Marianne Faithfull: we sit and watch as years go by

21 October 2014

Maureen Paton finds out what inspires Sixties wild child Marianne Faithfull to keep on performing.

The last time I interviewed Marianne Faithfull was 35 years ago in a West London pub round the corner from her record company. I was a young Melody Maker journalist and she was a hard-smoking, gravel-voiced 33-year old who had come back from the brink of drugs oblivion to reinvent herself as a rock singer/songwriter with the brilliant post-punk album Broken English.

As every music-loving Baby Boomer knows, her promising early career as a Top 10 teenage popstrel had been overshadowed by her rocky four-year relationship with Mick Jagger between 1966 and 1970 and then derailed by what she called ‘the rabbit hole’ of a heroin habit that left her living on the streets of London for two years in the early Seventies. Now fast forward more than three decades and my second interview with this self-styled ‘fabulous beast’ who has long since become part of rock and roll legend.

Rock and roll legend 

Despite enduring health problems that could fell an ox, let alone a slightly built 5ft 4in woman, she has made 32 studio albums and  as many movies in a parallel acting career on stage and screen. Having survived TB as a child, she suffered a drugs overdose that left her in a coma for six days, a nearly fatal kidney infection, breast cancer, hepatitis C, a broken shoulder in a fall downstairs, a broken sacrum last year and now the latest, a hip replacement after a fall in Rhodes at the end of May this year. ‘I was staying in Lindos in a 17th century house, beautiful but completely fatal for older people. I slipped on the floor coming out of the bathroom and was so scared of hurting my back again that I did the splits and broke my hip,’ she tells me ruefully.

Despite her history of drugs and smoking, however, she has escaped osteoporosis, according to her doctor’s tests. ‘I don’t break my bones easily.” And apart from the occasional grimace of post-op pain, the Chanel-shirted, blue-jeaned Marianne, now a handsome, still lush-lipped grandmother of three, looks a hundred times healthier than on our last encounter; that’s what maturity - in more ways than one - does for you. No wonder she’s one of the new faces of Yves St Laurent, whose head designer is creating all the costumes for her world tour that marks her astonishing 50 years in the music business.


This time we meet in the plush Whisky Bar of London’s Athenaeum Hotel in Piccadilly, where Marianne, now ‘implacably’ opposed to all drink and drugs, is on cappuccino and mineral water. Although the cover photo on her new album, Give My Love To London, shows her atmospherically wreathed in smoke just like the bad old tobacco days, she has switched to e-cigarettes after finally conquering her last-remaining vice in September last year . ‘Giving up has really helped my voice as well as my skin; I had smoked since I was 19 and I was using it psychologically as a protection, a smokescreen,’ she explains.  ‘But I had to stop: I was killing myself.’

Even for a sexagenarian as tough as this one, breaking her hip is hardly ideal with a new album to promote, the publication this month of luxury photo book Marianne Faithfull: A Life On Record(which includes her first-ever portrait, taken by David Bailey) plus the 12-month tour. Yet she concedes there’s a core of steel in her, inherited from her English father, an army major and wartime spy for M16, and her Austrian baroness mother, who once shot dead a Russian soldier who had raped her and was about to do the same to Marianne’s grandmother. In a husky growl of a voice even deeper than on Broken English, Marianne insists that she’ll be fine by the time she goes on the road. 

Fresh lemon juice 

‘I was born in 1946 and my generation is incredibly strong; it was a good crop. Maybe it was the socialist health care and free orange juice and school milk and the very simple diet with no sweets.  I have a physiotherapist, a trainer to get me ready for the tour and I do an hour’s work-out a day: 25 minutes of exercise with weights plus walking and swimming. I always wake up very early at 6am and start my day with fresh lemon juice, hot water and honey.’

And there was me thinking that rock artistes weren’t exactly morning people. But then Marianne has always confounded expectations with her work ethic. ‘I have to tour to make money for my pension - and also because I wasted so much time with drugs, so I have a lot of catching up to do. I feel I’ve been given a fifth chance rather than a second chance. But why should you retire if you like what you do? We all get that from the younger generation: ‘Move off the stage!’ Well, f**you!’ she laughs.  

Collaborations with Jarvis Cocker 

Back in the Sixties, she hung out with Bob Dylan and Beat Poets Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, yet she’s no dinosaur; what drives her these days are the strong influences of European cabaret and  the Brecht/Weill songs her parents loved (and her dancer mother performed to) as well as a constantly evolving collaboration with such innovators as Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Brian Eno. ‘I’m not romantic at all and I’m not nostalgic, I don’t want to repeat myself, which is why I keep writing new songs,’ she says. 

Yet this could be the last time of touring for Marianne, who says she loves performing but hates ‘being on the road, which is tough, especially for a woman. I’m rather sick of it.  You’d better catch me now in case it’s my last hurrah; I may concentrate on writing at home in future, especially poetry.’

Living in Paris 

After being crucified in the press as the naked woman wrapped in a rabbit-fur rug  during the infamous 1967 ‘Redlands’ drugs bust at Keith Richards’ Sussex home, (Marianne swore never to live in England again. These days she is based in a Paris apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg but has also kept on her old house in Ireland; and Give My Love To London is an ironic love-hate letter to her birthplace.

She still feels bitter about how this country offered her up as a sacrificial lamb in a fit of hysterical moralising over the permissive society, with that angel-faced beauty used against her. ‘I got a lot of hate letters after Redlands; and I was so young that I really believed what they said about me, unfortunately.’ Now, she says, the revelations about the historic paedophile cover-up involving Establishment figures have made her realise that ‘the demonization of drugs and drug addicts in the Sixties was an incredible red herring, a fantastic distraction from what was really going on among people who were older than we were. The Rolling Stones were wild boys, I guess, but never depraved like that. It puts everything into perspective.’

Forgive and forget?

So, like her exact contemporary and fellow ex-pat Jane Birkin, she has made France her adopted country. Two years ago she became a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of its highest cultural honours; and when the Queen attended the D-Day anniversary commemorations in France back in early June, Marianne and Francois Ravard, her manager and former boyfriend, were invited to meet her. ‘Unfortunately I couldn’t because I was in hospital in Rhodes with my broken hip, but I really would have loved to, because they wouldn’t let me meet the Queen back in the ‘60s in England because I was considered to be this “evil” person.  The Establishment was so awful to me, and I didn’t forgive and forget; I never do,’ she adds broodingly. 

And boy, does Marianne know how to brood - especially for her art. Her powerful new album, she reveals, is also a kind of lovelorn letter to Francois with such tracks as Falling Back.  ‘We don’t have sex any more,’ she says in her upfront way, ‘but I still love him and he loves me.’ 

Thrice married and divorced - to art dealer John Dunbar, by whom she had her only child Nicholas, to Ben Brierly of punk band The Vibrators and to writer/actor Giorgio Della Terza - she claims she has no new partner now. ‘I only learned to enjoy sex quite late in my '50s with Francois, apart from my one night with Keith Richards; but if Keith and I had continued, I think we would both have been dead - addiction and all that,’ she explains.

Keith Richards 

She still meets up with Keith – ‘a very nice man’ - and is grateful that his autobiography acknowledged how much she contributed to the Jagger/Richards songwriting; Marianne continues to get royalties for Sister Morphine. His book also exposed the malicious, made-up myth about the misuse of a Redlands Mars Bar once and for all: the confectionery had simply been left on a table for the hit of sugar that LSD users find themselves suddenly craving during an acid trip. “I do see Charlie (Watts) occasionally in Paris and Ronnie Wood too, but not Mick,” she adds. “I’ve really forgotten Mick and I’m very grateful; he doesn’t inhabit my life any more.”

Yet she had been genuinely touched by a phone call out of the blue from Mick back in 2005 after she had contracted early breast cancer, so I ask if they’ve been in contact since - especially after the tragic suicide of his designer girlfriend L’Wren Scott in March this year. ‘I sent an email to Mick, saying “Love, compassion, so sorry about beautiful L’Wren, if there’s anything I can do, of course I’m here…” But of course I didn’t expect an answer from him - and I didn’t get one,’ she says. ‘It’s nothing to do with me; of course I feel for him, and I hope he’ll be all right, but I’m sure he will.’

A doting grandmother

In fact she reveals that her first reaction to the shocking news of L’Wren was one of  ‘there but for the grace of God’ (in whom Marianne believes, though she’s fiercely anti-religion).  ‘I thought, “Thank God it’s not me” when I first found out, because it could have been.  And I’m very sorry about her, but it’s not my world, I haven’t been in it for so long and I’m really grateful for that.’

 These days her priorities are her music and her grandma (‘nana’) duties to Oscar, 21, Noel, 16, by her son Nicholas’s first wife Carol and now Eliza, two, by his second wife Teresa; Marianne only comes to London these days to visit them.  Grandparents, of course, are given a precious second chance at family life, and she recalls how she loved to take the boys to the movies ‘if Carol let us. I do like being a grandmother, I’m very proud of them. And I’m very glad I had Nicholas when I did because I could easily not have; life could have just taken over. Getting pregnant at 17 was the only way I would have had a child.’

Yet because of her subsequent heroin addiction, Marianne lost custody of Nicholas in 1970 when he was four; the experience, she now admits, has scarred her for life.  ‘I have no idea who mothered him; not me, anyway, because he was taken away from me. I haven’t really got over that; I never will. Maybe it was for the best for Nicholas to have a real family, which is what he got with the Dunbars; it just means I’m never going to like them,’ she adds wryly.  ‘But I really like Teresa and I’m grateful he’s so happy with her.’

We’ve talked for an hour, but she’s hungry now - another healthy sign - and needs some lunch and a rest. As she gets up with the help of an elegant cane, I say thanks for her patience. This great rock and roll survivor shrugs, and smiles ‘Patience is my middle name.’

Visit Marianne Faithfull's official website here 

Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.