Marianne Faithfull: 'I don't think I had any choice but to be decadent'

The star of pop and film talks about being cast as a sex kitten of the 60s, drugs, homelessness, and why she will never sell Mick Jagger's love letters

Hello, Marianne. How are you?

Hello. I'm well, thank you. I've been appearing in Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins in Linz, Austria, so I've been very happy. I'm singing and acting, with great costumes and stage sets. The two transvestites in little leather shorts are very important. It's a very violent, sexy piece.

Do Austrians know you as Marianne Faithfull or by your title, Baroness von Sacher-Masoch (1 )

Nobody knows me as Baroness von Sacher-Masoch. Fuck off! [Laughter] I'm Marianne Faithfull.

We're approaching half a century since your first single, 1964's As Tears Go By.

I know, I can't believe it. On the other hand, I can't do anything else and never wanted to. I once asked my father what he wanted me to be. The right answer would have been film star, but to my horror, he said, "sociologist". But I'm very interested in reading about the 60s and trying to understand the phenomena, sociologically. Obviously it had to happen after the second world war – there won't be another war like it. They've learned this trick now of having wars far away. So they'll kill people in Afghanistan, anywhere but here.

Can you remember being discovered by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham?

I was at a launch party and Andrew came up and said: "I'm going to make you a star." He really did. I thought he was incredible, funny. He gave me the first ever Jagger-Richards composition to sing for my first record. What a way to start.

You made one of the 60s' most iconic films, The Girl on a Motorcycle (2). Have you ever actually ridden one?

Of course not! I sat on one, in front of rolling paper scenery. It was ridiculous, but I had a great stunt man called Reg. He did all the difficult stuff, with a blond wig and a helmet. It's a completely phoney, silly film. But I know a lot of people love it.

Would you have had a very different career if you'd never got into drugs?

It would have been much easier. I made it very hard for myself, and it didn't get OK really until … you can't work properly on drugs, and that's what I really wanted to do. It was awful, 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!

People called it the Swinging 60s. You seem to have experienced a darker, more Dionysian 60s.

I've often thought about Dionysian things. I can't say I didn't have a great time, some of the time. I really did. It was wonderful hanging out with the Stones, and I loved Mick (3). It was just drugs that got in the way of my happiness. We all got into it. Mick not as bad, I must say, but he got into it a little bit!

When you wrote Sister Morphine (4) with Mick Jagger, you weren't an addict, were you?

Not yet. I just liked the name, and loved Lou Reed's work, Sister Ray and Heroin. I liked the idea poetically. I thought it was like Baudelaire, but the song doesn't glamorise anything. It was a really interesting vision. But not long afterwards that life did come true for me. The story is about a man in a car accident in hospital, who's very damaged and wants to die. It isn't exactly what happened to me, but my feelings about it are probably the same. I was hospitalised in Sydney after an attempted suicide after Brian Jones died. It was a terrible time.

What impact did the infamous 1967 drug bust (5) at Keith Richards' house have on your life?

Much worse than anybody else. Because I was a woman, and cast in that terrible role, "sex kitten of the 60s", all that naked … I mean, I was naked in a fur rug! But the rest of it wasn't true. I recently looked at my Austrian-Hungarian family tree – my great-great-uncle Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs and all that. I don't think I had any choice really, but to be very decadent. I am very decadent. What I didn't know then is that you don't have to take drugs or get whipped or any of that to do it. Not that I was ever a masochist, but I must have been something of a masochist in a psychological way.

You were homeless for a while in the early 70s. Have you got advice for anyone made homeless now?

Oh, I don't know what they'd do now. I was lucky. People looked after me, the meths drinkers, junkies. I learned that human beings are really all right. I didn't know that from my posh life in the 60s. It was very bitchy and people were cruel to each other. I was on the street for two years, but it was better than staying at my mother's and being under her thumb.

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There's a fantastic YouTube clip of you in 1973, wearing a nun's outfit, singing with David Bowie at the Marquee club. It's like watching an early Lady Gaga.

I've known that ever since Lady Gaga came along, I did it much better and long before you! Working with David Bowie was very interesting, but I couldn't surrender to it. I should have let him produce a record for me, but I'm very perverse in some ways. He's brilliant, but the entourage were rather daunting.

You're re-releasing your classic 1979 album, Broken English, which was influenced by the cold war, the Baader-Meinhof gang and punk rock. We don't think of you as a punk icon, but you were very involved. You even married a Vibrator (6).

I did, and we had such a good time. We're still friends. I wish people didn't just think of me in the 60s. I'm not any era. I just go on and on. The Vibrators were very good, even though some of the gigs were pretty bad. But I got off on the energy. The Clash and the Sex Pistols were very exciting. Johnny Rotten came to my wedding. I liked him very much.

There's a fantastic quote from you in the new Broken English accompanying notes where you say: "I thought I was going to die, that this was my last chance to make a record. I'm going to show you bastards who I am."

That's how I felt. "Those bastards" were the press. I'd never got used to not being anonymous, being a public person. I've got used to it now. I focus on the individual and not seeing this great big monster, "the press". So many women have told me they relate to The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. I remember thinking: "This is a feminist song."

The Derek Jarman promotional film for Broken English, which was shown in cinemas, must have been one of the first pop videos?

It was, and nobody liked it except me. It totally captured the album, but it wasn't what would become the MTV stereotype of women with very high heels, very long legs and very short skirts. I mean, I did a bit of that. But I didn't do it consciously. It was just how I looked.

Didn't you go disco dancing with Madonna?

I did. It was absolutely awful. Just excruciating, because she's so into being ... She attracts attention, obviously. I didn't like that.

There's a radio interview with you talking about Amy Winehouse, before she died, and you say that she feels that she is immortal, which seems very poignant now.

It's very common to feel like that. But I was very shocked when she died, because I really thought she was one of those people who'd come through. She was very bright. If she'd been physically stronger… oh, I don't know, but she's one of the few people I really dig. I did care, not because she was a drug addict, but because she was a great artist.

Do you listen to much current pop?

Of course not. It's complete shite. I mean, I like Blur, Damon, Nick Cave, Polly Harvey, but they're not pop music. I'm a jazzer now. I always liked it. The first record I ever bought was Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, just cos I liked the cover. I loved the clothes, those mohair suits. Wonderful. In the Sixties everything I liked was in the charts, but that was quite surprising. I have to say my early career was a commercial proposition, but even the Beatles were avant garde.

Did you go to the recent Stones gigs at the 02?

No. I love the Stones, but I've gone to a lot of gigs. I don't like being with so many people. I felt a bit guilty that I didn't go. Mick rang me when I was ill(7). I was very touched. He's a very nice man, you know. People have such a weird opinion of him, but behind the stage persona there's a fabulous, intelligent, cultivated, kind man. People don't know that. Keith is easier to read because he's a very straightforward, direct person. Mick is very complex. I know him as well as anybody. He calls me Marian because that's what I was christened, after Maid Marian. He knew my parents. He likes having a special name for me I think. Our whole friendship and love is outside the public experience, and I'll keep it that way. I'm not selling my love letters.

Why the swallow tattoo on your wrist?

It means freedom. That's what I thought at the time, anyway. It doesn't confer freedom, but it was a nice illusion. I'm very fond of it.

A friend of mine went to a party at your Dublin house (8) in the 90s and said it was quite wild. That's quite late into your – er - partying years.

It took me years to get over it. I did get clean and sober and then I relapsed for a while and blah blah. I've been clean and sober now for years. Life is easier, predictable. I don't expect any wild shit anymore. Knowing I'm decadent but don't have to do anything about is has been very important.

Do you regret much or has it all been character building?

I think the latter, I hope that's not delusion. [Laughs] I've done everything I want to do and gone everywhere I want to go. I finally understand the joy of family. I have a wonderful son, and all I want to do now is be close to my granddaughter. I still get the blues, and I don't like growing older. But I've had a wonderful life, really.


Back to article Marianne is a descendant of the 19th-century author/thinker Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote the novel Venus in Furs and gave his name to masochism.

Back to article A 1968 French-British film starring Alain Delon alongside a leather-clad Marianne and featuring a lot of sex.

Back to article Marianne dated three Rolling Stones – Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards – and once told the NME: "The lead singer seemed the best bet."

Back to article The song, released as a single by Marianne in 1969, was recorded by the Stones for 1971's Sticky Fingers.

Back to article Jagger and Richards were both briefly imprisoned after the bust at Keith's Redlands home. The press suggested – erroneously – that Marianne had been found in a compromising position with a Mars bar.

Back to article Ben Brierly, bassist in the British punk band the Vibrators. They divorced in 1987.

Back to article Marianne recovered from breast cancer in 2006.

Back to article Marianne divides her time between Paris and Dublin. She loves the mix of Parisian elegance and "scruffy" Dublin character and earthiness.

Broken English – Deluxe Edition is released on Island Records on 28 January.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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