Saturday, February 4, 2012

Marianne Faithfull: "I've been working all my life to get my persona and my true self a bit more together."

Listeners unfamiliar with Marianne Faithfull may wonder what all the fuss is about: her voice seems like a ruin, and her songs are a gothic landscape of unfulfilled longing. Yet it's just these qualities that long-time fans find redeem her pop-star past and underscore her singular career as a singer, fearlessly chain-smoking her way from songs by Harry Nilsson to Nick Cave to Bertolt Brecht. She's a one-woman Weimar Republic of a chanteuse, and with the current economy in its tottering, sorry state her music sounds as timely as ever, and just as dark.

At 65 (can that be right?), Marianne continues to record 48 years after "As Tears Go By" was an international hit in 1964. Last year she returned with an album recorded in New Orleans, Horses and High Heels, with musical appearances by Lou Reed, Dr. John, and Wayne Kramer of the MC5. It continues her association with producer Hal Wilner, who first collaborated with the singer on 1979's Broken English.

Interview magazine featured a talk Faithfull had with the writer Evelyn McDonnell, whose line of questioning is heavy on the Stones references and high on the decadence image, which the singer doesn't exactly discourage ("I don't do much that is decadent in my life. But I still am decadent. It's a state of mind.")

It's a pose she wears well, and with some cause; she is the grandniece of the writer whose own descriptions of decadence took on the family name in the term "masochism," Leopold Sacher-Masoch. But she's become absolutely at home in her world-weary persona, like any rock star who can slip in-and-out of character, and certainly the audience for Interview can live vicariously through a brief retelling of Marianne's own wobbly past.

" ... people will think what they think, and sometimes some of it will be really bad shit. But I don't think my fans want me to be anyone else. I couldn't anyway ... it is a persona, but it doesn't look like a persona because I've been working all my life to get my persona and my true self a bit more together, so that I don't have to pretend. And now I think I've done it."

McDonnell doesn't do anything to explain this appeal to decadence (you either enjoy Marianne's voice and songs -- and I do -- or you find them inexplicable), but the interview does trace a line from past to present with a directness that Marianne finds astonishing in the telling: how did I get here from there?

It's an old twist on the celebrity tale when Ms. Faithfull -- after being at the center of the cultural '60s storm, thanks in part to the Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham -- admits that "(I've) learned to live life as it actually is, which helps a lot ... it's wise to try to be realistic." You can take that remark at face value, or it can serve as the ultimate cautionary tale of wretched excess survived, from the co-writer of "Sister Morphine."

The attitude is a good way to sell albums and books, too, if after all Faithfull has gone through in her life she's still astounded by the presumptions and attitudes of others. Speaking of her shock at a director who wrote a script based on Faithfull, her 1994 down-and-out, rock-life autobiography, she then laughs: "I didn't realize they could do that -- that they would just buy a book title and then make it all up."

Even more astounding is the fact it's Carrie Fisher who explains the wicked, wicked ways of Hollywood to her: "She said, 'You know, you may think that your story has been degraded enough' -- which I do think, that in my life it has been quite degraded enough -- 'but there are people who will want to degrade you more.'" Later in the interview Faithfull comes back to the topic of the director and the fabricated scene:

"I did assume that anybody who wanted to make a film of my book -- and this guy is very well-known and very respected -- would do it because they wanted to and because they liked me. But I was completely wrong. He just wanted to put me down. He thought I was not only a prostitute in the time when I was living on the street, but a prostitute in art, which I'm not."

Her 2007 autobiography, now out in paperback, is called Memories, Dreams and Reflections; it's "a nice little book" in contrast to her earlier memoir, of which she says now, "everybody said I should do it -- get it out of my system. So I did." The new album contains a collection of cover songs ranging from Carole King to the Shangri-Las, as well as some unfamiliar song territory: 'We chose some soul material this time which I was very unsure of at first ... It's all a very different style for me." But fans can be re-assured: about the original "Why Did We Have to Part," she comments that 'I just couldn't resist a break-up song -- and the pain is over."

""All the songs are about now, you know?" she said about the music of Horses and High Heels. But the new album, like the 2009 collaboration Easy Come, Easy Go, are part of a continuing portrait: "All the way through these songs," Faithfull tells the interviewer, "there are one or two lines that, if I'd put them together, would make my story. I like that. I believe we have to have a story and we have to express it, and I've got one."

Photographs from the April 2009 issue of Interview by Paolo Roversi)

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