“No, I love death,” the Marianne Faithfull purrs, black-lined doe eyes peering beneath her shaggy blonde bangs. “It’s very important to stay in the world and do things, but… that’s what I really like to do is to just go off there, into death.” She smiles at the thought, her dark eyes bright and then suddenly downcast, pensive. “But you can’t do that,” she laments, “it’s very wrong, to make your own death. Your death is when you get it. But I think it’s a beautiful thing, death. It’s such a relief. Just imagine if there wasn’t any death,” and with that she lets out a whispery pheeew and smiles once more, reassured by the reminder that death and dreams are still there.
Had she known then just how close death would follow? How it would crouch in the shadows and nip at her heels? Faithfull was just 21 at the time of the interview, but had by then been married, had a child and, though still married, was famously dating Mick Jagger. In the decades that would follow, she would battle drug addiction, overdose, miscarriage, attempted suicides, homelessness, and breast cancer. She would find herself in dreams of death turned nightmare. But the 21-year-old Marianne would also be right – death is when you get it. Death was to Marianne like her words to Jagger after waking from a six-day overdose-induced coma: “wild horses wouldn’t drag me away.”
Faithfull is a fighter, a survivor in the extreme. She’s a woman whose bravery defines her (or should) more than her First Lady of Rock, 60s wild child status. She’s a singer, songwriter, performer, actress, and writer. Her career has spanned decades and genres, from rock to folk, pop, jazz, and blues. She’s played both God and the Devil, and all number of fallen women on earth, from the maddened Ophelia to a leather-clad biker chick to Anna Karenina.
Perhaps it’s this ability to span the extremes of innocence and wantonness that make her so malleable in people’s memory. And it was likely precisely this, coupled with her seraphic blonde locks and wild-horse temperament, that made her a kind of super muse. Legend has it she inspired rock songs not just in her Stones cohort, but for many of the era’s greats. The Hollies’ “Carrie Anne” and the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” were allegedly inspired by the turbulent life of the blond bombshell. Not only did she inspire, she helped write lyrics, extemporaneously whispering lines of poetry and ready-made rock to anyone there to listen. Her post-coma revelation lead Mick Jagger to write the song “Wild Horses,” and it was after giving him a Russian novel about Satan that he wrote “Sympathy for the Devil.” She and Jagger also co-wrote “Sister Morphine.”
The problem with being a muse of course, even an uber-muse, is that people are quick to attach their ideas on you. Even when discredited, Faithfull is still trying to shake off the infamous Mars bar rumors from the 1967 Redlands drug bust. And though long sober and clean at this stage in her life, some people will still remember her as a homeless addict, as an absent mother, or as high and naked in a fur rug.
And though her tripped-out days are over, she’s still just as a decadent and rock-and-roll to the core. Perhaps she was destined to be. After all, how could the daughter of a British WWII spy and a ballerina with aristocratic ties to the Habsburg Dynasty be anything but? And with a grandfather who invented a “Frigidity Machine” to give women orgasms and a great-grandfather in the Sacher-Masoch line, whose erotic novel gave rise to the term masochism, Faithfull may have been fated to become sex symbol in her time.
But at 66, those days are past. And what remains is a voice scraped raw, but bolstered by the same fighting spirit it took to crawl from the streets to the studio. Since her self-proclaimed “masterpiece,” Broken English, she’s had several critically acclaimed, if somewhat eclectic, albums. Nineteen studio albums in, and with no small amount of writing and acting on the side, people are finally recognizing Faithfull as one of the mainstays of rock that she is. In 2009, she received the Women’s World Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. Two years later, she was awarded France’s Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
In her most recent album, 2011’s Horses and High Heels, Faithfull reveals just how much she’s been through, but also revisits some reoccurring themes in her life. With a rasp, whiskey-soaked voice that’s been to hell and back she sings, quite joyously, about death and eternity. “It’s quite a paradox to find joy in that,” she says of the song, echoing the doe-eyed 21 year old Marianne so many years ago, “but I think that’s the right way to do it. I’m not facing death. I reckon that’s a long way off.” And though she asserted so long ago that death is when you get it, that you can’t make your own death, Faithfull is living testament to the fact that you can make your own life. And made a life, she has.
More Marianne Faithfull:
Marianne Faithfull, Faithfull: An Autobiography , 2000.
Julia Molony, “Marianne Faithfull's Long Road to Recovery,” The Independent, September 2013.
Dave Simpson, “ Marianne Faithfull: I Don’t Think I Had Any Choice but to Be Decadent, “ The Guardian, January 2013.
Tim Adams, “ There’s Another Marianne Faithfull who Lives Inside my Head ,” The Observer, April 2012.
Sam Adams, “Marianne Faithfull,” The A.V. Club, July 2011.
Chrissy Iley, “Marianne Faithfull Interview,” The Telegraph, March 2011.
Kory Grow, “ Marianne Faithfull On Her Critics, Her Voice, And The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones ,” The Village Voice, July 2011.
Nick Nuerden, “ Marianne Faithfull: 'Drugs are Completely Irrelevant to Me Now,” The Independent, March 2011.
Clash, “Marianne Faithfull Interview,” December 2009
Evelyn McDonnell, “Marianne Faithfull,” Interview.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.