“Hello? Yes? This is Marianne.”
Marianne Faithfull’s phone voice is exactly how it is on record: the sound of leaves raked slowly over gravel.
Though kind, Faithfull doesn’t sound particularly pleased to be doing an interview. She allows herself a bit of back patting — with a mordant English wit — saying things like “the new record is beautiful,” and conceding that in a faultless world, the new record would be an enormous success. One might say that Faithfull has secured the right to be haughty.
Hence, in conversation and on record she seems always reactionary, almost vulnerable, yet with an unflinching attitude ostensibly constructed over years to withstand blows.
The night before this conversation, Faithfull played a sold-out show at the Fillmore in San Francisco where, she says, “The entire audience knew the words to Kissin’ Time.”
It is her day off and I sense she’ll cut the interview off if the wrong question is asked. “We just did over 70 shows, my voice might sound a little tired.”
Anyway, what kind of introduction does Faithfull need? She is the daughter of a baroness and comes from a long line of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats, the von Sacher-Masochs. Her great-uncle, in fact, popularized the term masochism in his novel Venus in Furs. Pop was a spy for British intelligence.
In short, Faithfull has a cred that over the years has become iconic. She was at the epicenter of London’s swinging 1960s. At 17, she hit with Jagger/Richards’ “As Tears Go By,” which went top 10 in the UK in 1964.
We all know Faithfull was there when Brian Jones took his last swim. She had a crush on Keef but wound up with Jagger, who later, basically, spat her out. There was the legendary 1967 drug bust at Keef’s Elizabethan mansion where she was led away wearing nothing but a fur bedcover. Then there was the famous incident where Faithfull passed out in her soup during a dinner for the Earl of Warwick at the Warwick castle.
Do the days of “Sister Morphine” seem like ancient history?
Faithfull lets out a million cigarettes-deep chuckle and says, “Those days are ancient history! To someone like you those days must seem like the place to have been.”
In her wonderfully revealing 1994 autobiography Faithfull — which doubles as a sticky-fingered collection of Stones yarns — she wrote this about Jagger: “Once in a while I did find out about [Jagger’s] affairs, but I never said a word. Getting upset about a little fucking around was unhip and middle-class. I told myself he was ‘Mick Jagger,’ a national treasure, but I began nonetheless to feel inadequate. I knew I couldn’t compete with groupies, for chrissakes, I didn’t even give anyone a blowjob until I was in my late twenties.”
The post-pop, post-Jagger Faithfull became a kind of street demimonde after descending into junk-addled, Naked Lunch-like depths in the 1970s. Throughout that decade, she rarely recorded, and when she did, the results were below the waterline. Then in 1979, she made a comeback of Herculean proportions with the album Broken English. The record was brutal and brittle, full of post-punk dissolution.
At the worst, her records throughout the past two decades still had moments of greatness. She recorded the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht opera Seven Deadly Sins in 1998. The record actually made the classical charts around the world. And her singing voice remains sexy, an almost graceless croon; the wicked scowl of a world-weary traveler, the sound of a something otherworldly in the frayed garb of her past and present. It is the sound of earned existence.
The grandmother (who turns 56 this month) has gone from waifish pop angel to street junkie to miraculously re-emerge — a la Patti Smith — as a kind of pop grand matriarch.
“I love Patti. I mean, she is the grand matriarch. I’d love to work with her one day.” She pauses, lets loose an audible smile and says, “I doubt she’d ever want to work with me.”
Now, the Ireland resident and interpreter of Brecht and Weill is also a kind of ruler by maternal right to the indiscreet, and Sinead O’Connor and Courtney Love come to her for life-maintenance advice.
As one who once traded on adolescent (i.e. teen pop) ingénue innocence — blue-eyed and big-lashed with coquettish blond hair and a milky complexion — Faithfull is unfazed by the grizzly aspects of modern pop-music marketing.
“I have never been offended by it. Still, it has gotten so pretentious, hasn’t it? There’s definitely a soulessness.” Then, when queried about the Britney’s of the world she cracks, “I don’t really pay attention to modern pop.”
Faithfull’s songs often contain explicit sexual references, and she takes pleasure in being confrontational. “Rock ‘n’ roll shouldn’t be safe and predictable, so pretentious.”
And she’s not above bitching or even laying blame about how her new record is so far largely ignored by the public. “Yeah, it is sad the record is so far under the radar,” she says. “It really does hurt. The label really didn’t spend any money to promote it … There will never be another one like it. It captured that moment in time.”
Said record, Kissin’ Time, was mostly co-written or co-produced by Billy Corgan and Beck, with contributions by Jon Brion and members of Blur and Pulp. The songs — from the lovely pop of the Corgan-penned “Wherever I Go” to the superfluous Beck co-written “Sex With Strangers” — are at once vinegary and sweet, uncompromising and desperate. Faithfull is self-assured, lowdown and sullied, and discharges the hard-nosed authority of a woman who knows all the routes to the bottom.
On “Sliding Through Life on Charm,” a song written about her by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Faithfull, at first, offers an elevated opinion of herself. Then it becomes an unrepentant confessional. Driven by a “Heroes”-like drone, the manifesto comes clean: And mister you have finally met your match/Now everybody wants to kiss my snatch/to go where God knows who has gone before/I am a muse, not a mistress, not a whore …
One of the record’s best moments is “Love and Money,” a song co-written with her pal David Courts — the guy who made the famous skull ring for Keef. The tune revolves around a sparse guitar, bass with drum loop.
“We tried to rerecord it but couldn’t get it better than the demo,” she says of the song. “It’s a song about being at a party just observing. Looking around and having a conversation with someone who has nothing to say. …”
The woeful “Song for Nico,” a ballad co-written by Dave Stewart, is about the Velvet Underground chanteuse who expired long before she could see herself become what Faithfull is, a pop stateswoman. The song shows an eerie alliance with Nico, portraying her as this credulous kid who had lived her life poised on brinks and who paid dearly for being honest. In it, Faithfull calls Nico’s ex, French actor Alain Delon, a “cunt.”
In a wicked twist of irony, the surprising last track — Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” — shows Faithfull arriving full circle, particularly in a season of ubiquitous teen pop. Coming from this woman in this year, the song takes on a completely different meaning. She switches the gender, so the song comes from the point of view of a woman speaking through the eyes of a teen. In Faithfull’s hands, it’s heartbreaking.
“Did you notice we changed the song? We actually got permission from Goffin and King to make changes.”
As a vocalist, Faithfull says she is inspired by men with “little odd voices. It’s in my blood, really. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, who else? Neil Young.”
Faithfull goes on to say that she admires Eminem. “I do. And Prince. Though I’ve never seen Prince perform, you know, and that’s my current mission. You don’t know a performer until you’ve seen them perform. And I’m working with P.J. Harvey on some new songs, I really admire Polly Harvey.”
Live, Faithfull is part torch, part weathered rock chick, part cabaret. In Ann Arbor, Faithfull fans can expect her to cull much of her set from Kissin’ Time before burrowing into her catalog, sans the Brecht and Weill. The cabaret songs, she says, are simply a piece of her history.
Has she seen the Stones on their current tour?
“No, I didn’t see the Stones yet,” she says, “but this tour finishes up in New Zealand and the Stones are playing there.”
She takes a breath and wonders aloud why anybody would pick on the Stones these days. “I don’t know what all the hubbub is over the Stones, but, yeah, they are a great rock ’n’ roll show.”
Marianne Faithfull will perform at the Ark (316 S. Main, Ann Arbor) on Wednesday, Dec. 11. For information, call 734-761-1451.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]