Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan reflects on his decades in conversation with the dark queen of English pop
Like most of us, I first “knew” Marianne Faithfull as Mick Jagger’s muse and the pretty, sweet-voiced singer of the Stones sad song, “As Tears Go By.”
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Years passed, and she re-emerged in 1979 as a hard-bitten, raggedy-ass, post-punk siren, collaborating with Barry Reynolds on the vicious and visceral Broken English album.
I first saw Faithfull at the New Music Seminar in New York an industry confab that was the place to be in the early-mid ‘80s. This would have been the summer of ’85. She was on a panel and was drunk and belligerent.
Skip ahead to 1995. She was in recovery, doing some of that just outside my home town Boston, in Arlington. Not surprisingly, I was talking to her about willful self-destruction, about landing foursquare at the rock ‘n’ roll intersection of too much drink and too many drugs.
“The most delightful, the most talented, the most witty, the most everything people — they do that to themselves and we don’t know why,” Faithfull said.
She wasn’t speaking of herself at the moment – she was actually talking about a mutual acquaintance, former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan — but she knew of what she spoke. And you do, too, if you know anything about Faithfull. She’d been a tabloid’s long-running dream.
A gorgeous, well-bred, Catholic-schooled teenage chanteuse, she was discovered at a party by Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and the band’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. In late-1964 she had a hit with “As Tears Go By” which was followed by an introduction to drugs in swinging London and a volatile romance with Jagger. She co-wrote the Stones’ “Sister Morphine,” and “Wild Horses” is said to be about her.
Skip forward to oblivion.
Then came the 1979 punk-infused comeback with the embittered Broken English. It is those vicious songs for which Faithfull became known with her Broken English re-emergence. The wistful hippie and quintessential rock girlfriend of the ’60s had hardened, turned ferocious in “Why’d Ya Do It,” among other songs.
Faithfull calls Broken English her “masterpiece” (hey, if it’s true, it’s not bragging) but also says the album led the public and her record company to expect forthcoming variations on it.
She says that after making the brutal Broken English, she felt she had gone through a profound internal change. “It was the most cathartic thing in my life,” Faithfull says. “Something in me changed and I was really very happy. I wanted to show another side of myself and the record company didn’t want that. They just wanted more and more anger, fury, rage. And, I thought, `Oh well, that was that: Let’s move right on.’ I absolutely refused to go on churning out Broken English Mach 2, Mach 3 and Mach 4. I could have done. But I would have had to maintain a level of philosophy and rage that I would not have been able to live with.”
In the mid-’80s, she was drink-and-drug-fueled. Then, rehab and recovery at Hazelden in Minnesota, that move to Arlington and, again, relative obscurity. With a later shift back to New York City, she made a comeback once again, with Faithfull: An Autobiography, a few concerts in New York and the West Coast featuring Brecht-Weill songs, a couple of dates with the Chieftains and in 1995 a moody, enveloping album that is a collaboration with Twin Peaks music creator Angelo Badalementi called
You can’t get through a story about Faithfull without reading the word “survivor,” and currently that may be more apropos than ever as at 75, her birthday is Dec. 29, she’s battling long-haul COVID.
But how about this: She just survived a bout with the late Tom Snyder in which the pompous, self-parodic Late Late Show host harped on the tired Jagger connection, with Faithfull demurring “I learnt a lot.” Then, as Faithfull discussed her non-AA-endorsed recovery — an occasional joint, an occasional gin and tonic — Snyder erupted with, “By the way, the one you picked is a wonderful drink!”
“I have to remember I have to be very careful,” Faithfull again demurred, gracefully.
Faithfull tells me that a lot of rock ‘n’ roll self-indulgence “is a pose, one of those things artists do. We want everything we do to be like an ambush and a surprise. So, just as people write you off and say, `Well, that’s that,’ then you come up with something astounding and it makes it more amusing to you. I certainly don’t do it now and I have not for a long time. And it’s a pretty childish way to do things. But I do remember thinking like that and I also know it’s one of the things people are astounded by when they meet me, because I obviously am not completely physically destroyed.”
She was far from it. With the Chieftains in Boston in January of ’95, Faithfull appeared almost regal. She sang the saddest of Celtic ballads, “Love Is a Teasing,” and carried it off with ragged-but-right aplomb.
VIDEO: Marianne Faithfull performs “Love Is A Teasing” with The Chieftains on Late Night with Conan O’Brien
In 1997, I spoke with her about up performance at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s a serious coming together of all the strands of my work,” she says. “It’s the most wonderful moment. I don’t think the set will be the same every night. The first half will be the Weimar cabaret, which I first did at the Brooklyn Academy, and then there’s an interval, 25 minutes, where you go to the bar and have a glass of wine and go outside and talk to your friends and say what you think of it so far. That’s what I would do, anyway. In that time, I will be changing into another role and come back with my band.”
You wonder, will “Ruby Tuesday,” the song Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote about her so long ago when she was a young, innocent British schoolgirl, be part of it? Oh, yes.
Faithfull lost that innocence a long time ago. She details those days and more in last year’s autobiography, Faithfull. She spun her own sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll story. In the index, under “drugs” there are 21 entries, like “heroin (smack),” “MF as junkie,” “morphine” and, finally, “MF’s recovery.”
All that stuff is history, from her point of view, and she says she’ll respond with a firm, polite refusal if that’s where the gutter press wants to dig these days. “The salacious, dirty stories, the sex and drugs,” she says, “I don’t like those things. I have to learn to deal with it, but I think with the book and everything I’m not quite so touchy.”
Still, she adds, “It’s not good for me to be demeaned and diminished by that ’cause I’ve got a lot to do and I need my confidence and I need my hope high. That sort of chipping away isn’t good. No, we don’t let that happen.”
“It’s changed me,” Faithfull adds, about writing the book. “Whatever it was I was so frightened of about my story . . . there are some people who don’t like it, some of the people in it, but some of them do.”
So, has she become a pop icon?
“This isn’t the peasant culture,” says Faithfull. “We don’t need icons. We need reality. Call me an icon and I’ll scream. That’s a copout. For anybody to be really working and to be [called] an icon, especially before you’re, you know, dead, is a pain.”
VIDEO: Marianne Faithfull “As Tears Go By”