Marianne Faithfull’s Covid coma: ‘They thought I was going to croak!’
Even being hospitalised couldn’t derail the singer’s latest project, a Romantic poets tribute
Marianne Faithfull. Photograph: Danny Kasirye/New York Times
Several times in her 74 years of life, Marianne Faithfull has boomeranged from the brink of death. First there was the summer of 1969, when she overdosed on sleeping pills in the Sydney hotel room she was sharing with her then boyfriend, Mick Jagger.
As she slipped under, she had a long conversation with his recently deceased bandmate, Brian Jones, who had drowned in a swimming pool about a week earlier. At the end of their spirited talk Jones beckoned her to hop off a cliff and join him in the beyond. Faithfull declined, and woke up from a six-day coma.
That was before she became addicted to heroin, in the early 1970s. “At that point I entered one of the outer levels of hell,” she writes in her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull. It took more than a decade to finally get clean.
Since then she’s survived breast cancer, hepatitis C and an infection resulting from a broken hip. But, as Faithfull says on the phone from her London home, her recent bout with Covid-19 and its lingering long-term effects has been the hardest battle she’s fought.
“You don’t want to get this, darling,” she says. “Really.”
Faithfull’s mother, improbably, was the Austrian baroness Eva von Sacher-Masoch – the great-niece of the man who wrote the sensationally scandalous novella Venus in Furs
She says it, of course, in That Voice, coated with ash but flickering with lively defiance underneath. As it has matured – cracked and ripened like a well-journeyed face – Faithfull’s voice has come to possess a transfixing magic. It’s a voice that sounds like it has come back from somewhere and found a way to collapse present and past. She can find the Weimar Berlin decadence in Dylan or breathe William Blake’s macabre into a Metallica song.
Right before she contracted the virus, in March 2020, Faithfull was working on an album she’d dreamed of making for more than half a century. She Walks in Beauty, which has just been released, is a spoken-word tribute to the Romantic poets, who had first inflamed her imagination as a teenager. In the mid-1960s, the demands of Faithfull’s burgeoning pop career pulled her out of her beloved Mrs Simpson’s English-literature course, “but I went on reading the books”, Faithfull says. And through the ups and downs of her life, those poems have stayed with her like well-worn talismans: “If you’ve ever read Ode to a Nightingale, The Lady of Shalott – you’re not going to forget it, are you?”
Faithfull had recorded recitations of seven Romantic poems, from Byron (She Walks in Beauty), Shelley (Ozymandias) and Keats (Ode to a Nightingale). After she was hospitalised with Covid-19 and fell into a coma, her manager sent the recordings to Faithfull’s friend and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, to see if he would compose music to accompany them. Neither was sure Faithfull would live to hear the finished product.
Ellis was told, “It’s not looking good,” he recalls on a video call from his Paris home. “This might be it.” But, ever the Lady Lazarus, Faithfull pulled through. Only once she began to recover did her son, Nicholas, tell her what they’d written on the chart at the foot of her bed: “Palliative care only.”
“They thought I was going to croak!” Faithfull says, likely for not the first time in her life. “But,” she adds with a wizened chuckle, “I didn’t.”
Marianne’s father, Glynn Faithfull – yes, that improbably perfect surname is real – was a British spy in the second World War and the son of a sexologist who invented something called “the Frigidity Machine”.
Her mother, just as improbably, was the Austrian baroness Eva von Sacher-Masoch – the great-niece of the man who wrote the sensationally scandalous novella Venus in Furs and from whose name we are blessed with the word masochism. Put all those things together and you get their only child, born a year after the end of the war.
Her parents split when she was six, and at seven her mother sent her to board at St Joseph’s Convent School in Reading, near London. (“Glynn begged her not to,” she writes in Faithfull. “I remember him saying, ‘This will give her a problem with sex for the rest of her life.’”) When she visited her father, who was living and teaching in a commune, she got a glimpse of the polar opposite end of the spectrum. At 18 she married the artist John Dunbar and gave birth to Nicholas shortly after.
“I wanted to go to Oxford and read English literature, philosophy and comparative religion. That was my plan,” she says. “Anyway, it didn’t happen. I went to a party and got discovered by bloody old Andrew Loog Oldham.” Oldham, The Rolling Stones’ first manager, hadn’t heard Faithfull sing a note; he just took a long look at her and decided this striking young blonde was destined to be a pop star. He had Jagger and Keith Richards write a song for her, the melancholy ballad As Tears Go By. It was, in her words, “a commercial fantasy” that pushed “all the right buttons”.
Which is to say she didn’t take this accidental pop career of hers that seriously, not at first. On her debut tour, she always seemed to have her nose buried in a book, “poring over my reading list for English literature, as if I were going back to school”.
But that wasn’t happening. In swinging, psychedelic London, Faithfull was a beautiful girl suddenly in the eye of a cultural hurricane. She met everybody. She left her husband and child behind, dabbling in everything the men did without apology. She and Richards dropped acid and went looking for the Holy Grail.
She wrote in her autobiography that Bob Dylan tried to seduce her by playing her his latest album, Bringing It All Back Home, and explaining in detail what each track meant. (It didn’t work. “I just found him so ... daunting,” she wrote. “As if some god had come down from Olympus and started to come onto me.”
Jagger had more luck, and for a few seemingly glamorous years they were a generational It couple. But there were tensions from the start, and Faithfull wasn’t sure she was cut out for the wifely-muse role that, even in such bohemian circles, she was expected to play. Then there was the Redlands drug bust.
Tipped off by a sanctimonious British tabloid in February 1967, the police raided Richards’s Sussex home during a small party and found a modest amount of drugs. Faithfull had just taken a bath when the cops arrived, and the only clothes she brought were dirty, so without thinking too much about it she flung a rug over herself.
Jagger and Richards’s subsequent drug trial is now generally seen as a pivot in mainstream acceptance of certain countercultural behaviours. But Faithfull bore the brunt of the backlash. One headline blared: NAKED GIRL AT STONES PARTY. “I was slandered as the wanton woman in the fur rug,” Faithfull wrote, “while Mick was the noble rock star on trial.” It certainly wouldn’t be the last rage-inducing double standard she’d endure.
A few years ago, over a Christmas dinner, Faithfull gave Ellis’s teenage children a long, anecdote-filled talk about why they should stay away from drugs. She spoke about the infamy at Redlands as though it was something they would be familiar with.
“My kids had no idea what she was talking about,” Ellis says. “But when I drove her home, my son just looked at me and goes, ‘She’s awesome.’”
Ellis – whom Faithfull affectionately describes to me as “a sexy old thing” – is conducting his interview from a low-lit, brick-walled room that looks like it may or may not be a dungeon. This is where he was holed up for long hours last spring, listening to the voice of his dear friend, who may or may not have been dying, read him Romantic poetry.
He says he found the poems “so incredibly beautiful and uplifting, a total balm for all this turmoil and sadness that was going on in the world”. This was new: when he read them as a schoolboy, in Melbourne, Australia, Ellis had found the Romantics mostly “impenetrable”. But listening to a masterful interpreter like Faithfull intone them, he says, “suddenly they felt ageless. They felt freed of the page. Because of this authority and absolute belief in them. She believes what she’s reading.”
In composing the tracks, Ellis wanted to shy away from the expected “lutes and harpsichords” approach. Instead he studied some of the records he thought most successfully blended spoken word and music, like Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, John Betjeman’s Late-Flowering Love and Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu. Like Faithfull’s fiery readings, Ellis’s meditative compositions – featuring contributions from Nick Cave and Brian Eno – accentuate the poets’ enduring modernity. (The Romantics might not have yet lived to see rock’n’roll, but they certainly knew a thing or two about sex and drugs.)
Before Ellis was finished, he got the news that Faithfull had woken up from her coma, left the hospital – and, in time, recorded four more poems. “She survived Covid, came out and recorded Lady of Shallot,” Ellis says, shaking his head, referring to the 12-minute Tennyson epic. “She’s just the best, Marianne.”
The remarkable – and even fittingly spooky – thing about the record is that you cannot tell which poems Faithfull recorded before or after her brush with death. Perhaps only Faithfull herself can hear the difference. “I was quite fragile, but I didn’t start to do it until I was better,” she says. “And I liked it very much, because I sound more vulnerable – which is kind of nice, for the Romantics.”
Faithfull has fashioned sticking around into a prolonged show of defiance – a radical act, for a woman. She did not come into her own musically until her mid-30s, with the release of her punky, scorched-earth 1979 masterpiece Broken English. In the subsequent decades, her artistry has only deepened, and she has gradually, grudgingly earned her respect. (“I’m not just seen as a chick and a sexy piece any more – though I should think not: I’m 74!”) Her anger about the industry and the media subsided a great deal between her 1994 and 2007 memoirs. What happened?
“Just time, you know. From everything I know about life in general – which is probably not much – you have to get over those things or they eat you up,” she says. “And I’m not going to let that happen. So I let it go. I don’t hold resentment any more about the press.” She laughs, genially. “But of course I don’t let them near me, really.”
After initially feeling better, a few months ago Faithfull started feeling worse. She has since been experiencing the stubborn symptoms of long Covid, which for her include fatigue, memory fog and lung problems
She has a lighter attitude, but Faithfull has not made it out of her latest battle without some lingering scars. She lost her dear friend and collaborator Hal Willner to the virus. And after initially feeling better, a few months ago she started feeling worse. She has since been experiencing the stubborn symptoms of long Covid, which for her include fatigue, memory fog and lung problems.
She has been working diligently on her breathing; a close friend comes by weekly with a guitar to lead her in singing practice – her own version of the opera therapy that has shown promising results in long-Covid patients. She’s been spending quality time with her son and grandson, reading (Miles Davis’s autobiography, among other things) and counting the days until she can once again go to the movies, the opera, the ballet.
When she first got out of the hospital – apres Covid, as she likes to call it – it seemed as if Faithfull might never sing again. Now she is looking forward to writing new songs and envisioning what a return to the stage might look like.
“I’m focusing on getting better, really better – and I’m beginning to,” she says. “I’ll certainly never be able to work as hard as I was, and long tours are not going to be possible. But I do hope to do maybe five shows. Not very long – 40 minutes perhaps.” Still, she admits, “It’s a long way away.”
Ellis says, “If anyone can do it, it’s Marianne, because she just doesn’t give up. She constantly surprises you.” Sometimes she even surprises herself. Earlier in our conversation Faithfull lets me know, in her admirably no-nonsense way, that she hasn’t called me up to chat for fun but because she has an album to promote. But she ultimately admits to finding it vivifying to talk about her life, her art, her past and future. “It’s good for me to remember who I really am, not just an old sick person,” she says.
“Of course,” I reply. “You’re Marianne Faithfull, damn it!” She mulls it over for a long moment. “It’s true, I am.” Then, with an unexpected surge of strength, like a hammer’s blow, she adds, “Damn it.” – New York Times
She Walks in Beauty is released by BMG