'I was a very lost little girl but, better now, thank you'
INTERVIEW:Marianne Faithfull has lived her life in extremis, and she protects her own legend better than anyone. But only recently has she identified a single event in her teenage years as the reason for her personal struggles, and now she feels she is finally healing, she tells ROISIN INGLE.
'I AM GOING TO BE naughty,” says Marianne Faithfull. Then in her ravaged, rasping voice she adds a worrying clarification: “We are going to be very naughty.” Bear in mind I’ve read enough about Faithfull to know this pronouncement could mean literally anything. It’s both a relief and a disappointment when all she does is get up to shut the door of the historic room in this Dublin hotel so that she can have a sneaky fag. Since she was launched on the world as a doe-eyed, wispy-voiced pop ingénue 47 years ago, she has by turns been suicidal, heroin addicted, homeless, anorexic and clinically depressed. But these days, illicit ash flicked into a saucer is about as dysfunctional as Faithfull, now 64, apparently gets.
Before the cigarette, the photographer arrives to take her picture. It’s a long time since she was a fashion icon, The Girl on the Motorcycle or the girl on the fur rug, but image is clearly still important. “I am still working all the time, I can’t let it all slide,” she says. She gently admonishes our photographer for not using a flash. “I’m not crazy about natural light, I love flash, love it,” she says, adding that it “smoothes out the face” and namedropping her friend photographer David Bailey. (In fairness, the woman who has worked with everyone from Beck to Rufus Wainwright and Jarvis Cocker and who is close friends with the likes of Bob Dylan has some seriously cool names to drop.) In the end, the photo is taken by a window in the late afternoon light. Natural as bedamned.
She is a fan of sharp, monochrome tailoring; today it’s a crisp white shirt with ruffles at the neck, black jacket and trousers. “Very Chanel,” she smiles. There is a flash of red visible from the sole of her boot as she walks back to her seat after closing the door. Louboutin? “Oh, how did you know?” she smiles. “He makes them especially for me. He only makes shoes with sky-high heels but I say to him, ‘now Christian, that won’t do for me, I am 64, I have to have nice sensible boots that hold my ankles’.”
We meet prior to the launch of her 24th album, Horses and High Heels, a release which is mostly cover songs but which features four of Faithfull’s compositions, including the title track. She says through all the turmoil, music has been her one constant, a “true connection to life”.
Horses and High Heelsrecounts her days living in Paris and in Dublin where in the early hours from her Ballsbridge flat she would hear horses and hard core revellers tottering home. “I know some people won’t like it because it’s not tortured,” she says of the album, which features some of her famous musician friends, including Lou Reed. The lyrics of the song The Old Housewere written by another pal, Frank McGuinness. She still lives between Paris and Dunmore East in Co Waterford. “This is home,” she says.
There is some pain on the album of course. It wouldn’t be a Marianne Faithfull record if there wasn’t. It’s hard, for example, not to be moved listening to her sing Goin Back, the song made famous by Dusty Springfield but which fits her own narrative perfectly. Faithfull’s song Past, Present, Future – it’s more of a poem really – has a haunted quality, while another of her compositions, Why Did We Have To Part?, is a lament for her long-term relationship with her French manager François Ravard – they broke up two years ago – and it brings to mind another, more high-profile lover.
“There is a little echo to the far past, yes, a little bit about Mick,” says Faithfull, who famously had a five-year relationship with Mick Jagger before it became a casualty of her drug addiction and her unwillingness to be, as she once described it, the “kept plaything of a rock star”.
We’ll talk about the far past later but back to the present. How is she now? “I haven’t had a day’s illness in years,” she replies. “Physically I am strong and emotionally I am really strong.” She had a health scare in 2006 when she was treated successfully for early-stage breast cancer. There was also treatment for a sleeping-pill addiction and a couple of years ago she went through a bout of clinical depression. About all of this she is an open book, deeply self-aware on her dysfunction, self-destruction and on the Marianne Faithfull myth, a creation that, it becomes evident, she works hard to protect. As she says in one of the songs on the album, she is also “kinder” now. “I am very nice in real life. It’s only if I get the hump with a journalist that I get nasty,” she says.
One journalist, Lynn Barber, was on the receiving end of this nastiness when Faithfull behaved all kinds of badly during an interview to publicise her role in the film Intimacy. Barber concluded: “Oh, she is exasperating! She is so likeable in some ways but also such a pain.”
Ten years ago when that interview took place Faithfull was not, she says now, operating on “logic or sanity” but on a “very wild emotional level”. “I think I might write Lynn a letter to apologise, a letter of amends, for being so rude,” she muses. “She did ask me a lot of impertinent questions but the game is to not react and not lose it, it’s all about grace under pressure.”
I needn’t worry about her losing it. This is a more relaxed Faithfull. A mellower Marianne. She says she has been doing some “very interesting work” on herself with a “fantastic” therapist called Mariah Fenton Gladis in Pennsylvania in the US. Last year, she came to realise that an incident which happened when she was around 13, what she calls a “bad event”, had a lasting and malign influence on the rest of her life. She doesn’t go into detail.
“I can’t tell you what happened . . . I think by the age of 17 I’d almost forgotten. I had no idea what a poisoned chalice it was going to be,” she says. “I never told my mother, I never told anybody, I just buried it forever and it only came out last year and then I realised I couldn’t live with it any more . . . until then I had no idea that I had been depressed all my life, I was taking substances to mask it.”
It was only while being treated for the addiction to sleeping pills in Eric Clapton’s centre in Antigua a couple of years ago that the incident which had “bubbled” under the surface of her life finally tumbled out. “It is such a huge revelation that it will take a while to sink down but very recently, when I did the work on it with Mariah, I experienced what she calls an exact moment of healing and everything was different.”
FAITHFULL HAS, in the past, described her childhood as “shifting and strange”. The only child of Eva, a Viennese baroness, and a British spy, Maj Robert Glynn Faithfull, she was brought up in the English town of Reading after her parents’ marriage collapsed and her father went off to start a commune. Convent educated, she was still a school girl when she went to a ball at Cambridge University and met artist John Dunbar, co-founder of the Indica art gallery beloved of the Beatles, whom she married in 1965. There’s a poignant clip on You Tube of a barely 17 Marianne chatting about how she was discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham. She recalls how Dunbar and Oldham were talking about her as though she wasn’t there. Oldham, who once described Faithfull as “an angel with big tits”, thought she had a great name and a face that might sell. “So, why not try to sell it?” says the gorgeous, giggling, teenage Marianne in the clip. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote one of their first songs As Tears Go By for her. It stormed the charts and changed her life.
Faithfull has spent a long time avoiding talking about her five-year relationship with Mick Jagger. If she did speak about him, the conversation was often pierced with thinly veiled barbs. While she says she doesn’t have a nostalgic bone in her body, she finds herself looking back at the relationship more fondly now. “I’ve got much better recently. I realised that we had a really wonderful time. It was really creative. He helped me learn my lines for my roles in The Three Sisters and Hamlet and I helped write his songs . . . I couldn’t cope with his sexual freedom and infidelity but I see that more as my flaw. I was too young. If I’d been older, I am sure I would have been able to cope. He was the king of rock’n’roll and of course he was f**king every chick he could. He was a boy who just couldn’t say no, every man would do that if he could.”
Looking back, she says: “The sort of relationship we had, he couldn’t have with any of those chicks. Where we could sit down and write Sister Morphinetogether. Or I could show him a book, The Master and Margarita, and he could write Sympathy for the Devil. Where he could play Hamletto my Ophelia. It was magic.”
What she always forgets, she says, is that they were so young. She was 19 and Jagger 21 when she left John Dunbar, with whom she had a son, Nicholas, to be with him. The Marianne Faithfull tabloid legend began in earnest when, during a drugs bust in 1967, she was found in Jagger’s company, naked except for a large fur rug. This incident spawned those nefarious and untrue Mars Bar rumours. She did not come out well from the press coverage. Instead of refuting her new reputation, she opted for a defiant embodiment of the ensuing broken, corrupting tabloid image.
The couple were in Australia together in 1969 when she took a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills and survived, after six days in a coma, inspiring a classic Stones song when she eventually woke. “I don’t remember but I believe Mick. He says he said ‘don’t go, don’t go’ and I said ‘wild horses couldn’t drag me away’. We were very poetic like that, very lyrical, living on a higher plane. We were young. You couldn’t do it older, maybe up to 24 then it becomes really stupid.”
When they split up in 1971, she “banished” him from her life. “I am unfortunately like that, I wish I wasn’t,” she sighs. “I am not like that now but I was. It’s so ego driven. You’ve hurt me so I banish you and the only person I hurt was me. There came a proper time after a few years where we really could have made friends and I wouldn’t have it.” They are friends again now. “We’ve forgiven ourselves a lot I think, Mick and I, we were so young,” she says.
Another friend she banished more recently was Kate Moss, accusing the model of stealing her style. “She wanted to read me like a Braille book. And she did. It’s a vampirical thing,” she said in 2009 while publicising her album of covers and collaborations Easy Come, Easy Go. There has been a mellowing here too. “We are friends again,” she says of Moss. “And we are going to keep it to ourselves . . . it’s a great shame when people don’t speak for a few years . . . I am not banishing people any more, in the past I hurt people before they could ever hurt me, my whole life was founded on that . . . I was a very lost little girl but better now, thank you.”
AFTER SHE AND Jagger broke up she spent the next year and a half living on the wall of a bombed-out basement flat in Soho, slipping into the shadows of her fame, a heroin-addled waif in fabulous frocks, starving herself and relying on the kindness of strangers for survival. “All I can say is don’t try this at ’ome,” she says, going all mockney. “It wouldn’t work now. No, you’d get killed. I was surrounded by a bunch of nice, cheerful alcoholics drinking meths, they were incredibly kind to me.” She knows she was lucky to survive. She was never held up at knife point, never raped. “I was just like them except I was wearing these beautiful clothes and had long blonde hair but I got my anonymity back living on the street like a little shadow, people didn’t know who I was.
“People were compassionate and kind and it was the first time I realised that human beings are much kinder than I thought. They weren’t famous or rich, they were just good people.” She went to the cab stand for her tea, and to the Chinese restaurant to get her clothes washed. She talks about this period with something approaching affection. “Don’t forget I could go home to my mother’s and have a bath,” she says. She was 24, a washed-up pop star, ex-girlfriend of a rock god with needle tracks in her arms and a young son she wasn’t allowed to see because she had been deemed an unfit mother. “I was in incredible pain, I thought nobody was hurting except me; by the time I was 24, my life was over but it was not quite the all-encompassing tragedy I thought it was.”
Concerned friends introduced her to a doctor who specialised in addiction and she became an NHS-registered heroin addict. “He realised that I had come to equate heroin with love. He gave me as much as I wanted, a risky strategy, but it worked. I felt satisfied and said I would like to come off.” The detox took six months.
Still “chipping” at drugs and pressing the self-destruct button, the 1970s were not a happy time. But then she released folk song Dreamin’ My Dreams, which got to number one in Ireland, where she had made good friends with the likes of the Guinnesses, the high society Wicklow set of Garech de Brún and John Boorman.
She toured “every little village . . . It was wonderful. I felt loved again.” She says this Irish love bomb gave her the confidence to make Broken Englishin 1979, her most critically acclaimed album, which she maintains should have catapulted her to greater heights. Why didn’t it?
“It was the drugs, it was the drugs, it was completely the drugs,” she says. If she hadn’t gone back on them she maintains the album would have been “a worldwide smash“ instead of “an underground smash”. Then, in 1985, she did clean up again, going to the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota and later moving to Shell Cottage on the Carton estate in Co Kildare.
She came out of the clinic all shivery and newborn “with rats crawling up and down my spine”. The next album, Strange Weather, carved out her cabaret persona and was yet another “survival” record. “So was Broken English. Both Marianne’s were tragic, it was bleak survivalist stuff. I am a pro, I know what I am doing when I throw out these tragic characters. I just never expect them to take so violently that nobody can forget it and then I have to deal with it later.”
Had she been written off professionally by the time Broken English was made? “God yes. There are still people who think I should have died before then, some fans, they say it would have been better if she’d died in the early 1970s because then all we’d have is the 1960s stuff. I don’t really care. It’s not me they are talking about, it’s the Marianne Faithfull out there . . . ”
Her death from an overdose as a twentysomething wispy-voiced beauty would, she says, have been a “neat little story . . . The real story is much more complicated, there is no moral pay off and there won’t be . . . It will just be ‘and then she got old and croaked it’.”
WHAT IS QUITE remarkable about Faithfull is that addiction and depression never dulled her ambition. In all those years of self-abuse and shooting herself and her career in the foot she never stopped striving to be a somebody. “I was always ambitious, to be at the top, to be the best, to be a star, to be unquestionably fantastic . . . It looks ridiculous now, but I did it. Drugs usually rob people of ambition but mine kept burning away.”
What she calls her “sabbatical period” came when she recorded 20th Century Bluesand The Seven Deadly Sinsin the late 1980s, her by-now very-lived-in voice perfectly suited to the works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. “I had a ball playing that chanteuse character,” she says.
The veteran of three marriages is not in a relationship now. “I like not having to worry about somebody being in my bed,” she says. She lives half the time in her home in Co Waterford and half in Paris when, of course, she is not touring. There is meditation, yoga and a healthy diet. She has no problems with having long left the angel-faced Marianne Faithfull of her youth behind. “I don’t rage against age. I’ve put on a bit of weight but my skin is still good,” she says. Every two weeks she gets body and face facials. There are regular pedicures, weekly manicures, eyebrows coloured and eyelashes tinted. There may be other youth-enhancing treatments but these are the only ones she cares to mention.
“I am old enough and I can afford it,” she says. “I have to stand up for Marianne Faithfull, that foolish girl, it’s my job to look after her and present her well.” This is a constant theme, that she is the caretaker of her own legend, the myth of Marianne that some said was her greatest ever work of art.
“She is irrepressible,” she says of the mythical Marianne. “And I love her and people like her, she is a nice little thing and she’s still there but I have to mind her a bit because she could still get a bit full of herself.”
Faithfull says she will always keep busy even if she’s already “done everything I ever wanted to do”. Up next is the world tour of Horses and High Heels and two seasons performing The Seven Deadly Sinswith a ballet at the Linz Opera House in Austria next autumn and the following spring. “That’s what I am now, a very, very grand artist,” she smiles, at the thought of her channeling Weill against a background of ballerinas.
It’s already been a long and very hectic life. Doesn’t she ever just feel like putting her feet up? “I would love to relax but I am afraid. I think it is very good for me to work. I might get very depressed if I stop. I think that maybe I have to go on in some form or other. If I have to have something to keep myself together then so be it. I wish I was grown up enough to keep myself together for myself but I am afraid. Best not to risk it.”
Marianne Faithfull is right. In real life, she is “very nice”. Charming. Funny. Intelligent. Generous. Ever so slightly wicked. No wonder everyone from Morrissey to Moss has lined up to bask in the icon.
She has been hurting for so long and now it’s as though she is finally healing. I could talk to this mellow Marianne Faithfull all day. “E-mail me,” she says before stalking off on her custom-made Louboutins. “You could be in the Marianne Faithfull School of Bad Living, I’ve got some wonderful graduates you know.” She’s an expert flatterer too. And while she may be the grand dame of her jokey Marianne Faithfull School of Bad Living, her role as the sole and lifelong member of the Marianne Faithfull Self-Preservation Society will always be far more intriguing.