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Marianne Faithfull: much more than a muse for Jagger

The often overlooked singer recently released a poetry album. And recordings of her songs at Montreux are on the way

Marianne Faithfull in 1967.
Marianne Faithfull in 1967. (Getty Images)

In mid-September, we will be treated to a two-LP volume of songs Marianne Faithfull performed live at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1995-2009. It’s part of that storied festival’s series of recordings by various artists, titled The Montreux Years—a way of preserving the legacy of a festival that turned 55 this year.  

The first two volumes of the series came out earlier this year—one of Nina Simone’s performances, and the other of Etta James’ performances. In late July, one track from the forthcoming Faithfull album was released. It was a deeply emotional cover of a Van Morrison song, Madame George, which she had performed at Montreux in 1995.

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Faithfull, now 74, has had such an infamously eventful life that it can be easy to gloss over her musical achievements. Her relationship with the Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger (they were together between 1966-70); her long-time battle with heroin and other substance abuse; and stories about how she spent several years homeless on the streets of Soho in London can overshadow her talent as a singer and songwriter. Sadly, she is known more as a muse for Jagger and his band than as a musician in her own right.

On the Stones’ album Let It Bleed (1969), the track You Can’t Always Get What You Want is supposed to have been inspired by Faithfull. Wild Horses and I Got The Blues, on Sticky Fingers (1971), are also inspired by her, while a song on the album Sister Morphine was co-written by Faithfull and Jagger.  

But it is her own albums and work over the years that deserve greater attention. Faithfull’s first recording was in 1964, at the age of 18, when she sang the Jagger and Keith Richards song As Tears Go By. Her voice was distinctively melodic and high-pitched, and through the 1960s she released at least six albums, all of which were favourably received by critics and fans.

Then came the meltdown. Drug addiction, homelessness and illnesses led to a nearly-decade-long career break. When she resurfaced, acute laryngitis had robbed her of her vocal quality. In place of the old melodious voice was one that was much lower- pitched, cracked and raspy. But what she had lost was more than made up for by the albums she began releasing. Notable, and arguably her career’s best album, was 1979’s Broken English.

It was a sort of comeback album. It was also defiant and shocking. There are tracks such as the angry Why D’ya Do It?, whose explicit lyrics, encompassing the scorn and wrath of a woman betrayed, were quite definitely ahead of the times. Broken English was Faithfull’s way of showing the finger to those who had dismissed her as a forgotten icon of London’s Swinging Sixties.

It was also the beginning of a new phase in her career. Faithfull has released 15 full-length albums since. On some of them, such as 2002’s Kissin Time, she composed and recorded with younger musicians such as Beck, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, Jarvis Cocker, and her long-time collaborator Barry Reynolds. Richly diverse in terms of the styles she adopted, the album is probably the best after Broken English.

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That is not to say her other albums don’t deserve attention. In a few albums before Kissin Time, she tried neo-cabaret style crooning. Earlier this year, after she had battled several illnesses, including covid-19, she released—along with Warren Ellis (a frequent collaborator of Nick Cave’s)—a spoken-word album, She Walks In Beauty, where she recites the poetry of Romantic-era poets such as Keats, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson. Her raspy vocals combine with an upper-class English accent to make the album memorable and Ellis’ soundscape (with contributions from Cave on piano and Brian Eno on synths and keyboards) makes for a perfect complement. Readers familiar with the works of those poets could be delighted by her rendition of familiar poems such as Ode To A Nightingale, The Lady Of Shalott and Ozymandias.

The album Negative Capability (2018) is a masterpiece, an essential listen for anyone delving into her nearly six-decade-long career. It’s a brutally honest recapitulation of her life but also sees her revisiting old hits such as As Tears Go By and It’s All Over Now….

Marianne Faithfull is the perfect example of someone you could call a survivor. Hers has been a wild life: She has confronted near-fatal illnesses, addiction and acute depression. But she has bounced back every time. While her covers of many well-known songs are masterful (check out her version of Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue; the 1950s ballad Long Black Veil, which many others have also covered; and House Of The Rising Sun), it is some of her original songs that showcase her real talent.

And as we wait for Faithfull’s Montreux recordings to be released, there is something else to look forward to as well: A biopic on her, directed by Ian Bonhôte (who made McQueen, a film on the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen), is also expected later this year. It’s a celebration of one of music’s most indefatigable survivors.

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