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Music: Holding Tight, Letting Go

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

No last names are used in the women’s group she attends every Thursday. “They call me Marianne,” she says, “and my full name is neither here nor there. They know me as a real human being, and it has been an absolute revelation to me. It seems I may have something to offer in real life, not just as a dream figure.”

That dream was so persistent, though. Beautiful, for one thing: the blond girl on the record jacket, staring out from everlasting eyes. Gifted, for another: the sensuality of that young voice, singing As Tears Go By with so much worldliness, with such regret. And dangerous, of course. Consorting with the Rolling Stones as they danced along the dark borderline of rock, then announcing famously, “I slept with three, and then I decided the lead singer was the best bet.” Getting busted for drugs at Keith Richard’s country home in Sussex wearing nothing but a bearskin rug. It was all part of swinging London. But for Marianne Faithfull, it swung like a noose. After the high times of the ’60s, the bills came due, and kept coming. Junked out, sleeping in doorways. Long memories and a ravaged future. A lot of history to tell. No last names necessary.

In her public life, she does not have that privilege. Even if she were not already notorious as one of the ’60s’ most ravishing icons, and one of the ’70s’ most celebrated rock casualties, you could hear all of her history — unspecific but unmistakable — in her voice. No one can sing like Faithfull without deep scars. Not many can live as she has and survive. So she goes carefully now, learning how to hold tight and still let go. Listen to her latest Island album, Strange Weather, a critical favorite and a steady seller. That is evidence enough.

“It’s not like the music is one thing and I am another,” she says. “We’re both very much connected. I sing about my feelings and my truth.” She has written some fine songs in the past, including (uncredited until 1984) the Stones’ Sister Morphine, a jagged bit of Faithfull autobiography, and three cuts on her formidable 1979 album Broken English. But on Strange Weather she has put together a self-portrait from random sketches by such diverse artists as Jerome Kern and Bob Dylan. She makes the Otto Harbach/Jerome Kern Yesterdays into a devastating diary of faded hope and turns Dylan’s superb I’ll Keep It with Mine into a talisman of redemption.

Faithfull’s voice is eerie, raggedy, shattered. She sounds like Lotte Lenya serenading from a sidecar, but she is completely lacking in either melodrama or self-pity. Songs like Penthouse Serenade and Boulevard of Broken Dreams (“And gigolo and gigolette/ Wake up to find their eyes are wet/ With tears that tell of broken dreams”) are the sort of fey selections reliably included on subscription-only albums by chanteuses who play hotel lounges in off- season. Faithfull, however, endows them with real gutter sophistication — the Boulevard of Broken Dreams never sounded like a mean street before — and that is the essence of a pure rock-‘n’-roll heart.

Last Dec. 29, when she turned 40 and was feeling reasonably miserable about it, she sat down for a series of weekend listening sessions with Producer Hal Willner in Cambridge, Mass., at the “American dream house with a white picket fence,” where she lived alone. “We listened to about 400 songs,” Willner recalls. “She would wander around, listening all the time. Each weekend we would find ten songs we would want to record.” They also found a common thread in all the material. “There are a lot of songs about being alienated, about being a stranger,” Faithfull says, and she dipped back into her own past for one of the album’s most memorable cuts, a spare and unsparing remake of the Stones’ As Tears Go By. “I always had a resentment toward it,” she admits. “I always childishly thought that was where my problems started, with that damn song.” This new version captures the song’s melancholy, its strangeness. “I finally realized that it is a wonderful song,” she says, “and I am claiming it.”

Her mother once said Marianne took to London pop life as if she “had been shot out of a machine gun.” Tubercular as a child, she was sent to convent school by her parents after they divorced. She was in her teens when, in 1964, she dropped plans to attend Cambridge University and hit the pop scene. Six years later, she had left Mick Jagger and developed a heavy habit. “I was a registered heroin addict,” she says. “I lived on the streets for two years.” She went through periods when she managed to reclaim herself, others when she just gave up. Two marriages shattered. Sometimes she would make an album or try a tour. Sometimes she beat her habit, and sometimes it beat her. Finally, after a fall down stairs, stoned, in 1985, a broken jaw and a period of rehabilitation, she thinks she may really be mending. She has been clean, she reports, for 18 months.

The music belies her, but in conversation she makes the process sound easy. She is planning a new album of her own rock songs and spends congenial time with her son Nicholas, now 21 and studying at Cambridge. After three successful and warming concert appearances in New York City right after Thanksgiving, Faithfull is even thinking about a small tour. If asked, she will consider seeing the Stones again (“I would like to see them, perhaps just once, to acknowledge my past, give it a bow”), but speaks with real respect and affection about the caring attention of her friend Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell. Under his benign guidance, she felt “no pressure to do anything. I was given a little allowance, a house was found, and . . . live your life a day at a time. And I did that. And I started to get well.”

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