The exquisite song “These Days,” written by Jackson Browne when he was still a teenager and covered by artists such as Gregg Allman, Nico, Glen Campbell and Drake, powerfully captures sentiments of regret, ennui, and doom and gloom about the future. Fearful about moving beyond past disappointments and loss, Browne shares the angst of a person who thinks the sun will not shine again. The song soothes because it connects to those of us feeling similarly, and makes us feel less alone.
During the coronavirus pandemic, this kind of angst is felt by many of us. And the lyrics, which may have made Browne seem precocious when he first sang them, now seem perfectly fitting for him, as well as for those who have been listening to him for decades.
The bold singer and songwriter Tammy Faye Starlite performs a soulful version of “These Days” in the video below. Her arrangement and phrasing are inspired by Nico, who released the song in 1967 on her debut solo album, Chelsea Girl. Starlite’s impersonations of Nico and Marianne Faithfull — “blondes with low voices and defiant lives,” as she said in a prior interview — have won her golden reviews in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.
While Starlite’s version is influenced by Nico, her haunting voice reveals her own melancholy and defiance. Her voice is warmer than Nico’s, her pain more palpable. Starlite (whose actual name is Tamar “Tammy” Lang Hartel) has taken precautions to remain safe during the pandemic and, therefore, has experienced a more pared-down reality from her prior active performing life. Due to venue closings, she has missed out on appearances at Pangea, Joe’s Pub, the Outpost in the Burbs and other places. She has largely remained at home in Hoboken, and the filming of this video marks her first time on public transportation since before everything changed.
In the video, she sings as she walks alone, along Christopher Street in New York, and we see images of a subway system underutilized due to the coronavirus. The streets are quieter than usual, with venues and stores closed and cafes limited. We see signs reminding New Yorkers to stop the spread of the coronavirus by wearing a mask, and protests signs that remind us that “love wins.” We see her, looking forlorn in her blue mask, visiting her friend Danny Fields — the artist manager, publicist and author who has worked with The Doors, The Ramones and Iggy Pop, among others —in his apartment, with his photo of Nico in the background. (Fields worked with her, too.)
“His wit, his supreme intellect, all the things he’s done — he’s continually astounding to me,” says Starlite. “His love for Nico was/is very profound.”
“These Days” appeared on Browne’s 1973 album For Everyman, which is largely made up of songs about loss, regret and our responsibility to take care of every man (and woman). While Browne’s version was different from Nico’s, musically and lyrically (he omitted some lines), the wise and weary tone is similar. Starlite expresses the same exhausted quality, as if there’s a “big old ominous cloud in my periphery,” as Kurt Vile sings in “Over Everything.” She has taken a deeply emotional, intimate song and brought it into our coronavirus realm.
Directed by Michael Schiralli and produced by Tom Beaujour, the video features Starlite’s husband Keith Hartel on acoustic guitar (he was “directly influenced by Jackson’s playing on the Nico version” says Starlite) and Richard Feridun on electric guitar. Starlite is grateful for the team assembled for this video production: Hartel for “the soul and sensitivity and virtuosity he puts into it”; Feridun because “his musicianship is impeccable, his generosity beautiful”; and Schiralli, for displaying “his artistry and aesthetic (that) are sublime.”
She says the lyrics “resonate for everyone now” and ponders, “will we see our loved ones, or even our liked ones?” Referencing the lines, “These days I seem to think about/How all the changes came about my ways/And I wonder if I’d see another highway,” she says she wonders if she herself will see another highway, so that she can perform again and connect with friends.
“A highway,” she says, “can represent traveling, forward motion, an open future … as the destination nears, the excitement, the thrill of the new adventure. Now the future seems … well, not completely desolate, but frightening. And for now, we’re staying put, pretty much, so the road we take must be internal, which is often less thrilling, maybe ultimately rewarding, but certainly daunting.
“These days have changed our lives forever, and there is a certain rueful nature to our perception of the past and our conception of the future.”
Starlite has long loved “These Days,” and performed it in her show “Nico: Underground.” “Its themes of regret, times passing, of a certain kind of deliberate ennui to deflect from the pain of what’s been lost … all those elements, and the haunting melody, resonate so deeply, especially now,” she says.
“Singing it as Nico, I could put myself in her mind (or rather, my conception of her mind) — how the aspirations of her youth, the glory that was briefly hers, had somehow inexorably faded, and the line, ‘Please don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them,’ felt so true to her, that she wasn’t in a blithe haze, ignoring the reality of her life. Her unconscious mind saw through the surface disaffection.
“I think we all have some degree of that. I know I do: a sense of failure, that life is coming to a close and I didn’t do enough.”
In “These Days,” Starlite says, “the compassion and introspection of the lyrics say all that is necessary, and transcend any particular figure. The sense of yearning is timeless. It reminds me of the line from Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘‘Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn …’ Or from ‘The Great Gatsby’: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.’ ”
For more on Starlite, visit facebook.com/tammyfayestarlite.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
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