When we are just ourselves, in work or in life, we often stay silent when we should say something, or feel unworthy and adrift. But sometimes, by stepping into a persona or acting out a role, we can unleash fury and wisdom and become outspoken, outrageous and fearless.
When Tammy Faye Starlite (aka Tamar “Tammy” Lang Hartel) — an irreverent, intelligent and captivating singer and songwriter — steps onto a stage, channeling “blondes with low voices and defiant lives,” she unleashes her own subversive and opinionated voice, and her biting sense of humor. Her impersonations of Marianne Faithfull, Nico of the Velvet Underground and others have earned her rave reviews in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker.
Petite with expressive eyes and less red lipstick than when she performs, Starlite shared her warmth and openness with me during a recent interview. She carried the same black bag, required of many women raised by Jewish mothers, that she brings onstage. It’s “part shtick and part security,” she said. “My mother gave me a love of bags.”
Offstage, Starlite is less confrontational and not so outrageous. I asked her if her parents wanted her to become a lawyer, like her father. “I couldn’t stand firm in the face of adversity and argument,” she said. “I’d crumble and say, ‘You’re right!’ ”
An entertaining evening for her might involve many hours watching “Law & Order,” nestled next to her two cats and her husband, bass player Keith Hartel, on her couch at their Hoboken home. Although she’s lived there since 2004, she still identifies as a New Yorker because, like many of us expatriates, she cannot fully admit she lives in New Jersey.
She becomes “brave onstage … but afterwards I still love being at home. I can just turn off any pretenses.” She prefers television to music because “with music it either makes me too happy or too sad. TV is like getting nitrous at the dentist’s office.”
I experienced Starlite’s magical onstage merging of pretense and authenticity recently at her show “Why’d Ya Do It” at the downtown New York venue, Pangea. Channeling ’60s pop icon Faithfull and performing songs from Faithfull’s 1979 comeback album Broken English, she revealed a vulnerable, opinionated and honest side of her subject and herself through her uncanny vocal impersonation and provocative monologues. (Starlite said she messaged Faithfull before putting the show together and asked her permission to proceed. “I wouldn’t do it without her blessing. And she wrote back, ‘Do it, darling, it’ll be great!’ “).
Directed by Michael Schiralli, Starlite celebrated the anniversary of Faithfull’s Broken English last spring at sold-out shows, and has returned to Pangea with a stunning and more scripted presentation. On opening night, Sept. 25, Lenny Kaye appeared as a guest, singing a haunting version of “Ghost Dance” (see video below), which he co-wrote with Patti Smith and which has been covered by Faithfull. Starlite will continue to perform at Pangea on Thursdays throughout October.
Her narration as Faithfull is hysterically funny, with bad-ass roasting aimed at cultural icons including Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger and The Beatles, and references to literary figures and composers such as William Blake, John Keats, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Her monologues immersed the audience in Faithfull’s intellectual, well-bred background and in her journey from compliant singer of the solemn song “As Tears Go By,” written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for her and released as a hit single by her in 1964, to her days in theater and on the street, homeless, heroin-addicted and without custody of her son. We learned about her adventures with Jagger and other rockers. Singing all eight songs from Broken English, Starlite perfectly imitated Faithfull’s raspy voice, deepened by addiction and laryngitis, and resurrected Faithfull’s tales of love, betrayal, disappointment, violence and struggle.
Her speaking voice sounded so much like Faithfull’s that it felt like the icon was inhabiting her. The illusion was heightened by Barry Reynolds’ presence, playing guitar behind Starlite; he’s Faithfull’s longtime songwriting collaborator. The stellar band also included Hartel on bass, Richard Feridun on guitar, Eszter Balint on violin and David Nagler on piano.
Faithfull, as played by Starlite, talked to Reynolds several times during the show, and arrogantly told him not to talk after asking him a question, revealing another side to the pop diva. (When she introduced “Guilt,” she told us that while it was co-written by Reynolds, “I wrote the memorable parts.”)
Starlite also reminded us how much Faithfull’s beauty mattered to her and the world around her. She recounted the moment when Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham discovered her at a 1964 party and decided that he would turn her into a star based upon her appearance, not knowing if she possessed any musical talent.
“Everyone was staring at me because I was so pretty,” said Starlite as Faithfull. “And then Andrew Oldham … came up to us and asked John (Dunbar, Faithfull’s first husband), ‘Can she sing?’ And John turned to me and said, ‘I don’t know, Marianne, can’t you sing?’ ”
She shrugged her shoulders, giggled, and indicated that she didn’t know. “And Andrew said, ‘I think she has a face that can sell records.’ And I said, ‘That’s fine, perhaps I have, let’s sell it!’ ”
Faithfull joined Jagger’s entourage as his partner, recorded albums, and fell deeply into depression and drug use, damaging her voice, career and relationship. The edgy and moody Broken English brought her back to the public’s attention; with her voice deepened, she resurfaced from her underground absence with some seriously interesting things to say about pain, love, sex and defiance.
At Pangea, she didn’t just cover the songs but infused them with outrage and passion. Her narration revealed a great deal about Starlite, too — the theatrical rebel raised on the Upper West Side and educated at the private Jewish schools B’nai Jeshurun and Ramaz before attending New York University as a creative writing major.
Faithfull and Starlite both have shattered gender norms and we are the lucky recipient of their artistic risks. When interviewed, Starlite discussed her own need as a youngster to find her voice, craving attention and affirmation from busy parents, whom she adored. Throughout the show, Starlite reaffirmed that voice, showing a side of herself that might otherwise be hidden.
Standing before crowds, Starlite has found a platform free of restraint, social conventions and judgment. With a devoted following, she is adored in the guise of the blonde women she has played over the years. She adopted the blond hair in high school in the early 1980s because she wanted to look like Farrah Fawcett and Melody from Josie and the Pussycats.
She provokes with comments about Jewishness that you might be shocked to hear from Nico and Faithfull, but coming from a nice Jewish girl who speaks Hebrew and paid her dues in Hebrew school, they are ironic and amusing.
This alt-cabaret event began with some soft violin music, then Starlite dropped her bag on a table and took us back to 1979, to Faithfull’s masterpiece album. She framed our experience:
This play is memory. And why must we remember? Why do that? Because we’re now living in that Dantean dark wood. We’re stuck in a Hadean chaparral of absurdity and terror! Every day it gets worse, the thorns and briars sharpen their grip. And in order to extract ourselves from these brambles in which we’re currently entangled and enmeshed, abrasions and wounded extremities curtailing our forward motion, we must re-calibrate our navigational systems and figure out where we were right before we began to lose our way. When two roads diverged in a wood and we took the one less traveled which was really the wrong way so we must go back to the point when we still had a choice. And when was that pivotal moment? I’ll tell you when. In 1979.
1979 was our last year of real freedom. The year before everything went to shit. Before corporatization, before the hegemony of the religious right, before Reagan, Reaganomics, MS-DOS, before acid wash, “Footloose,” “Flashdance,” “Dynasty,” La Croix, before Don Henley’s solo career!
….the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Margaret Thatcher being elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But nobody noticed any of that! Everybody was too busy having a great fucking time, twirling in a cocaine-induced delirium to Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” or David Naughton’s “Makin’ It,” Donna Summer on a collective Jungian loop. Everyone was too snow-blind, they were like Belshazzar, who couldn’t read the writing that was on the wall, but I could! And it was in that dialectical maelstrom that I released my magnum opus, my gesamtkunstwerk, Broken English!
She broke into a blistering rendition of “Broken English,” a song about the futility of violence. Starlite’s chilling and weary voice brought Faithfull into the room when she stomped her foot for emphasis and belted out:
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security.
It’s just an old war, not even a cold war.
Don’t say it in Russian, don’t say it in German
Say it in broken English.
During our interview, Starlite spoke about the ways in which defiance takes on many forms, both political and personal, including drug abuse and anorexia nervosa, which she has suffered from, on and off, for years.
Starlite explained this further when she introduced the song, which was inspired by the activities of Ulrike Meinhof, a West German militant and co-founder of the Red Army Faction.
She narrated, as Faithfull: “At the time she (Meinhof) was in the Red Army Faction in Germany … I was taking heroin. And what interested me was that the two things are very connected. They’re both very destructive. But both are also acts of defiance, of saying, ‘I cannot take this anymore, the status quo will not stand, neither internally, nor externally.’ And as Ulrike Meinhof said: ‘Protest is when I say this does not please me. Resistance is when I ensure what does not please me occurs no more.’ ”
Starlite adores the songs “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (“It is so relatable”) and “Guilt” (“I’m always feeling guilty about something”) and delivered them as Faithfull with a high level of emotional resonance. Written by Shel Silverstein and first recorded by Dr. Hook in 1975, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” chronicles broken dreams and lowered expectations of a woman married to a lackluster husband. In her monologue, she imagined Lucy Jordan’s life:
“I picture her coming from somewhere untouched by second-wave feminism — somewhere like Colonial Williamsburg. And I imagine that, like myself, she was very pretty from birth, made good grades, was the queen of the prom (that curious obsession with unattainable royalty that you Americans have), she debuted and was the most beautiful girl of her season. But she didn’t even consider furthering her education, didn’t think about going to university and having a career — she knew her job was to be a wife and mother. So, she married her high school sweetheart, who I imagine was nice, nothing remarkable.”
This fictional husband, Starlite explained, once probably liked “the New York Dolls or Jobriath or The Sweet and Lucy was excited by that part of him.” But after the kids had grown, the fictional husband grew more distant and shamefully brought home “the latest from Dan Fogelberg, and Seals & Crofts … so she would sleep. Because she didn’t know what else to do. For as Madame de Beauvoir also said, ‘Her wings were cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.’ ”
She said the song is “relatable” to her “in that I do have moments of feeling like, ‘Is this what I envisioned? Is this what I want?’ I have a sense that something is missing. A yearning. Do I matter or have any purpose here?”
Starlite sang “Guilt” sounding exactly like her icon, pained and depressed. Her monologue illuminated the theme of beauty again: “When I look at my reflection, I feel proud. Justifiably so, but still, my prettiness can be off-putting, especially if I have an attitude about it.”
Introducing “Working Class Hero,” John Lennon’s 1970 song, she spoke about her role as the honorary member of The Rolling Stones and the “idiotic notion that the Beatles and the Stones were rivals,” attributing the hostility to a “media invention created by Andrew Oldham and Brian Epstein to generate publicity.”
Starlite’s monologue referenced Faithfull’s struggles: “I wanted to do this song because I wanted to see if somebody from another class background could really identify with it … I, too, have suffered; I, too, have felt the slings and arrows of society’s scorn. I took 150 tuinals and I remember doing it and I remember why. It had something to do with Brian (Jones). Everyone was taking his death so in stride … And I know when I’m singing it onstage that everyone who hears it has had those same feelings, I mean, ‘They hurt you at home and they hit you at school’ … it doesn’t matter what your class background is, those are common things.”
Then she let loose a zinger: “And no matter what one may think of Linda McCartney, and she didn’t make that great an impression on me, we have to give Paul credit for not marrying a model.”
This production is worth seeing just to catch Starlite’s biting version of Faithfull’s “Why’d Ya Do It,” taken from a poem by Heathcote Williams, which he, according to Faithfull as narrated by Starlite, wanted to offer to Tina Turner and then to Jagger. Replying to Williams, she said, “Well, if on the off chance that there are frozen daiquiris in Hades and he does record this song, you won’t see a ha’penny of royalties nor will your name appear anywhere on the credits” (Isn’t that the truth? How widely known is it that Faithfull co-authored The Rolling Stones song “Sister Morphine”?)
In “Why’d Ya Do It,” a cheating man describes his lover’s reaction when she finds out about his infidelity. Starlite perfectly captured Faithfull’s weary, ravaged voice, which matched the raw emotions of betrayal and hurt. Her angry reaction to sexual betrayal made Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” sound like a nursery rhyme.
The explicit lyrics ask questions including: “Why’d ya let that trash get a hold of your cock, get stoned on my hash? … why’d ya let her suck your cock? … why’d ya do it … after all we’ve said/Every time I see your dick, I see her cunt in my bed.”
This was a revelatory moment. We heard the sharp contrast between the demure 1960s pop star and the person Faithfull became: a bold, damaged woman, shamelessly revealing her rage. Faithfull’s early Catholic school teachers might by appalled at the explicit truths and I am certain the rabbinical staff at Ramaz, where modesty is revered, would be surprised to hear these words flowing from their alumna.
Starlite, as Faithfull, dedicated “Witches’ Song” to all “virtuous women … the wild pagan women who’ve inspired me … but no woman has influenced me more than my mother: The Baroness Erisso, Eva von Sacher-Masoch. Descended from royal Austro-Hungarian lineage — her great-uncle Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote the notorious tome ‘Venus in Furs,’ which not only inspired a Velvet Underground song, but also gave rise toto the term ‘masochism,’ which explains my relationship with Mick Jagger.”
Her monologues explored Faithfull’s role as Lilith in Kenneth Anger’s film “Lucifer Rising” which was filmed “after I had left Jagger for the preferable life of being a homeless junkie living on a bombed-out wall in the Soho section of London.”
She continued, “as I was doing my research on the character of Lilith, I learned … that Lilith was, in the garden of Eden, Adam’s first mate, much like Gilligan. And when it came time for them to have sex, Lilith said, ‘I want to be on top.’ And Adam said, ‘You can’t be on top, I’m your superior, I will not lie beneath you’ And Lilith said, ‘Well, go fuck yourself, then,’ and she was summarily banished out of the Garden of Eden, and she took up with Lucifer … What was Lilith’s crime? Why was she banished? And then I realized it was because she voiced her sexual needs. Her lust. Which was a sin, for a woman … And now, in a Brechtian turn of the table, it’s the men who can’t express their lust, their sexual desire, for fear of erasure from all of human history, and Netflix. Oh well, tit for tat.”
She ended the show with a riveting rendition of “As Tears Go By,” because as she shared in her interview, “with that song, it was her beginning, with the burgeoning blossoms of youth and hope, and now it’s almost an elegy of sorts, a summation of a life, almost a blessing, a reflection in twilight.”
Tammy Faye Starlite got her stage name from the first character she played, a satirical country/Christian singer, and then “we’ve kind of merged, at least in our nomenclature,” she said. Starlite released two albums: On My Knees (1994), featuring “Did I Shave My Vagina for This” and “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus”; and Used Country Female (2003), featuring “I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)” and “Don’t Make Me Pregnant.” In 1998 she released Reasons in the Sun, collaborating with Kramer under the name Glen or Glenda.
She also has been collaborating on unreleased songs with Reynolds. “I met Barry through our mutual friend, the musician Kevin Salem. The three of us did a version of Barry’s song ‘Times Square’ at a show and then Barry started doing Marianne shows with me. This was 2015, after I’d done Broken English in 2014 at Lincoln Center and then at Joe’s Pub. Those were very different shows, though. Unscripted.”
Reynolds wrote the melody and she wrote the lyrics for a song titled “He Wrote ‘Goodnight Ladies’ for Me,” which includes a poetic verse: “He felt in his bones how I craved sacred bliss and so consecrated the kiss alone, he took hold of the ingenue’s rose, but I was too old unclean and unclothed/Now he knows, now he knows … His wrist bled in vain to break free while a candy-striped nurse planned to wipe out the verse of the song he composed just for me.”
“It’s from the point of view of Ophelia, talking about Hamlet, who is also Lou Reed,” said Starlite.
She was reluctant to explain the meaning of the lyrics because “to me, lyrics are however one want to interpret them.” But she added, “You can put what it’s about if you like. I’m not Dylan!
“It’s never the truth, though, I think. There’s always something beyond the words about the words.”
You could say the same about her performances. She’s not just telling the story of Faithfull: There’s something working on many levels. Faithfull’s songs resonate today and Starlite brings her own experience to the meaning.
A devotee of country music (Miranda Lambert is a favorite), she has reveled in turning the stereotyped wholesome version of a female country star inside out in her shows. Inspired by Gram Parsons, whom she came to know through his influence on The Rolling Stones, she fell in love with Nashville, and performed there with mixed reactions.
She became an ardent fan of The Rolling Stones at 14, and has played in bands that covered them. “The Stones just had something in them that I still love,” she said. “It’s a subjective thing, I guess, but not that subjective because they’re the second most beloved band of all time. Maybe that’s what I related to initially — they’re like the second lead in a Broadway show — so much more fun, so much more rascally than the romantic lead. They’re dirty. They’re ‘bad.’ They sound great.” (Speaking of dirty, she finds inspiration in Howard Stern, appreciating “his ability to say the wrong thing at the right time.”)
Starlite’s father, Judge Irving Lang of Borough Park, Brooklyn, was responsible for writing the draconian drug laws as Commissioner of Narcotics under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Starlite also notes that he refused to prosecute Lenny Bruce. Her mother — Judith Regina Theodora Talarico from Rochester, N.Y., the first in her family to attend college as well as a social worker, an avid reader and an executive at with United Jewish Appeal — converted to Judaism and together they raised Starlite and her brother David Benjamin. Sadly, Starlite’s parents and brothers have all died.
She talked with me about her happy childhood, her frequent trips to Baskin-Robbins and her privileged life in Manhattan. She also shared that these happy days were punctuated by trips to her grandparents’ house in Brooklyn, where she and her brother were “left on weekends,” and she was lonely and always waiting to be picked up. She lobbied her parents to bring her home from her Jewish sleep-away camps and walked out of her art camp. Content to “write plays and pretend to be someone else,” she wanted to be in her nest and craved attention. She was happiest when she acted “out parts like Farrah Fawcett or Jo March.” Judy Blume books educated her about sex, as they did for many girls of that era.
She hated New York University’s dorms, developed anxiety and an eating disorder and rallied to live at home during college. “I was always skinny until I turned 17, when I realized I couldn’t eat a pint of ice-cream with impunity anymore. I gained a few pounds and then lost them. But I kept restricting through the summer and by the time I got to college it was anorexia. I hated being in the dorm, being in Tisch (part of New York University). I started eating again during Thanksgiving and then I gained, then lost, and the disease recurred at significant points in my life until I went to the Renfrew Center, got divorced, and now it’s somewhat stable, but I’m not fully normal.”
We talked about something missing from a young age that she fills up when she’s onstage. She buries any diminished part of herself when she assumes a persona and becomes worthy, brave and beautiful because “it’s not really me.”
Certainly, she is brilliant and beautiful like the women she portrays onstage, and probably more responsible. But when she spoke with me, the girl whose gifts were not fully recognized surfaced. However, she is all those things, and the themes she discusses onstage are a testament to what moves her.
“All I want,” she said, “is to perform as much as I want to without having to worry about getting an audience. To be known enough that when I stay home at night, it’s considered glamorous as opposed to hermetically neurotic.”
I asked if she misses Manhattan at night. “I miss Party Cake, Herman’s Toy Store, 10:30 candy bars from the Pick and Pay, Charivari — childhood, really,” she said.
Pangea in New York will present “Why’d Ya Do It: Tammy Faye Starlite Performs Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Broken English,’ ” Oct. 10, 17, 24 and 31 at 7 p.m.; visit pangeanyc.com.
For more on Starlite, visit facebook.com/tammyfayestarlite.
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