By Mark Guarino
On her excellent new album, “Kissin Time” (Virgin), Marianne Faithfull makes a confession: “Is it such a sin I never, ever tried too hard?/I had to know how far was going too far.”
It’s one of many admissions on an album that pins the legendary chanteuse with new generation rockers like Beck, Billy Corgan and Brit-poppers Pulp. Going too far and paying a hard price sums up Faithfull’s early years, starting in 1964 when she was plucked from obscurity to transform “As Tears Go By,” the first song Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever wrote, into a hit.
A pop career followed, and so did the swinging London scene of the late ’60, in which she reveled with rock luminaries in and out of bed. In her 1994 autobiography “Faithfull” (Copper Square Press), Faithfull recounts the free love, drugs and general abandonment her peers celebrated on the road to shaping society with their new, post-War sensibility.
When the lights grew dark, Faithfull paid a heftier price than most. A drug bust in Keith Richard’s home cemented the Stones’ image as notorious rock and roll outlaws, but Faithfull — found naked wrapped in a fur rug — was vilified as a contemptible harlot in the press. Entering the ‘70s, she was left shattered by the death of Rolling Stone Brian Jones, suffered a suicide attempt, ended up in a coma, ran away from boyfriend Jagger and battled a harsh drug addiction that left her periodically homeless.
A by-product of those years happened to be great art. Most people align Faithfull’s name with the classic Rolling Stones songs she inspired — “Wild Horses,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the one she co-wrote, “Sister Morphine.” Her own music — culminating in the 1979 comeback record, “Broken English” — was embraced by the burgeoning punk movement. Faithfull’s defiance became a touchstone for female rockers ever since, from Chrissie Hynde to P.J. Harvey to Courtney Love.
These days, Faithfull lives in Dublin and established herself as the best living interpreter of German composer Kurt Weill. “Kissin Time” furthers the legend — with its slinky techno beats and self-referential venom, it is playful and seductive.
What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation.
Q; Your show this month is the third of a few recent appearances by you here. You showed up with Billy at Metro for the Third Waltz and later made a cameo with his band Zwan at the Q101 Jamboree.
A: The only other time I’ve ever played to that many people until then was when I played The Wall with Roger Waters on the Berlin Wall (in 1990) and that was something like 200,000 people. And then this summer on our tour in Europe at the summer festivals, we did some really big places. They were outdoors, 70,000 people, but it was a fantastic experience. What was it called — the Tweeter Center?
Q: That’s it.
A: Yes, strange name. It kind of prepped me up for the experience. Anyway, it was lovely to play with Zwan.
Q: How did you and Billy meet?
A: It was on the farewell tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. And he called me in Dublin and said would I like to come to the show? And I said, “oh yeah.” I went down to see the Smashing Pumpkins and I thought it was really, really good. And I don’t go to a lot of live shows, I’m very, very fussy. But I must have known I’d like it and I really did like it. And then I went backstage and met Billy and (drummer) Jimmy (Chamberlin) afterwards and sort of fell in love.
Q: What was the difference between working with Billy and with Beck?
A: Billy particularly wants me to stop smoking and I am going to, and I think he’s got point now. I don’t think it’s going to change my voice. I think that’s what he’s hoping, but I don’t think it will. My voice is my voice. Beck liked the quirks in my voice, the strange things in my voice, whereas Billy wanted me to reach back and to find my little pop voice and I’m glad he did. I thought of knew I still had it, I mean why wouldn’t I? And obviously, it’s not as high as it was. But the essence was still there. But I think I needed someone to do that.
Q: Was that the idea of this album — to go back in time?
A: No, it wasn’t what we started out consciously doing, but it’s definitely what happened, yeah. I can see that now. I sort of saw it halfway through. It was really as if nothing had ever happened, that was our game. We didn’t really say it, but I could see that was the game. So you know — I never ran off with Mick Jagger, never made “Broken English,” I never got into drugs, I never did any of those things. I just stopped in 1965 and this is the record we made afterwards. But of course that’s impossible, and we all know that. But that’s the technical game.
Q: Also a mind game.
A: Yeah, sort of a mind game. Nothing wrong with a good mind game. If it’s a mind game that doesn’t hurt anybody. I can’t bear mind games that hurt people.
A: The song, “Sliding Through Life On Charm,” tells your life story with particular venom, yet the lyrics were written by Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.
A: I didn’t tell him what to do at all. Now I wouldn’t do that. I gave him the title and left it with him. And then afterwards, I did say, “how in earth did you do that?” And he did say he’d read the book. He didn’t know a lot of things; he also must have guessed, like I was sort of a rich girl playing around with rock and roll, which I also wasn’t. But those were his feelings, they happened to be mine as well.
Q: The song about Nico, the Velvet Underground muse, even sounds like it’s about you.
A: I know one shouldn’t really do this, but I have been reading my reviews. They arrived yesterday from Virgin. Of course some of (the songs) are autobiographical, I would never deny that, but some aren’t. “Song for Nico” really isn’t. “Song for Nico” is really is a song for Nico. And it’s interesting that the people who don’t like it are the people who think I’m the same. They think Nico and I are the same person. And it’s obviously not true. But they read it as if it’s about me. And it’s really not.
Q: You were both blonde, beautiful ingenues. Is it difficult to separate your very public history from the song you’re singing? Because so much of your personality seems to come through the song whether you’re trying to or not.
A: Yeah, but I do that unconsciously. It’s not something I have to try for. All that sort of mythology doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s just there. And also I’m not going to tell my audience what to think. They are free to think what they want. If that’s how they want to see it, that’s okay. I feel it’s fairly simple. I just like to work and that’s why I understood Nico. It was her frustration of being talented and having something to do and having such a hard time doing it.
Q: Something probably true of women in the ‘60s world of male rock gods.
A: Yeah. I don’t know, I can only speak for myself, but it was extremely frustrating. That was the main feeling. It was infuriating. It must have been for her, too.
Q: I was re-reading your book and —
A: How does it stand up?
Q: After every page, I couldn’t believe how brutally honest it was. It was refreshing to read something with zero self-pity.
A: Well I’m glad I wrote it when it did. I couldn’t do it now.
Q: Why not?
A: I don’t know, it’s too much of a celebrity culture. When I did it, it really wasn’t that bad. I could sit down and write it — with David (Dalton) of course. We did it very clearly, we were aware of the legend. It was hard to stick on track and tell my story and not have it be what other people wanted me to be. But that’s sort of my job anyway. To not be affected by all that. This is not a morality tale. Only really now are people realizing how really good it is. At the time they couldn’t understand it at all. Because it’s not a black and white book. There’s no villains, no heroes. It’s all in nuances and shades of gray.
Q: Also like life.
A: Well mine has been! (laughs)
Q: Early in the book you wrote that you knew as a child that “men in some form or other would be my means of escape.” What did you mean by that?
A: Well, just that they held all the cards. At the time. And I wanted to get out of Reading. So when (Stones manager) Andrew (Oldham) offered me a record contract, I took it right away.
Q: You knew that this is how things were set up.
A: Well of course I did. And I can see now that there were other possibilities. That I could have gone to university and to drama school, where presumably but not necessarily it wouldn’t have mattered. What I’m saying is that maybe I would have done that all on my talents, but maybe not.
Q: You were 17, a child star, set out on endless tours and hanging out with rock stars. When did you understand you were living in a bubble?
A: I didn’t understand it at all. I knew I loved singing and I knew what I found really interesting was being in the beginning of things. I was definitely aware, working with Andrew, meeting Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche, Brian Wilson, that we were making it up, doing a lot of things that were happening for the first time. I remember when I went to see the Andy Warhol retrospective in the ‘60s that I realized what I was doing.
Q: Which was what?
A: Well I realized, “ah, this is what I’m doing, it’s pop art.” It gave me a reference that I could understand.
Q: I imagine that it gave you and everyone around you a particular sense of empowerment the rest of society didn’t have.
A: We were part of this movement. Which is why I liked Nico so much. We definitely were in the absolute epicenter of social change and didn’t know it. But I can see it now. It wasn’t just me of course and it wasn’t just the West, it was China, everywhere. It was something that really did happen. For a long time I wasn’t sure whether it happened or had been something the press made up. But actually when I realized it did happen was when I read “Wild Swans,” it’s a book about China (by Jung Chang). Three generations of Chinese (women) in the ‘60s from the long march on. It was then that I knew there was a wind blowing and it blew all around the world.
Q: You bumped into fame at 17 but now, with shows like “American Idol,” fame is something kids scheme for.
A: Now it means nothing. When (you’re 17), you’re all grown up. But for me, I really was a little girl. I had absolutely no experience of the world whatsoever except what I read in books or seen in paintings. For me, I always liked seeing the world like that, it’s grand.
Q: And literature too. In your book, even when you were strung out on drugs, you were always reading and sharing books with everyone, especially your fellow junkies.
A: Always. That’s one of the things I talk to friends about now. When you do get clean, you have to re-read what you read when you were high. That’s not such a bad thing.
Q: The Stones were forgiven for their hedonism, but you were demonized. Did the image English society carve of you make you bitter?
A: I had to make my mind up. (laughs) Was I going to spend my life angry, bitter or upset about it or was I going to get over it and cope? It did take a long time but I have gotten over it. It makes me laugh.
Q: In hindsight, your 1967 trial looks so farcical now. That the government would actually set up and publicly punish a bunch of young rock stars because they were considered dangerous.
A: In England, … this is quite serious stuff. Well okay, we broke the law a bit, but so what? That’s the attitude here, I know that. That’s not the way it is England and Europe. It’s just unbelievable now. It’s interesting you say that. Because that’s what I hang onto when I come to America. That there really are people who understand me and don’t see it in this moralistic good or bad way. It was stunning, I know. What I didn’t realize until we had done the book, was how fast it happened. I think Mick and I were together for maybe six months and then that happened. So there was obviously something very potent about that relationship for the public. There was something about that relationship that got up their noses. I must say, it did take me awhile to get over it. Because I was very young. I was 19. I believed it. I took it all personally! I really did!
Q: It’s interesting it took until your late forties and early fifties for you to hit your artistic peak.
A: Yeah, well, I had to get my whole physical, mental and spiritual being under control. I had that incredible sort of hard punch very early on and it really took me off track to get over that.
Q: This new record was recorded with a younger generation and it’s obvious you’re not a tourist — you know their music and connect with it, something not many of your generation are willing to do.
A: Why not? Those are the people I like to be with. And I know all these guys. What do they think I do? I still think they think I lie in a gutter and shoot up. Which obviously I haven’t done for 22 years. They can’t take it. They still can’t take change.
Q: Your show in Chicago is the same night your old friends the Stones play Comiskey Park, of course setting up the expectation that you might show up at each other’s shows.
A: I don’t think so, no. My focus is my work. I love the Stones and I’ve seen a lot of Stones shows, but I will be focused on my show and my work and my audience. It doesn’t cross-pollinate now.
Q: Aside from your remarkable story, I think your legacy will be your voice. Unlike most female voices today, it sounds like it came from somewhere and has a history to it that’s unmistakable.
A: Well I hope so. I mean God knows I wish my voice was technically better, I would be the first to say that. But I’ve always liked people with funny voices. With men, that doesn’t matter. They’re expected as people with funny voices. But there’s something with women that you’re supposed to sound feminine and pretty and blah, blah, blah and I say shite to that.