Marianne Faithfull: Heroine Chic

By Matthew Greenwald 02/22/15

Over the course of six decades, Marianne Faithfull has been defined not only as one of the great survivors of rock & roll, but perhaps of the human race.

Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull is considered the "Grande Dame" of pop, but her story reveals so much more—she has led one of the more fascinating lives in modern-day history, and has come out of some of the darkest places the human spirit can navigate with her intelligence, wit and dignity intact. 

Her background is, to say the least, extraordinary. Her father, Major Robert Glynn Faithfull was a British army spy (a member of MI VI), and later lived and taught at the famed progressive educational commune, Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. “My father was an idealist, and wanted nothing less than to change the world,” said Marianne in her Dreaming My Dreams biographical documentary. Her mother, Eva von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso, was originally from Vienna, and her family secretly opposed the Nazi regime there. Eva danced for the renowned Max Reinhardt Company, and her maternal Great, Great Uncle Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a 19th century nobleman who wrote the erotic novel, Venus in Furs, which spawned the word “masochism.” Not exactly your typical British family credentials.

After attending St. Joseph’s Convent School (contrary to popular myth she did have musical experience singing folk music at student coffeehouses, etc.) she met and married John Dunbar, an artist who was a vital part of the burgeoning London underground. Through him, she rubbed elbows with visiting American Beat icons William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others. At a party she met Rolling Stones' manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham, who later described Marianne as “an angel with big tits.” She was quickly signed by Oldham, who produced her first record, “As Tears Go By,” which has the distinction of being the very first Jagger-Richards composition. The song was a massive international hit, and was followed by several others including the superb Jackie DeShannon song, “Come And Stay With Me.” During this period, she and Dunbar had their only child, Nicholas. 

Between the speed of Marianne’s career, Dunbar’s own artistic and narcotic adventures, as well as the general sexual mores that were part of the era, their marriage eventually fell by the wayside. It’s interesting to note that during this period hard drugs were apparently quite customary at their household, especially with the crowd they entertained. British pharmaceutical heroin and cocaine (evidently easier to acquire than one would think) were quite appreciated by visiting Yank junkies. But apart from the odd joint, Marianne did not indulge during this period. 

Marianne was very close with all of The Stones, and after brief flings with Brian Jones and Keith Richards, she settled down with Mick Jagger. They were the sparkling pop couple of the era, and Marianne was quite comfortable with this at the outset, as well as the psychedelic revolution that was all around them. To some extent, she let her recording career fade a bit, but found new artistic articulation and acclaim in theater and film. Her first professional theater appearance was in a 1967 stage adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where her performance received shining reviews.  

In early 1967, Jagger and Richards were busted along with a few friends (including Marianne) at Richard’s Redlands cottage. It was a much-publicized event, with Mick and Keith acquiring their outlaw badges, which they still wear to this day. Marianne didn’t come out of it quite as well. She was found by the police wearing only a fur rug, and the British press dragged her through the mud. Apparently, some Mars bars were found in the room, and the police started rumors about them being used as sexual toys. The newspapers read: Nude girl in a fur rug…slut held captive by degenerate, drug-crazed pop stars…  "It destroyed me,” she commented years later. “To be a male drug addict and to act like that is always enhancing and glamorizing. A woman in that situation becomes a slut and a bad mother. My feminine side was besmirched.” 

In her professional life, Marianne had an excellent chance in coming back from this in early 1969 with a song she co-wrote with Mick, called “Sister Morphine.” The song was cut as a single with the great Ry Cooder making a guest appearance on slide guitar. It was easily one of her finest records to date, but Decca Records pulled it off the shelves after two days because it “glorified hard drugs.” If anything, the song is simply a story about a man dying in a hospital bed after an accident. It doesn’t glorify drugs at all; it is a great record:

My guess is that Decca didn’t want to have much to do with Faithfull after the Redlands bust. Due to contractual/publishing problems from her earlier Decca agreement, when The Stones cut the song in 1970 for Sticky Fingers, it was credited to Jagger/Richards, and the pair privately arranged for Marianne to receive 1/3 of the songwriting royalties. With the events that were about to unfold it certainly came in handy. By the way, Decca didn’t bat an eye when The Stones version came out.

By 1967/8, The Stones were traveling in fairly elite circles, rubbing elbows with the British aristocracy and the like, and there were a degree of higher-quality drugs that went along with this, and eventually Marianne sampled some of the party favors. “I went from being 19 or 20,” she recalled in Dreaming My Dreams “and smoking pot and taking acid and maybe having the odd line of coke, to being 23 years old with a needle in my arm. That’s fast…” In 1969, she and Jagger traveled to Australia to film Ned Kelly. Severely depressed following the death of her dear friend and former Stones guitarist Brian Jones, she took an entire bottle of barbiturates and went through the looking glass. This wouldn’t have been an accidental overdose, she managed to survive, but not without some damage. She also miscarried a daughter her and Mick were going to have—this only added to her depression and self-medication via heroin.

This also led to the end of her relationship with Jagger. There were several occasions where the couple went to dinner parties with scions of British industry, barons and earls and Marianne would end up with her head in the soup bowl. Eventually, she left Mick and took to living in the streets of Soho, passing weeks, months and even years in a heroin daze, leaning against a wall in St. Anne’s court. During this dark patch, she did manage to record an album called Rich Kid Blues (which has been released in different configurations, with different titles and track orders). Although according to Faithfull, “I can’t bear to embrace it, because it comes from such a dark period.” It is something of a lost masterpiece and much of it has the raw, stark power of John Lennon’s 1970 post-Beatles masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band. 

A true comeback came after she temporarily kicked heroin, with 1979’s Broken English. This album found Faithfull with a new, rough-edged voice and a brutal honesty that touched a nerve. The toughness of this confessional masterpiece was embraced by the punk/new wave audience, even though the music was certainly not punk. It was one of her finest hours. Unfortunately, the windfall of success (and money) led to another round of addictive behavior—heroin and cocaine in prodigious amounts—as well as another unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Finally, in 1985 she cleaned up for good, and reinvented herself as a pop and cabaret artist. The results have been uniformly well-received, with albums such as Strange Weather, A Secret Life, Vagabond Ways and others, all critical successes. P.J. Harvey, Beck, Billy Corgan, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Jon Brion and Damon Albarn are just a few modern masters of pop who regularly collaborate with her. She is indeed, the grande dame. Her 1996 album of songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, 20th Century Blues was particularly well-received. Her latest album of all new material, 2014’s Give My Love To London is easily one of her finest albums. She also continues to act, and her 2007 film, Irina Palm where she plays a 60-year old widow who finds employment as a sex worker in order to pay for her grandson’s illness, was very well received. She has also written two memoirs, including Faithfull, which is a brutally honest tour de force and is not to be missed. 

Marianne Faithfull has been to hell and back. Let’s celebrate the fact that it looks like she’s back for good. 

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California.

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