If I were to pitch a Marianne Faithfull biopic—the kind that would zoom in on just a few days of her life, a period that would see her going about her days with Something Big weighing on her mind, a la Jackie or Spencer (can Sydney Sweeney do a British accent?)—I’d focus on the 1971 recording sessions that would ultimately become the 1985 album Rich Kid Blues.
At the time, Faithfull was 24 and already a washed-up British pop star whose brief career had been overshadowed by a high-profile relationship with Mick Jagger, which ended the year before. She was homeless, living on a wall at a bomb site in Soho and strung out on drugs, which led to the homelessness: she had just been kicked out of a girlfriend’s flat after flooding the place (she nodded off after shooting up heroin in the bath). She had destroyed her life with wildness and recklessness, and was resigned to being a nobody.
“For me, being a junkie was an honorable life,” Faithfull later wrote in her 1994 autobiography. “It was total anonymity, something I hadn’t known since I was 17.”
But it’s probably unfair to avoid what came before and after those recordings.
In 1964, at 17, she made a hit out of “As Time Goes By,” written by soon-to-be boyfriend Jagger and Keith Richards (whom Faithfull has said was Jagger’s one true love). Her debut album was released a year later, the same year she married her first husband and gave birth to a son, Nicholas. Then she hooked up with Jagger, the two becoming the power couple of the Swinging London set. Half a century before tabloids splashed the phrase “COCAINE KATE” across their front pages to taunt model Kate Moss and Perez Hilton employed MS Paint to poke fun at Amy Winehouse, the British press gleefully reported that, during a 1967 drug bust at Keith Richards’ estate, Faithfull was found nude while coming down from an acid trip, wrapped in a fur rug with a Mars bar that Jagger had inserted into her vagina. (The rug bit is true, the candy bar sex toy is not.)
The first turning point in her career took place the following July when Faithfull, Jagger and Richards co-wrote “Sister Morphine,” a song that would eventually end up on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers in 1971. Faithfull’s version, released in 1969, was produced by Jagger and featured Ry Cooder on slide guita—but her label quickly pulled the release because of the drug use in the title. It’s a shame that Decca “freaked,” as Faithfull put it, as it gives an early notion of what her musical legacy would be: harsh, honest, artful and confessional.
But “Sister Morphine” wasn’t autobiographical—at least not yet. “By 1972…I was the character in the song,” Faithfull wrote of her artistic divination, which in 1968 was simply a tune about an unfortunate man needing relief in a hospital but took on a deeper meaning after her 1970 suicide attempt in Australia and her subsequent squats in various seedy London locales. “You have to be very careful what you write because it’s a gateway, and whatever you’ve summoned may come through.”
Despite the street junkie lifestyle that Faithfull claims to have provided her anonymity, people still wanted to mold her back into a public persona. Producer Mick Leander, who provided musical direction on the singer’s debut six years earlier, was the mastermind behind Rich Kid Blues. He had found Faithfull on her wall and offered the chance to record a new album (a deal that would come with housing). The recordings—originally intended for an album titled Masques, but ultimately shelved for another 14 years—would reveal that Faithfull’s lush, angelic singing voice had deepened, becoming scratchy and witchy thanks to drug use and bouts of laryngitis. She was no longer the baroque pop star of the previous decade, the ethereal muse who inspired songs like the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” and “Wild Horses”
“My voice is too weak on Rich Kids Blues [sic], I can’t bear to listen to it,” she wrote years later. “It’s the voice of somebody incredibly high, probably on the edge of death, making a record.…Anyone who heard that record would have said, ‘Well that’s that. We’ll never hear from her again.’”
Faithfull isn’t wrong that the album is not her best. But the collection of folk-rock covers of songs written by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Cat Stevens, among others, is still a vital part of her discography as it bridges her former career as a pop chanteuse and her eventual identity as a rock and roll survivor.
It wasn’t until late 1979 that she achieved what would eclipse her ‘60s stardom and infamy. Broken English introduced the world to a new Marianne Faithfull, one whose cracked and presumably ruined vocals were suddenly an asset rather than a liability. She wasn’t trying to recapture her greatness; she was using her tool to her advantage. Across the tracks that make up the punk and blues-inspired new wave album, Faithfull sounds powerful and in control. And the material suited her, too—it was just as rough and damaged. The title track was inspired by German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, and her cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” is a ferocious commentary on social revolution. Most notorious is the final track "Why D'Ya Do It," an ode to female anger from the perspective of a spurned lover. The poet Heathcote Williams wrote it for Tina Turner, but Faithfull wisely convinced him that Turner would never sing a line like, “Every time I see your dick, I see her cunt in my bed.”
But even though she sounded full of power on the album, Faithfull still didn’t have herself under control. She could barely sing when she performed on SNL in 1980, adding unintentional stops and starts to “broken” in the chorus to “Broken English.” In 1985 she finally sought treatment—first at Hazelden in Minnesota and McLean in Massachusetts—and got sober (the same year that Rich Kid Blues finally came out, which possibly explains its curt appraisal in her memoir—and her misspelling of the title). Her first post-addiction album was 1987’s Strange Weather, a dark blues album in which she reinvented herself as a cabaret act. She continued an unconventional and uncommercial path, collaborating with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalmenti on 1995’s A Secret Life.
A newfound clarity did wonders for Faithfull’s subsequent albums, with 1999’s Vagabond Ways serving as the first of a string of mature recordings that seem to reflect on her troubled years. “You don't understand all my choices, but yes, I guess, I do have vagabond ways,” she sings on the title track. Themes of memory and regret also show up on “File It Under Fun From the Past,” “Tower of Song” and “Incarceration of a Flower Child.” But her most autobiographical song appeared on 2002’s Kissin Time, which saw Faithfull partner with producers like Beck, Billy Corgan and Jarvis Cocker. The latter produced “Sliding Through a Life on Charm,” a musical memoir equal parts reflection and self-deprecation that serves as her final say on the matter of her torrid youth.
I wonder why the schools don’t teach anything useful these days
Like how to fall from grace
And slide with elegance from a pedestal
I never asked to be on in the first place.
In the decades since, Faithfull came close to death twice more: breast cancer in 2006, COVID-19 in 2020, both following hepatitis C diagnosis in the mid-’90s. But she’s continued to record music with starry collaborators, ranging from PJ Harvey and Nick Cave (on 2005’s Before the Poison) to Cat Power and Sean Lennon (on 2008’s Easy Come, Easy Go). She’s also revisited her catalog; on the 2018 Negative Capability, she re-recorded “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from Masques/Rich Kid Blues, “Witches Song” from Broken English and “As Tears Go By.”
While it’s not her final recording, the latter is the perfect bookend to a musical legacy—and her aged voice adds more texture to a song that she once said shouldn’t have been sung by a 17-year-old in the first place. She went down into the depths of a disaster of her own making, only to crawl back out again. Marianne Faithfull may not live forever, but she became eternal a long time ago.
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