FACES: Tammy Faye Starlite — The Great Pretender
by Jack Silbert
(ABOVE: Tammy Faye Starlite performs at Joe Hurley’s All-Star Irish Revue – photo by Jack Silbert)
The first time I ever saw Hoboken’s own Tammy Faye Starlite, she was onstage at Manhattan’s legendary Bottom Line club in a blood-splattered wedding dress. The singer/actress/writer has come a long way, baby, earning rave reviews in the New York Times for her off-Broadway portrayals of Velvet Underground associate Nico and the Rolling Stones-annointed pop star Marianne Faithfull. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Faithfull’s comeback album Broken English. In March, Starlite presented a sold-out theatrical run based around the LP, and by popular demand she returns in September with Why’d Ya Do It: Tammy Faye Starlite Performs Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English.
Which came first: your love of music, or your love of theater?
I think they were simultaneous. When I was 6 years old, I remember singing in the school talent show. I forgot the words, and the principal said, “Can anyone help out Tammy?” From that point on, I realized I had to learn my lines, but I was hooked on being onstage. Maybe it was through singing and dealing with humiliation that got me ready for acting.
You’ve performed as Nico, Marianne Faithfull, Debbie Harry, Loretta Lynn, even Mick Jagger. What do you enjoy the most about playing real-life characters?
When I was a kid, I never wanted to be myself — I was always pretending to be someone else. I just want to be them! With Nico and Marianne in particular, it’s about being able to say things with impunity that I wouldn’t normally want to say, like yelling at the band.
Marianne Faithfull was discovered by the Rolling Stones’ manager, had a run of hit singles in the mid-1960s, and a relationship with Mick Jagger. But personal problems and drug abuse stalled her career throughout much of the 1970s. What was so special about her comeback album, Broken English?
When she got herself together and formed a band including the brilliant guitarist Barry Reynolds, she put out this album in 1979 that was completely antithetical to everything she had been perceived as: this beautiful fragile princess in a pop tower. The album presented her as this fierce, powerful woman who expressed desires, lusts, and anger, all the things it wasn’t particularly pretty for a proper British girl to convey.
In the past five years, you’ve done several well-received shows as Marianne. Have you ever met her or heard from her?
I had met her collaborator Barry Reynolds and he started to play with us. I was in heaven, because this was the guy who co-wrote all those songs that I love, on Broken English and so many subsequent albums. So, I know people who know Marianne very well, and I know that she wasn’t thrilled when I was doing it at first. After I did the show at Pangea that got reviewed in the Times, I thought, if she doesn’t want me to do it anymore, I understand. I wouldn’t want me to do it either — someone taking your persona. But last November, I realized the 40th anniversary of Broken English was coming up. So I decided to message her on Facebook: I would love to do this, but only with your blessing. She wrote back, “Oh do it, darling. It’ll be great.”
How does one of these shows come together?
The Nico play I did in 2014 was scripted, based on an interview she did, and I put in other commentary. But when I did Nico after that, I would just improvise, and the Marianne show that I did in 2015 was also improvised. But this is the first time since then that I actually scripted something. I buckled down and decided to write a monologue for each song.
So I reread her two autobiographies twice. I read things that would put me in that mindset, like Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights. I tried to tie each of the songs to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. We’ve also tied in Dante’s Inferno, Robert Frost, and quotes from Brecht, Blake, Keats, Simone de Beauvoir, and Kathie Lee Gifford. There are a lot of pop culture references. One of the things I find so fascinating about Marianne is her erudition and her knowledge and love of classical literature and the Romantic poets. I decided that was my “in” — how smart she is. It’s done in a humorous way but hopefully not in a disrespectful way, because I love her.
There are Hoboken connections in your band for this show.
My husband Keith Hartel, who is brilliant, is playing bass, and Richard Feridun is a fantastic lead guitarist. Non-Hobokenites include Barry Reynolds, one of the best rhythm guitarists around, the great Eszter Balint on violin, and the fabulous David Nagler on keyboards. The director is Michael Schiralli, he’s my favorite. He understands things so well — comedy and what’s underneath. He pushes me.
You grew up in Manhattan. How did you end up in Hoboken?
I was married previously and got divorced. It was 2004, I was single and doing some shows at South by Southwest [music festival in Austin, Texas]. We needed a bass player, so we recruited Keith Hartel who I’d met through Rich Feridun. He was so funny and smart and sweet and knew so much about music and had a girlfriend and that was fine! But a few months later, he broke up with his girlfriend. So I decided, we’ll see what this is, and in September, we decided to live together. My lease on 110th Street was coming up, so I decided to move to Hoboken with Keith, who had just moved here from Fort Lee. I told him, as long as I can order in, because I can’t cook. But I order really, really well.
For someone who’s never seen you perform, what can they anticipate from your Broken English show?
Hopefully a sense of freedom, of language and thought. And on a more basic level, I hope they think it’s funny and like the music, because the songs are beautiful and the band is fantastic. Have fun, enjoy the stories; it won’t be boring, sappy, or mediocre — that’s all I want. I don’t profess to teach anybody anything, but maybe they’ll feel a little galvanized when they leave. And get to know the fabulousness of Marianne Faithfull. Even though the album was 40 years ago, a lot of the themes that she wrote resonate today.
Why’d Ya Do It: Tammy Faye Starlite Performs Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English launches September 25 at Pangea (178 2nd Ave at 12th Street, New York City) and then plays every Thursday in October. Two preview performances are set for September 12 and 19. Tickets for all performances are available now by clicking here.