Marianne Faithfull

The eternal Venus in furs owns the golden voice you hear when all the bars are closed and the whores have gone home.

Published January 9, 2001 5:00PM (EST)

No woman from the 1960s lost her youth as thoroughly as Marianne Faithfull. And by youth, I mean her innocence, not her looks. Long after that decade ended, she wrote in a song, "Where did it go to ... my youth?" She answered herself only last year with lyrics that begin, "I drink and I take drugs/I love sex and move around a lot." And no citizen of the '60s drank, took drugs and had sex with Faithfull's public abandon.

She began her career in 1964 singing insipid pop songs, but soon became known to the British public as Mick Jagger's girlfriend. They were inseparable -- she was his Yoko Ono. News photographs showed the pair arriving late at the Royal Opera House to see Rudolf Nureyev or, on another occasion, slinking out of a police station after a drug bust. But the most notorious Marianne Faithfull story -- an apocryphal one, she says -- concerns newspaper reports of Jagger being arrested in a drug raid, caught with his head between Faithfull's legs enjoying a Mars bar.

Yet the woman's '60s past is only colorful clutter. During the 1970s, she evolved a voice that is one of the most remarkable ever recorded: a husky, world-weary moan; a voice that Faithfull admits is the result of every whiskey she has ever drunk, every cigarette she has ever puffed. "My voice is loaded with time, mature like brie cheese," she told me recently.

Faithfull is entitled to such a vox, one of pure European decadence. Her mother was a Viennese baroness, a descendant of Leopold Baron von Sacher-Masoch, author of the masochistic classic "Venus in Furs." On the Faithfull side, her father was a British spy whose own father had invented a sexual device called the Frigidity Machine. In her readable, hard-boiled autobiography, "Faithfull," she reports that her mother didn't enjoy sex -- the baroness married the major only to escape postwar Vienna, Austria. The woman did succumb to wifely obligations, however, which led (as such things will) to the birth of a daughter on Dec. 29, 1946, in Hempstead, England.

Faithfull's father ditched the family when she was just 6. Her mother then raised the girl like "one of her cats." Young Marianne was packed off to a convent, where she converted to Roman Catholicism, an act she later reported "was promoted more by a Walter Pater aestheticism than a veneration for the pope." By age 13, she was acting Shakespeare in local repertory theaters. If her future had turned out differently, she might have become a Shakespearean actor of note. As it happened, however, Faithfull, the 1960s pop singer, would play Ophelia in Tony Richardson's filmed version of "Hamlet." In a different film, "I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name," she would take a bath while Oliver Reed watched. In the end, the bathing scene eclipsed the drowning scene.

But we're jumping ahead. In 1963, the bookish, 17-year-old Faithfull fell in love with an artistic lad named John Dunbar. He owned a swinging London gallery where pop stars like Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones hung out. It was at one of the gallery's parties where the Stones' Rasputin-like manager, Andrew Oldham, first noticed Faithfull. In "Blown Away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties," he tells author A.E. Hotchner, "At a time when most chicks were shaking ass and coming on strong, here was this pale, blonde, retiring, chaste teenager looking like the Mona Lisa, except with a great body." Oldham later described her somewhat less elegantly as an "angel with big tits."

Ah, her breasts. How different Faithfull's life would have been if she had been flat-chested. Jagger would never have poured champagne between them to get her attention. The New York Times would never have praised her screen portrayal of Ophelia by observing that her cleavage was "charming." And Oldham wouldn't have turned her into a pop singer.

Who cared whether the girl could actually sing? Oldham arranged for her to record a moody Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition called "As Tears Go By." In a nondescript voice, Faithfull sang about sitting in a desolate playground at sundown watching children play. She might as well have warbled, "Where did it go to, my youth?" The tune was inappropriately dreary for a teenager, especially one like Faithfull who possessed a goofy, gawky enthusiasm once she got going.

She turned to America's bard for a follow-up single, covering Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Although it bombed, Faithfull had the opportunity to hang out with Dylan at the Savoy Hotel. She reports that he slouched at a typewriter and began pecking a massive poem about her. When he learned she was about to marry, he tried to talk her out of it. His words fell on deaf ears, however. When he couldn't talk her into bed, he reportedly "turned into Rumpelstiltskin" and ripped up the poem.

Faithfull survived Dylan's scorn. In the spring of 1965, just before she married Dunbar, she recorded a third single, "Come Stay With Me." This jaunty bit of harpsichord pap became a bigger hit than "As Tears Go By." Six months later, she gave birth to a son. She promptly foisted off the kid on her mother and returned to being a full-fledged participant in Swinging London.

Her pop career appeared stalled, but Faithfull soon embodied every hip aspect of the 1960s. She dropped acid with the Stones' Brian Jones. She scored a cameo role in Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in USA." Finally, in December '66, she became Jagger's girlfriend. Before that winter, Jagger had hit on her once or twice at parties, but after he had occasion to see the dumpy flat where the Dunbars lived, he looked anew at this lanky girl with the amazing frame and smile. Faithfull brought out the Lancelot in him. She was too fair to be stuck in such dismal surroundings. Soon Jagger began sleeping with his Guinevere.

The King Arthur metaphor is appropriate because during those years Jagger had a thing for the Arthurian myths. He also apparently had a thing for Galahad -- band mate Richards. Once as Jagger and Faithfull were getting it on (as they said back then) in a room next to Richards' bedroom, Jagger, according to Faithfull, shouted out, "You don't know how much I want to suck Keith's cock!" Faithfull herself had performed intimate acts with Richards, only to be told afterward that she was meant for Jagger. And she was. He wrote "Let's Spend the Night Together," she says in her autobiography, after a bout of relentless sex with Faithfull in a Bristol hotel.

She continued recording unmemorable pop in her unremarkable voice. Then came the Mars bar incident. In February '67, Faithfull was partying with Jagger at Richards' place when bobbies raided the house for drugs. Faithfull was found wrapped in a fur rug -- Venus in furs -- which she promptly dropped to the floor. The girl was naked. Surely the police would have been turned to stone at the sight of Faithfull in full glory if Richards had not chosen that moment to flip on the record player -- suddenly Dylan was intoning, "Everybody must get stoned."

The newspapers reported that Jagger had been caught performing candy bar cunnilingus on Faithfull. "I still don't like that story," Faithfull says to me 33 years later. "I never will find it funny. I went into complete insanity trying to figure out who started the rumor." No Mars bar was found at the scene, but drugs were discovered upstairs. Jagger and Richards were arrested and there was a trial. The "Establishment" wanted to make a lesson of the two and dished out stiff sentences. But those were not Victorian days, and the Glimmer Twins did not do prison time like a pair of Oscar Wildes -- the verdict was overturned. By the summer, Faithfull says, she and Jagger were "blissfully happy." They were "young, rich, protected, and the world was at our feet." They even sat with the Beatles at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's feet.

Faithfull later told the Soho News that their "fantasies of taking over the world seemed to be coming true." She strayed from singing and played Irina in Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" at the Royal Court Theater. Jagger was feeling so empowered that he toyed with running for Parliament. Their happiness climaxed in 1968 when Faithfull found herself with child -- Jagger's. She was still married to Dunbar, but told newspapers that she was very happy about the baby. She didn't want to marry Jagger, however. "I don't want to be married to him," she told the Daily News. "I don't want to be married at all." Then in November, a day before John Lennon's then girlfriend, Yoko Ono, had a miscarriage, Faithfull miscarried. The baby girl would have been named Corrina. This was the beginning of Faithfull's fall; she turned to barbiturates and alcohol while Jagger buried himself in work.

In the summer of 1969, the pair were in Sydney, Australia, about to film "Ned Kelly" together, when Jagger awoke in their hotel room and found Faithfull lying beside an empty bottle of Tuinals. She was rushed to the hospital in a coma. Jagger sat by her bedside. Picture him there: Surely the lyrics of Faithfull's first major song played through his mind. She had been trying to transcend her lightweight recording career, and had written "Sister Morphine." She used Milton's "Lycidas" as a model for the structure of the verse, which describes the singer lying in a hospital bed much like the one Faithfull lay in that day, awaiting death.

It was darkly ironic that on that same day, on the other side of the world, Jones was being buried in back of the church where he used to sing as a choirboy. Seven days earlier, he had drowned in Winnie the Pooh's pool. (A.A. Milne was the former owner of Jones' house.) Just a week earlier, Jagger and Faithfull had consulted the "I Ching" about Jones -- and "Death by Water" was the hexagram they arrived at when throwing the coins.

Who would have imagined, even in the psychedelic '60s, that a waterlogged dead man could be responsible for Faithfull's coma? On the night she took the Tuinals, Jones had appeared to her, encouraging her to swallow the pills. She later hypothesized in her autobiography, "Obviously he had woken up dead, not known where he was and decided to call for me!" Faithfull remembered that the two "strolled" through a landscape similar to Albrecht Dürer's engravings of hell until they came to a cliff. Jones jumped off; Faithfull didn't. She then found herself lost in an airport. She'd been out for six days when she awoke, and the first thing she saw was Jagger's face.

The two would stay a couple for a little over a year, but Faithfull continued her plummet from grace while Jagger repressed his Lancelot impulses, becoming more of a superficial fop. He brought Faithfull to a dinner at the Earl of Warwick's place, and the woman was so smacked up she fell face down in her soup.

It was only a matter of time before Jagger began dating Bianca Rose Perez Moreno de Macias, who was probably his doppelgänger. After Faithfull read about the May '71 marriage in the papers, she staggered blind drunk into an Indian restaurant in Chelsea, where she was promptly arrested. Later she told a reporter, "Even if I died or [Mick] died, I still won't get away from him. We can't get away from each other by dying."

Faithfull ran into Jagger a week or so later, and had wordless sex with him in a room above a London head shop. A week after that, the Stones' "Sticky Fingers" album was released. It contained the song "Sister Morphine," and Faithfull wasn't listed in the credits. Her name should have appeared beside another song, "Wild Horses," as well, she contends. When she awoke from her coma in Australia, her first words to Jagger had been, "Wild horses couldn't drag me away." She later admitted to a journalist, "All my traumas and all my unhappiness, Jagger changed into brilliant songs."

It wasn't until the end of the 1970s that Faithful would begin to write her own brilliant songs. First she had to discover the Doors' Jim Morrison dead in his bathtub. Or did she? In the summer of 1971, she found herself in Paris consorting with Morrison's drug dealer. After Morrison's overdose, it was whispered that she had found the body. "I tried to figure that one out," she tells me. "One of my theories is that people get blonds mixed up -- if Sylvia Miles is at party in New York, she's assumed to be me. I just read a biography about [singer] Nico. I think maybe it was Nico who was in Paris at the same time. It could be -- but we'll never know."

Shortly after that, satanic filmmaker Kenneth Anger filmed Faithfull crawling around an Egyptian graveyard as the sun rose over the pyramids for a scene in his devilish extravaganza "Lucifer Rising" (which also starred Charles Manson's right hand, Robert Beausoleil). Faithful was no stranger to the Dark One. She had given Jagger a Russian novel about Satan that, she says, inspired him to write "Sympathy for the Devil."

The only mid-'70s Faithfull sighting of note occurred when she showed up wearing a nun's habit to sing "I Got You Babe" in David Bowie's "1984" NBC-TV show. During that time, she pulled together an occasional recording session, but released only a rather lifeless country record. She spent her days living in a Chelsea squat with no electricity or hot water. Her companion was a man whose name was Ben Briefly. Or Ben E. Ficial. Or Ben Dover.

In 1979, Faithfull released her comeback record, "Broken English." The disc was embraced by punks even though it was not a punk album. (Christ! Some of the tracks even had synthesizers!) But punk was the only musical context for Faithfull's new voice. It had transformed into a steely cross between Janis Joplin's and Lotte Lenya's. Plenty of punk girls tried to affect a voice like hers, but Faithfull embodied the voice without affect. She believes the change happened "gradually of course ... I didn't even know it was happening," she told me. "Well, I sort of realized." Pause. "See, I don't hear my voice like other people. I know it's very deep and all that, but I hear it like a beautiful contralto -- a bit rough. I hear it like an instrument."

Then there were the songs Faithfull was singing. The first one was a self-penned ode to German terrorist Ulrike Meinhoff -- a heartfelt choice as it turns out. "Drugs kept me from being a terrorist," she told author Hotchner. "I was going to have to explode out into ... actual acts of violence ... or I was going to have to implode and contain it." The most violent song on "Broken English" was the last, where she snarled lyrics like "Why'd ya let that trash/Getta hold your cock/And smoke all my hash?" It certainly was a far cry from wearing a habit and crooning, "I got you, babe." When Faithfull married Ben "What's His Name" later that year, it's no wonder that Johnny Rotten was a beaming guest at the ceremony.

For the next five years, Faithfull recorded striking but imperfect rock records containing songs about women who have fallen so far from grace that they wander New York's Times Square with pistols in suitcases. In the mid-'80s, she fell so low that she was holed up at the Hazelden Clinic in Minneapolis to get off dope. There she fell in love with a fellow junkie. In "Faithfull," she writes of their nights of wild sex. She also tells how the poor man leapt out of a 36th-story window after she told him they should temporarily separate.

All the death took a toll on Faithfull. In her own way, she became as obsessed with the dead as the protagonist of Henry James' short story "Altar of Dead." She learned that you can ask the dead for help. "It's not prayer exactly," she explained to me, "and it's not channeling. But you can ask for help." Then she warned, "Be careful! You can't be too promiscuous about it."

In 1986, she asked Billie Holiday for aid in recording a new kind of record with producer Hal Willner. Faithfull and Willner spent weeks just listening to records, everything from spirituals to torch singer laments. The album they created was not a strident rock record. Instead, she sang against subdued instrumentation provided by Bill Frisell's uncanny jazz guitar, accompanied by Lou Reed bass player Fernando Saunders elegantly anchoring the beat. In that classy musical setting, Faithfull sang about life lived in a penthouse as well as on the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." "I've had my share/of love, life and money," she declared on another song. She also recut "As Tears Go By," revealing it as a brilliant elegy to lost youth.

There was one daring, yet terrible moment on the album. She covered Leadbelly's "I Ain't Goin' Down to the Well No More" a cappella. Her voice proved too European to "chameleonize" African-American spirituality. We can be thankful Faithfull moved on to embrace composer Kurt Weill -- the crown prince of European jadedness -- and by the 1990s, she had become the best living interpreter of his work. (Ute Lemper, so sorry.) On perhaps the most perfect record of her career, "20th Century Blues," she sang backed only by piano and upright bass. She recorded predictable chestnuts like "Mack the Knife," but even dared to tackle "Falling in Love Again" and out-Dietriched Marlene. Faithfull was now an eternal Venus in furs.

But she still appeared to be publicly weighed down by her '60s past. In 1995, she was encouraged by a publisher to write her autobiography. "They told me, 'It's going to be good for my soul' and all that. I thought, 'Yeah, right.' I wrote it because they gave me a lot of money." During that time she was also offered movie roles. Producers wanted her to play doomed chanteuse Nico (the woman who perhaps discovered Morrison in the tub). Faithfull was also considered to play Madonna's maid in "Evita." "The last straw," Faithfull told me, "is I was offered a lot of money to do an ad for Mars bars."

Is it a candy bar that Faithfull will be remembered for in the end? On her most recent album, "Vagabond Ways" (a wonderful state-of-the-art "rock" record aided by the ghosts of Herman Melville and Marcus Garvey), she sings a wry Leonard Cohen song that goes, "I was born like this/I had no choice/I was born with the gift of ... a golden voice."

Long after Faithfull is gone, her exhausted yet "golden" voice should be what we remember her for. It's the voice you hear when all the bars have closed, the whores have gone home and you're out of cigarettes. The voice of lost innocence. Or maybe the voice singing at your enemy's funeral.

Marianne Faithfull believes no one listens to this voice anymore. "People only know my name," she says. "They don't know what I do. I'm just a name." Even if that were true -- and it's not -- at least she has a great one. "Yes, I do," she agrees, giving a dry Cruella De Vil laugh, "although people always thought I made it up."

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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