by Sylvie Simmons
There’s a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table, a copy of Dylan’s autobiography and a cup of milkless English tea. Outside the open window the police sirens have not stopped wailing. This is San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – Camden crossed with Bedlam – and Marianne Faithfull’s voice, low and drowsy, almost as deep as a man’s, is barely audible above the din. Except when she’s being imperious – a magnificent if terrifying thing to witness – or when, more often, she laughs, an expansive, dirty guffaw that ends in a smoker’s cough.
It’s mid-afternoon and Marianne, who has just got up, is in her pyjamas. Every night after her performance – as the Devil – in The Black Rider, the William Burroughs/Tom Waits/Robert Wilson musical play, she’ll receive a gaggle of celebrated fans backstage (from the film and music world: Francis Ford Coppola, Ronnie Wood, Sean Penn, Neil Young) then walk the three blocks back through the winos to her humdrum apartment-hotel, take a mild sleeping tablet, turn on the TV in her bedroom and watch Will & Grace.
If you think that paints a vulnerable picture, you’ve clearly not seen Marianne in her pyjamas. She’s topped them with a flashy, blue satin ,wrestler’s dressing gown with’ Wonder Woman’ stitched on the back. She may be a thoroughbred but she’s also a fighter. Takes a licking, keeps on kicking. As in 1969 when she woke up in intensive care in an Australian hospital room after a six-day coma, the result of OD-ing on 150 barbiturates sustaining no real damage apart from “when I went into the coma I could speak French. When I came out I couldn’t. I lost it all. But I live in Paris now, so I’m relearning it.” As Dylan called her, in equally damaged French, in his autobiography she’s “a grand dame”. With one of the most remarkable lives in rock.
What happened to the plans to film your autobiography?
I put a stop to it. I hated the script. I’m living on the streets, a junkie, and then they put in a scene that wasn’t in the book where I go off as a prostitute to earn money for drugs, and the camera pulls back, and there’s my seven year old son, Nicholas, watching me. I didn’t understand – very naïve of me – how they could just make something up. I had a long talk with Carrie (Fisher) and said, ‘You’d think in real life I had degraded myself quite enough’. Carrie, who is very grand, said, ‘You might think you were degradé enough but believe me, not nearly enough for Hollywood.’ I never had to be a prostitute to get money for drugs. I was so charming that they gave them to me. I’m still great friends with some of my coke dealers, and I have $20,000 credit with them, if I wanted to. I don’t want to. And I’ve not kept close friends with my heroin dealers at all.
The Black Rider is all about making deals with the Devil and paying the price.
I once discussed that with William (Burroughs) I said, ‘Why, when I read The Naked Lunch did I feel, despite my disgust, that the most honorable thing to do was go and be a junkie and live on the street?’ Bill did understand my disgust with humanity, but he said, ‘Your way of showing it was a bit extreme’. Of course I worshipped the Beats – and DeQuincy and Baudelaire. I over-romanticised. When you’re young you don’t care, you feel immortal. I only realised much later how lucky I was. I could have come out a vegetable.
Do you feel any bitterness that this part of your life became just another part of the great myth and romance of Marianne?
(Imperious) Well they should damn well know that it’s a risk not worth taking, and I took it for them.
Yes (laughs), I did all that for you, so it’s really not necessary.
There are so many myths. Let’s start with one from one of your earliest stage roles, as Ophelia, at time when your life seemed to echo that of the tragic beauty driven crazy by life and men. Allegedly you shot up smack in the intermission.
No, I snorted. Shooting up came later. I was still ‘chippying around with the devil’s bullets’ – it’s all in The Black Rider.
Where you’re playing the Devil – very unOphelia-esque.
Yes. I’ve gone from a passive victim to an active being. I made a conscious decision that if it was the last thing I did I was going to change that – and I did that, I guess, with Broken English. But I’m offered shocking, humiliating things by casting agents. There was a TV series by Lynda LaPlante (Prime Suspect) and they wanted me to play – this is how they think of me! – a woman who had been beaten up and completely degraded. Hah! I’m sure the English would like to see me in a role like that on television!
The predominant mood on your new album Beyond The Poison is dark and fatalistic. An overspill from the play?
No. I’d finished recording before I took the job. That comes first.
Nick (Cave) wanted to make a very dark record – and we’re particularly good at that (laughs). One of our jokes, me and Polly (Harvey), was, ‘Who is in fact the queen of doom and gloom? ‘ Polly says ‘Me’. And I say, ‘Pipsqueak, you don’t know anything about doom and gloom yet’. The way to make your life okay is to bring it into the work. Making this album was a very happy experience.
Your love songs are the darkest and most fatalistic of all. Are they written about specific people?
Experience in general. Crazy Love is written about my boyfriend, but I don’t sleep around . The songs I suppose are an expression of my real feelings, which I don’t often express except in a song.
I doubt I’m alone in finding it fascinating that your two main collaborators were once intensely in love and no longer speak to each other.
They didn’t need to speak to each other. They were with me. One is one thing and one is the other and I am the connection. With Polly I was in the studio for around ten days and then later on I was in the studio for about five days with Nick and the Bad Seeds. Nick didn’t even hear the Polly stuff – I gave it to him but I don’t think he listened. The only area that was difficult was that they didn’t want to be seen in competition with each other. Polly came to me and we worked in Paris – only a woman would do that. All my life when I’ve worked with men I’ve had do the travelling. They’ve got more ego.
Something you know from experience. Your music career started at that famous 1964 London party where you met Andrew Loog Oldham. who got you signed to Decca, and the Stones. What did you think of Oldham’s description: “an angel with big tits”
A really dreadful thing to say. He should be ashamed. And if you read Andrew’s book, that’s not at all how he saw me. He saw me like a Grace Kelly person. But to Andrew’s credit he’s always stuck with me. He flew out to see me in The Black Rider, and I said to him, in a sort of jokey way, ‘If if I had never met you, Andrew, you would never have had the chance to ruin my life’.
Sort of jokey?
To be so young and so beautiful – I was 17 years old, a convent schoolgirl – and to be thrown into that shark world was really too much. Sexualised in a very unpleasant way, and unable to say ‘No, I won’t do that’. I don’t know why, because at that time I was no different to how I am now.
Your mother, an Austrian baroness, was descended from the Masoch family, who gave us the term ‘masochism’.
No, no, that wasn’t it. I did have what my mother could never understand which she said was an inferiority complex. I just think I had a good, healthy dose of self-doubt, which isn’t a bad thing for an artist to have, to keep you on your toes. And if I did have an inferiority complex, it was something to do with growing up in this shabby little house in Reading, hearing my mother talk about balls and castles and estates in Hungary and things like that.
As a child growing up in England, did you identify more with your Euro-aristocratic mother or your English colonel/World War II spy father?
Neither. I am Marianne Faithfull – I know who I am. I think now I’m beginning to realise that my stamina and my strength and my ability to go the distance, and that might be something to do with that childhood. I have Jewish blood; I’m not really English, I’m European. That’s why Kurt Weill is very me. Do you know how many people who have tried to climb that Brecht-Weill mountain and failed? But because of my background I understood it intuitively, that he was using the scales from the temple. I am very English and proud to be English, but I can’t live there. I live in Paris. I used to live in Ireland, in Shell Cottage, but they kept raising the rent. They wanted to turn it into a golf course, and I would have been in the way.
If you had not started your recording career with a song the Stones wrote for you, As Tears Go By and gone onto become Mick Jagger’s romantic partner, would you have had it easier as an artist?
I was a little schoolgirl, it was my first song, and I was really lucky to be in at the making, the writing, of all those great Rolling Stones records when I was with Mick – but boy was he lucky to have me around. He had access to my mind, to my world, to my views, to my reading list, my conversation. He had all that, and he did write some of his best songs in that time.
We all know about Sister Morphine, but what other Stones songs did you play a part in?
Sympathy For The Devil is the big one. I got Mick to read The Master And Margarita and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song. I was more subtle with Mick than Yoko (was with John), but I opened up a new world for him. We had a very very respectful relationship.
Though he was slow in acknowledging your role in writing Sister Morphine?
Well finally I got it, a few years ago. The Stones never share writing credits, they just don’t. I’m not the only person this happened to. I really like what Anita (Pallenberg) says about this. She said, ‘My dear, we were light years ahead’. I think we were.
An interesting aspect of your relationship with Jagger is class. He was a lower middle class boy who wanted to be aristocratic, and you were sophisticated, part-aristocratic -
Naturally very sophisticated. I was born like that. And highly educated. I remember looking down on him when I first met him. I thought he was a spotty yob, Keith too. I’m not sure I ever believed that thing about social climbing though. What I heard, which I do believe, is that what he really wanted was Julie Christie and when he couldn’t get her he picked on me. So it was a type. And I don’t think he knew, when he fell in love with me, when we fell in love together – and he didn’t catch me for another three years – how much we had in there. Slowly he began to find out. I really was probably giving too much to the Stones. The acting was something I could do really well that wasn’t competing with him. We had a very domestic existence, but the tragedy was that it wasn’t enough for me – to marry Mick and have a lot of children would not have been enough. There was going to be a moment where I had to leave and get on with my life.
Of the many Marianne myths, the most enduring comes from your association with the Stones: the Mars Bar episode arising from the drug bust at Redlands, Keith’s house. Is that something you can laugh off?
Well it’s like a dirty old man’s fantasy. I’ve been through millions of versions of who made it up – and it was made up. At one point of intense fury I even decided Mick made it up, but I’ve really got over that now.
He didn’t do much to negate the story.
Well Keith came through. He said, ‘She’s much too classy to do that.’ The whole thing of an orgy anyway is ridiculous, because nearly everybody there was gay. But it never goes away. Once when I was in Shell Cottage with Sandra (Bernhardt, actress) who is a great friend of mine, and her lover, my fucking agent called and said I’d been offered a lot of money – a really lot of money – to do a Mars Bar advertisement. I said ‘Okay, you’re fired’. I’ve never had an agent since.
There was a point when that ethereal, folky, English voice you had on your early records vanished and this new, distinctive voice emerged.
My voice became my instrument. I learned a lot from Mick and Keith there, all those blues records they played. It all went in, but it took a long time to filter through. About five years. When I left Mick I went back to my mother’s, which was terribly hard to do, and I took with me my baby, a Persian carpet, a few Ossie Clarke dresses – I thought I was going to wear them in the country ! – and a few records. It was James Brown, Otis Redding , who had a huge effect on me , Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and some Bob Dylan, and that’s what I listened to. Bob has had a great influence, right to this day. I see him quite often. It was Bob who told me to go to Mark Howard) for Vagabond Ways. He actually said to me – I was so proud – ‘You know Marianne, people like us with funny voices, you have to be very careful who you let produce you.’
I understand you’re not happy with the production on Broken English, the album widely considered your masterpiece.
It’s overproduced. I had a copy of Broken English before it was overproduced and that was a masterpiece. I lost it. I was married to Ben (Brierley, The Vibrators), we were living in that basement, and then I left England – the famous moment when we only had two channels in England and the Pope was on one channel playing Wembley and on the other channel was the casualty lists and at that time I was doing drugs. A little better than going to live on the streets though, I said, ‘I’ve had it, I’m leaving this country and never going back.’
You married Ben the year you made Broken English.Was your association with punk purely marital?
Oh no, I knew Johnny Rotten, He liked me. He always liked older women! I knew Malcolm (McLaren) – I still see Malcolm. I knew a lot of people in that world. The essence of the punk thing was anyone can go and do it if they want to, and you don’t have to be incredibly rich and grand, you can just do it. And I think that that helped me a lot; I gave myself permission to make a record that I’d wanted to make for a long time. I thought I was going to die, that this was going to be my last chance to make a record. That is the thing about Broken English, it’s this sense, this energy, that ‘Fucking hell, before I die I’m going to show you bastards who I am.’ That’s what it is. It has a lot of attitude. And of course that’s why I can never do that again. I can’t repeat Broken English. Because I actually realised, obviously I’m going to die but not yet.
It took attitude to record Working Class Hero. Do you know John Lennon’s opinion?
I sent him a copy, I never got a reply, and then he was shot. He didn’t really have very long to reply, did he? But he did listen to it and he told Yoko that he really loved it. And every time I see Yoko she never ever fails to tell me how much John really loved it. There were people who said to me, ‘How dare you do this song, you’re not working class.’ But it’s not about that. It goes beyond that. I have every right to sing that song. I would say our lives were pretty parallel, me and John. I didn’t actually have as many tragedies in my childhood as he did, but John got exactly what I was doing.
Lennon went into psychotherapy, Primal Scream. Did you?
I just went to this really great doctor when I came out of Hazeldene (the drugs rehabilitation centre). I went for five days a week for three years and it helped tremendously. I would recommend it. But the English think it’s some deep shame.
Which do you consider your overlooked albums?
I’ve done incredible things that people don’t even know about – the record I made with Hal (Willner) and Gregory Corso a week before poor Gregory died is beautiful. So out there. It’s worth looking for – though I don’t even have a copy. A Secret Life, which I made with Angelo (Badalamenti) is a beautiful record, though I don’t like the title – I wanted to call it I’m Not In Love Any More. It was made at a bad moment when all my friends were dying. And A Child’s Adventure, that’s beautiful, and it was really my cry for help. I was trying to say, ‘ Help me!’ and finally I had to yell it in the lyrics. I think the Kurt Weill stuff is wonderful. Kissing Time was an experiment which didn’t really work, but it had some fabulous songs and fabulous people. Too many people, probably. Not everything I do works as well as I like, but every record I make I really truly try to make the best possible Marianne Faithfull record ever, and pretty often I do. I think my new record may be one of my best. And it would be very nice if people bought it, because I need the money.
Touring is the only way I’ve made money, and I’m nearly 60, I won’t be able to go on touring like this forever. I don’t want to retire, but it is hard work. And I never really made money from my records. I got a royalty cheque from Island in 1979, a big one, and I never had one since, and I left Island ten years ago. They put everything on your bill – a tuna sandwich, a coffee, everything – and with me there were a lot of other expenses like rehab. And they have to stop bringing out these terrible Best Ofs because it really is bad for the back catalogue. The records are beautiful as they are. It’s just wrong. I’ll tell you, the only people who paid are Mick and Keith, and (former Stones manager) Allen Klein raised my royalty rate from 2% to something a bit better.
Lack of good financial advice aside, do you have any regrets?
Of course I have regrets, but they’re not the ones that people really would expect. I wish I’d been nicer to my parents. I wish I’d been able to not have Nicholas taken away from me – I think that was a big mistake. And I wish I really understood, earlier, or accepted my destiny, as a worker. As a person who works and creates and makes records and performs. I resisted it for so long. Living on the street, being a junkie, had a lot to do with that – it was me trying to retire myself, make myself unemployable. A very passive-aggressive way to do it.
Did anything worthwhile come from that part of your life?
I began to believe in people for the first time, that’s what I got.
Because the people I met on the street were so good to me. I lived my life on the absolute razor’s edge, but with a sort of light around me that never let anything really bad happen. Part of it was that I had really bad anorexia at the time so I got very thin, so thin that I actually believed I was invisible, and that way nothing bad could happen. But everybody took care of me. The little Chinese restaurant that said I could take all my clothes there and they would put them in the washing machine and give me a blanket until they were dry. The street people watched over me – you know I never got raped once, or anything. And even the cops looked after me. Once, when I was clean – or cleanish; I wasn’t on heroin – I went with a friend to Chez Victor’s. One of the cops on the Soho beat bumped into me and freaked out. He said ‘Oh no, you’re not back, we’re going to have to look after you again’. (laughs). So from that I got a feeling that the world was not such a bad place – for the first time in my life.
What brought you back?
I missed my world, my friends. I missed Bob (Dylan), I missed going to their shows. I missed what I suppose you could say was my rightful place, as part of this incredibly artistic group of people.
You saw what Dylan wrote about you in his book?
I did. It was very nice.
Especially since you spurned him back in the ’60s
Well I didn’t spurn him exactly. We were on tour together and he was at the typewriter and I dared to ask, ‘What are you writing?’ He gave me a burning look and said, ‘A poem. About you.’ I told him I was pregnant with Nicholas and about to get married and he tore it up. But we’re still close friends – probably closer than we would have been if we did fuck. No, actually I think I’m going to rewrite history. I didn’t spurn him. We did, actually and he was one of the best fucks in my life. Let’s put that. He’d be so pleased, you know what these guys are like Ha ha ha!