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Sister Morphine

Victim and victor of the 20th century’s joust between music and morals, rock siren Marianne Faithfull brings out a new album this month — at age 61, writes Renuka Narayanan.

entertainment Updated: Nov 07, 2008 23:41 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times

It’s not just the new album by Marianne Faithfull (Easy Come, Easy Go) that’s supposed to be out this month. It’s also 40 years this year since she made herself into an Eternal Icon with the film Girl on a Motorcycle (1968). The supersexy French actor, Alain Delon, was her co-star and she played a young wife who takes off on a motorcycle, symbol of freedom, to see her lover in Heidelberg — all the while figuring out her relationship to the two men. (In real life, Faithfull married Andrew Dunbar, had a son in 1965, and walked out to live with Mick Jagger soon after. She broke up with Jagger in 1970.)

Most unforgettably, Faithfull wore a black leather body suit in the film that zipped down the front. From it arose her porcelain angelface, around which tossed about her long blonde mane. Instant history? Oh, yes. Nobody who saw that film forgot it and if you haven’t, do rent the DVD and catch up on the dark-but-heady freedom that the Swinging Sixties in London represented. For Marianne Faithfull was the absolute queen of that scene.

She sang ‘As Tears Go By’, the first song ever written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Five albums followed and her ‘ultra-mod’ film on a motorcycle was made with parallel forays on stage into high literature: a Chekhov story (‘Three Sisters’) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Then, the drugs got to her, she suffered an eclipse and broke up with Jagger. She re-emerged in the late 70s with two new albums that brought her back on the charts. Since then, never too much but never not enough, Faithfull has continuously reinvented herself as a singer, songwriter, actress and Presence: a presence that people far younger find irresistible because nobody ever after in the rock scene was quite so beautiful and classy, so fascinatingly ‘lady-turned-tramp-but-always-a-lady’. She told her story in an autobiography (Faithfull) in 1994 and describes herself even now as “utterly unsentimental, yet somehow affectionate”.

If you get right down to it, the big moral lesson for anybody trying to live out these present times seems to be that you do need an education because that’s what saves you from your own death wish and from excessive substance abuse. A survivor’s spirit coupled with the great safety net that a good education creates, that props your spine even if you’ve fallen. Mindmagic that helps you get back upright.

Faithfull dipped repeatedly into history and literature: Faust, Marie-Antoinette, The Threepenny Opera, the Bible — The Seven Deadly Sins is rated by some as her best album and she does readings of Shakespeare’s love sonnets to the cello. She also re-explored the composer-playwright duo whose productions her mother, Baroness Eva Erisso von Sacher-Masoch, danced to in her ballerina days: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

In the face of her own amazingly operatic life, Faithfull’s ancestry was just more spice: while her English father was a major in the British army who later became a professor of psychology, her mother, a Viennese descended from the Habsburg dynasty, with Jewish blood thrown in, was a great-niece of Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of the 19th century erotic bestseller Venus in Furs that spawned the term ‘masochism’.

Faithfull influenced Jagger with her own highbrow literary taste. The song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ from the Stones’s album Beggars Banquet famously came in part from Mikhail Bulgakov’s book, The Master and Margarita.

Faithfull went to New York, reinvented herself as a jazz and blues singer, married and divorced again, went bisexual, did everything ‘sane’ people did not. Every time she came apart, she put herself together again with dignity and a new lease of creative life. You need to hear her sing the Elizabethan madrigal ‘Greensleeves’ and the traditional French song ‘Plaisir d’Amour’. It makes perfect sense to an Indian, doesn’t it, that you can have the past and present ‘segue seamlessly’, as reviewers like to say, together in one mind? That a rock goddess who loved literature and used them as lifelines — and sort of swung the Saraswati?