Updated Sept. 4, 2014 10:59 a.m. ET
CERTAIN LIVES STAND for an entire era. Cole Porter is the Jazz Age and the crash. Alfred P. Sloan, whose reign at General Motors began when city streets were still rank with manure and ended with them awash in tail fins, is the auto age. Marianne Faithfull, who had her first hit record in 1964, a song written by a 20-year-old Mick Jagger and his friend Keith Richards, is rock ‘n’ roll. She was 17, a primly blond Brit who elicited aristocratic fantasies. Approaching her at a party where members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were in attendance, Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham said, “I’m gonna make you a star, and that’s just for starters, baby!”
In the ensuing decades, Faithfull lived a multiplicity of lives, riding and, at times, nearly being destroyed by an ecstatic energy she helped unleash. She was the “It Girl.” A pop ingénue in ’64, a headliner in ’65, a torrid one-night stand of Richards’s in ’66, the muse and partner of Jagger for several years, the singer who rejected Bob Dylan, Miss X at the notorious Redlands drug bust in ’67, best friends with model Anita Pallenberg; dabbler in black magic and hallucinogens. She tasted and touched everything that fascinated her baby-boomer demographic. “She was always perceived as someone very brave, very cool and very much self-created,” said British actress Charlotte Rampling. “She’s always been her own woman, in no one’s mold, and it’s very impressive when a person can live that way.”
Faithfull’s life echoed the course of rock ‘n’ roll itself, which started with the playful excitement of sock hops and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and dead-ended, for a time, in atonal melodies and concept albums—which is just another way of saying “experience.” By the ’70s, she had lost it all and was on the street, a junky cadging a dose. She turned whispery, desperate.
She came back in 1979 with the titanic breakthrough record Broken English, turning her brush with the dark side into music. She had followed the classic trajectory of the hero: the rise to stardom, the split with society, the journey through a shadow land, the return. Through it all, she’s remained an object of fascination, allegedly a subject for iconic songs, among them “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by the Rolling Stones. When I asked if she was the inspiration behind the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” she said, “I was told so, but that doesn’t mean anything. Musicians do that all the time. ‘This song’s for you, darlin’.’ ”
It’s been 50 years since the release of her first single, “As Tears Go By,” the hit that began it all. A new record—Give My Love to London—will mark the anniversary. If you want to experience the passage of decades, play the new album beside her first numbers. In the early ’60s, her voice was not faux-naïf but the real thing—simple, childlike—which was part of its appeal, the fantasy of innocence corrupted. No one has ever been younger than Faithfull was in 1964. And no one’s ever been older than she is on the new record. She’s a dance-hall singer, moaning in a dive on the edge of town, her voice rough from years of smoking, shouting, staying out all night in the rain—a wisdom-filled rasp. It’s the quality that made those late Frank Sinatra records, after his voice was shot, electrifying. It’s not just the songs you hear; it’s the life—though the song titles alone tell a story: “The Price of Love,” “Give My Love to London,” “Love More or Less,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Here’s a singer with her eyes on the horizon. “This is a very personal record about things I’ve been going through with my loved ones,” she said. “It’s about how to get through.”
Faithfull is 67, splits her time between Dublin and Paris, smokes (e-cigarettes), walks, sings, writes, thinks. Though no longer the sex symbol she once was, she’s still beautiful. I caught up with her by phone in Paris. She’d broken a hip this summer, which, along with another injury, gave her time to reflect. “Six months on your back will do that,” she told me. “You become introverted. You start thinking about things, too many things.”
We talked about her childhood growing up in a small town just north of Liverpool. Her mother was an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, Baroness Erisso, whose great uncle, Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, wrote Venus in Furs, the book that gave rise to the term masochist; her father was a British intelligence officer in World War II, later a professor of Italian literature. Despite this pedigree, her childhood was tough. Her parents split when she was six years old; there was never much money. Faithfull was educated at a convent, where she learned the basics of this world and the next.
“Were you Catholic?”
“Not originally, no, but I had to become a Catholic. I couldn’t have survived otherwise. I had been a very bright pupil in the sixth form at the convent. I was preparing to go to university or art school or maybe music school. And then—well, I was discovered, for God’s sake! I wouldn’t have been human if I hadn’t wanted to get out of home.”
The first big moment came in 1964, at a launch party for a teen singer named Adrienne Posta, a famous soiree of that swinging London moment; Faithfull’s social circle and her connections to the city’s exploding music scene had brought her to a party where several young rock stars were in attendance. And here comes the Stones’ exotic boy manager, approaching the convent girl through a haze of cigarette smoke. “Andrew f—ing Oldham, excuse my French,” Faithfull recalls, laughing. “He was fascinating. I had never met a man who wore makeup, never met anybody who talked that way: ‘I’m gonna make you a star, baby.’ I had watched Sweet Smell of Success and all those Laurence Harvey films, so I did understand where he got his persona.”
“ “Marianne has always been her own woman, in no one’s mold. It’s very impressive when a person can live that way.” ”
A week later, Faithfull was at a recording session with Oldham and engineer Mike Leander. According to legend, Oldham had locked Jagger and Richards in a kitchen in Chelsea a few months before, saying, “Don’t come out till you’ve written a song.” It took them ages to figure out how to compose for the Stones. Their early numbers were ballads, melancholy tunes. Oldham farmed them out to other clients. “I first heard [“As Tears Go By”] in the studio,” Faithfull said. “It wasn’t meant to be the single; it was meant to be the B side. It was some scam of Andrew’s whereby I was meant to sing an awful song by Lionel Bart. It was obviously wrong. Mike Leander said, ‘Why don’t we try the B side?’ There must’ve been an acetate of Mick and Keith. I heard that once or twice, then went in and sang. It was magic.”
Faithfull has rerecorded that song since, finding new resonance. She’s grown into the song’s sadness as she’s aged.
It is the evening of the day.
I sit and watch the children play.
Does the 50th anniversary strike her as significant, or is it just a number? “It’s very significant,” she said, “because it’s not just that ‘As Tears Go By’ was released; it was also the beginning of a completely different life. It’s when I became a recording artiste, as they say, with an e on the end.”
Faithfull has known Jagger and Richards since she was a girl and they were boys. Brian Jones, a founding member of the Stones, was dead before his 28th birthday, but she knew him in his last days. She was already in a serious relationship with a gallery owner named John Dunbar (his Indica Gallery is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono would first meet). She married Dunbar when she was 18, and the couple had a young son, which did not stop her from hooking up first with Richards, and then, later, in a more meaningful way, with Jagger. For a time, she drifted between Dunbar and Jagger, sometimes bringing her son along, sometimes leaving him behind. By 1967, she was connected in the public mind with Jagger. They were a reigning couple of the era, the F. Scott and Zelda of swinging London. For a time, tired of motels and theaters, she gave up touring for a life inside the Stones’ inner circle—the band had achieved a remarkable fusion of mainstream and avant-garde. They threw parties, took drugs and had so much fun. It was a golden moment that unfurled like a day that seems to never end, until it does.
For Faithfull, the turning point, her Waterloo, came in ’67 with the drug bust at Redlands, Richards’s country home in Sussex, on the southern coast of England. It was a tabloid scandal that stands as a high watermark of the acid age: Jagger and Richards and various hangers-on getting bombed on LSD in the company of a woman who, because she was not named, became the mystery—the Miss X—at the core of it all.
“Redlands was my moment of truth, when I realized I was in a situation I couldn’t stand,” she told me. “It had been fun for a long time, and I guess we all made the mistake: We believed nothing could touch us, completely forgetting about working-class and middle-class envy, how people would feel. It didn’t even occur to me in my arrogance.”
Faithfull was not arrested, but Jagger and Richards and two other friends were. There was a tremendous trial—almost a show trial—that cemented the Stones’ reputation as rock ‘n’ roll outlaws. Jagger and Richards spent a night in prison before public sentiment helped secure their freedom. Crucial was the publication of an editorial in the conservative London Times under the headline, “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” Though she was supposed to be ashamed, Faithfull showed up in court to support Mick and Keith but also to demonstrate her defiance.
Of course, there’s the pose, and then there’s the way you feel. “I got terrible hate letters,” Faithfull told me. “I’ll never forget. The most awful articles in the newspapers. I was only 20. I believed everything, took it all to heart. I got very depressed. Mick and Keith, God bless ’em, went on to be bigger, better, stronger, brighter, more wicked, more naughty, more powerful. But as a woman—it was completely against the rules. We scuttered on for quite a time after that, trying to pretend it was OK and we could still have fun, but I was beginning to feel bad about myself. And then, you know, I got the usual sort of problems every woman gets with Mick Jagger. I simply couldn’t stand it any longer, all the different women and all that stuff.”
The psychic break came in the summer of ’69, when Brian Jones, who’d been kicked out of the band weeks before and was suffering from paranoia, drowned in a swimming pool. This began a run of dead rock stars: Brian, Jimi, Janis, Jim. They were all 27 when they died. After Jones’s death, Faithfull and Jagger flew to Australia to appear in Tony Richardson’s movie Ned Kelly, about an outlaw bank robber. Faithfull took sleeping pills before the flight, took more when she got to the hotel. At some point, she woke up, jet-lagged, walked dead-eyed to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. It was Brian’s face looking back. He beckoned her to join him inside the glass. The windows were sealed, so, instead of jumping, she took a fistful of pills and lay down beside the sleeping rock star.
“It was an awful thing to do to Mick, to Tony Richardson, to my mother, to my little tiny son who was in England, to myself,” she said. “I do remember having these feelings of ‘I’ll show them! They’ll realize when I’m dead they shouldn’t have done that!’ Completely forgetting you’ll be dead! I understood it years later when I had a good shrink in Boston and she gave me an essay Freud wrote on melancholy. In it he describes insanity of the suicide, where the id, the ego and the superego split. That’s when you actually see yourself dying, jumping out the window, whatever it is you choose. And then you’re at your own funeral listening to what people say about you.”
Days went by as she slept. In a dream, she met Brian, who told her how lonely he’d been. She walked him to the edge of nowhere, let him go. She woke up in a hospital with Mick and her mother at her side. “I had taken 150 Tuinals and was unconscious for six days,” she said.
FOR FAITHFULL, the period after the near suicide meant a switch from mind-expanding drugs to opiates, from a quest for experience to a search for numbness, escape. A personal disaster for Faithfull, the hangover that followed the ’60s was also part of a general malaise: Vietnam, the slide into dissolution, Watergate, OPEC, bell-bottoms. At some point, Faithfull became too self-destructive. In her memoir, she recounts a conversation she overheard between Jagger and Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records. “There’s only one thing to do,” Ertegun told Jagger. “I’ve seen a lot of heartbreak with junkies. Believe me, old friend, it wrecks the lives of everybody around them, as well. It’s a bottomless pit, and she’ll drag you into it unless you let her go.”
“ “Marianne has lived so many lives already, and has many more to live.” ”
Jagger and Faithfull broke up. A short time later, while in a London taxi, she learned of Jagger’s engagement to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias. Faithfull got out, got drunk, got arrested, and then spent the night in jail. From there, it was down the rabbit hole that led to the street. She lost touch with friends, family. Most painfully, she lost custody of her son. At times, she seemed like the ragged princess of the Dylan song “Like A Rolling Stone,” strung out on streets she once commanded like a queen. Yet, through it all, she remained true to her quest to sample every kind of experience. “For me, being a junkie was an admirable life,” she wrote later. “It was total anonymity, something I hadn’t known since I was 17. As a street addict in London, I finally found it. I had no telephone, no address. Nobody knew me from Adam.” Somehow, she survived.
When she found her way back in 1979 with Broken English, it was with a new sound, a new voice—gritty, wizened, experienced. “It was another person you heard on that record,” Rampling said. “And it spoke so clearly about what she had been through and how she had lived.” A string of great records followed: Strange Weather; Before the Poison; Easy Come, Easy Go; Horses and High Heels. Her late albums are her best—powerful because they suggest a life beyond music—and stand as a distillation. The pure ingénue at the beginning of the ’60s, the hippie chick by the end; the heroin girl at the beginning of ’70s, the proto-grunge girl at the end—Faithfull has always been a personification of her time.
These days, she stands for the rock ‘n’ roll generation grown old and dignified. “Marianne has lived so many lives already, and has many more to live,” Yoko Ono wrote in response to emailed questions. “She always keeps her chin up. As time goes by, she just gets better and better.” That’s her new record: chaos recollected in the calm after the storm.
“Everyone has to go through it themselves,” Faithfull told me, laughing. “But, just to be kind, I will give you my motto: ‘Never let the buggers grind you down.'”
*Please also see: https://whenisapartynotaparty.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/spring-2012-lucifer-rising-and-other-sound-tracks/