“Times Square,” a song written by the British guitarist and songwriter Barry Reynolds and performed by Marianne Faithfull on her 1983 album A Child’s Adventure, has been reinterpreted by the extremely talented Tammy Faye Starlite (see video below). While Starlite’s rendition has been influenced by Faithfull’s angst-filled performance, her moody and emotive voice tells us that she has experienced her own version of dread about the state of the world.
A New York native who has lived in Hoboken since 2004, Starlite has been impacted professionally and personally by the impact of COVID-19. She closely identifies as a New Yorker, like many of us born there.
Starlite said A Child’s Adventure was the first Faithfull album she bought. “Times Square” is its first track.
“Being from Manhattan it resonated so deeply, and every time I hear it, the reverberation deepened,” she said. “With the changing times, the changing of Times Square, from the porno films to the ‘cleaning up,’ the periods when Jenny Holzer had her epigrams on the abandoned movie marquees, to Disney, and now — whatever we are now … I wanted it to be a coda for this year, especially because Times Square is where the New Year happens.”
Faithfull explains in the video below that the song resonates for her as a portrait of the loneliness and emptiness she experienced in New York, as well as her struggles with addiction. Starlite evokes Faithful’s raspy voice, which addiction and laryngitis have deepened, but adds warmth and a pensive sadness that is all her own.
She seems ready for a New Year’s celebration with a sparkly necklace and red lips, in the video. But just like the rest of us, Starlite will be avoiding Times Square and raucous parties this year, given the surge in COVID-19.
Starlite’s version of the song strikes me as a meditation on our struggles during the pandemic and the turbulent times that left New York vulnerable, without the support of outgoing President Donald Trump.
A bold, passionate and principled performer who channels “blondes with low voices and defiant lives” (including Nico and Faithfull), as she said in a prior interview, Starlite has earned critical acclaim from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and other publications. When she impersonates artists, the characters seem to inhabit her, but her performances also reveal her own irreverent fury, humor and honesty.
For this video, she filmed herself and sang her part into the phone. “We did it very minimalistically,” she said. Rich Feridun’s guitar sounds appropriately sad. Scott Anthony of Storybook Sound mastered the song and Michael Schiralli created the video, using footage of Starlite and photos by Jeremiah Moss.
Moss’ photos tell the tale of Times Square during the pandemic with vividly colored images of protest signs and boarded-up stores. The shine has worn off of Times Square for the moment, with theaters and restaurants closed. Even law firms have fled their tall buildings for the safety of virtual business.
Indeed, Times Square is tired now, and many of the homeless people who live there are particularly vulnerable to the virus. The video’s closing photo, of a couple kissing, is optimistic: a nod to the promise of future maskless behavior and romance.
Starlite sings hauntingly:
In a tired part of the city, hiding from the fast talk
Watch “don’t walk” to “walk”
Easy when you’re dreaming
Staring at the movies, standing in a circle
Laughing at the wrong time.
If alcohol could take me there
I’d take a shot a minute and be there by the hour.
Starlite related the song’s meaning to “the desolation, the need to escape, either through alcohol or belief – anything, anyone that can take us somewhere else. The fear of death is also at the forefront of our collective consciousness – physical death, certainly, and the death of our culture, our world.”
Reynolds has performed with Starlite for many years. They met in 2015 though a mutual friend, the musician Kevin Salem. “I’d been doing Marianne (Faithfull shows) for about a year prior and the three of us did “Times Square” at a small club in the East Village,” Starlite said.
Reynolds said he wrote “Times Square” in the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, drawing on his memories. “I’d been to New York before New York changed into Gaps — 42nd Street was still 42nd Street,” he said, adding that he stayed in a hotel on 11th Avenue and walked around observing prostitutes and junkies.
With a little “tequila and smoke,” he wrote the song quickly.
It “just came out and I thought maybe it would suit Marianne,” he said.
He said the song reflects the self-destructive tendencies of an addict “with a pistol in my suitcase,” as the lyrics say metaphorically.
Reynolds joined Faithfull’s band in 1976 and collaborated with her for years, co-writing songs such as “Broken English” and “Why’d Ya Do It?” A Manchester, England native who left a troubled home at 15 and then become what he described as a “feral kid” who got “caught up in things” and “fell in with some people” in Hamburg, Germany, he said he was “a bad protector of Marianne,” who had “bikers waiting at the gate for her with heroin.”
His own issues with addiction “stemmed from stage fright and not being able to sleep,” he said. He said he wasn’t made for the rock ‘n’ roll life, and I pondered, “Is anyone really made for that life?”
He says he hasn’t spent much time thinking about “Times Square” as it triggers memories of a difficult time. He has many questions about how his early years affected him, and said he needed to leave this “painful song” behind. “I pushed bad experiences away,” he said.
Through this song, Starlite expresses her despair that she cannot be a vital part of the city, and feels a bit detached. Reynolds explained that the lines “And if I die gaining my senses/Wake up in a hotel/Staring at the ceiling” describes his detached feelings when he was “a kid staring” and separate from his family.
Reynolds’ career includes a solo album, I Scare Myself, and work with artists such as Baaba Maal, Grace Jones, Beth Orton and Joe Cocker. “Then he just started playing with me. It was amazing,” Starlite said.
Like Faithfull, Starlite defies the status quo by speaking her mind about political issues on and off the stage. In her show “Why’d Ya Do It” at Pangea in New York last year she — as Faithfull — made connections between Ulrike Meinhof, a West German militant and co-founder of the Red Army Faction, and herself. She explained that her drug use and Meinhof’s violent version of activism were both destructive, but also acts of defiance.
Starlite, as Faithfull, narrated: “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.’ ”
This year, let’s gather our energy to face a New Year’s Eve at home, and resolve to find renewed compassion to shelter those on the streets in Times Square and others hurt by the pandemic, and resist the atomized lives that Starlite sings about.
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