Marianne Faithfull is often unfairly remembered these days as a minor character in the Rolling Stones story. Discovered by Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham as a teenager and signed to Decca in 1964, the ex-convent-school girl had a hit with her first single (“As Tears Go By”) and, over the next three years, her dulcet, folk-pop sounds met with chart success on both sides of the Atlantic.
During the halcyon days of “Swinging London”, Faithfull fell in with their Satanic Majesties and became romantically entwined with Jagger. As her drug consumption increased, so did her ambivalence toward her own music—and, rather than enhancing her pop star cachet, Faithfull’s involvement with the Stones ultimately contributed to the derailing of her career. The pivotal moment in that regard was, of course, her arrest at the legendary drugs bust at Keith Richards’ Redlands estate in February 1967, wearing only a fur rug and, according to lurid popular myth, secreting a Mars Bar about her person.
In the aftermath of the Redlands raid, William Rees-Mogg’s celebrated “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” editorial in The Times swayed public opinion in favor of Mick and Keef, who had received absurdly harsh sentences for possession, and their convictions were soon overturned. Marianne Faithfull, on the other hand, although acquitted, was subjected to the full tabloid treatment (“NAKED GIRL AT STONES PARTY!”; “NUDE GIRL IN MERRY MOOD AT DRUG PARTY!”), as well as the inevitable public opprobrium that accompanied her trial by media.
While the Glimmer Twins emerged from the affair as larger-than-life rock and roll rebels, Faithfull—in keeping with the prejudicial and hypocritical climate of the times vis-a-vis matters of gender and sexual mores—was marked as a latter day scarlet woman and her time as an angelic pop sensation was effectively over. Following one last single with Decca in 1969 (the unsettlingly bleak drug ballad “Sister Morphine”, which she co-wrote with Jagger and Richards and which signaled a complete change in artistic direction), she broke with Jagger and apparently disappeared into the annals of rock history.
Of course, that abridged version doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the Marianne Faithfull saga. By the end of the ‘60s, she had begun to turn her talents to theater, playing Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters alongside Glenda Jackson at the Royal Court in 1967 and Ophelia in Tony Richardson’s 1969 production of Hamlet. (The latter was quite an achievement in that Faithfull was, by her own account, shooting heroin during the intermission.) She also starred in films such as Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name (1967), with Orson Welles and Oliver Reed, and Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), with Alain Delon. In 1973 she would play in Lilith in Kenneth Anger’s cult classic Lucifer Rising.
Although Faithfull went on to spend much of the ‘70s and ‘80s down and out in New York and London battling her drug demons, during those years she also managed to rebuild her musical career. By the time of her re-emergence, the sweet, packaged pop ingenue of the mid-‘60s was long gone, her place taken by a harsh-voiced, world-weary and wise chanteuse.
Faithfull re-invented herself as an earthy, unsettling chronicler of the darker sides of the human condition, continuing pretty much where she had left off with “Sister Morphine”. That her mother was a relative of the man who put the “masoch-” in masochism—Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—might account, in part at least, for Faithfull’s relentless musical revisiting of primal scenes of anguish, usually bound up with embattled romantic and sexual involvements.
Her albums over the last 30 years may not have always been entirely convincing, yet Broken English (1979), Dangerous Acquaintances (1981), and Strange Weather (1987) are hard to fault. The gritty psychodrama of Broken English ranks among her greatest accomplishments to date, providing a blueprint for subsequent recordings by a host of female alternative artists—most notably, Polly Jean Harvey, whose strongest work on Dry and Rid of Me owes a debt to Faithfull’s uncompromising, introspective artistry and her raw, rough-edged intensity.
Nevertheless, Marianne Faithfull’s true significance lies not in her songwriting skills or her abilities as a “musician” per se, but in the way she performs material, primarily material penned by other artists. Faithfull’s craft hinges on an ability to interpret others’ works, be they literary texts or pop songs, rendering them with her inimitable vocal register and off-kilter phrasing, often imbuing them with new emotive and affective dimensions. From Samuel Beckett (yes, Samuel Beckett) to Shel Silverstein, from Brecht and Weill to Van Morrison, from Laclos to John Lennon, Marianne Faithfull has consistently drawn on a diverse range of sources, all of whose material she has treated to striking re-workings.
True comprises a missing link between the two stages of Faithfull’s music career. Recorded in 1971 with Mike Leander, who had produced some of her best work in the mid-‘60s, these tracks were originally slated for release on the Bell label. Bell, however, backed out and the songs first appeared on the 1984 LP Rich Kid Blues, where they were combined with her 1978 album Faithless.
While True is a transitional work that recalls Faithfull’s earlier folk-pop successes and hints at the direction her work would subsequently take, it also reminds listeners how erratic Faithfull’s recordings have been over the years. This blues- and country-tinged album of covers combines truly inspired, memorable performances with unimaginative, throwaway versions of some great source material.
The opening song, “Rich Kid Blues” (by the sadly under-recognized Terry Reid), bodes well. Faithfull’s skill as an interpreter of others’ works is undeniable, particularly during the track’s slower moments when she imposes her measured phrasing and injects the song with just the right amount of ennui.
The most effective cuts are those on which the instrumentation is sparse and the arrangements simple. Cat Stevens’ “Sad Lisa” is stripped of its twee string sections and the emphasis is placed squarely on Faithfull’s voice, which amplifies the melancholy of the original recording. No less successful are “Southern Butterfly” by Tim Hardin and James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim”, the former translated with a lilting simplicity and the latter with fragile jazziness.
Although acoustic instrumentation provides the perfect environment for Faithfull’s lyrical presence, on tracks with a bigger sound her vocals still rise to the occasion to occupy center stage. This is best exemplified on Sandy Denny’s “Crazy Lady Blues”, “Chords of Fame” (Phil Ochs’s meditation on the transience of pop celebrity) and “Beware of Darkness”, on which Faithfull’s vocals capture the balance between despair and hope at the heart of this George Harrison song.
Faithfull may have played God on Absolutely Fabulous, but her work has long borne traces of her human fallibility and, on True, there are several lapses. On “Long Black Veil”, for instance, Faithfull fails to convey the drama central to the song’s narrative. One has only to listen to Nick Cave’s version to hear what can be done with this track.
True‘s weakest moments can be heard on Faithfull’s Bob Dylan covers. Covering Dylan is an immensely difficult job and, despite the vast number of re-recordings of his songs, few artists have completed the task in a memorable fashion. For my money, the handful who have succeeded are Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”), The Triffids (“I Am a Lonesome Hobo”), Bryan Ferry (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”) and, again, Nick Cave (“Wanted Man”). In contrast with such accomplished versions, Faithfull’s attempts at Dylan on True reveal an uncharacteristically mediocre grasp of the spirit of the original songs and an inability to make them her own in any distinctive and convincing way.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” are simply unremarkable, but on “Visions of Johanna” she loses the plot noticeably. Faithfull approximates Dylan’s phrasing reasonably well, but the pacing goes awry and, at a couple of painful moments, she sounds like a cross between William Shatner and a posh, stoned English headmistress hamming it up with wooden, melodramatic flourishes. Add to that a bland musical arrangement that just goes through the motions and Dylan’s “thin, wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde is recast here in decidedly tame, clunky pewter.
In her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull summed up her performance on the material gathered on True by saying, “I can’t bear to listen to it. It’s the voice of someone incredibly high, probably on the edge of death, making a record. Anybody who heard that record would have just said, ‘Well that’s it. We’ll never hear from her again.’” Faithfull’s damning comments notwithstanding, the good significantly outweighs the not-so-good on True. For the most part, her considerable talents shine through and you can hear why she’s considered one of the most distinctive female vocalists not only of her generation, but also of a couple of others.