I remember meeting Marianne Faithfull for the first time. We were separated by a few thousand midnights, but even then, her eyes were kind, familiar. I remember her swaying figure through the glass of the control room at Globe Studios in New York. She was singing “English Girls Approximately,” a song I had written for an album, Love is Hell, that I’d made in three cities and in more than a little fog. As she cut the vocals on a very old RCA microphone, an ancient Elvis–looking spiderweb of silver grills and wires, I knew it was a mile marker for me. I also remember hazily talking to Marianne from the Chelsea Hotel some time thereafter, her voice a waterfall of calm and much needed kindness.
I had managed to construct my first art show, which fittingly showed in a bar, Niagara to be exact, on Avenue A and Seventh Street. Marianne came to my show that night and maybe from there she followed me to the studio. I did so many drugs back then, my days were fitted more for the outer planets on a longer day cycle.
It was winter, and every day was a miracle. Things like meeting Marianne and knowing she was going to be around were little silver threads that led me safely to the new days.
Marianne is the ultimate muse, and at the same time she dodges that weight. In her efforts, and in her romantic, seething nature, she lunges past the arrow and makes the perfect records, or says the perfect thing when you aren’t looking. Her gift is truth. And she is fucking gifted, gold-gilded and probably the smartest, sexiest, most engaging person you ever met (or didn’t).
It is said “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was written for her. If we knew all of the Rolling Stones songs penned from her suggestions and stories, following the big brother/big sister embrace the Rolling Stones extended to her after she covered “As Tears Go By,” I’m sure it would be alarming.
She wrote “Sister Morphine.” She lived on a wall. She recovered from an addiction that beat her into the streets, destitute, more than once. Still, she endured. She is a phoenix, if one kept rising and re-rising.
Her album Broken English is essential. It is bold neon color. It is a scream past desperation. Broken English and Marianne’s autobiography, Faithfull, are tools necessary for any self-iconoclast, or anyone who would like to discover just how elegantly one might fall and crack seamlessly like a silver unicorn egg on a rattled mirror-ball floor.
Ours is a world of many stories and this one, this story, this woman and this life, is without compare. This life is a fleeting one, but it is a survivors’ tale and she is its champion. Marianne Faithfull has a voice to quiet rough seas riddled with beasts. She is the ineffable master, the ultimate crush, the one who knocked you into bed for the great winter of your affections. She starts our conversation with “Ryan, how are you?”
Hey, babe. Better now that I’m talking to you. So, what are you up to? I heard you’re retiring for a while.
I think so. Good idea. I would love to do it, just to make people appreciate what I have. It’s what Leonard did—you know, Leonard Cohen. When your period of introspection is over, they’ll all still be there.
Will I look as good as you look? Yeah.
Word. You’ll be fine. You’ve got beautiful bones and good teeth, and those things last. And if you haven’t got great teeth, when you’re older you can always get them put in.
I’ve always had really strong teeth. It’s very important because that’s what your face hangs on. It makes the shape of the face.
You know you’ve got the best teeth. They’re not all mine, dear. My front teeth were punched out by a male nurse in the detox clinic.
Do you know that my front teeth were punched out when I was a kid, in a parental situation? They’re fake. Oh, my dear. Well, there you go, we both have fake teeth, then.
That’s why we sing the blues so well. You can’t hit those notes unless you’re missing a few teeth. I quit smoking, Marianne. Oh, darling.
I went to a hypnotist yesterday. I have the name of a very good hypnotist in London, but I’m afraid to go because I’ve lost weight and I’m so pleased with myself. When you stop smoking, your metabolism doesn’t quite know what to do and you have to exercise a lot and all that shit. And I’m not ready for that, you know.
So you’ve made this new album Easy Come, Easy Go, produced by Hal Willner. Hal is a very old friend of mine. We’ve been through thick and thin—and quite a lot of thin. I met him in the early ’80s, when he was doing tribute records like the one to Nino Rota. And then he was doing a Kurt Weill one and he wanted to meet me.
Was he at Saturday Night Live then? Yeah. He’s had that job as long as I’ve known him. He’s had as many ups and downs as me, or dare I say, even you. He’s had a very picaresque life in many ways. And now he’s been very stable for 11 years. We became really good friends and we went through all these changes together, and finally we came out at the other end having made one very beautiful studio record. I wanted to leave a long time between them so this new record couldn’t be compared to that one, and in fact, it is very different. We did it very fast, with really great musicians.
There are some songs on here that are pretty exciting and pretty different, by everyone from Billie Holiday to Neko Case and some newer writers. I think the modern songs are brilliant. I love the Decemberists.
They’re amazing. I’m dying to meet them. I’m coming over, Ryan. We must meet up quietly.
Yeah. And I’ll be doing a couple of gigs with the original band on the record. I’m sure you know all those guys as well.
Tell me about why you chose to cover the Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife 3.” Hal found that song, and what I love about “The Crane Wife” is that it’s a folk tale. It’s about a man who falls in love with and marries a swan. The only real concept for this record was to work with great songs, and these were the ones that happened to be chosen from the modern idiom. I could have easily taken one of yours, and maybe I will one day.
Ooh. Oh, yes.
I love that you picked “Sing Me Back Home” by Merle Haggard, and had Keith Richards play on it. I knew you would. You like Merle Haggard, don’t you?
I think he’s such an asshole, but I really love his music. His sound is so tight, you can just hear the coffee and amphetamines dropping off. I know.
You know, his message, sort of anti-weirdo, reminds me of my dad. But I love his music, obviously. It was quite hard to choose that song, but what swung me was that I learned it from Keith himself in the ’60s. He used to sing it with Gram Parsons.
Can I ask you a couple of peripheral questions? Anything, you can ask me anything.
When you’re in New York, what are some of your favorite local things to do? Well, I love all of those funny bars downtown. That’s where I met you. I can’t remember which one.
Niagara. And I met Rufus [Wainwright] the same night as you.
You guys were hitting it off. Rufus had a way to go before he completely cleaned up and me, too. But I did and so did he.
I remember that session you and I did together… I remember it very well. I thought it was a great session and I loved the songs.
You and I sang on a song called “English Girls Approximately,” which was on my album Love Is Hell. The cover image on the record is from when you and I met down at the bar and I snuck into the two-dollar photo booth to snap a photo of myself. Did you? Well, you were in very good form.
I guess, for then. I’ve been sober now for three years. You cleaned up.
I was having an existential crisis. Yeah, I’m not surprised. You’ve been working very hard, Ryan. And that’s when you have to take a break. You’re lucky you’re not doing a destructive break, which is what I did.
How long did your destructive break last? After the ’60s, I fell apart. I think it went from 1970–1978, and then I pulled myself back. I have tremendous stage fright, and I can see why I used drugs and alcohol.
I have the same thing. It’s funny, because I’m completely shy but something drives me to keep doing it—it’s kind of like being afraid of heights and getting on a roller coaster every day. The complexity that comes with sobriety is sometimes more profound than anything that can be written down. I’m not presumptuous enough to say things about anyone else’s sobriety, but I will say, from the outside looking in—there you are, profoundly deep, so intelligent and so incredibly beautiful—that people didn’t know what to expect from you at one given time, and that becomes so confusing, right? I also felt like I had the complexity, and so when I got loaded to create, it almost narrowed my field of view enough to work. I think it short-fused me. I could do it, but I had to take huge quantities of substances. And now I’m feeling stronger, and I’m going to write the next record with friends. I’m probably going to want you to help me, too.
My thing is that I can never write about anything enough. I can never fully explain how much I love stuff. I can’t ever quite get it into the package. Well, it’ll get better with time and me too, I’m sure.
Did you know when you went inside the tomb… that you would get out again? Yes.
You’re one of those people who probably knew that, Okay, this sucks, but I need it for a while. If you looked at my schedule, especially when I was really working before I ran away with Mick [Jagger], it was insane. And so I took a bit of a break, too. I started living with Mick and it was rather wonderful—going on wonderful holidays, which you definitely need to do.
I can only imagine how pulled in every direction you were. I mean, no one lives like that. I just wasn’t strong enough. I always think it was my fault, but maybe it wasn’t my fault. Maybe it was just too much to expect from a young woman. And you’re a young man; you’ve got to have a life.
I sure wish I had come around and found you then. Oh, honey, we would have been perfect together.
Don’t you think? Yes I do. Or we would have killed each other.
When I met you, it was like somebody had lit fireworks. We were just instantly magnetized. We fell in love, Ryan.
You started to tell me all those stories and I was like, Oh, my God! I looked into your eyes and I thought, This is a soulmate.
Me too. So I’m very excited about the new record. I’m also really excited. I’m just going to get a pen so I can take your number down. We’ll check in now, and we won’t let each other go, and I’ll tell you how it goes.