After a harrowing decade of personal and medical travails, Marianne Faithfull staged a remarkable musical comeback with the 1979 release of Broken English. Still battling her demons, Faithfull got fully sober in the mid-1980s and staged a grand personal comeback with a concert at St. Ann’s church in Brooklyn (later released as the live album Blazing Away). Cree McCree met, and talked at length, with Faithfull around this time. McCree recently revisited the recordings of those conversations, presented here in their entirety for the first time.
By Cree McCree
Marianne Faithfull saved my ass. It wasn’t the first time, and probably won’t be the last.
During a recent hurricane scare in New Orleans, where TS Barry was threatening to strike with the Mississippi River at historic highs, I was cocooned in a 1989 time capsule with Marianne, transcribing an interview I did for Details right after her glorious comeback performance at St. Ann’s church in Brooklyn, released in 1990 as the live Island album and concert film Blazing Away.
So while the rest of the town was angsting out with Katrina PTSD jitters, I had Marianne’s smoky voice and easy laughter in my ears. It flashed me right back to Noho Star in New York City, where we chatted over two Caesar salads and numerous cigarettes before heading to the SoHo boutique Morgane Le Fay to find “something rather elegant” for her encore St. Ann’s performance in Seven Deadly Sins.
Three-and-a-half-years sober when we met, Marianne was taking her first baby steps back into the public spotlight after a two-year hiatus in Ireland following her storied 1987 Strange Weather comeback shows at New York’s Bottom Line. She’d only just started doing press, and since this was her first major interview, I was a little trepidatious. But she put me at ease immediately with her radiant warmth, animating her words with expansive gestures and an almost childlike exuberance. And when I finally dared to broach the subject, she didn’t shy away from addressing the elephants in the room: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the despoiled innocence of the Stones years.
At that point in time, she was adamant about cutting off all ties:
“I’ve been quite ruthless in putting a great deal of distance between myself and the Rolling Stones. I don’t dream about them. I don’t think about them. I don’t want to have anything to do with them again. In this life and in all others.”
She also allowed, almost in passing, that “that might change with time.” And so it has.
In 2004, Keith Richards co-produced “Ghost Dance,” with Charlie Watts and Ronnie Woods backing her up, for A Collection of Her Best Recordings, released to coincide with Faithfull, the autobiography she told me in ‘89 that she would never write.
Richards later dueted with her on the Merle Haggard classic “Sing Me Back Home” on Easy Come Easy Go (2008) and remains a close friend. And while she and Mick haven’t collaborated since they co-wrote Sister Morphine, “I’m very fond of Mick,” she told Interview writer Evelyn McDonnell in 2009. “I really am. And he taught me so much. It was Mick who first played me ‘Ooh Baby Baby.’”
Still, the Stones really are ancient history for Faithfull. Since her 1979 breakthrough album Broken English, which spit in the face of her lovechild past with the punk-rock rage of a street-junkie survivor, she’s forged a formidable career.
After a few hit-or-miss albums and rehab stints, a newly-sober Faithfull re-emerged in 1987 as the ravaged chanteuse wandering “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on Strange Weather, creating the world-weary stage persona she fully concedes is an act. (“And it’s a good one.”) Long a nuanced interpreter of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, she later turned her live cabaret show “An Evening in the Weimar Republic” into 20th Century Blues (1997), another landmark album of signature covers that channels “this dreary twentieth century din” on the Faithfull-penned title track.
Unlike most ‘60s relics cranking out hits on the nostalgia-tour circuit, Faithfull continues to reinvent herself and seeks out collaborators, many of them younger. Kissin’ Time (2002) found her “Sliding Through Life On Charm” with Beck, Blur, Billy Corgan and Jarvis Cocker, while Before the Poison (2005) cemented her longstanding relationship with kindred spirits Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey. And Easy Come Easy Go (2008) capped a years-long partnership with producer Hal Wilner that dates back to Strange Weather.
Negative Capability, her 21st studio album –– and arguably her strongest release since Broken English –– was recorded at La Frette studio in Paris, where she now lives. Produced by Rob Ellis and the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, it includes “The Gypsy Faerie Queen,” a haunting duet co-written with Nick Cave, who captures the intimate spirit of their Paris sessions in this video interview.
Drawing on the Keatsian power of “negative capability,” which enables great artists to stay true to their vision amid chaos and confusion, Faithfull poses proudly with the cane she uses to battle arthritis on the album’s cover. And after decades of bushwacking her way through darkness into light, she’s intimately acquainted with the key lesson of “No Moon In Paris”:
“Everything passes/Everything changes/There’s no way to stay the same.”
Faithfull comes full circle on her latest album, revisiting “As Tears Go By” from a septuagenarian’s perspective half a century after she first recorded it, and bringing a honeyed warmth to Witches Song, pitched an octave lower than on Broken English. She’s also acutely attuned to the moment. “They Who Come at Night” rages at the random terror that haunts modern life and hit Bataclan in Paris just blocks from her home, while “In My Own Particular Way” is a paean to warts-and-all grownup love.
Forty years after I stabbed the heavens with a power drill while dancing to her version of “Working Class Hero” on Broken English, Marianne Faithfull continues to be a personal lodestar. And though I never got to take her lyric-writing class at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, I’ve always considered her a teacher. At the end of our 1989 interview, she left me with this pearl of wisdom:
“Being able to receive has always been hard for me, because it’s a far humbler position to be receiving than to be giving. It’s very important to master that.”
In that spirit, I give this moment in time we shared for you to receive, Marianne.
The following interview, edited for clarity and length, was conducted in late 1989 for an article for Details magazine, which appeared in the March 1990 issue
PKM: Was the St. Ann’s show your first time performing in a church?
Marianne Faithfull: Yes. I was concerned from the beginning … I’m not actively religious, in the sense of being a practicing Catholic or anything like that. But I didn’t want it to be sacrilegious, I wanted to do it with respect. So I was astounded that some people were offended by the church. It was the last thing that I expected.
PKM: That’s really interesting, because the last performance I saw before your show was the Mississippi Delta Blues Project, which was also in a church. And some of the old blues guys were a little taken aback, because down South, a lot of people still believe that the blues is the devil’s music. Booby Barnes was like, ‘oh my god, am I going to get struck down by lightning?’ But they all got into it, and people actually ended up dancing in the aisles.
Marianne Faithfull: That’s exactly what a church is! What you’re describing is exactly what worship should be: praise and celebration and communion with what people call god. Being human. And the Episcopalian priest [at St. Ann’s] was delighted. He thought the show was wonderful. So I was shocked that anyone would take offense, because I was really concerned that we did not abuse the privilege of working in a church. I did not want a big fuss to be made about “Why’d You Do It” in a church. I knew that “Sister Morphine” was a dream.
PKM: It was. It sends chills up your spine when the scrim comes down, and that stained glass window becomes illuminated for “Sister Morphine.”
Marianne Faithfull: “Sister Morphine” is probably the most transcendent song I do. In terms of facing my personal reality and going through it –– not past it or over it, but just through it. “Sister Morphine” is always with me. But I’m not high. And that’s a very powerful thing.
Marianne Faithfull talking about and performing “Sister Morphine” in 1989:
PKM: I also feel, whether it’s in a church or not –– because I saw you at the Bottom Line a couple years ago, which was also extraordinary –– that it’s a real act of faith for you to perform in the first place.
Marianne Faithfull: It’s a clear sign of my commitment to people. It’s a thing I picked up from Allen [Ginsberg]. It’s environmental generosity for me. I believe it is my form of service.
PKM: There’s also a literal unveiling that happens; you remove the gloves, and later the cloak. I feel like you need that, too, that peeling off of the layers, and that it’s not just there for dramatic effect.
Marianne Faithfull: Absolutely. That’s why that mantle is so ideal for me, because it gives me time and people will wait for the transformation to happen. It doesn’t happen when I walk on. The first at least four songs might be technically proficient. But whatever it is that happens to me isn’t there yet. And then at some point, I feel it too, it comes. And then something else happens. And god knows what it is.
PKM: It’s giving me chills just hearing you describe it.
Marianne Faithfull: I don’t let myself worry about it or analyze it. The best thing I can do is not get in the way. Just step aside and let it do whatever it is. My job is to take care of myself: get enough sleep, and not smoke too much, and eat right. And when I do that, it happens. It’s amazing how smooth it is.
PKM: You’re so animated in your gestures when you talk. And when you’re on stage, you’re so contained. One of the notes I wrote was “contained rage.” Some of your songs have a lot of anger in them, and yet you’re so cool about it, you let the musicians express of lot of that rage. It’s a very powerful dynamic.
Marianne Faithfull: It’s true. They all become one thing.
PKM: Well, you have a really long-standing relationship with most of your musicians.
Marianne Faithfull: I do. And I always will. But I’m obviously interested and open to doing different things. You can never tie yourself down to one thing. That’s always been my problem with popular taste in pop music or whatever you want to call it. They want you to find a formula and stick to it. And I’m not prepared to do that, ever. Not even now.
PKM: How would you describe your formula if you were to stick to it?
Marianne Faithfull: Well, I’m not fixed! [laughs] But I guess, oh very cool, wise, la de dah.
PKM: And you don’t want to be trapped by that? Having to smoke cigarettes for the next 25 years of your life?
Marianne Faithfull: No, no. What if I want to stop smoking? As you can see, when you talk to me, I’m not very world-weary at all. That’s the thing. It’s definitely an act. And it’s a good one. I like it. There’s a part of me that’s extremely cynical and really does have that attitude.
PKM: What would you like to do next as an artist?
Marianne Faithfull: I don’t know. There are so many possibilities. All the people I work with, they all have different ideas. And at the moment, I’m sort of taking all these ideas and figuring out which I want to do.
PKM: What about anything more theatrical? I know you were on the stage at one point.
Marianne Faithfull: I would like that very much. Because, in a way, being Marianne Faithfull is almost not enough. It doesn’t use all my faculties, I know that. I’m still firing on four cylinders where I could be firing on eight, and I’m aware of that.
PKM: Do you want to do more film work?
Marianne Faithfull: If I got something I really thought I could do, I think I might. But you must know well how exploited and awful the business is. Rock & roll is sleazy, but film is even worse.
PKM: Really? I always thought rock & roll was the ultimate sleazy.
Marianne Faithfull: That’s true. you’re right. OK, rock & roll is the lowest level of human life there is. And then you have the fashion business. And then maybe film.
Sleaze is something you have to come to terms with. It’s not that I can go around pointing at other people, saying you’re sleazy and you’re sleazy and you’re sleazy but I’m not. If I work with sleaze and surround myself with sleaze, I am sleaze. And I have done that. But I really do try to put a distance between myself and the major sleaze.
That’s always been my problem with popular taste in pop music or whatever you want to call it. They want you to find a formula and stick to it. And I’m not prepared to do that, ever. Not even now.
PKM: Do you think that’s what you got caught up in the early days? I do want to ask you a little about the Stones, because I just saw their latest tour and they’re very much on my mind. Did you see it?
Marianne Faithfull: No. The Stones, when I knew them anyway, were not sleaze. They may have become sleaze. I mean, there were elements of that. But they weren’t really that sleazy. It’s hard, because I’ve just seen that wonderful Michael Cooper book [of photos from the early ‘60s]. It wasn’t really as beautiful as that, but he captured some wonderful moments, I remember them, and it’s made me a little softer toward [that time].
But I really have been quite ruthless about putting a great deal of distance between myself and the Rolling Stones. And I know I’m right, for me.
PKM: I wasn’t sure if you even wanted to talk about it.
Marianne Faithfull: Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to get into any kind of sliming.
PKM: Oh no, that’s not what I mean. I’ve sort of liked watching the evolution.
Marianne Faithfull: What did you think of the [Stones] show?
PKM: I thought it was incredible, it renewed my faith. I’d lost faith in Mick many years ago when he went off on that tangent. And there was Keith, stronger than ever, and goddammit they’re still the greatest rock & roll band in the world.
Marianne Faithfull: I’m sure. And I’m sure they will always be.
Rock & roll is sleazy, but film is even worse.
PKM: And in a very different way, you renewed my faith in myself. Seeing your show was a very transcendent experience. Do you feel like things are coming a little closer again, and that you don’t have to put so much distance?
Marianne Faithfull: The only area I’ve always felt really comfortable with the Stones is the Stones as artists. I really admire them as writers and I always have. That’s the way I can handle it. I’m just still too diminished by it. And that’s not the Stones’ fault. That’s my fault.
I was just furious with myself that I let it just get so important. My work is so important to me. And yet I continued to put it back and didn’t really follow it through. I can’t blame the Stones for that. But it makes me furious, and I feel like it was a very seductive detour in my life. That I frankly didn’t need.
But at the same time, I obviously wanted it to happen.
PKM: I saw the Stones concert with a close girlfriend, and when those two honky tonk women got blown up, who were so much larger than them, we saw it as a sort of homage to the goddess. It was like the old macho days had been transmuted into something much more powerful.
Marianne Faithfull: That’s great! It’s also so inaccurate to talk about “The Stones.”
PKM: You’re right. They’re completely different entities. Do you feel a kind of kindred spirit thing with Keith?
Marianne Faithfull: I always have, yeah.
PKM: It always seemed strange to me that it was Mick that you ended up spending more time with.
Marianne Faithfull: No, I don’t think so. I think it all happened as it was meant to happen, really. I think Keith is better as a friend anyway.
PKM: Are you still in touch?
Marianne Faithfull: I haven’t spoken to him for a long time, about two or three years. Because I have consciously put a block on it. I don’t want anything to do with him.
The Stones, when I knew them anyway, were not sleaze. They may have become sleaze. I mean, there were elements of that. But they weren’t really that sleazy.
PKM: Did you listen to Keith’s new album [Talk Is Cheap]?
Marianne Faithfull: No.
PKM: It’s quite good.
Marianne Faithfull: I heard that. And I know one of the people who worked on it. I mean, I think I listened to it once but I really didn’t let myself get involved. I have detached, quite consciously. I wish Keith really well and I know he’s doing well, and that’s lovely. But I don’t feel connected. And I don’t feel grateful either.
That may change with time. I realize that. I’m only three and a half years clean and I’m still having to confront these things. But I would not say my relationship with Mick Jagger was life-enhancing. I would also not say my relationship with Keith Richards was life-enhancing. And that’s really got nothing to do with them.
What I do want to say is that I do not judge them. They’re not in my present. They’re in my past. And, of course, I do believe that we’re all one. That’s how I could detach. Because they’re there in me anyway, I can sort of step back.
PKM: And let it go for the rest of your life? You don’t feel there ever has to be…
Marianne Faithfull: A moment of reconciliation? I used to think that. But I don’t now. First of all, it’s extremely unlikely. With Mick Jagger. With Keith Richards, if I saw him, I think it would be very positive. But why would I see him? What for?
PKM: I could imagine you two writing something together.
Marianne Faithfull: I don’t know. I’m very much not in touch with this. And I don’t let myself get involved. People call me and try to tell me that this one said this and that one said that. And I don’t give a flying fuck. So no, I am not open to that. And that’s how I have to be for myself. The demeaning, the diminishing side of this, you wouldn’t really understand it unless you’d been through it. I mean, every woman has had that experience, I’m sure.
I was just furious with myself that I let it just get so important. My work is so important to me. And yet I continued to put it back and didn’t really follow it through. I can’t blame the Stones for that.
PKM: I’ve had parallel experiences, but they weren’t on that grand public scale.
Marianne Faithfull: Actually, because of the grand public scale, that’s why I have to be so ruthless about it. It’s obviously how it was meant to be, I don’t want to change a thing. It’s all OK.
PKM: Do you feel past life connections at all?
Marianne Faithfull: No, I really don’t, actually. I have felt those things but I don’t only not want to see those people in this life. I don’t want to have anything to do with them again. In this life and in all others.
I’m naturally aware that we’re all connected, we’re all a part of each other. But I did not know, and I know now, that we do not have to actually physically have anything to do with each other. At all. That is the right of the individual to make that decision.
I don’t dream about them. I don’t think about them. I have to talk about them because it’s part of my experience, people ask me. And every time I talk about it, it gets stronger. This is my will. I don’t want to have anything to do with them and it’s not because they’re bad or evil. They’re not. For me, it’s just over.
PKM: That’s not the only thing that’s over. I know you’ve been clean for the past three and a half years. Do you also not drink at all anymore?
Marianne Faithfull: No. Nothing. I can’t. I was always sure there was a magical amount, and if I could get it right, not only would this extraordinary thing occur but I would feel good. That was my aim. And sometimes I got it right. Just the right amount of vodka, just the right amount of chicken salad sandwich. And then I couldn’t really get it right and it got worse and worse and I was killing myself. And I knew that, for me, I would not be able to control it. And that the best thing I could do was to just stop. And that’s what I did. And it all got a lot easier. I sometimes miss it, that sort of intoxication. The seductiveness of that. But it doesn’t really measure up to just feeling sort of good most of the time.
PKM: And you’re certainly not going around spouting therapeutic platitudes [laughs]
Marianne Faithfull: I’ve worked hard not to do that. [laughs] With the experience I’ve been through, I think it’s only normal in the beginning to get sort of self-righteous and evangelical. And I did. I’ve come out it now, thank god. I believe that doing nothing else, except not using drugs and alcohol and doing what I do, is a powerful thing. And I don’t have to say a thing. There’s nothing to say.
PKM: What gave you the strength to quit? Is there a higher power? Is it inside you?
Marianne Faithfull: Well it’s something I don’t really talk about or share. It’s very private. My inner life is just that. Inner. Private. Completely mine. I don’t share it with anyone. That’s the one thing that is completely personal to me.
I do obviously exist within a community, and I am just one among many other human beings trying to live. How I do it, what I believe, what I think — and I do have an intense spiritual life and I always have had — and it’s much more intense now, because I give it more time than I did. And I guess because it’s important to me I don’t want to talk about it. Because it’s private.
PKM: You’ve also given yourself time to heal.
Marianne Faithfull: I’ve had two years, really, to be at peace. Some of the strength I have at the moment comes out of this time I’ve had in Ireland, where I live in the country. I have a lot of time to myself there, and I need that. I’m still healing. And I didn’t like it at all. [laughs] I wanted to be working.
I’m very conscious that every time I don’t do a tour that’s projected, people say that I’m still drinking. And I really want to shake that, very much. And it takes a long time.
I called up a top agent in America to talk about my projected tour in March. I’m going to see her on Thursday. And all she said — she knows me and she must know that apparently I got clean — all she said on the phone was “are you well? are you well?” And I can’t get offended. I just have to take it. And just say yes, I’m very well, I’m extremely well. I can’t even say, well, I don’t feel so great today.
PKM: You know, I think I might have a flu coming on [laughs]
Marianne Faithfull: No, I can’t say anything like that [laughs] The last thing I can say is a flu coming on. That’s the classic sort of dope sick stance.
PKM: When you did those Bottom Line shows [in 1987], that was the first time you’d performed in public in a very long time, at least to my knowledge.
Marianne Faithfull: Oh no, it really was a long time. It was a sort of rebirth. And everybody regrets that they didn’t film it. It would have been nice to have that show and this one. But what happened was that the Bottom Line almost became the shadow show. Because people kept saying, oh it’s not like the Bottom Line. Of course, it’s not like the Bottom Line! It’s two years later, and a lot has happened, and it’s not going to be the same.
PKM: But the St. Ann’s show was so much more opened up. Not only because of the space but because of who you are now, two years later.
Marianne Faithfull: Sure. It’s changed. And I like that! It gives me a lot of hope that two years from now it can just go on doing whatever it is. There’s a lovely phrase in the tantra: self-existing energy. That just goes on working whether you know it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you accept it or not, there it is!
PKM: There’s a line in that song you do on Strange Weather, “A Stranger On Earth”: “The day’s gonna come when I prove my worth.” Did you feel like you were having to prove your worth for a while?
Marianne Faithfull: For years. All my life.
PKM: And do you feel you’ve gotten beyond that?
Marianne Faithfull: Well, on a good day. [laughs] On a bad day, I don’t feel any better. I feel just the same. It’s very cyclical. It doesn’t go in a straight line by any means. Every day and every way, I get better and better and better [laughs]. I hope I’m not making it sound like that!
But I must say I do feel a lot more confident. Confidence in Spanish is confianza, which means “with faith.” It’s that simple. It doesn’t mean I don’t get deluded or get enmeshed in bullshit. Because I do. But I have hope. I think I have a lot of hope.
I’m also still learning. I’m still a little stuck in the human beings are all slimes bit. Because, although I try not to, I do feel like that a lot of the time. And that’s not just men, that’s men and women. Just people are basically awful. [laughs]
But on the other hand, that’s not really the truth. Because in my life I have a lot of people, and I meet a lot of people, who are not slime.
The point I’ve really got to, and I know this is a big breakthrough for me, is that I’m not going to judge people. I’m not going to idealize them and say they’re wonderful. But I’m also not going to say these people are slime. Because I honestly don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were slime! [laughs]
My inner life is just that. Inner. Private. Completely mine. I don’t share it with anyone. That’s the one thing that is completely personal to me.
PKM: I think we all have our slime moments.
Marianne Faithfull: Yes. It’s a moment by moment thing. All I can really do is examine the slime in myself. And not worry about other people. [laughs]
PKM: Is there anything from your past, any trial by fire that had to happen? Anything positive that came out of it?
Marianne Faithfull: Well, yeah. A lot of things. “Sister Morphine” came out of my junkie phase. I couldn’t have written that — I am that kind of person, I have to actually have the experience to be able to write about it. It has to be authentic. And it certainly was authentic! [laughs] I don’t regret it, really. But enough already is what I think. I can’t hurry that up. It just has to slowly get better.
PKM: First there’s the private healing and then there’s the public healing.
Marianne Faithfull: Yes. And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m actively talking to people, and I’m keen on talking to the press, really. Because it helps my work. It helps my ability to get dates, to perform, it’s all hooked into this. It’s very important. Because the whole point of this is being able to get through these things. Not past them, not over them, but through them.
PKM: Do you think you’ll ever write a book?
Marianne Faithfull: No, I don’t. People are not really so interested me and my own life, and how I became the way I am. Which didn’t happen in the ‘60s. [laughs] It happened in my childhood and all the rest of it. People are interested in what it was like to live with Mick Jagger. And I know that. But I don’t need to write about it. Maybe I will write a book when I’m older.
PKM: Well, you are a writer.
Marianne Faithfull: It’s quite likely that I might write a book. Certainly not an autobiography. I would like to do a book of essays.
PKM: What kind of essays would you write?
Marianne Faithfull: I really don’t know. I did have a dream once, when I was very worried about my life at the moment. And in the dream, some people came with a book and it was my book. The book I was going to write. And they opened it for me and let me read it. And I did. It was actually songs, I think.
PKM: Do you think you’ve written some of those songs since you had that dream?
Marianne Faithfull: Yes, I do. And when I lose heart, and get depressed about it, I remember that dream. I know for a fact that I have many more things to write.
PKM: I’m picturing something almost like an illuminated manuscript.
Marianne Faithfull: It was this huge book. I don’t remember a thing in it. I woke up and I was just so pissed off that I couldn’t remember. I don’t know what it really meant. It might have even been my life. But it makes me feel safe because I know that there’s more to do.
PKM: So you’re ready to receive.
Marianne Faithfull: Yes. Being able to receive has always been hard for me, because it’s a far humbler position to be receiving than to be giving. It’s very important to master that.