The many misinterpretations of Marianne Faithfull
Long before Marianne Faithfull was plucked from obscurity and stripped of all anonymity to become the doe-eyed, blonde-haired poster girl of the 60s, one who would go on to release 24 albums as she metamorphosed from pretty, folksy starlet into a rebellious and dexterous pop polymath, she was simply a kid in Mrs Simpson’s English class.
“I was a clever little girl, but a lazy one,” says Faithfull, as she reminisces about her school days over the phone from her Putney home. “[Mrs Simpson] really managed to teach me something serious about poetry. Somehow, she made it such a delight to work; that’s quite rare, isn’t it?” It’s a testament to both teacher and student, that now, almost sixty years later, Faithfull has taken the beloved poems of her youth and reinterpreted them with composer and long-term collaborator Warren Ellis. It’s an astonishing compilation; Faithfull’s readings in a raspy, smokesinged voice, find a beautiful partner against the luscious ambience of Ellis’ backing. She may be older, wiser, and a lot more discerning than the teenager who first read them, but her passion for the verses is still striking.
© James Robjant
Coat: Vintage Dior Couture
Shirt: Marianne’s own by Chloé
Earrings: Celine by Hedi Slimane
For a long time, Faithfull felt she didn’t have the right people around her to ever make the project anything more than a pipe dream. “I couldn’t imagine a record company or a manager wanting to make a record like this.” Even in 1964, a period when she was often seen as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend first, musician second, she shared her love of poetry with now defunct pop magazine, Fabulous. “Not very mod, is it?” she told the interviewer. “But I’d love to put some of [Shakespeare’s] poetry to music and sing it.” Years later, once Faithfull had found her people, the making of the album was a perfect domino effect. “My manager Francois [Ravard] has that kind of mind that can see how lovely this record would be. He brought Warren [Ellis] into it, who I just love working with.” In turn, Ellis brought in fellow Bad Seeds member Nick Cave on piano, Brian Eno, who “played all sorts of things”, and cellist Vincent Ségal. It’s no easy feat, but Faithfull breathes dramatic new life into her readings of seminal poems of the 19th century Romantic period. The titular She Walks in Beauty will make even the most jaded of us want to run to the nearest forest and snog someone, while moments of melancholy such as Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving, a sorrowful reflection of the passing of youth, are perfectly underscored by sad synths and yearning cellos.
It’s the album she’s wanted to make her whole life, but one that she almost lost her life while making. Last April, Faithfull was rushed into intensive care and hospitalised for 22 days after contracting Covid-19. She wasn’t expected to make it. “God, I mean, what can I say? It was just terrible. My life has changed completely. My lungs got completely done in, I lost my memory and I have terrible fatigue.” Just from speaking to her over the phone, it’s clear how potent the after effects of the virus are. At points Faithfull’s voice becomes strained and her breathing sounds heavy and haunting. In other moments she forgets what we’re discussing and interjects with an apologetic “sorry darling”, but in every other way, she sounds as strong as you’d expect from a woman who has survived cancer, Hepatitis C, multiple suicide attempts, heroin addiction, homelessness and most recently, Covid-19. On release from hospital, Faithfull wasted no time getting straight back to work. “I just thought, ‘I better get it finished.’ I was still in that space of She Walks in Beauty. We were still in the middle of the record. What was I going to do? Take a holiday?!” she cackles.
“I know what I’m doing. I think people are beginning to give me credit, but on the other hand, it’s demeaning for me to go about with my tongue hanging out saying give me more”
Her schedule remains as busy as it can be. “I believe in this record and I want it to thrive. That means I must do promotion. I still have to do a lot of interviews, but it’s nothing like it would have been before I got ill. I have to climb back and I’m doing my best. I’ve stopped smoking – it’s ridiculous. Of course I can’t smoke, if I did I would die! And I don’t want to die.” Listening to Faithfull eagerly volunteer which rhymes and alliterations in She Walks in Beauty simply “knock her out”, I feel as if I’ve been transported back to Mrs Simpson’s English lessons, but when we discuss the parallels between the poetic themes and her own life, she is less forthcoming. We talk about The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, a poem that reflects on the suicide of a young woman. I bring up a comment by Ellis in the liner notes: “Marianne told me that she first heard The Bridge of Sighs when she was fourteen, in an English class, and that she always thought that poem was about her.”
© James Robjant
“Well he’s wrong, I never did,” she counters. “Darling, I never, never said I was that girl, ever. I’m sure I didn’t. I didn’t think The Bridge of Sighs was about me. Obviously I understand it, because I’ve had that kind of experience, but no… I’ve never jumped in the Thames.”
It’s only after we resume the interview after a short intermission – Faithfull staggers her interviews for health reasons – that she expands. “While I was on my little break I was thinking about your question, whether I identify with The Bridge of Sighs. If I’m really honest, and I want to be… of course. You’re drawn to things you could make about you… it doesn’t mean that it is about you. But it could have been, you know?”
Much has been written about the soaring highs and plummeting lows of Marianne Faithfull. She was discovered in 1964 at a party by the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. She quickly went on to record the Keith Richards and Mick Jagger-penned As Tears Go By, before becoming the girlfriend of the latter. Faithfull quickly became a quintessential 60s muse; celebrated for her beauty, chastised for her sexuality, especially after an infamous drugs raid on Keith Richards country house, where Faithfull was found wearing nothing but a fur rug. Behind the free love banner, the era of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll counterculture came at a huge cost for women. “I was treated as a pretty little sex object, and I always found that very offensive. I really did, because I was never that person. I just couldn’t accept an image of myself like that, as someone so sexual.”
© James Robjant
By the early 70s, both Faithfull’s career and her personal life were in sharp decline. She was suffering from drug addiction and shortly after breaking up with Jagger she lost custody of her son from her first marriage, she became homeless in Soho and attempted suicide. Still, there were a handful of releases in the period. Her 1976 album Dreamin’ My Dreams showcased Faithfull’s love of interpretation (she took on hits by Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter), as well as an altered and almost unrecognisable voice. Cigarette scorched and ravaged by years of drug abuse, a critic wrote in the Sunday Times that Faithfull had “permanently vulgarised her voice”, but instead, she used her lower, harsher voice to astonishing effect in her next album.
“Broken English? We call it Broken Biscuits!” laughs Faithfull, of the 1979 record. Hailed as one of the ultimate comeback albums, it was a defiant middle finger to the world. Nothing shocked more than Why D’ya Do It?, a caustic Heathcote Williams poem set against a swaggering fusion of rock and reggae. Full of crooning venom she asks, “Why’d ya do it, she said, why’d you spit on my snatch?/ Are we out of love now, is this just a bad patch?”
“I really didn’t think I was going to live, and I thought, ‘OK, before I bid you all good night, before I croak, I’m going to reveal who I really am, here you are!’ It was actually a lot of fun to make,” Faithfull admits. “And then to my absolute amazement and joy, I didn’t croak!” Instead she got clean, mostly, and spent the next three decades continuing to make unexpected and underrated albums. She developed a knack for collaborating with equally innovative artists. Kissin Time (2002) features Beck, Blur and Jarvis Cocker, while she first worked with Warren Ellis as well as Nick Cave and PJ Harvey for 2005’s brooding and world-weary, Before the Poison.
“I was treated as a pretty little sex object, and I always found that very offensive. I just couldn’t accept an image of myself like that, as someone so sexual”
Age has never stalled her. Her last album, 2018’s Negative Capability is up there with her standout records, tackling death and ageing to heartbreaking effect. “I don’t know how I did it,” says Faithfull. “It was a difficult album to make, and I was already not really well. This whole sort of decline has been going along for quite a long time, and what finally did it was Covid […] but I couldn’t have made that record [any sooner]. I had to have those life experiences.” Loneliness is a haunting and recurring theme, and I ask if it’s something she still experiences. “I am a lonely person,” she admits. “I was very much in love with somebody, they fell in love with somebody else, and I had to get used to being alone.” She says it was a recent relationship, before adding, “at the same time, I do have my wonderful son and my delightful grandchildren, so I’m not completely alone.”
From the starkly soul-baring Negative Capability to the brashness of Broken English, Faithfull’s back catalogue is a hugely dexterous body of work. “I’m a Capricorn, you know. Another person, and he was a friend of mine, who was like that, was David Bowie. It might be part of that I think.” I wonder if another reason for her commitment to innovation has been about proving a point, hammering away at the tired, 60s muse label? “I didn’t know if I ever could lose it. But a Capricorn is a goat. Very hard headed and they will butt away and do all sorts of things.”
© James Robjant
While there have been many misinterpretations of Marianne Faithfull, she remains the ultimate pop luminary. She can story-tell like Springsteen, move through folk and pop and rock ‘n’ roll like Dylan and sear heartstrings like Cohen, but while many of those same contemporaries are heralded as era-defining artists, Faithfull is rarely afforded the same credit. “Oh, who cares?!” she drawls. “I know what I’m doing. I think it’s changing and I think people are beginning to give me credit, but on the other hand, it’s sort of demeaning for me to go about with my tongue hanging out saying give me more credit. No, all I really want is for people to really enjoy the album and really get off on it and feel a bit of what I feel, that’s all.”
Does she have more music in her? “I might be able to do one more, I don’t know. Remember darling, I’m 74!” There’s also the fact she’s still uncertain if she will ever be able to sing again, her doctors are unsure. Though it’s a tragic possibility, if it is the case, She Walks in Beauty is a perfect note to finish on. In her 57-year career, there’s little Faithfull hasn’t done; duetted with Bowie while dressed up as a nun one minute, released a live album of Kurt Weill recordings the next. She has shown us her soul and recorded her rage, and now, it’s back to where it all began – before it all began – bringing her first true love, poetry, front and centre. When our time is up, Faithfull tells me she’s going to take a rest before going on her daily walk. She sounds slightly drained, but far from defeated. It’s a glorious March day, cold, but bright and cloudless and I imagine her, proud and defiant, off to walk in beauty.