Album review: Marianne Faithfull perfectly suited to Romantic heroine chic

In 1968, Marianne Faithfull played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Roundhouse in Camden Town in…

In 1968, Marianne Faithfull played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Roundhouse in Camden Town in London. Every night after being driven to the theatre in her boyfriend Mick Jagger’s Bentley, she would shoot up heroin in her dressing room. Only then would she go onstage.

his was to help her get into the role of the tragic noblewoman who drowned herself in a river because of the grief that drove her insane.

Hamlet, the man she loved, had accidentally killed her father, and was then sent away by the king.

“I’m afraid I threw myself a bit too much into that part,” Marianne has said.

“The combined effect of playing Ophelia and doing heroin induced a morbid frame of mind and I began contemplating drowning myself in the Thames. I would indulge myself in lurid, pre-Raphaelite fantasies of floating down the Thames with a garland of flowers around my head.”

Fifty years later, Marianne Faithfull has gone from Ophelia to another cursed noblewoman who meets a watery end – this time, on a boat floating towards Camelot. On her new album, the 74-year-old recites Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, all 12 minutes of it, hauntingly thus: “A pale, pale corpse she floated by/Deadcold, between the houses high/Dead into tower’d Camelot.”

Set to the ambient music of composer Warren Ellis – and backed by Nick Cave, Brian Eno, cellist Vincent Ségal and PJ Harvey’s producer Head – She Walks in Beauty, Faithfull’s 22nd album, is a spoken-word collection of 19th-century English Romantic poems, including Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn.’

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Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger leaving court after a hearing for drug charges in 1969. Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Her 2018 album Negative Capability (also a collaboration with Ellis) took its title from Keats’ letter to his brother about humanity’s ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Eno adds his ethereal soundscapes to Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, while Ségal’s cello lends melancholy to Shelley’s ‘To the Moon’ and Byron’s ‘So We’ll Go No More A-Roving’.  

“Marianne believes in these texts,” Ellis said recently. “They have been with her her whole life. That world, she inhabits it, embodies it, and that really comes through. She really means it. It’s no blind reading.

“And what’s great about hearing them is that she totally takes you with her. It’s inclusive. She’s inviting you into this world with her.”

She recorded the album before being hospitalised with Covid in March last year.

The fact that she came so close to death (a note from the doctor that she found later, read “palliative care only”) gives the words about mortality and the magic of life an otherworldly resonance. It is as if she wrote them herself in the present tense.

Her often tragic life brings a new interpretation to the words written hundreds of years ago.

Take ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem about a homeless woman who jumps to her death from Waterloo Bridge, with its verse: “The bleak wind of March/Made her tremble and shiver/But not the dark arch/Or the black flowing river/Mad from life’s history/Glad to death’s mystery/ Swift to be hurl’d – Anywhere, anywhere/Out of the world!”

The enchanting melancholy of the Romantic poets of the 19th century sits well with Marianne’s own story of despair. In 1970, she lost custody of her son, Nicholas, by her first husband, the artist John Dunbar. In the same year, while her relationship to the Rolling Stone’s frontman was in its death throes, she had a short romance with Patrick Rossmore, the 7th Baron Rossmore, who died earlier this month.

She first met him at a house party that she and Jagger had attended at Glin Castle in Co Limerick. They were briefly engaged, which made headlines around the world.

She would later write: “I used him, but I figured he knew the score. He was so Anglo-Irish: long legs that curl up in that English aristocratic way. In short, the sort of man my mother always wanted me to marry. I don’t know if I really loved him or merely saw a way out. Mick and I were still together but barely.

“And here was Paddy Rossmore, who seemed to be in love with me, though he didn’t know I had developed an horrendous barbiturate problem, substituting alcohol and barbs for heroin. Poor Paddy got engaged to a zombie. For the entire year, I was comatose on sleeping pills.”

From 1971 to 1974, she was strung out, living rough on the streets of Soho. The experience, however, made her realise something profound.

“Human beings were really good,” she would recall. “The Chinese restaurant let me wash my clothes there. The man who had the tea stall gave me cups of tea. The meth drinkers looked out for me.”

As did the artist Francis Bacon.

“Francis was very kind to me. He would take me to lunch, and he would talk, and I learnt an awful lot, about painting and art and how important it was to just to do it. I knew I had to do my records.”  

Her awful 1976 country album Dreamin’ My Dreams failed to lift her or her career out of the depths of smack-soaked indifference – but it all changed in late 1979. The radical Broken English remains Marianne’s great album, and one of the great albums by any artist of that era.

Its title track is taken from a book about Ulrike Meinhof, the co-founder of the Red Army Faction, but the album is more nihilistic than even that would suggest.

It had tracks that were simply unplayable on the radio, chief among them being ‘Why D’ya Do It’. It is pure rage.

Marianne’s voice is husky and cracked as she spits the words – avert your eyes now if you are of a sensitive nature – in the direction of a cheating lover: “Why’d ya do it, she said, when you know it makes me sore/Cause she had cobwebs up her f***y and I believe in giving to the poor.”

The scorned Marianne of ‘Why D’ya Do It’ is one of the rawest love songs ever set to music. She was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the album.

It turned Marianne from Jagger’s muse (a reductive term she hated) to a post-punk survivor and feminist icon loved and admired by everyone from Patti Smith to PJ Harvey to Kate Moss and Stella McCartney.

In 1980, she wisely turned down the role of Sid Vicious’s addict mother in Julien Temple’s movie The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. “I couldn’t bear the thought of my mother or my son having to see it. The scars of drug abuse hadn’t healed for me.” She cleaned up from drugs in 1985 after a spell in a clinic in America.

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A fresh-faced Marianne Faithfull in 1970. Photo: Getty.

In the 1990s, she lived in Ireland for a time. In 1996, she acted in The Threepenny Opera at the Gate Theatre and she began to come into her own during this period.

Vagabond Ways in 1999, produced by Daniel Lanois, saw her work with Roger Waters, Emmylou Harris, and her friend, playwright Frank McGuinness (on the song ‘Electra’). In 2001, she played God in a cameo in the TV show Absolutely Fabulous.

Kissin Time, released in 2002, was an album that showed how artistically valued she was by other young performers, as it featured songs written with Blur, Beck, Billy Corgan and Jarvis Cocker.

Three years later came Before the Poison, her collaboration with long-term fans PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. In 2014, Cave wrote ‘Late Victorian Holocaust’ for her.

Born on December 29, 1946, in Hampstead, she was the daughter of Major Robert Glynn Faithfull and Austrian baroness, Eva von Sacher-Masoch.

The latter was the great-niece of writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who minted the term “masochism”. The former was a MI5 spy who walked out on Marianne when she was five and joined a commune.

She went on to become the convent-educated, bohemian English rose who symbolised the 1960s. ‘As Tears Go By’ was her first hit in 1964.

Three years later, the police raided a party at Keith Richard’s home in Sussex, England, where it was alleged that Jagger had been found eating a popular chocolate bar from an intimate part of her anatomy (which she dismissed in her autobiography as “a dirty old man’s fantasy”).

In 1968, she gave Jagger a copy of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel that partly inspired the Stones’ masterwork ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. 

In 1969, she co-wrote ‘Sister Morphine’ with Jagger, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Stones finally credited Marianne. Jagger wrote ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Wild Horses’ about her.

In 2014, Salman Rushdie wrote in the foreword to the book Marianne Faithfull: A Life on Record: “With her big baby-blue eyes and her angelic expression, she looked as if the darkness of the ’60s couldn’t touch her.” Sadly, that statement was never borne out by the facts.

In 2021, and in her eighth decade, Marianne has survived heroin, suicide attempts, breast cancer and, most toughest of all perhaps, the Rolling Stones.

British Vogue asks in its latest issue: “Has Marianne Faithfull Finally Conquered Her Demons?”

I suspect that not even she knows that.

New Album Releases

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Birdy displays real emotional depth on her latest album

Birdy

Young Heart

(Four stars)

English singer-songwriter Birdy (real name Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde) is 24 years old. She sings about heartbreak like a woman with a lot more years on the clock than that.

“So long are the nights now that I’m sleeping here alone,” goes the line on ‘Nobody Knows Me Like You Do’, and then on ‘Deepest Lonely’, about “when there’s dark clouds overhead”.

The single ‘Loneliness’ is a strangely beautiful listen, which she described recently as “not so much about leaving someone but more of a love song to loneliness”.

Lady Dan

I Am the Prophet

(Five stars)

The debut album from Alabama songstress Tyler Dozier has surely marked her out as a superstar of an alternative future.

This brilliant country/folk album — which follows on from her 2019 EP, Songs for the Soulless — opens with the cathartic ‘Paradox’. She sings: “A woman of stone/To want to be loved and left alone/I am blindingly cold and numb.”

On ‘No Home’, she is rejecting her religious upbringing in the South and all that came with it: “I got a new skin/I’m no longer a slave to all of your patriarchal sins.”

The way she sings the lines “I’m so glad you left me/Oh, I’m so relieved your gone/Now that you detest me/It’s more clear where I went wrong” will stay with you long after the song has finished. 

Greta Van Fleet

The Battle at Garden’s Gate

(Two stars)

Michigan quartet Greta Van Fleet are a divisive lot. Swaggering lead singer Josh Kiszka – backed by his two brothers, Jake on guitar and Sam on bass/keys, and Danny Wagner on drums – pretty much sounds like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in his bombastic pomp. ‘My Way, Soon’ and ‘The Barbarians’ are sung in a paint-stripping timbre.

This, the follow-up to their Grammy-winning 2018 debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, veers worryingly in places towards Spinal Tap or the Darkness.