FEMME FAITH­FULL

1960s sur­vivor Mar­i­anne Faith­full saves a ca­reer high­light for her seven­ties

The New European - - Agenda - BY PIERS FORD

Given the tu­mul­tuous life that has gone be­fore, it is hardly sur­pris­ing that Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity feels like Mar­i­anne Faith­full’s ul­ti­mate com­ing-home al­bum. Pre­vi­ous cre­ative peaks there might have been, but they all now seem to have led to this re­mark­able piece of work, which the singer calls the most hon­est record she’s ever made.

Her story has been much told: dis­cov­ery aged 17 by An­drew Loog Old­ham at a Rolling Stones party; her re­la­tion­ship with Mick Jag­ger; and drug-re­lated en­coun­ters with the law from which he emerged with his rock star rep­u­ta­tion en­hanced, while Faith­full was as­signed the role of fallen an­gel by the tabloids.

Then there was a very pub­lic sui­cide at­tempt, and her sub­se­quent de­scent into ad­dic­tion and a kind of half-ex­is­tence on a Soho wall. Cre­ative re-awak­en­ing came in 1979 with a sem­i­nal al­bum, Bro­ken English. She em­barked on the long road to re­cov­ery, fi­nally get­ting clean in 1985.

There were oc­ca­sional but il­lu­mi­nat­ing act­ing roles, in­clud­ing an ap­pear­ance as God in Ab­so­lutely Fab­u­lous. But over­ar­ch­ing ev­ery­thing was her im­pe­ri­ous artis­tic evo­lu­tion on stage and in the record­ing stu­dio, build­ing a ca­reer that em­braced ma­te­rial from Cow­ard to Weill, col­lab­o­rat­ing with a wide-rang­ing who’s who of song-writ­ers and pro­duc­ers, and de­vel­op­ing writ­ing tal­ents that first be­came ev­i­dent with Sis­ter Mor­phine, the song that trig­gered a long le­gal bat­tle be­fore she was given co-au­thor sta­tus with Jag­ger and Keith Richards. More re­cently, a pile-up of se­ri­ous ill­ness, ac­ci­dents and in­juries have tested even Faith­full’s Phoenix-like ca­pac­ity for re­gen­er­a­tion.

If you want the de­fin­i­tive ver­sion, check out her 1994 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Faith­less and the 2007 fol­low-up mem­oir Mem­o­ries, Dreams and Re­flec­tions. What emerges most strik­ingly from her bleakly hu­mor­ous and un­spar­ing ac­counts is that even dur­ing the hard­est years, she clung suf­fi­ciently to the ves­tiges of cre­ative in­tegrity and found a way to keep go­ing. Work has been an es­sen­tial sur­vival mech­a­nism for Faith­full, un­der­pinned by a se­ri­ous mu­si­cal­ity and com­mit­ment that were ap­par­ent even in those ten­ta­tive early record­ings.

Qui­etly pro­fes­sional, she ac­quired the nick­name ‘One-take Mar­i­anne’, which by all ac­counts still holds true to­day. There has al­ways been a nat­u­ral in­ti­macy with the mi­cro­phone which gives her vo­cals a dis­tinc­tive qual­ity that more ver­sa­tile and ro­bust singers would strug­gle to match. And her in­tu­itive, oc­ca­sion­ally ec­cen­tric phras­ing was a fea­ture of her record­ings from the start.

There were also clear early signs of a de­sire for artis­tic con­trol. A lit­tle- re­marked foot­note to her early ca­reer is that she re­leased two de­but al­bums on the same day – an epony­mously ti­tled record of her pop hits, and Come My Way, a folk al­bum that ac­tu­ally per­formed bet­ter in the charts.

The sense of a cir­cle be­ing com­pleted with Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity is en­hanced by the al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ous re­lease of a hand­some pack­age of her Decca sin­gles (Come and stay with me: The UK 45s 19641969). It serves a re­minder that while she isn’t quite the last woman stand­ing, there was a time when Mar­i­anne Faith­full seemed the least likely sur­vivor from the pack of 1960s Bri­tish fe­male singers whose voices are among the decade’s most defin­ing mu­si­cal sounds.

She was never re­ally ‘one of the girls’, of course, al­though she did record a fine cover ver­sion of Pe­tula Clark’s Down­town

and much later, would of­fer her own take on one of Dusty Spring­field’s sig­na­ture num­bers Goin’ Back. Faith­full’s ca­reer took a rather dif­fer­ent turn from the likes of Pe­tula, Dusty, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black, and would even­tu­ally earn her a host of rep­u­ta­tion-defin­ing ep­i­thets, from the ul­ti­mate rock chick to counter-cul­ture icon.

There’s a pleas­ing cor­re­la­tion be­tween

Gypsy Faerie Queen, co-writ­ten with Nick Cave, one of the stand-out tracks on

Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity, and the pas­toral folk songs that briefly promised a dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory early in a ca­reer that stretches back to 1964. In­spired by A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, the song con­jures a land­scape across which the faerie queen wan­ders for eter­nity, heal­ing the wounded earth with her songs. Faith­full’s role is am­bigu­ous: she is the voice of Puck as he fol­lows his mistress, yet the John May­bury-di­rected ac­com­pa­ny­ing video, with her ten­derly smil­ing face su­per­im­posed on the queen’s syl­van progress, also sug­gests that the singer is catch­ing a poignant glimpse of her own youth­ful self.

There are echoes of this, too, in the art­work for the al­bum, which casts Faith­full as a stately grande dame, al­beit rest­ing on a sil­ver-han­dled ebony stick rather than Ti­ta­nia’s black­thorn staff. It’s a for­mi­da­ble im­age be­fit­ting an artist who has reached a key point of reck­on­ing in her life. And in­deed, Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity

proves in part to be an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal stock-tak­ing.

When I spoke to her about the re­lease of her al­bum Easy Come, Easy Go back in 2007, Faith­full was typ­i­cally un­equiv­o­cal about her voice. “I know my flaws as a singer and I try to use my strengths to com­pen­sate,” she said. “I know I won’t be ev­ery­body’s cup of tea. It’s a funny thing. It may be that women are ex­pected to have ei­ther a very pretty voice or a vir­tu­oso beau­ti­ful voice, whereas I’ve al­ways liked Leonard Co­hen and Bob Dy­lan and Neil Young – all those peo­ple. They haven’t got great voices but they have an in­cred­i­ble abil­ity to put across a song.”

This qual­ity in her own singing is an­other rea­son why Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity seems to be a per­fect con­flu­ence of mu­si­cal in­flu­ences as well as life ex­pe­ri­ences. The ar­range­ments cra­dle Faith­full’s scarred voice in sparse, dis­creet vi­olin har­monies, mak­ing an in­stru­ment of its fragility in a way that hasn’t re­ally hap­pened since her flurry of 1960s sin­gles.

There are brushes with the past: she re­vis­its As Tears Go By, once sung by a girl old beyond her years but now with the ben­e­fit of a half-cen­tury of hard-learned wis­dom, and The Witches’ Song from Bro­ken English, an ode to sis­ter­hood from an al­bum that was far ahead of its time but now plays like a bea­con for the #Metoo era. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue is a nod to the in­flu­ence of Bob Dy­lan and her em­pa­thy with her con­tem­po­rary troubadours.

For the most part, how­ever, the fo­cus is on new songs that ar­tic­u­late the pain of los­ing trea­sured friends, and their bit­ter­sweet legacy of love and lone­li­ness. The wounds of loss are pal­pa­ble, not least on Born to Live, a ten­der eu­logy to her great friend Anita Pal­len­berg, and Don’t Go, an exquisitely sad med­i­ta­tion on grief and the fu­tile long­ing for just an­other day with the loved one who must slip away. The whole al­bum is bathed in melan­choly

with­out tip­ping into self-pity. Of­fload­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for old choices has never been Faith­full’s style. There is no im­po­tent rag­ing at life’s di­min­ish­ing cir­cle.

In­stead, she re­serves her anger for the ter­ror­ists who have fo­cused their at­tacks on mu­sic venues: the driv­ing men­ace of They Come at Night, which cuts across the record like a bloody gouge, was her re­sponse to events at the Bat­a­clan the­atre in her adopted home of Paris on Novem­ber 13, 2015, when 89 con­cert­go­ers were mur­dered dur­ing a co­or­di­nated at­tack across the city. She was one of the first artists to per­form there when the hall re­opened a year later.

The record has been trailed as Faith­full’s ‘late life mas­ter­piece’, a phrase that could eas­ily have made it a hostage to for­tune. But de­spite its som­bre themes, it turns out to be an af­firm­ing, fit­ting tes­ta­ment from a re­mark­ably re­silient artist to a life for which the de­scrip­tion ‘com­pli­cated’ would hardly be ad­e­quate, and a steely char­ac­ter who re­fuses to trade in ba­nal nos­tal­gia.

The ti­tle might be a quote lifted from Keats, but with its con­tem­pla­tive, com­ingto-terms fa­tal­ism, the al­bum has an ex­is­ten­tial, Brel-like feel as Faith­full puts her­self at the heart of these in­tensely per­sonal sto­ries. A re­minder that, de­spite the English folk ref­er­ences in so many of her early record­ings, she has al­ways seemed most com­fort­able in the foot­steps of the great Euro­pean and Amer­i­can troubadours.

Her im­pec­ca­ble Euro­pean cre­den­tials – her Aus­trian mother was a dancer in Weimar Berlin – have sus­tained her well through­out a con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with her na­tive Bri­tain. In France, she was made a Com­man­deur of the Or­dre des Arts et des Let­tres in 2011, one of the coun­try’s high­est cul­tural awards. Back home, she has had to make do with Q mag­a­zine’s icon of the year award in 2010.

When No Moon in Paris, the fi­nal song on Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity dies away, it’s like a cam­era pulling back, leav­ing her alone in her Mont­par­nasse eyrie, bereft now of even a com­pan­ion that has pre­vi­ously of­fered com­fort wher­ever she has found her­self around the globe. There is noth­ing left but sim­ple truth.

This is a stark im­age: Faith­full stripped of the folk­lore that has dogged her ca­reer, mak­ing her finest work in the teeth of phys­i­cal de­cline at 71. A singer who has long since earned the right to be taken se­ri­ously as a hard-work­ing, se­ri­ous mu­si­cian in the same bracket as her male con­tem­po­raries.

“There’s per­fect hon­our in be­ing a sur­vivor and it’s fine,” she once told me. “There are some amaz­ing peo­ple around still left from those times [the 1960s], and I think it’s wise to cher­ish them.” As Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity lands, per­haps it re­ally is high time for the rest of us to cher­ish this woman as one of them.

Nega­tive Ca­pa­bil­ity (BMG Records) and Come and Stay With Me: The UK 45s 19651969 (Ace Records) are out now

Photo: Getty Im­ages

ON STAGE: Mar­i­anne Faith­full per­form­ing at L’olympia, Paris, on Novem­ber 20, 2014

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