Not for the first time in her life, Marianne Faithfull leans back in her chair and sadly exclaims, “So you see, I’ve almost entirely run out of drugs.” On this occasion, however, she’s addressing the matter in a more general sense. The alcohol went over a decade ago; the cocaine and heroin which accompanied her transition from pop stardom to infamy long before that. Then, a few years ago, Faithfull was finally instructed to address an addiction to sleeping pills. In 2006, she checked into a French hospital, where a lump on her chest was dealt with “swiftly and efficiently”. Intimations of mortality are nothing new for the 62 year-old singer. She deals with them as and when they come. But there are limits. In the ante-room of a West London studio underneath the A40 Westway, all that now stands between the 62 year-old singer and a life of joyless abstinence is a cigarette, such as the one wedged between her lips. After a few seconds searching her handbag for a lighter, she glances up and directs a precisely-worded question at me. “Am I going to [ital] kill [ital] you with this cigarette?” If danger is emanating from something in this room, however, it’s not the cigarette.
Somewhere along the line, Marianne Faithfull became an icon – although there have been times over the past decade or two when she wouldn’t have have thanked you for pointing that out. Published in 1994, her autobiography Faithfull seemed designed to remind us just how amazing it was that she had completed her return journey from fame to infamy: the transition, via maiden hit As Tears Go By, from convent schoolgirl to pop star; the five year liaison with Mick Jagger that accelerated her freefall into heroin addiction and homelessness. After its publication, Faithfull felt she had made a terrible mistake. In the process of drawing a line under her myth and moving on, she wondered if she had merely added more weight to the millstone.
In fact, it turns out that with iconhood come certain privileges. As her good friend Keith Richards showed when he lit up on stage at the 02 Arena, the right to smoke in a no-smoking area is one of them. Another, it seems, is being able to get some of the coolest underground stars on the planet to play on your records. On Faithfull’s new album Easy Come Easy Go, Antony Hegarty trades breathy come-ons with her on an epic version of Smokey Robinson’s Baby Baby; Nick Cave’s harmonies anchor her performance on The Crane Wife 3 by The Decemberists; Rufus Wainwright helps her to turn Espers’ freak-folk epic Children Of Stone into a yearning soft-shoe shuffle. If Faithfull appears to have amassed the coolest address book in the world, it’s hard to begrudge her the benefits. Increasingly, her life has seemed like an obsessive quest to ensure that – when the time comes – posterity will have more to say about her than the debauched misuse of Mars Bars (untrue, apparently) and her ability to survive massive overdoses (legendarily true). She always called herself a working artist, but in the last 15 years her output – in particular live Weimar cabaret excursion 20th Century Blues and A Secret Life – has squared up to the description. Written and recorded in 1995 with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti, the latter album remains a masterpiece of electronic pop noir. With Nico dead, it was hard to imagine that any of Faithfull’s contemporaries could have made a record like it. But Faithfull cringes when the record is mentioned – not because she doesn’t think it’s any good, but because of the starrier tics and traits she had yet to extinguish from her personality.
“Angelo used to give me terrible bollockings,” she recalls, “We would meet at his Manhattan studio and I was always late. I mean, he was absolutely right. Here was this man who could have been charging Hollywood a million pounds a minute to do something else, and he was working on my record. Now, there was someone who didn’t give a flying fuck about the icon thing. He was like an old Mafia don, with a fierce work ethic. It pissed me off. But he was the first person who taught me it was unacceptable to be late.”
If she has spent over four decades fighting her own laziness, it’s hardly surprising. Faithfull chastises herself for not paying enough attention to her own songwriting – but, of course, getting people to service her with strong material has never been a problem. Briefed by Andrew Loog Oldham to deliver something fitting for a 17 year-old convent schoolgirl, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote their first song As Tears Go By for her. In the past few years alone, she has been given bespoke songs by Beck, PJ Harvey and Damon Albarn. “Damon has so many ideas crackling out of him. Last time I saw him, he was drunk. He wrote a song for me that he doesn’t even remember writing. It’s terribly gracious of him. When you write a good song, there must be a part of you that thinks, ‘Do I want to give this charming but slightly annoying woman my song?’”
It must be flattering, I suggest, for younger artists to see her as a muse, just as Mick and Keith once did. Whatever her ex-lover Mick Jagger has going for him, no-one in their right mind would suggest that the Rolling Stones have retained any contemporary relevance. “Well, maybe [their relevance] had more to do with good looks than they would like to admit.”
Not that Marianne Faithfull’s early success had any less to do with good looks. Asked what compelled him to launch Faithfull as a recording artist, Andrew Loog Oldham famously declared, “I saw an angel with big tits so I signed her.” Having seen her parents separate at a young age, Faithfull’s yearning for a surrogate family was sated by access to the Stones’ inner circle. Being a muse made her famous, but it also planted confusions that have taken almost a lifetime to untangle. She remembers being “totally phased” around famous people, frequently blurting out the first thing that came into her head, merely to keep conversational plates spinning. Having seen a “marketable portrait of me” achieve fame, she became skilled at “turning into whatever the newspapers said I was.”
At the time of the 1967 drugs bust at Keith Richards’ house – the one where police found Faithfull dressed only in a fur rug – Faithfull says she wasn’t a heavy drugs user. “I had a few joints and was on my first acid trip when 25 policemen came in. But afterwards though, with all the horrible press, it was a different story. I thought, ‘Well, if that’s what they’ve decided I am, then I’ll work at it. By that time, I had lost my feminine sense of self. My feminine integrity was gone. And that’s a big power for a woman to lose. Perhaps the only power.”
She must surely have recognized aspects of her own demise in that of Britney Spears: teenage beauty thrust into the pop limelight, unable to distinguish good attention from bad, loses all sense of self in the attempt to fulfil other people’s expectations of who she is. In another echo of Spears’ public freefall, Faithfull lost custody of her only son Nicholas – from her short-lived 1966 marriage to John Dunbar. Of her subsequent period living on the streets of Soho, Faithfull says, “I didn’t have to be homeless. I was playing a game. Cinderella sweeping up on Desperation Row No-one recognised me – which I loved. And perhaps poor Britney would have done the same thing if she knew that the newspapers and cameramen weren’t going to be camped out with her.”
Pausing only to reach for another cigarette, Faithfull points out that “there’s really nothing new in this.” Revealing a hitherto unaired appreciation of South Park, she quotes the episode in which Britney Spears attempts to escape her pursuers and ends up shooting half her head off before, come harvest-time, she is ploughed into the ground as a ritual sacrifice. “They would have sacrificed me too,” she declaims, before rancorously relaying an incident following the 1969 suicide attempt in Australia which put her in a coma for six days. “A Mirror photographer got into the hospital and took a picture of me lying there. I think that’s [ital] pretty [ital] bad, don’t you?” What seems amazing now, I tell her, is just how productive all those supposedly drug-addled rock stars seemed to be in the 60s and 70s. At the apparent height of their heroin phase, The Rolling Stones produced Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street. Even Faithfull made time to go into the studio and make an album (Rich Kid Blues) while she was still homeless. “Well, first and foremost, we wanted to make music. Especially Keith [Richards]. Drugs were really just a coping method.”
The relationship of music to drugs is something, she feels, that subsequent musicians have misunderstood. Singling out Pete Doherty, she avers, “I don’t see great music being made alongside all the other stuff.” Once the subject turns to the Babyshambles frontman, it’s but a mere stepping stone to the person Faithfull really wants to address.
Not so long ago, she and Kate Moss were a regular night-time fixture in Central London. The only time Faithfull seems close to rattled is when I ask if she and Moss are still friends. “No! She’s not really my friend. I thought she was, but she’s very clever. And she wanted to read me like a Braille book. And she did. It’s a vampirical thing. Now I see pictures of her in the shops I pass on the Rue St Honore on my way to the chemist – pictures of her with a boy who looks like Mick Jagger, and her looking like me. So there was a reason. It’s one of her gigs to do me.” Perhaps registering her own agitation, Faithfull pauses and relaxes, before one final clarification. “You know, it’s OK. I don’t give a shit. But I was quite offended at the time. We were very fond of each other. And then it suddenly soured. I got bored. And I realised there was not any depth in this relationship. She’s very clever, but she isn’t at all educated. We don’t have any [common] references. Except music.”
If, as Marianne Faithfull seems to believe, Kate Moss has made off with her younger self, it’s just as well she has no need of it any more. In her autobiography, she wrote: “Drugs are like a mask. When I finally got clean, I was horrified to find I had built up such an effective front I couldn’t get it off. It was as if the mask had been glued on to me and had stuck… I was afraid I was going to be trapped inside it for life.” Having taken so long to rebuild what she calls her “feminine self”, Faithfull says she has no intention ot relinquish it again. As if to illustrate her recent progress, she tells a story which dates back some 15 years, shortly after she left England to start a new life in the Irish seclusion of County Kildare. “I had hardly been there any time, when – believe it or not – I got a call from Morrissey. What did he want? Well, he wanted to [ital] bask [ital] in the icon. But at that moment in time, I didn’t want any basking. No basking. I was living my life and I didn’t want that. So when I realised who it was, I just screamed and ran. I was just scared.”
And now? What if Morrissey came calling once again? “Oh God. Now, of course… now I’d be able to deal with him with one hand tied behind my back. Send him in.”