Marianne Faithfull is on the line and I’m reciting Lord Byron to her, as one does. “A mind at peace with all below, a heart whose love is innocent,” I say to the singer, survivor and one-time Rolling Stones muse. “I like that very much,” Faithfull says. “It’s a lovely vision.”
That bit of Byron is from the poem She Walks in Beauty, which is also the title of Faithfull’s new spoken-word album. Her elegantly rasped readings of Romantic poetry are set to music by Warren Ellis, the Australian musician, composer and Nick Cave associate.
Faithfull has been many things in her 74 years: a baroness’s daughter, a teenage pop star, an infamous “girl in fur rug,” a drug addict, a Broken English comeback queen, an alt-rock matriarch. I wanted to know who she is now. Can we apply the line from the poem to her? Is hers a heart whose love is innocent?
“I don’t know,” she says. And then: “No, I don’t think so.”
Is her mind at peace?
“In a way, yeah. At the moment, anyway.”
The album was recorded in part at her home in London, just before and during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The singer herself contracted the virus, and has recovered – somewhat. “I’m not great, but I’m okay,” she says. “I don’t want to tell you all the things that are wrong with me.”
Faithfull’s publicist had asked that the interview be brief: “She gets tired easily, and out of breath.” Faithfull keeps her replies short. “I don’t really remember,” she says, when asked who picked the Shelley poem Adonis that Mick Jagger read in memoriam for Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones at Hyde Park in 1969. “I thought the Shelley would be the best. It was the most like Brian, really.”
In between talking about the poem on the album that is most relevant to her now (Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving) and whether she misses the rock ‘n’ roll circus of the late sixties (”No.”), Faithfull dispenses hard-won wisdom related to her life and career.
On collaborations: “I don’t play the guitar. I can’t play an instrument. I have to work with other people, or I can’t write a song. Collaborators of mine have to be good-looking and charming and a little sexy and they have to be good musicians. But I always pick the right collaborator. I’ve been very lucky.”
On regrets: “What I’d tell my 1964 self is: ‘Don’t smoke.’ I don’t smoke now, and I wish I never did. And drugs and alcohol. But there’s no point in regrets. It just makes you unhappy.”
On fame: “It’s not much use, you know? It’s very irrelevant. But it does mean I can get a good table at the restaurant.”
On Tears Go By: “I’ve recorded it three times, and I think the best version is the last one [in 2018]. Why? I don’t know. I got it right, that’s all I can tell you. But then, I’m not trying to be right. I’m trying to do no harm, be a good person and be as happy as I can. That’s all.”
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