- 06 May 21
In a revealing interview, ’60s icon Marianne Faithfull discusses her stunning new album She Walks In Beauty, surviving excess, her famous relationship with Mick Jagger, and life with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Plus her reflections on living in Ireland and her friendships with Blur, Kate Moss and Francis Bacon.
Marianne Faithfull remains one of the most iconic and enduring figures from the ’60s, the decade that birthed modern pop culture. Now in her seventies, when I call her in her London home, there is a noticeable wheeze in her voice – part of the after-effects of Covid, which she contracted a year ago. Thankfully, after enduring a three-week spell of grave illness in hospital, Faithfull returned to good health, and is today talking to Hot Press about her wonderful new album, She Walks In Beauty.
With Nick Cave wingman Warren Ellis providing atmospheric soundscapes – along with additional electronic flourishes from Brian Eno – it finds the singer reading classic texts from some of her favourite Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Byron and Keats. The bittersweet subject matter covers the full range of experience, from the ecstatic joys of youthful discovery, to the regrets and disappointment one accumulates later in life.
Though she first became enamoured of the texts whilst a teenager, there is a sense that all these years later, Faithfull has lived these poems.
“Well, I know what you’re saying,” chuckles Marianne. “But in reality, they’re not about me. I mean, that’s just 19th century Romantic poetry, isn’t? I didn’t write them, but they are the most beautiful poems and I do know them very well. What happened really is that, for a long time, I didn’t have the right people to do them.
“The most important person was Francois, my manager, who did absolutely get what I wanted to do. He was also able to find the right record company, and they’re very keen on it.”
Was it the poems’ lyrical beauty that initially attracted Marianne?
“Partly, yes,” she nods. “And also the alliteration, the rhymes and so on. In addition, the subject matter. When I was a teenager, that sort of thing really appealed to me (laughs). And it always has.”
Do you mean the element of darkness?
“I don’t think they’re that dark,” counters Marianne. “But maybe they are – I don’t know! The absolute beauty and truth are appealing. I was a voracious reader at that age, and I still am. I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading lately, including Dostoyevsky. People also send me recommendations – I’ve just got the biography of Nico and I’m going to start that today. I like having a few books at a time on the go. Anyone who likes reading loves that, don’t they?”
The singer has chronicled her own extraordinary life story in two riveting memoirs, 1994’s Faithfull, and 2007’s Memories, Dreams & Reflections. In those books, she recalled her childhood in an Oxford commune, where she was raised by Robert Glynn Faithfull, an academic and one-time British intelligence officer, and Eva von Sacher Masoch, a descendant of Austro-Hungarian nobility.
Famously, Marianne was a distant relative of author Leopoldo von Sacher-Masoch, whose classic erotic novel Venus In Furs spawned the word “masochism”. Later, as a promising young folk singer in mid-’60s London, Marianne scored a hit with the ballad ‘As Tears Go By’, penned by the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Having become Jagger’s girlfriend, Faithfull was immediately placed at the dizzying epicentre of ’60s pop culture. A style icon who embodied swinging London and counted The Beatles amongst her closest friends, she co-wrote the Stones classic ‘Sister Morphine’ and – alongside Richards’ then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg – sang backing vocals on the era-defining ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.
To say the least, though, trials and tribulations were never very far away: there was Jagger and Richards’ arrests after the Redlands drug bust (Marianne, as extensively reported in the tabloids, having been discovered clad only in a fur rug); her suicide attempt in Australia; the Hells Angels’ killing of a Stones fan at Altamont; and her eventual break-up with Jagger.
Despite such trying experiences, Faithfull recalled the ’60s with a notable degree of warmth in Memories, Dreams And Reflections.
“Well, that’s a lovely book,” she says. “It’s the one I wrote after my autobiography, Faithfull. By the time I wrote the second book, I wasn’t so angry. Because I was still angry when I wrote my autobiography, and I got over it, thank God. I had a difficult time in the ’60s, being a very young woman with people around me whom I adored, like Anita, [art dealer] Robert Fraser and [designer] Christopher Gibbs. And of course, there was Mick and Keith, and John and Paul.
“They were all fantastic people, but they were much more sophisticated than me. And also, to be a woman in the music business at that time was quite hard.”
Given Marianne’s aristocratic background, it’s interesting that she says she felt the people she mixed with were more sophisticated.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean sophisticated, it just means my mother was a baroness!” she chuckles. “In Europe, to have a title is completely meaningless. Not here in the UK – to have a title means land, a house and all sorts of things. But not in Europe anymore. I’m sure it has affected people’s view of me, but I don’t think it’s that important really.”
LSD AT STONEHENGE
Marianne still retains her usual charm and wit, and when I bring up the new album’s liner notes, she quips, “I haven’t read them yet – what are they like?!” They certainly reveal some fascinating nuggets. For instance, when offering her thoughts on the final track, Tennyson’s ‘The Lady Of Shalott’, she suggests that the poem’s allusions to Camelot reflect her experience of the ’60s.
“Oh yes, and things like that,” says Marianne. “I remember going to see Stonehenge on LSD with Anita, Mick, Keith and Christopher. It was absolutely fabulous – that came into our lives very much. I was much younger, so it affected more me I think.”
In a good or bad way?
“Oh in a good way,” clarifies Marianne. “I’ve got some very happy memories of the ’60s, but at the same time, it broke my heart.”
Did Mick perhaps have ‘The Lady Of Shalott’ in mind when writing the lyrics of ‘As Tears Go By’.
“I think so. You know, Mick is a very cultured, educated person actually!”
It’s interesting that in comparison to, say, David Bowie, he’s quite guarded in interviews.
“Of course, yes,” says Marianne. “And he’s quite right to be. I have to learn to do that now.”
Is she still in contact with the Stones?
“I’m still in contact with Keith and his son, Marlon. When I lived in Paris, I would bump into Charlie Watts and his wife Shirley, but I haven’t seen Mick for years. I did see him once or twice in Ireland and we just talked non-stop, as if there was no one else in the room. It was at a dinner party, so in a funny way, we’re still kind of close. But no, I don’t go out and I’m not in his world anymore.”
It’s perhaps astonishing that, in 2021, the Stones remain one of the best live acts in the world.
“I agree. They are absolutely wonderful.”
Is she surprised that they’re still going?
“That’s something to be proud of,” says Marianne. “That they managed to keep it together.”
BLUR, BECK & KATE MOSS
As low as some of Faithfull’s ’60s moments were, her ’70s were truly torrid. Hooked on heroin and suffering from anorexia, she ended up destitute on the streets of London. It’s a tribute to her phenomenal resolve, not to mention her inherent brilliance as an artist, that she pulled her life together again and produced a bona fide masterpiece, 1979’s Broken English.
Built around moody new wave synth grooves, it was a memorable exploration of urban ennui and Mitteleuropa murk, covering everything from Baader Meinhof to disintegrating relationships.
The album’s enduring cult appeal, plus further acclaimed work throughout the ’80s and ’90s, allowed Faithfull to once again reinvent herself with 2002’s Kissin’ Time – where she collaborated with a Galacticos-like array of alt-rock stars, including Beck, Blur, Pulp, PJ Harvey and Billy Corgan.
“A lot of those people were fans of Broken English,” acknowledges Marianne. “Broken English was the first time ever that I really revealed myself. Actually, I thought I was going to die, and I said to myself, ‘Well, fuck this, before I die, I’m going to show who and what I am.’ And so I made that album.
“Certainly, the ’70s were difficult for me, but they were difficult in an honest way. In the ’60s, it was much harder because I had to pretend that it was wonderful, and some of it was, but a lot of it wasn’t. For me anyway, it ended up with heartbreak. Although I left Mick, I think I was much more hurt by the break-up – but obviously I can’t say that for sure.”
A particular highlight of Kissin’ Time was the Beck collaboration ‘Sex With Strangers’, an electro-funk gem subsequently given a sublime dub overhaul by legendary production duo Sly & Robbie.
“I think Beck and I wrote that song together,” recalls Marianne. “Really when it comes to Kissin’ Time, again I have to mention my manager, Francois. I could not have done it, but he did. He went to all these people and asked them, and they all said yes. It took a new generation to appreciate what I could really do – it took a hell of a long time.
“Maybe I didn’t have any talent when I was young, but I certainly developed talent. The way people saw me – which was completely false – was as this sexy bit of stuff. I’m really not like that!”
In the ’80s and ’90s, Faithfull was a long-term Irish resident, living in the shell cottage on the grounds of Leixlip Castle. Indeed, in Blur bassist Alex James’s memoir, Bit Of A Blur, he recalls going to visit the singer in her Kildare home.
“Alex became a very, very close friend,” says Marianne. “He’s in the ‘Sex With Strangers’ video, and so is Kate Moss, who used to come and visit me in Ireland as well. At the time we made that record, I was close to all those people, and some of them I’m still close to.”
KENNETH ANGER & FRANCIS BACON
Subsequent to Kissin’ Time, Faithfull has overcome a number of health problems, including a 2006 breast cancer diagnosis. Right up to the present day, she continues to negotiate life’s slings and arrows (in another interview subsequent to our chat, she admits that the pandemic has left her in a precarious financial situation).
It is not in the least surprising that she is the subject of a planned biopic, with rising English star Lucy Boynton last year chosen to play her. Even in the dog days of the ’70s, Faithfull managed to star in Lucifer Rising, a film helmed by the hugely influential underground director Kenneth Anger.
In Memories, Dreams And Reflections, she says one of the people who was kindest to her at that difficult time was Francis Bacon, arguably the greatest artist of the 20th century. Oddly, due to his father’s occupation as a racehorse trainer, Bacon spent part of his troubled childhood in Kildare, not far from where Marianne would live in later years.
“He had a very heavy father,” says Marianne. “Francis was really nice, really interesting. I’ve got a wonderful photograph of him hanging up right opposite me, which I bought in Paris. He was great, it was really easy, and we stayed close friends.”
He’s my favourite artist of all time.
“Yeah, me too,” says Marianne. “I do like Lucian Freud as well, but I love Francis.”
• She Walks In Beauty is out now, and is reviewed here by Pat Carty.