Marianne Faithfull interview: Yours Faithfully
The last thing you expect is that she'll call you sweetheart, volunteer comment on supposedly taboo topics, and round off with some jokey banter about the most notorious chocolate bar in the entire history of confectionery. But this is what happens when I meet Marianne Faithfull.
She's behind a closed door in a publicist's office in London, unglamorously situated directly under the A40, and I'm expecting her to be tricky and maybe haughty, arty and possibly pretentious, and only willing to talk about her new album. When I'm led in, she's sitting at the top end of a long table, still blonde and still beautiful, and I wonder if I'm supposed to remain at the bottom end, like a subordinate husband in a joyless, posh marriage. I think, what the hell, and move on up. She extends a hand and says hello in a rattling pebble croak that, as the Rolling Stones would have it, is 2000 light years from her prim girlie voice on 'As Tears Go By'. Five minutes later, however, she's telling me about the night she slept with Keith Richards.
"My guitar-playing friend... make my old memories come alive" – 'Sing Me Back Home', Merle Haggard
None of the tracks on Easy Come Easy Go was written by Faithfull, now 62, but in all of them there are lines which beg questions of her, such is the potency of cheap music, and such has been the colour and chaos of her life. Richards has been her guitar-playing friend for 45 years, and when he accompanied her on this track, the ghosts threatened to crowd the pair out of the studio.
She says: "I don't see him very often because he lives in the Caymans in a place called Pirate – where else? – but when we get together it's just like it was yesterday and singing this song with him was very emotional. I was with him and Gram Parsons the first time I heard it, back in the Sixties."
Faithfull's life has necessitated at least two autobiographies, and both books have been acclaimed for evoking seminal Swinging Sixties moments such as the shooting of the film Performance with its "seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients" including rockers, gangsters, drugs and the threesome-obsessed Scottish director Donald Cammell. She memorably described Richards as "the lute player in the window", penning a love song to his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, the ex of Brian Jones, who had just slept with Mick Jagger, Faithfull's lover, while the latter was expecting the lead Strolling Bone's baby.
Richards, though, was the one Faithfull really lusted after. She's said before that Richards was intuitively sexy while Jagger had to work at it, learning from Keith, and she adds today: "Mick didn't learn enough from him. He wasn't natural like Keith. Keith was so good-looking – they both were – but Keith loved women and didn't have to think about it and he's still like that. We had one night together, that was all. Great sex, fabulous sex." The best? "I can't say, that would be unkind."
Faithfull's life was pretty amazing before any of this. Her mother went from baroness (Austro-Hungarian) to Berlin showgirl to bus conductor, the latter after splitting from Faithfull's father, a wartime spy whose own dad invented a sexual contraption called the Frigidity Machine. Back on her mum's side, a great-uncle wrote the book which minted the term masochism, and Faithfull experienced the extremes of a commune and a convent before this wannabe beatnik caught the bus from sleepy Reading to sleep-around London, capital of the free love universe, where she entranced Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham who famously gasped: "I have seen an angel – an angel with big tits."
"Mistakes, I've made a few" – 'Ooh Baby', Smokey Robinson
Casting aside her "difficult" reputation, and an embargo on the subject of Jagger and also drugs, Faithfull agrees that finding a lyric to suit her on this record is like shooting fish in a barrel. "I was waiting for you to mention that line," she laughs. "I go through life – always have, still doing it – believing that I'm right. But the truth is I've always made these huge bloody mistakes. I wouldn't say Mick and the Stones were a mistake, it was a great thing, though I don't think Mick likes me now. I wouldn't say John (Dunbar, her first husband] was a mistake because I loved him and we had our son, Nicholas. Drugs were my big mistake and heroin took away my soul. My life would have been a lot happier without drugs, but I have to accept they're part of me."
"Feelin' as low as the grass" – 'Black Coffee', Peggy Lee
Faithfull has written about how Jagger got his energy from being around drug addicts, only using drugs himself in the manner of an undercover cop, to gain trust and affection. She says today: "Mick danced round the abyss whereas I dived straight in." During the Seventies, her addictions caused her to lose her career and also custody of her son, and she lived penniless on the streets of Soho – "on a wall".
But that wasn't Faithfull feeling her most insignificant. "That came when I was recovering. I got interested in Eastern religion. It helped me a lot to think of myself as a grain of sand." Being homeless, she says, never felt real. "I played Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row – it was as if the whole thing was a game. I knew it wasn't going to be permanent. Either I was going to die or I would survive."
Of course, the most famous story about Faithfull and drugs is the 1967 police raid at Richards' country pile. Two Stones were carted off to jail, changing British social history. Jagger was caught with amphetamines belonging to Faithfull; she had no pockets because she greeted the cops wearing only a fur rug.
"My mamma said I was a fool" – 'Down From Dover', Dolly Parton
"I'm glad to say my father never felt ashamed of me but my mother probably did," says Faithfull. "I think she was angry that I had so many wonderful gifts and, in her mind, it seemed I'd thrown them all away. But I only got over the drugs because of a mother's love. Unfortunately she didn't live to see this bit." Faithfull made a terrific comeback with the Broken English album, and Easy Come Easy Go finds cult acts queuing up to collaborate, including Rufus Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and Cat Power. "I'm a Capricorn," she says, "and they flower late."
"I just can't believe he's using me" – 'Down From Dover'
So did Faithfull, who once starred in a film called Naked Under Leather, ever feel exploited? "Yes, of course. By record companies, for sure, and probably by the Stones and Mick. That's maybe why Keith helped me with this album. He's no fool, he knows I was used as an ornament, that I was great for their image, so he's given me something back."
Married three times, an affair with a fellow addict who later killed himself – Faithfull says she's made "very bad choices" in love. When I ask if Jagger was "the one" she says: "Yes, probably. I certainly loved him." A relationship with her French manager is now history, but she says: "I have a new beau."
"Never return to England, no more" – 'Flandyke Shore', traditional
There was a time when Faithfull didn't think she would. "London held too many bad memories," she says, "but I've got over them. Today I can tell you we're close to 48 Cheyne Walk, where I lived with Mick, and a street corner where I used to score. It's cool now."
"Peace and quiet and open air" – 'Somewhere', Bernstein & Sondheim
Faithfull finds these things in Dublin and Paris where she divides her time. She loves to watch the world go by, watch South Park on TV and, above all, work. "I'm reaching my peak," she says. To treat herself in the French capital she'll pop down to the Chanel shop, but her only dangerous addiction these days is chocolate.
She mentioned chocolate, I didn't. The Mars bar-as-sex toy scandal has been great publicity for the work, rest and play snack, she smiles, but less good for her. "A myth, Mick, Keith and I are agreed about that. I would never do such a thing but for 32 years it's been used to put me down. Anyway, sweetheart, I'm still here."
• Easy Come Easy Go (Dramatico) is released March 16