Marianne Faithfull: The fall and rise of a ’60s icon

By  Matt Fink

(Decca Classics Group)

(Decca Classics Group)
“Dude, you won’t believe it. Some 60-year-old woman was singing a Decemberists’ song on David Letterman tonight.” That was the message left on my cell phone by a friend who knows indie rock inside and out but has little use for 60s pop or 60-year-old artists, a 23-year-old for whom the Decemberists are far more relevant than the Rolling Stones.

Though he didn’t know it, the 60-year-old woman (actually 62-years-old) singing “The Crane Wife 3” was Marianne Faithfull, the one-time siren of Swinging London whose soft, girlish voice and innocent beauty took her to the top of the charts and cast her in the daydreams of many who wished they were on her arm instead of Mick Jagger. But that was 40 years ago, and Faithfull has lived many lives since then, struggling through years of drug addiction, mental health issues, and illness, her once youthful voice now hardened into a weathered growl. But for someone under 25, she’s largely an unknown, just an exceptionally hip senior citizen singing a song that few grandmothers have ever heard.

None of this is surprising for anyone who has been following Faithfull over the past 10 years, however, as she has experienced an unexpected career renaissance, spending the early years of the decade introducing herself to a new generation of listeners by writing and recording with ’90s icons Beck, Billy Corgan, PJ Harvey, and Nick Cave. But there were setbacks along the way.

For one, she had developed a suffocating case of writer’s block. Worse yet, her health was failing, with her diagnoses of both hepatitis C and breast cancer causing her to cancel her 2008 tour. Luckily, by that time she already had her next album in the bag, having spent a whirlwind week in New York City with Hal Willner (producer of her 1986 standout Strange Weather) to create what is arguably the most varied release of her fourth decade as an artist. With Easy Come Easy Go, she brings together friends and songs both old and new, weaving together an album that proves she is not ready to fade away.

“What we did, Hal Willner and I, is that we picked what are very much my favorite songs,” Faithful says on a warm New York City morning after the Letterman performance. “It was inspired by something that didn’t come out as a proper record for sale [but] was something that Keith did in Toronto after the bust, you know?” she says referencing the infamous 1977 event where Richards was caught with 22 grams of heroin. “And he just put down a lovely thing where he did all of his favorite songs: blues songs, country songs – all sorts of things. And I thought, I’d love to do that,” she says carefully. “So, in the end, that’s what we did.”

Sorting through a list of songs that she compiled with Willner, Faithfull spent two months in the fall of 2007 doing the hard work of tearing down and reassembling each song with her unique stylistic fingerprints. Joined by a cast of over 20 collaborators – from old friends Keith Richards and Nick Cave to indie rock luminaries Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons) and Chan Marshall (Cat Power) – it’s a richly textured and vividly imagined release, one that captures the energy and anxiety of being forced to record two to three songs a day.

Largely recorded live in the studio, with all the strings and horns and organs needed to allow her to cover songs ranging from Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” to Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” it’s an album whose confident and careful tone belies the fact that Faithfull never knew exactly what shape the album was taking until it was over.

 “I couldn’t listen to any rough mixes, because there really wasn’t any time,” she says. “So it was like jumping into space, which is how I often feel when making a record, but this was even more so. I had no idea how it would turn out. I had to just go on faith. It was just made out of fear maybe,” she laughs. “But, no, I wasn’t that frightened. I thought it could work, but I wasn’t sure. Then when I heard the mixes, I realized I’d done it. I was so happy. That has a lot to do with Hal. He is really brilliant with this stuff, and I trust him. That’s how we made records in the ’60s, and the records in the ’60s didn’t always work out. They sounded a bit slapdash,” she admits. “I don’t think Easy Come, Easy Go does.”

Neither “slapdash” nor over-produced, the album is striking in its urgency and emotional range, sounding both expansive and intimate at the same time. Starting off with the desperate drama of Dolly Parton’s soulful “Down from Dover” and winding through eight minutes of lounge-pop on the Espers’ “Children of Stone,” Faithful imbues every song with a careful solemnity. There’s a shape-shifting and experimental twist on the classic “Ooh Baby Baby,” with Hegarty adding his otherworldly vocals to her dark growl.

There’s a stormy duet with Marshall on “Hold On Hold On,” allowing Faithfull to work with an artist whose conflicted personal life and runway model looks are similarly ingrained in her personal mythology. It took a while for Faithfull’s musical legacy to take root, but artists like Marshall prove that her music has even taken hold in the United States, where she long struggled to find much of an audience.

“It was wonderful. I know her, you know,” she says of Marshall. “I see her quite a lot in Paris, and I go to her shows. I really like her. It was really lovely. I think she did it really well, and it was a great idea to be sliding off the note. She’s very good, Chan. She’s herself, as well. A lot of people take, especially the freedom of thought and to [be able to] do what you want. They take that [from me],” she says, admitting her influence on the younger generation of artists. “And maybe the little baroque qualities of songs. They make it their own anyway.”

But best of all is “Sing Me Back Home,” Haggard’s classic tale of regret and impending death that Faithfull first learned from hearing Richards singing it with his late friend, Gram Parsons. It was only appropriate that Richards would turn up to harmonize with Faithfull on her version. “That was great,” she gushes. “That’s what had given me the idea for the record anyway. And then my manager talked to Jane Rose, who looks after Keith, and she called Keith, and then Keith sent me a wonderful fax saying, ‘I’ll do it for you, baby, if you do it for me.’”

Having never reached the superstardom that seemed inevitable when her version of “As Tears Go By” (the first song ever penned by Richards and future boyfriend Jagger) established her as an international sensation, Faithfull has, nonetheless, followed her own path, always re-emerging just before she could be dismissed as a footnote in rock’s long tale of self-destruction.

As someone who traces her heritage to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian writer from whose work the word “masochism” is drawn, Faithfull has confirmed her bloodlines by putting herself through all sorts of misery. By 1971, her relationship with Jagger was over, she had lost custody of her son, and she was living on the streets of London, addicted to heroin and struggling with anorexia.  Friends tried to intervene and she became a notorious rehab failure, but out of her misery came the album that would come to define the second phase of her career, an album she never could have made when she was a soft-skinned ingénue with a fragile voice.

In 1979, Faithfull released Broken English, a startlingly autobiographical album whose snarling tone echoed the punk, reggae, and new wave tones swirling in the British underground, she had finally made an album that was uniquely hers. Years of cigarettes and cocaine abuse, not to mention severe laryngitis, had left her voice broken and craggy, an immediate and irreversible reminder of what she had put herself through.

“I think it was more of a shock to other people, but I’d been with it all that time,” she admits. “I can’t give you a moment, but I must have noticed it changing over time. I welcomed it. I obviously wasn’t trying to keep my voice the same way. I didn’t see it like that. I loved my voice when I was little, like very young, but I knew it was going to change. I always knew that, because my singing teacher at school told me that my voice was going to become a contralto. Obviously, other things helped, but it was going to become deep always.”

While she had managed to reinvent herself creatively, she was finding it more difficult to start over in her personal life. Her addiction returned with a vengeance, she passed through more rehabs, and she nearly died when her heart stopped. Her love life was no more stable, as a lover killed himself, and another marriage soon dissolved. But the turmoil in her personal life inspired more great art, allowing her to remake herself again as a blues and jazz singer on 1986’s Strange Weather and adding lived-in insight for her explorations of the work of German composer Kurt Weill.

“I’ve had some very interesting twists and turns, but the bit where I really followed the Kurt Weill stuff was really fascinating,” she explains. “It wasn’t something that I could do forever, but I really enjoyed it a lot. My mother used to play it when I was a child, so I’ve known it for a long time. And Hal really got me back into it. I’m much more accomplished and knowledgeable now than I used to be. So I know a lot more about it, the sort of things that I love. Often, I love very sensual music, and there are certain chords that are very sensual, and they’re usually the things that come between the sacred and profane.”

Faithful had long traced the beginning of her decline to the breakthrough success of “As Tears Go By,” the one moment from which all of her misery had subsequently flowed. But by the ’90s, she had reached a better place, finding time to pen her memoirs, appear in a Metallica video, and star in a documentary of her life. For the first time since her youth, she was clean and sober. She even made her peace with her first hit.

“I’m doing it now with this wonderful band, the original version, with strings and horns and everything,” she says. “I’ve accepted it. I’m over all that. I really love it, and the band loves it, too. It’s a beautiful song, there’s no way around that. I don’t see it so personally anymore. I see it as part of my life. I got over all that years ago.”

Her demons largely vanquished, Faithfull entered the new millennium as one of rock’s great survivors and started to come to the realization that she hadn’t been alone at all, that the children of her first fans were now discovering her music for themselves. Having already been the teen sensation, the burned out junkie, and the cabaret crooner, she entered her fourth phase, one where she was finally able to sit back and enjoy her legacy. Marianne Faithfull is finally happy.

“I would like them to take some brightness and happiness that I feel,” she says of her prospective listeners. “I know some of the songs are very gloomy, but they’re not done in that way. They’re not gloomy on Easy Come Easy Go. They’re done as wonderful songs and interpreted well …” she continues, trailing off, as if she knows she has to belabor her point in order to shake off the assumption that everything she does is going to come packaged with the lifetime of misery she has experienced. “The end feeling is not gloomy at all.”

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