From the First Lady of rock and roll to a very public fall from grace, the husky-voiced former girlfriend of Mick Jagger has survived against all the odds. Now, a new book about Marianne Faithfull by Mark Hodkinson delves into the fabulously squalid glamour of a life of song, drink, drugs, love, cancer and, ultimately, the long road to recovery.
Before Lindsay Lohan, before Kate Moss, Courtney Love and Cat Marnell, there was Marianne Faithfull. At 21 years of age, she scandalised a fusty middle-aged interviewer for the BBC in 1968 with her thoughts on marriage and on drugs. "I know so many people that before they took LSD they were such a drag," she purrs, all inscrutable Mona Lisa beauty and pillowy lips. "And then they took LSD and they really opened up."
A year later, she was in a coma in hospital for six days following a drug overdose.
At the time of that interview, though barely into her 20s, she'd already been married for three years. But the marriage was falling apart, not least because she'd been Mick Jagger's girlfriend since 1966.
"For some people, marriage may be very groovy," she says. "For me, it really isn't. I don't think it really is for most people anyway. Most people are not very happy."
Faithfull made her dalliance with drugs, with drink, with love, look so fabulous. Of course, it wasn't. Eventually the addiction took over completely, and she found herself homeless and strung out living on a bomb site in Soho as a down-and-out, relying on handouts of methadone from the NHS. But this too, as a Faithfull story, takes on a kind of squalid glamour. In her memoir, her account of her addict years read like the first-hand reports from the front line of the cult of experience, delivered by a female Bukowski.
What is actually fabulous, in hindsight, is that she survived. Against all odds, and continues too, the voice now cracked and rasping, the beauty ravaged, but alive to tell the tale.
And what a tale. It never tires in the retelling. So though Faithfull has committed it to paper twice already in her two memoirs, there's now a new book out, a biography by Mark Hodkinson, As Years Go By.
It starts in Hampstead in 1946, the birthplace of Faithfull, where she was raised by her mother, she has said, "like one of her cats".
Her father, Major Robert Glynn Faithfull, had left the family when Marianne was five, leaving a legacy of classic daddy issues. Faithfull later called him "the great unrequited love of my life". Her mother was a Viennese baroness descended from the man who gave his name to masochism. Her paternal grandfather had been a prominent sexologist and inventor of a device called the 'frigidity machine'. With such a family tree, there wasn't much hope of Marianne being ordinary.
At 17, she was already a sex bomb blonde, an explosive blend of innocence and sensuality. Andrew Oldham, the manager of the Rolling Stones, spotting Marianne at a party, declared her "an angel with big tits", and resolved to sign her right away. He didn't even care if she could sing.
As it happened, she could. But as with Oldham, that mattered little to the rest of the world. Faithfull had wandered into the heart of Sixties rock and roll on the arm of her then boyfriend John Dunbar, an Oxford student and gallery owner with an entry into the most happening scene in town. She was still in convent school when they got together, but soon dropped out after Oldham charged Mick Jagger with writing a song for her. The result, As Tears Go By, was a whimsical little ballad and it launched Marianne as a star.
She was married to Dunbar by 18 and had her son, Nicholas, soon after. But she didn't make a very convincing wife. A year later, she was living with Mick Jagger, and had become a sort of mascot of the Sixties; blonde, bohemian, with her plummy English vowels and blue eyes gazing out from behind a thick fringe. Initially, it was Richards she liked, not Mick, but Jagger had set his eyes on her and the expectation was that it was he who called the shots. The pair became a couple and, almost immediately President and First Lady of rock and roll.
Soon after, a very public fall from grace would change her life forever. It was the infamous Redland raids, in 1967. Policemen poured into Keith Richards' house where Jagger and Faithful were partying. Marianne, in the middle of her first ever acid trip, was naked, wrapped in a fur rug. From this event, Jagger and Faithfull became headline news, and the subject of Chinese whispers, which exaggerated the scandal, claiming that Jagger had been performing a sex act on Marianne with a Mars bar when the police broke in. Faithfull has always strenuously denied this rumour. But her denials fell on deaf ears; the public perception of her as scarlet woman was fixed.
Later, she would name this event as the catalyst of her undoing. "When you lose your reputation at 19, you lose everything," she has said. But there was more to it than that. "There was something wrong with me from my childhood and I don't really know why, and there we are. Heroin was like being wrapped in pink cotton wool. I'm a textbook case. I started smoking hash and within two or three years I was on heroin!"
Her emotional fragility was compounded by the sudden rise to fame and infamy, and a series of personal setbacks. The first was a miscarriage in 1968, when she lost Jagger's baby. Then, the next year, Brian Jones was found dead, at the bottom of the swimming pool of his house in East Sussex. He had been increasingly estranged from the rest of the Rolling Stones, favouring drink and drugs binges. Earlier that year the band had planned a North American tour, but Jones was refused a travel permit because of drugs convictions. They promptly dropped him and hired a new guitarist, planning the tour without him.
On the day he was buried, Marianne took an overdose on the other side of the world. She and Jagger had been in Sydney together, co-starring in an Australian production of the movie Ned Kelly. But Jagger woke up to find her passed out beside an empty bottle of tuinals. The overdose put her in a coma for six days, and although Jagger kept vigil by her bedside, the love affair was over. They stayed together for another year before Jagger finally left her for Bianca Rose Perez Moreno de Macias, a witchy, snake-hipped Nicaraguan model/actress who was miles tougher than Faithfull could ever be.
While Faithfull's image was constantly used to boost the Stones growing legend, she was horrified to find that her true contribution to the band was being written out of history. When Sister Morphine, a song that she and Jagger had written together was released, her name wasn't listed in the credits.
Gradually, she edged out of the spotlight and into a sort of drug-induced twilight. Her son went to live with her mother, while she succumbed completely to her addictions, moving from squat to squat, and eventually washing up at 'the wall' a bomb site in Soho populated by addicts. When I interviewed Faithfull in 2009, she remembers this phase as a deliberate and conscious attempt to disappear from public life. For her, drug-induced oblivion offered blessed anonymity.
"Everybody wants you. And you don't really want anybody. You just want your mum. That's what I wanted. Just to be home. I was too young ... I think I was quite canny about it, by doing drugs, like that. I didn't look beautiful anymore. I killed it. Then when you realise consciously, that 'oh this is working. Nobody is coming round to bother me. I've put weight on and I'm left alone'."
Slowly however, she started to drag herself up out of the gloom; found a place to live, and in 1979 got married again to a penniless guitarist called Ben Brierley. The life they lived together was a far cry from the weekend trips to Marrakesh and five-star lifestyle that she enjoyed with Jagger, but she was singing again, and recording and writing songs.
The marriage lasted for seven years. Bit by bit, she assembled an album. No longer a blue-eyed ingenue nor record company fodder, she made use of her ruined, smoke-raddled voice and now world-weary eyes on Broken English. It was released the year she got remarried, which was a critical and commercial hit and still widely considered her best album.
The couple moved to New York, where Marianne began to enjoy a professional renaissance, but she was still battling with her addictions. The Eighties were another turbulent decade. While still married to Brierley, she started dating an American she met in rehab, Howard Tose. He was mentally ill and drug-addicted and eventually committed suicide, after which she dedicated her 1987 album, Strange Weather to him.
At the close of the decade, Marianne tried marriage again, defying that prescient declaration she'd made aged 21: one last time. In 1988, she wed American writer Giorgio Della Terza, but it wasn't to last. In fact, it was the least successful of any of her relationships. "I met him at an AA meeting," she once said. "I never talk about him."
Moving to Ireland in the Nineties launched a period of relative stability in her life. She started acting again, and returned to the stage in a breakout role in The Threepenny Opera at the Gate Theatre in 1996. This, she has said, represented a professional high watermark. She credits her appearance at The Gate with making her "respectable overnight".
The years that followed, when she divided her time between Paris and Ireland, living at Shell Cottage, a beautiful architectural folly in the grounds of Carton House, in County Kildare, covered roof to floor in seashells, were relatively tranquil ones. But the daily struggles persisted.
Though off drugs, she remained a heavy drinker throughout the Nineties, despite having been diagnosed with Hepatitis C – a nasty little blood-borne souvenir from her junkie days. But she's sober now, and counts survival of breast cancer among the many times she's cheated death. She's been through a lot of therapy, and learned how to live with her demons at least, even if she hasn't quite managed to slay them.
"My happiness is very fragile," she told me a few years ago. "If I let myself sink into depression, I won't be able to get out. And then I'll be awfully unhappy. I just have to turn my face to the light and walk on. And trust that things will be all right. Which I am. It's a bit of a struggle some times, but at the moment it's grand."
'As Years Go By', by Mark Hodkinson, is published by Omnibus Press priced £14.95
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