Whether you know a bit about her, or simply recognize her name, Marianne Faithfull has a lifetime of stories to tell. After all, she lived as much of a rock ‘n’ roll life as her musician friends and famous boyfriend. But Faithfull was more than just a muse or groupie – she made a name for herself on her own terms. She was, and still is, a singer.
Faithfull’s first single came out in 1964; As Tears Go By was a song written by then 20-year-old Mick Jagger and his buddy, Keith Richards. She was 17 at the time, British like her famous counterparts, and very much a part of the Swinging Sixties. The now 74-year-old was, at one point, the “It Girl.” Now, after a recent near-death experience, the famous muse has lots to reminisce about and resent.
Marianne Faithfull would go to the same parties that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were invited to. In fact, at one of those parties, the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham went up to Faithfull and said, “I’m gonna make you a star, and that’s just for starters, baby!” In the following decades, Faithfull lived multiple lives.
She’s taken herself on enviable, inspiring, and even downright destructive rides throughout her life. She went from being a pop music beginner in ’64 to headlining in ’65 to experiencing an awful one-night stand with Richards in ’66. As Mick Jagger’s muse and partner for several years, she was also known for rejecting Bob Dylan, being best friends with Anita Pallenberg, and dabbling in black magic.
Faithfull’s life mimicked the course of rock ‘n’ roll itself. After the haze of the ‘60s, she lost it all and found herself on the street, a junky craving her next dose. By 1979, she was back with a bang. Broken English was her musical depiction of how she turned her period on the dark side into music.
So, what happened to her? How did she go from partying with the Stones to sleeping on the streets to back on track? The “rise and fall” of Faithfull’s life is not an obvious path (as cliché as it may sound in the music industry). Faithfull has been through A LOT. Take the summer of 1969. for instance…
That summer, she overdosed on sleeping pills in a Sydney hotel room she was sharing with her boyfriend, Mick Jagger. As she slipped under, she found herself having a long conversation with her boyfriend’s recently deceased bandmate Brian Jones, who had drowned in a swimming pool just a week prior.
After their talk, Jones called her over to a cliff, beckoning her to join him in jumping off it – into the beyond. She declined and eventually woke up from the six-day coma.
And those were her early days, before she became addicted to the much harder stuff…
By the time the ‘70s rolled around, it was heroin that she was after. “At that point, I entered one of the outer levels of hell,” she wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull. It took her over a decade to finally get clean. Her sober life wasn’t any easier, though, as she battled breast cancer, hepatitis C and an infection from a broken hip.
Oh, and not to mention falling victim to Covid. After all this woman has been through, you would think this virus was a walk in the park. Nope, she said the lingering long-term effects have been the hardest battle she’s ever had to fight.
Right before she contracted the virus, Faithfull was working on an album that she had been dreaming about making for over 50 years. She Walks in Beauty is a spoken-word tribute to the poets she was first inspired by when she was a teenager.
In the mid-‘60s, her blossoming pop career pulled her out of Mrs. Simpson’s English class to the venues, clubs and beds of musicians. The one thread that continued through her life was poetry. Poetry stayed with her through the thick and the thin. That’s why her new album is a long time in coming. But then she got ill.
After falling into another coma, her manager sent the new recordings to Faithfull’s friend and collaborator Warren Ellis to see if he would make the music to accompany the poems. Neither of them thought Faithfull would live to hear the finished product.
Ellis was told, “It’s not looking good… This might be it.” Thankfully, she pulled through. “They thought I was going to croak!” Faithfull amusingly said in an interview with The New York Times. No, she didn’t croak, and we’re glad because she had more to say about her eventful life…
Faithfull was born in 1946 in London. Her father, Glynn Faithfull, was a British spy in World War II (and reportedly the son of a sexologist who invented “the Frigidity Machine” – whatever that is). Faithfull’s mother was the Austrian Baroness Eva von Sacher-Masoch (the great-niece of the man who wrote the novella Venus in Furs).
It also means Faithfull is a descendent of the man whose name spawned the word “sado-masochism.” This cocktail of British-Austrian history and eccentricity came together to create Marianne Evelyn Gabriel Faithfull – an only child, born a year after the end of the war, making her one of the first baby boomers.
Her parents divorced when she was six years old, and at seven, she was sent to boarding school at a Catholic convent. Glynn begged his ex-wife not to send their daughter there. Faithfull wrote in her memoir that she remembers hearing her father plead with her mother.
“This will give her a problem with sex for the rest of her life.” When the young girl went to visit her father, who was living and teaching in a commune, she saw what life was like at the other end of the spectrum. During her convent days, she busied herself with the school’s theatre group.
When she turned 18, she married artist John Dunbar and gave birth to her only childshortly after, Nicholas. Her plan was to go to Oxford, study English literature, philosophy, and religion. It didn’t happen, though.
Instead, she went to a party and got discovered “by bloody old Andrew Loog Oldham.” The Rolling Stones’ first manager had never heard Faithfull even sing a note. He just looked at her for a little bit too long and made a decision. He decided this striking young blonde in front of him was destined to be a pop star – she just didn’t know it yet.
It was Oldham who got his guys, Jagger and Richards, to write a song for Faithfull, the sad ballad As Tears Go By. In her words, the song was “a commercial fantasy” that pushed “all the right buttons.” In other words, she didn’t really understand the gravity of this accidental pop career of hers.
She didn’t take it all that seriously, not at first, at least. Even on her debut tour, the book worm always seemed to have her nose buried in a book. She was “pouring over [her] reading list for English literature as if [she was] going back to school.”
But school wasn’t where she was heading. In swinging London, Faithfull was a young, pretty blonde girl suddenly caught in a cultural whirlwind. She was in the right place at the right time, meeting all the right people.
She left her husband and son behind and immersed herself into the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It didn’t take long for her to become “one of the boys,” and she acted without apology. She wrote about dropping acid with Keith Richards and looking for the Holy Grail.
Faithfull’s first gigs were as a folk music singer in coffeehouses, as she made her way into London’s exploding social scene. She married John Dunbar in May 1965, gave birth to their son Nicholas that fall, and then left her husband soon after to live with Jagger. In 1966, she took Nicholas to stay with Brian Jones and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.
It was then that Faithfull started smoking and became best friends with Pallenberg. Faithfull can be heard on The Beatles’ song Yellow Submarine. You may envy her ‘60s life, but there were some dark moments, too. By 1968, Faithfull was addicted to cocaine and miscarried (a daughter she had named Corrina) while in Jagger’s country house in Ireland.
Faithfull has a connection to some major Stones songs, like their classic hit Sympathy for the Devil from their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. The track was inspired by The Master and Margarita, a book written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which Faithfull introduced to Jagger.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from their 1969 album Let It Bleed, was supposedly written about Faithfull, as were Wild Horses and I Got the Blues. In 1968, she appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus concert and gave a solo performance of Something Better.”
Bob Dylan tried to seduce her once. Dylan serenaded Faithfull – at least he tried to – by playing her his latest album, Bringing It All Back Home. But playing his music wasn’t enough – he also felt the need to explain, in detail, what each track meant. It didn’t work.
“I just found him so… daunting,” she wrote in her memoir. “As if some god had come down from Olympus and started to come onto me.” Dylan didn’t win her over, but you know who did? Mick Jagger. For a few glorious years, they were the “It Couple.”
They may have been envied by all, but this young couple had tensions from the beginning. Faithfull wasn’t sure if she was really cut out for the domestic muse kind of role. Even if it was taking place in the bohemian inner circles, she didn’t want to be cast into a role that she was expected to play.
For a while, Faithfull got tired of motels and theatres and gave up touring for a “simpler” life within the Stones’ inner circle. The young couple was in love, and all was golden until early 1967 when an incident occurred that would eventually be considered a turning point in her life.
After being tipped off by a self-righteous British tabloid in February 1967, the cops raided Keith Richards’s home in Sussex while he was hosting a small party. Obviously, they found drugs, albeit a modest amount. Faithfull had just taken a shower when the cops arrived, and she didn’t have any clean clothes to put on.
So, she thought of the next best thing: She flung a rug over herself. Anyway, Jagger and Richards’s subsequent drug trial is what cemented the Stones’ reputation as rock ‘n’ roll outlaws. And today, people see it as a twist in mainstream acceptance of counter-cultural behavior. Unluckily for Faithfull, she bore the brunt of the backlash.
One headline blasted the words (in all caps): “Naked Girl at Stones Party.” Just like that – she was slandered as “the wanton woman in the fur rug,” she wrote. Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards were the noble rock stars on trial. Talk about a double standard. But that raid and its aftermath wasn’t the only rage-inducing double standard Faithfull would have to endure in her life.
Over a recent Christmas dinner, Faithfull gave her friend Warren Ellis’s teenage kids a long talk about why they should stay away from drugs, citing the drug bust as an example. “My kids had no idea what she was talking about,” Ellis said. “But when I drove her home, my son just looked at me and goes, ‘[Expletive], she’s awesome.’”
The drug bust opened Faithfull’s eyes to what the public thought of her. She was never arrested for it but became a figure in the tabloids. Since she wasn’t named, she became this mystery girl — the “Miss X” — who was somehow at the center of it all. It was her “moment of truth” when she realized that she was in a situation she “couldn’t stand.”
She explained that while it had been fun for a long time, she made a mistake “we all make” – believing nothing could touch us, “completely forgetting about working-class and middle-class envy, how people would feel. It didn’t even occur to me in my arrogance.”
Jagger and Richards spent one night in jail before public sentiment bailed them out. Even though she was supposed to be ashamed and was expected to hide, Faithfull showed up in court not only to support Mick and Keith but also to show her defiance.
“I got terrible hate letters,” Faithfull told The New York Times. “The most awful articles in the newspapers. I was only 20. I believed everything, took it all to heart. I got very depressed.” And, of course, Jagger and Richards went on to be bigger, better things.
As a woman in the ‘60s, it was against the rules. “We scuttered on for quite a time after that, trying to pretend it was okay and we could still have fun,” she explained. But she started to feel bad about herself.
Soon, she started to experience the “usual sort of problems every woman gets with Mick Jagger.” She wanted nothing to do with it anymore – “all the different women and all that stuff.” Whereas the drug bust was a turning point for her, what happened in the summer of ’69 was the beginning of the end.
A break occurred in the summer of 1969 after Brian Jones was kicked out of the Rolling Stones. He was suffering from paranoia (among other things) and drowned in a swimming pool. Whether or not it was accidental is still up for debate.
Suddenly, all these rock stars were dying – Brian, Jimi, Janis, Jim – all 27 years old, no less. After Jones’s death, Faithfull and Jagger flew to Australia to appear in the movie Ned Kelly (about an outlaw bank robber). Faithfull popped some sleeping pills before the flight and took some more when they arrived at the hotel.
She eventually woke up, jet-lagged and drowsy, and walked over to the bathroom. When she looked in the mirror, she was Brian Jones’s face looking back. The way she described it, he was beckoning her to join him behind the glass. She then took a fistful of pills and lay down beside her sleeping rock star boyfriend.
“It was an awful thing to do to Mick, to Tony Richardson, to my mother, to my little, tiny son who was in England, to myself,” she later recalled of that event. She remembers having these feelings of “I’ll show them! They’ll realize when I’m dead they shouldn’t have done that!”
She realized later, after a good therapy session, that it was a ridiculous thought. And no, she didn’t actually want to die. What she thought was a long and incredible dream, in which she and Jones went on an adventure, was actually a coma.
She woke up in a hospital bed with Jagger and her mother at her side. “I had taken 150 Tuinals and was unconscious for six days.” This near suicide was a mental break for Faithfull. She went from mind-expanding hallucinogens to opiates – from a search for experience to a search for numbness and escape.
It came to the point where Faithfull became too self-destructive. In her memoir, she wrote about a conversation she overheard between Jagger and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. “There’s only one thing to do,” he told Jagger.
“I’ve seen a lot of heartbreak with junkies. Believe me, old friend, it wrecks the lives of everybody around them, as well. It’s a bottomless pit, and she’ll drag you into it unless you let her go.” It was a hard pill to swallow. She was no longer only destroying her life; she was making a negative impact on others as well.
Jagger and Faithfull parted ways, and not long after, as she was riding in a London taxi, she heard of Jagger’s engagement to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias. It was enough for her to stop the taxi, get out, get drunk, get arrested, and spend the night in jail.
From there, it was only downhill. She was on a relatively quick slope to the streets. She lost touch with her friends and family. The most painful effect was losing custody of her son. It was ironic if nothing else. She was now living on the same streets that she had once commanded like a rock princess.
Faithfull lost custody of her son and her relationship with Jagger in the same year. Everything got worse from there. During the ‘70s, she made only a few public appearances, including a 1973 performance with David Bowie, singing Sonny & Cher’s I Got You, Babe.
Faithfull lived on the streets of London for two years, suffering from addiction and anorexia. Her friends tried to get her help, enrolling her in rehab, but it only led to another addiction, this time to prescribed pills. In 1971, producer Mike Leander found Faithfull on the streets and tried to revive her career. Together, they made part of her album Rich Kid Blues, but it was shelved until 1985.
During this period, Faithfull’s voice changed forever due to a severe case of laryngitis in combination with her persistent drug abuse. Her voice became cracked and lower in pitch. Some praised her new voice as “whisky soaked,” while others, like journalist John Jones of The Sunday Times, wrote that she “permanently vulgarized her voice.”
In 1975, Faithfull moved into a shabby apartment without hot water or electricity with then-boyfriend Ben Brierly (of the punk band the Vibrators). Believe it or not, she doesn’t regret those dark days. “For me, being a junkie was an admirable life,” she wrote.
“It was total anonymity, something I hadn’t known since I was 17. As a street addict in London, I finally found it. I had no telephone, no address. Nobody knew me from Adam.” Also surprising was the fact that she survived.
She made a comeback in 1979 with Broken English, a critically acclaimed album, sure, but it didn’t bring her back to commercial success in the way she might have hoped. The album revealed the full extent of her drinking and drug use and how it evidently affected her singing voice. 1979 was also the year Faithfull married Brierly.
When she looked back on her career, Faithfull said she “really annoyed people… somehow,” explaining that she wasn’t a conventional artist, “ever,” and it basically annoyed people. “They couldn’t handle it; they just didn’t want it to be true.”
The fact that she was accidentally thrown into the limelight begs the question: Would she have been a singer if she hadn’t been noticed by the Stones’ manager? Oldham, who dismissed her as “an angel with big t**s,” had what she refers to now as a “terrible idea.” It took her a long time to get over the resentment she felt towards Oldham.
She was not only angry with Oldham, but also with his business partner Tony Calder and even Jagger and Richards. “I loved Mick and Keith, and Charlie, and Ronnie actually,” she explained, “but it took me years before I accepted it, that this was me, that I was meant to do this, it was my destiny, my fate.”
Her resentment wasn’t unfounded. She revealed that she was treated “as somebody who not only can’t even sing but doesn’t really write or anything, just something you can make into something.” She felt like a “cheesecake,” which was “terribly depressing.”
The way she sees it, Oldham saw her as a means of living out his fantasies of being the British Phil Spector. Faithfull would be an arsenal for all the extra material Jagger and Richards would write, and she would be a light pop entertainer – the pretty, posh girl who sings folk songs for a Saturday night audience.
Then, her singing came to a crashing halt, and she was only known for being Jagger’s girlfriend or his muse. “A muse? That’s a sh*t thing to be,” she said. “It’s a terrible job. You don’t get any male muses, do you? Can you think of one? No.”
Although her 1964 single was a big hit, her record label Decca Records withdrew her 1969 track, Something Better. The label was horrified by its B-side, Sister Morphine, a song of deep addiction that was simply too dark.
The Rolling Stones recorded it, but they removed Faithfull’s name from the writing credits. Apparently, it was because they knew any money she would make from the single would be spent on drugs. However, come the 1990s, they reinstated her name in the credits. By the time she made her comeback in 1979, her music was different.
Despite her comeback in ‘79, she was still battling her addictions during the ‘80s. At one point, while under the influence, she broke her jaw tripping on a flight of stairs. There was even an incident when her heart stopped.
There was a dreadful appearance she made on Saturday Night Live, which was blamed on too many rehearsals, but it was more likely because drugs caused her vocal cords to seize up. In 1985, she went to rehab in Belmont, Massachusetts. While living at a nearby hotel in Cambridge, Faithfull started seeing some (while still married to Brierly).
She started a relationship with a man named Howard Tose (who was dual diagnosis – both mentally ill and drug dependent. Tose later committed suicide by jumping from the 14th floor window of the room they shared.
In 1987, Faithfull dedicated a tribute to Tose in the album packaging of Strange Weather: “To Howard Tose with love and thanks.” That year, she divorced Brierly. In 1995, she wrote and sang a song called Flaming September, from the album A Secret Life, which was about Tose’s death.
By 1988, Faithfull married again, this time to a writer and actor named Giorgio Della Terza. However, in 1991, they divorced in 1991. Since then, she hasn’t remarried. Faithful’s musical career rebounded for a third time in the early ‘90s with the live album Blazing Away.
It was full of songs she performed over the course of her career, including the previously unbearable Sister Morphine and Why D’Ya Do It?, along with a cover of Edith Piaf’s Les Prisons du Roy. Faithfull was called “one of the most challenging and artful of women artists” by Rolling Stone.
Faithfull sprung back to life. Her songs were about addiction, terrorism and infidelity. The last song of the album, Why D’Ya Do It, was such an explicit song about an affair that execs at EMI walked out, refusing to press the album.
Faithfull didn’t want to be the ghost of ‘60s nostalgia. She wanted to be back in the industry, and this time with a clear mind. “I made a decision to really, completely give my heart to the whole thing, and that’s what happened.” She explained that while she never went to Oxford, she did go to Olympic Studios. She saw the Rolling Stones and the Beatles record – and she learned a thing or two.
It’s the reason why she is not full of resentment anymore. She learned to be grateful, too. Faithfull was now in the second act of her career. She managed to attract some noteworthy collaborators, including Pulp, Blur and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Beck, PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Lou Reed, Cat Power and Anohni.
She now has a new sound and a new voice. Her music is powerful because it depicts a life beyond music. Yoko Ono once said, “Marianne has lived so many lives already and has many more to live. She always keeps her chin up. As time goes by, she just gets better and better.”
If Faithfull regrets anything, it’s having abandoned her son and losing custody of him. Recently, she decided to make a move back to London (from Paris) – a decision driven by the desire and need to be around family, particularly her son and grandson.
“I deserted him for all that time,” she confessed. “I was terribly unhappy about him being taken away from me, but it’s time to forgive and get over it and be here for him and my lovely grandchildren.” Now in her mid-70s and after surviving a near-death experience, she knows it’s never too late.
In early April of 2020, Faithfull was admitted to a hospital in London for treatment of pneumonia after testing positive for Covid. A few weeks later, she was discharged after having fully recovered from the virus.
But, as was mentioned earlier, it wasn’t clear that she would make it. Faithfull publicly thanked the hospital staff who “without a doubt” saved her life. Ever since she’s been working on her breathing and undertaking singing practice as part of her recovery.
Here’s to you, Marianne Faithfull!