Marianne Faithfull’s recent autobiography and retrospective album share the same title, Faithfull, and the same cover art: a stark, black-and-white Bruce Weber photo of a woman in her forties, battered by the years, her dark junkie’s tattoo just visible, cigarette burning, her face wistful as she thinks it all through. The book (written with David Dalton; published by Little, Brown) and album (on Island) each come with an ad for the other, and both raise the same question. If, once, you were in the right place at the right time, what do you do—or what happens to you—when your moment is over?
Faithfull may not have been, as Bharati Mukherjee says about the heroine of her novel The Holder of the World, “one of those extraordinary lives through which history runs a four-lane highway,” but as a Swinging ’60s chanteuse and Mick Jagger’s consort, her face and voice caught the recklessness, allure, and mystery of the cultural revolution that for a few years overtook London and much of the rest of the world. She left that world slightly different than she found it, and then it cast her out, or she cast herself out of it. Writing of reading William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch for the first time, on vacation with Jagger in 1967, when she was twenty, Faithfull recalls “a blinding flash. This was something I was going to have to pursue. I would become a junkie… a junkie on the street.”
“The vibe at Reading was insane… It was like goddess worship verging on stoning me to death,” Courtney Love said in September of the U.K. music festival she’d just played; the extremes she describes would likely make perfect sense to a woman whose book is filled with metaphors of all kinds of witchery. Put on the Faithfull album, and witchcraft is the first thing you hear. The opening cut is “Broken English,” the title song from Faithfull’s then-shocking, now-celebrated 1979 punk rant—a song “inspired,” Faithfull writes, “by the German terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.” The Baader-Meinhof Gang, which all but pulled the rug of legitimacy out from under the West German regime in the ’70s, “had just been arrested, and the phrase ‘say it in broken English’ came from something that flashed on the TV screen, this mysterious subtitle: ‘broken English… spoken English… I don’t know what it was in reference to, but I wrote it down in my notebook.”
Meinhof hung herself in prison in 1976; once a popular political columnist, with the looks of an ingenue, she had been outside of society since 1970, when she and others broke Andreas Baader out of prison in a shoot-out, and at the end of her life she looked as ruined as Faithfull ever did. The song, these fifteen years later, has lost nothing. The gloomy, harsh rhythm almost promises to take you somewhere you don’t want to go; Faithfull, her unstable croak as shaped and purposeful as anyone else’s clear voice, comes from the far side. Over and over, her words refuse the challenge, or the temptation, of the song’s unnamed inspiration—“What are you/Fighting for/It’s not my/Security… It’s not my/Reality”—but the way the words are sung, and the music behind them, give the demurrer the lie; the piece pulls hard against itself. Listening, you believe Faithfull thinks she knows exactly what the fight is about, and anyway she sounds as if she’s already fallen.
Faithfull comes out from behind the song in her book, and it’s one of the few times a singer’s explanation of what she meant does her song any good. “I identified with Ulrike Meinhof,” she says. “The same blocked emotions that turn some people into junkies turn others into terrorists… ‘I won’t have it! I won’t stand for it! This is totally unacceptable!’… A form of idealism that leads down different paths.”
Whether re-creating the days when her first husband, John Dunbar, joined with others to plot the transformation of London into “the psychic bloody center of the world,” “our New Jerusalem,” or the years when she did little more than fuck for dope and shoot it, Faithfull’s tone is fast, breezy—the horrors and the rage that course all through Broken English, the sense of a last chance to say your piece, or anything at all, is altogether missing. Instead there are passages that catch Faithfull’s right place at the right time perfectly, and in her own voice. As the Rolling Stones begin to crumble under an orchestrated series of drug raids—Jagger and Keith Richards were due for prison terms until the London Times came to their defense—Faithfull imagines the police rummaging through her dossier: “Let’s see, daughter of Glynn Faithfull, well-known crank, runs a cauldron of obscurantist foment called Brazier’s Park. Mother, the Baroness von Sacher-Masoch… Good God!” Sure, it’s funny—but how many writers, describing a father’s ideal-for-living commune, would come up with a line like “a cauldron of obscurantist foment”? The words speed out of their place and time; they say as much about the beat origins of Faithfull’s once glimpsed New Jerusalem as they do about Broken English; they sum up the face it seems she has always wanted to force the world to look at.If I’d had that line in my head as I left a show she did some years ago in a San Francisco nightclub, I don’t know that I would have had the nerve to use it. That night, plainly nervous, with everyone in the audience wondering if she was still on heroin before they could begin to respond to anything she did, Faithfull left a lasting impression of struggle and dignity. Self-mocking, she put not the kitsch knowledge of her legend into her music, but rather a dramatization of what she didn’t know, as if her whole performance was a wish, or a proof, that she still had an unfinished life to lead.
“Ah, Marianne!” said Keith Richards after Faithfull called to tell him she had, she believed, finally kicked heroin. “But what about the Holy Grail?” Someone else will find it, presumably; as she has since Broken English, Faithfull still searches for a sound that will turn the world toward her aged, human face. Her recently finished, untitled collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti, who made Julee Cruise into a pseudo-Faithfull for David Lynch, may not be it; there seems to be more acting (knowing) than singing (seeking) in it, though one song, “Loser,” is by far the strongest, most unsettling work Faithfull has done in fifteen years. Still, she has already proved she can wait—that she can wait out her golden moments, and wait out herself. As she has pulled the years into herself, draped them over herself, Mick Jagger, her old lover, has reenacted The Picture of Dorian Gray so that he can seem as undead as Michael Jackson—his body forever fixed in 1967, his face expiring in its gilded frame. Faithfull could go tomorrow, or she could be the last one standing.
Interview, November 1994