Marianne Faithfull - Biography

With a career that has been noted for its many peaks and valleys, Marianne Faithfull is one of the most famous singers, songwriters and actresses to come out of the UK. At first known for her relationship with Mick Jagger in the late-1960s and the rampant drug abuse that overshadowed her career in the 1970s, Faithfull’s work has spanned decades and—very successfully—many mediums. Since coming into public attention in the mid-1960s, Faithfull has worked as a solo artist (her definitive album being 1979’s Broken English), an actress (she was nominated for Best Actress for her work in the film Irina Palm by the European Film Awards) and a diarist (two autobiographies), a list of multifarious accomplishments that earned her a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2009 Women’s World Awards for a career spanning five decades in the arts.


Faithfull was born into a wealthy family 1946, in London, England—her father working as an officer in the British military, and her mother a baroness from Vienna. These noble roots extended to Faithfull’s distant uncle, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs. Faithfull’s mother was a ballerina in Germany and, later, Marianne herself would inherit the title of Baroness von Sacher-Masoch. Faithfull’s father received his doctorate while the family still lived in Liverpool. Faithfull’s parents divorced when she was six-years-old, and she was forced to live with her mother—who had lost most of her money by this time—in Reading, Berkshire. While still a girl, Faithfull began to suffer from tuberculosis, which she fought periodically throughout her childhood.


By the time she was 17, after dabblings in boarding school theatre group, Faithfull was performing her first gigs singing in the London coffeehouses, where her mix of beauty, gregariousness and a keen fashion sense made her a staple of the scene. While attending a party hosted by The Rolling Stones, she serendipitously met Andrew Loog Oldham, who offered her an opportunity to record. Faithfull’s trajectory as a singer was launched when she recorded a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards penned song titled “As Tear Roll By.” It became an instant hit for the young artist, going to #9 on the U.K. charts while delivering her status across the pond as well, climbing to #22 in the US.


A string of singles followed in 1964—“Come and Stay with Me” and “This Little Bird” among them—and Faithfull was the darling of London. Her working relationship with Oldham was strained, but she continued recording the Decca label that he brought her to. Faithfull’s next singles included well-known covers like The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”


By 1965, amidst an ill-fated marriage to British artist Jon Dunbar, Faithfull released two albums, almost simultaneously—Come My Way first (1965, Decca), which leaned more towards folk, and Marianne Faithfull (1965 Deram). Come My Way didn’t register in the pop circles she was by then running in, with songs like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Down by the Salley Gardens” skipping out on the more traditional vibe that was flourishing at the time. Her self-titled album, on the other hand, was big hit in the pop market, featuring baroque arrangements on the originals (like “Time Takes Time”) and covers of The Beatles’ song, “I’m a Loser,” as well as a pair of Jackie DeShannon songs, “In My Time of Sorrow” and “Come and Stay With Me.”


Faithfull gave birth her son Nicholas later in 1965, but a short time later left Dunbar to, in her words, “get a Rolling Stone as a boyfriend.” By now very friendly with The Rolling Stones, Faithfull took her baby to live with Brian Jones and his girlfriend, model Anita Pallenberg, who would become Faithfull’s best friend. At first promiscuous with the band, she ended up in a relationship with the lead singer, Jagger, making them one of the most talked about couples on the Swinging London scene. It was around this time that she began doing drugs, which would addle her career as a singer for the next decade.


The first scandal to befall her would leave a lasting mark, and set off a perception of her as an addict and a bad mother (a perceptions she would call a “double standard” in her autobiography). Police raided Keith Richards’ house on a drug search in 1966 and found Faithfull—by this time using cocaine—among them, naked and wrapped in a nothing but a fur rug. This event caused Faithfull enough anguish that she delved deeper into the lifestyle and drugs. Nevertheless, she continued to put out records.


In 1966 Faithfull released the albums North Country Maid (1966 Decca), which was another pop/folk record with songs like “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Scarborough Fair,” and Faithfull Forever (1966 London), a collection of recordings leftover from previous sessions with a version of Michel Legrand’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Faithfull’s music at this point was secondary in the public’s eye to her transfixing beauty, her growing drug habit and her famous lover.


Love in a Mist (1967 Decca) was her last record for Decca—and for the decade—and one of the standout tracks was the John D. Loudermilk song, “This Little Bird.” The song was a vehicle to convey the other side of her, the fragile spirit, a side that was in direct contrast to the party girl image she had cultivated for herself. That same year she began foraying into acting, appearing in two films—I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Ishame and Girl on a Motorcycle. Faithfull began to rekindle her interest in stage work, too, and landed a role in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at London’s Royal Court Theatre.


In 1968, Faithfull suffered another casualty of her dangerous lifestyle when she miscarried a daughter sojourning with Jagger to his rural Ireland home. Though her path was a descending one into harder drugs in more volume, throughout the remainder of the 1960s she become synonymous with The Rolling Stones, both as a muse—songs such as “Wild Horses” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are said to be about her—and as the songwriter. She wrote the song “Sister Morphine,” though she went unaccredited when it came out (a cause for strife later).


The dawn of the 1970s was the beginning of a harsh two-decade period for Faithfull, and she would find herself periodically hospitalized throughout the next decade with gradually dwindling public appearances. She was now a full-fledged heroin addict, which eventually landed her on the streets of London and severely minimalized her artistic output. Her relationship with Jagger ended in May of 1970, and soon thereafter she found herself in a downward spiral—she was homeless, malnourished and supporting a drug habit; she lost custody of her son, leading to a suicide attempt; and her career was in ruins.  


Trying to save her life, friends came together in 1972 to enroll Faithfull at England’s National Health Service (NHS), to get her on heroin maintenance via prescriptions—but she failed the program. Over the years, she still made contributions to the arts. Faithfull appeared in the Kenneth Anger film, Lucifer Rising, in 1972, and put out the album Dreamin’ My Dreams in 1975 (Island), but the sound of her voice had altered severely due a severe case of laryngitis aggravated by incessant cocaine use. Despite doing well in Ireland, the album was failed commercially.


By the end of that nightmarish decade, Faithfull began dating musician Ben Brierly—who was playing the punk band, The Vibrators—and was purportedly living in a squat with the band. She married Brierly in 1979, and after years of hard drinking and drug abuse had hardened her voice, she released one of her most critically acclaimed albums of her career—Broken English (Island). It was influenced in sound by her newfound punk rock friends, with political underpinnings; covers such as John Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero” were meaningful, as well as her own songs “Witches’ Song” and “Whay d’Ya Do It,” a punk-reggae track which featured acerbic lyrics culled from graffiti artist/poet, Heathcote Williams. This same year Faithfull made the headlines again when she was arrested in Norway on marijuana charges. She would relocate to New York City soon after.


Faithfull’s next record—Dangerous Acquaintances (1981 Island)—was her attempt at falling in with the burgeoning new wave scene of the time. Considered mediocre critically, the album featured the song “For Beauty’s Sake,” which Faithfull co-wrote with Steve Winwood. Her drug addiction hadn’t quelled during these years, and Faithfull fell down a flight of stairs while high on drugs and broke her jaw. Besides the anorexia nervosa which had plagued her since the early part of the previous decade, she began to have heart failure after years of cocaine use. She was also hurting again financially, still supporting her habits. However, by the late-’80s, Faithfull finally began to sober up after being treated at the famous Hazelden Center. She released the album Strange Weather (Island) in 1987, where she ventured into jazz with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Upon its release, the album received fair to middling press.


Since recovering from her drug abuse and many pratfalls over the years, Faithfull continued putting out albums, touring and appearing in movies throughout the 1990s and into the ’00s. She appeared in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, with Kirsten Dunst, as well as the Gus Van Sant short in the film, Paris, je t’aime. She has penned two autobiographies—Faithfull: An Autobiography (2000 Cooper Square Press) and Memories, Dreams and Reflections (2008 HarperCollins), and she returned to the charts in 1999 with her Daniel Lanois-produced Vagabond Ways, (Instinct), an album of cabaret and ballads that topped at #86 in the UK.






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