues dozens of times. Sometime prior to that her voice acquired “character” and nowadays she sounds sort of like the actor John Hurt. But it’s a wise choice of Tammy’s, self-preservation-wise, not to sing husky.
Another interesting choice: unlike her Nico show which faithfully sounded just like the original records, this show relies on just two acoustic guitar players for accompaniment. And yet I spy another way the show is realer than real: one of those guitarists Barry Reynolds was actually one of the real Faithfull’s musical collaborators. This added a cuh-razee level of meta-reality to this show; it was quite bonkers. Especially because, as with all her characters, Tammy plays the diva, and spends a good deal of time berating and kicking the band with genuine sadism. Only this time, the guy she’s kicking is this real guy, who played and wrote the songs on Broken English and all these other classic albums. And they actually do the numbers. This is some weird, multi-level mind-fuck porn. Most enjoyable.
Now, I’m a fan so I relish her crazy patter more than most, but the meat of her shows are the songs, and she never bores me when she sings (most people do, including all of the famous people I’m supposed to want to sit still and listen to). In addition to the Reynolds songs, they did “Sister Morphine”, which Faithfull co-wrote with her long-time lover Mick Jagger, a country song by Shel Silverstein, Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me”, and a bunch of other numbers. I was disappointed at the top of the evening when she said she wouldn’t be doing “As Tears Go By”, the Jagger-Richards song that put her on the map, but (spoiler alert) that was just a fake-out. She closed the show with it. And she left us wanting an encore, one we didn’t get — that cold, cruel woman.