Making Out With Marianne Faithfull

Through the fog with Marianne.

Fog poured over the Berkeley hills like a waterfall as I drove through the Caldecott Tunnel last Saturday night. I took this as the best possible omen. Having grown up in the Bay area, I still get a certain … tingle from fog. You never know what’ll materialize out of it. By the time I was crossing the Bay Bridge, you could barely make out the San Francisco skyline. Ho, boy. Marianne Faithfull floated in there somewhere.

The Fillmore isn’t just another club. It’s perhaps the Great pyramid of live music venues. Save for the Beatles and Stones, the Fillmore birthed the big bang of Sixties emancipation. All of it, from Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis. And there it still sits, on the corner of Geary and Fillmore. To walk up into the Fillmore is to enter the antechamber of Kings.

The tub of free apples remains at the top of the stairs inside, sometimes green, tonight red. Hippies got hungry back when tickets cost $8. (Tonight: $100 for two.) Pictures from rock & roll’s family album cover the walls floor to ceiling: Janis Joplin, the Who, and St. Jerry Garcia of the Second Staircase. Up another flight, the inner sanctum awaits. The Palace of the Legion of Honor, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge further north, could house just such a hallowed room the same way the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC houses an entire Egyptian temple.

With a low, unceasing lysergic pulse, a first run of framed Fillmore posters covers every inch of the dining room’s sky-high walls. (More contemporary works finish out the back half of the hall.) The S.F. MoMa owns a series set, as should the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. These aren’t just telephone pole snags from 35, 40 years ago. The mind-expanding images of Wes Wilson, Bonnie MacLean, Lee Conklin, and the flying eyeball himself, Rick Griffin, are a singular movement in 20th century modern art, no less than the music screaming from their firework visuals. One stands in that room in humbled awe.

The kitchen ain’t bad either. Mrs. Heather Beal’s nachos and added guac tower like Mt. Fuji and in we dig. My Chesapeake Bay soft-shell crab sandwich and pint of Stella Artois, meanwhile, go down smooth as glacial runoff. We’re done catching up just as the trio on the small stage finishes, and in that moment of silence, we can hear applause downstairs.

In the Fillmore’s main ballroom, the chandeliers overhead wink with 1001 nights of what Santana might call “Soul Sacrifice.” Tonight, the show is seated and the house buzzes at that familiar yet unknown musical frequency of expectation. Marianne Faithfull’s backing trio is already onstage tuning up when the grand dame makes her entrance in a black dress that stops at her knee-high black vinyl boots. Her oracle voice peals back layer after layer of personal and communal truth. The house pees its pants.

Greetings and talk of Harry Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Naropa, and “John Henry” act as warm-up until, four songs in, Faithfull takes hold of P.J. Harvey’s “No Child of Mine.” By the time the audience finishes clapping to the drummer’s syncopation, the room has begun levitating. “I’m not promoting anything,” she explains. “I can [sing] whatever I want.” That’s when the singer plants Daniel Lanois’ “Marathon Kiss” on us.

I cherished the night of your marathon kiss,
Chemicals flying, oh I love this.
What’s it all for if you can’t feel the moment?
What’s it all for if you can’t feel the moment?
The moment of kiss.

Fearless when I’m with you,
Fearless when I’m with you.
Fearless when I’m with you,
Fearless through and through.

Faithfull bobs and sways. The rest of us swoon.

“Here’s a sarcastic little song written by John Prine,” she announces coyly before wishing lovers “All the Best.” Somewhere John Prine chortles.

“This is another one I’ve never done onstage,” she proclaims. “I sang it on the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. We were all extremely, extremely, extremely high. I’ve been thinking for a long time how I could do this song and not be high.” She laughs, as do we all, but “Something Better” suffers naught as Faithfull sips only water. “Crazy Love,” a song she wrote with Nick Cave, comes off no less sober. Not so for a 10-minute Eighties rave-up of “Broken English.” By now everyone’s doing the Snoopy dance in the aisles.

“This song goes back to the very beginning of my career, 43 years ago. I was 17.” With that Jagger/Richards’ “As Tears Goes By” rolls down our collective cheek. What could follow that? At the 80-minute mark only the sole encore, Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” Somewhere, Nilsson (1941-1994) knocks back a tumbler of eternity.

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Marianne Faithfull, Fillmore

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