Marianne Faithfull: An Unfair Life

She was always labelled as just being Mick Jagger's missus, but, as 'Broken English' proves, she was a bloody talented musician in her own right...
Publish date:
Updated on


My misconceptions about Marianne Faithfull are as follows:

She was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, who turned her into a rock star, was discovered nude during a drug bust, got hooked on heroin as a result, lived in a wall cavity in a squat for a bit, then released Broken English in 1979 (about to be re-released in an expanded deluxe edition) and was fixed again.

I was pretty happy with this completely incorrect assumption about her life. It was nice and neat and tidy. Tragedy, redemption, followed by a series of appearances on Later with Jools Holland. It is now a recognised path in the music industry.

But I think it’s the completely contradictory and convoluted progress of her life which makes her difficult to pinpoint, leading to a healthy lack of respect for her output. Google her name and the fifth result returned are pictures of her looking like shit in the Daily Mail and in the ‘related searches’ suggestions ‘mars bar incident’ ranks above ‘songs’. Even the most fawning, flattering profiles kick off with the usual mention of love triangles, nudeness under rugs and drugs, usually discussing how the singer hates talking about them and how they are going to talk about them anyway.

And The Stones. Always The Stones. Even though her relationship with Mick Jagger lasted four years and ended 42 years ago, when Faithfull was 24. She’s had about six lifetimes since then.  I’d forgotten about the amazing ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’ (aka Naked Under Leather) directed by Jack Cardiff, in which she stars. Or the pre-Broken English country album which was a hit in Ireland. Or this dazzling, baffling duet with Bowie in 1973:

And then there was Broken English. A fierce return to form. But it didn’t save her, as the tidy narrative wants to suggest. She was still an addict before, during and after its release. She broke her jaw during a drug stupor in the 1980s and admitted to being hooked on painkillers in the mid 2000s. She now claims to be fully recovered after being diagnosed and treated for clinical depression. In a recent interview, when asked when she was at her happiest, she said, ‘before I was discovered’.

It must be very frustrating for an artist who continually lays herself bare and reveals so much of herself, only to have her history mangled and relayed back to her. There have been two volumes of autobiography, both lauded for their honesty and each album, including Broken English, feature songs or covers illustrating her often devastating circumstances. Perhaps the most revealing being her cover of ‘As Tears Go By’ on 1987’s Strange Weather, the song that started it all, re-versioned as a curse being recanted.

There have been over 20 albums since the 60s ended (including compilations) plus numerous film and stage appearances. Contemporary artists clamber to work with her, but she never seems to attain the same respectful reverence as many of her own contemporaries, who all seemed to take the showbiz light entertainment route (Dusty! Cilla! Petula! Sandie!).

It’s almost as if she’s never quite been punished enough, ironic for a woman who is now Baroness Sacher-Masoch, of the masochistic Sacher-Masochs. I don’t know if the press have never forgiven her for the perceived ‘indiscretions’ of the 1960s (leaving her husband for a rock star, losing custody of her kid) or have a certain image of Faithfull in their minds and are too lazy to do anything about it. She’s still either ‘Mick Jagger’s former girlfriend’ (as noted 4 years, 40 years ago) or some svengali led patsy who lucked out.

Was she never forgiven for being that beautiful, big-eyed posh girl who dared to have a life of her own, rather than regurgitating the songs placed before her that she was expected to warble without question? Or that she dared to consider having some sort of career post-Mick? Or that she was a deb that seemingly had it all and fucked it all away in a way that a gazillion other male stars have done and returned unscathed and respected? Did we just want that lilting little girl voice to sing to us about little birds and drifting streams and couldn’t take her own songs about barbed-wire pussies and sucking cock (from Broken English’s extraordinary ‘Why’d Ya Do It?’)?

Perhaps none of those, perhaps a little bit of all. But there’s a stigma to her that can’t seem to be shaken. It seems wilfully unfair.  Hopefully the re-release of Broken English (which Marianne herself points out failed to make any ‘Best Albums of the 70s’ lists, despite its formidable reputation) will inch her towards the National Treasure end of the spectrum. And that respectful imbalance will be corrected.

The deluxe edition of Broken English is released on January 28th on UMC/Island