50 Years of Tears: Marianne Faithfull's Amazing Second Act

How the 67-year-old singer overcame injury to record her remarkable new 'Give My Love to London'

Marianne Faithfull in the 1960s. The singer's new album includes collaborations with Roger Waters, Steve Earle and Nick Cave. Credit: Camera Press

Marianne Faithfull is at home in Paris, enjoying a final day of rest before she returns to her European tour and goes "back down the coal mine," as she puts it in her fabulously thick London accent. In June, the singer broke her hip while vacationing in Greece, but the condition has worsened. A recent X-ray revealed that she had not only fractured her hip but smashed her thigh bone: "Smashed, smashed, smashed!" she repeats, noting a scar between knee and hip but refusing to use painkillers. "I'm doing my best," she says, "and my best is good. It means that sometimes I do have to sit down [at concerts]. It will get better, but it's going to be another four months at least."

It seems nothing can stop the singer, now age 67. Five decades have passed since Faithfull first appeared on the pop charts, wrapping a lilting soprano around acoustic guitars and a honking cor anglais on "As Tears Go By," the first original composition written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In the following years, the singer overcame homelessness and a crippling heroin addiction, reemerging with a brittle, world-weary voice on 1979 New Wave LP Broken English and growing into a career far removed from her once highly publicized relationship with Jagger. There have been ups and downs since this comeback, a record she jokingly refers to as "Broken Biscuits," but overall, Faithfull has enjoyed one of the best second acts in rock.

Perhaps fittingly, Faithfull began serious work on her new record, Give My Love to London, while recovering from another injury, a fractured sacrum – the bone at the base of the spine. "I did have to take drugs, but you can't actually write on drugs. I can't anyway, so I didn't," she says. "I think I tried one, but it was rubbish, so I didn't use it." Faithfull estimates she was flat on her back for six months, but once she was able to sit at a table, the recovery process helped her focus.

"I did something that I probably should have done in my 20s," she says. "I thought very carefully about who I love, who I don't love, what I care about, what I don't care about, what's important to me, what's not important to me. All the big sorts of things that I had to work out but had never done because I was either parading around in swinging London or I was on drugs – or I was not on drugs but working. I'd never had that sort of absolute peace where I could just ponder on the things that really are important to me and the things that I really don't care about."

What did she learn about herself? "I won't actually tell you," she says sharply with a pause. "No, I can't." She laughs heartily. "Too cruel, you know? But I did learn a lot, and out of that came this record."

Either way, Faithfull pinpoints "Give My Love to London," a song she began writing before her spinal injury, as the one that got her going. By the singer's estimation, the tune is "nasty" and "extremely sarcastic," but its twinkling acoustic guitar and jaunty melody belie this sentiment.

Faithfull credits Steve Earle, the rootsy singer-songwriter she first met backstage at a Rolling Stones charity tribute concert in 2012, with making the song "a hell of a lot better." For his part, Earle describes his contribution as lyrical housekeeping, and other than a disagreement over a section of the song that references Pirate Jenny, the mean-spirited character Faithfull once played in a production of The Threepenny Opera, the collaboration went smoothly.

"I came up with a version of the Pirate Jenny verse that didn't include her line about Jenny's hating, breaking heart," Earle says. "She absolutely wouldn't fucking have it."

"I won," Faithfull says, likening this disagreement to a swordfight. "Pirate Jenny was a wonderful role, but I'm not like Pirate Jenny. I am not full of hate and revenge at all, but it's fun to play that part."

Earle was excited to work with Faithfull on the album in part because the first song he ever performed live was "As Tears Go By." "That's why I know who Marianne Faithfull is," he says. "I didn't think so much about her being Mick Jagger's girlfriend. The first person I ever heard sing it was her. There's this really indescribable personal connection to the fact that the first song I ever sang in front of people was maybe the first song she ever sang in front of people."

"I still sing it every night," Faithfull says of "Tears." "I still think it's a beautiful song. I'm still very grateful that Mick and Keith gave it to me and wrote it for me. I suddenly really understood it myself when I was about 40, when I realized it was another version of [poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson's ballad] 'The Lady of Shalott.' It hit me during one of my moments of clarity, which I've told you seem to happen periodically. That moment of clarity was when I got clean."

After "Give My Love to London," Faithfull treaded toward writing love songs. "I think I wrote 'Deep Water' next, but I can't tell you what it's about," she says of a particularly heartrending number. Why not? "It's too personal, man." Midway into the tune, she calls out, "Who will calm my fears? Who will drive my tears away?" and when coupled orchestral strings and shimmering piano line, this creates one of the most emotional moments on the record.

Appropriately, she shares a songwriting credit with a triumvirate listed as "Cave/Cave/Cave," one of those being Nick. "My sons Earl and Arthur wrote the music to 'Deep Water,'" the Birthday Party and Bad Seeds frontman tells Rolling Stone, referring to his teenaged twins. "They wrote the melody, singing around the piano. It's a family affair."

"They were both very excited," says Faithfull, "because they thought they'd make money – and all I can say to that is, ha!"

The elder Cave also contributed a far less cute song, one wholly his own: "Late Victorian Holocaust." The somber track contains lyrics about "star babies" enjoying "sweet little sleep" and "throwing up in Meanwhile Park," amid other allusions to drug abuse and a gorgeous violin solo by Bad Seed Warren Ellis. "I had the song 'Late Victorian Holocaust' floating, around and it seemed to me to suit Marianne thematically," Cave says. "You know, it's a memory song about a young girl getting up to mischief in London, and I felt it could be served well by that certain sort of racked vocal Marianne does so beautifully."

By her own estimation, if Faithfull had written it, the song's subject would have been exceedingly severe. "To have an ex-junkie singing an ex-junkie's song about smack would be too much," she says. "Having written it with said ex-junkie, that would be too much. We both, neither Nick nor I, have touched heroin for 25 years, so we can actually do that [write a song like that] now.

"Not many people could have sung it," she continues. "Maybe Amy Winehouse could have sung it, if she was alive, but she's dead. And to sing 'Late Victorian,' you have to be off smack for a long time. Perspective in that song is everything."

The one London track that Faithfull describes as unequivocally hopeful is Roger Waters' contribution, "Sparrows Will Sing." Beginning with a rare major chord, the song concerns a child figuring out "the whole of this unholy mess" as a new generation refuses to be "seduced by this candyfloss techno hell." It also has a melody that seems to brim with soaring positivity.

"I actually wrote 'Sparrows Will Sing' for a movie my friend Bob Shaye was making. I wrote two songs and he used the other one," Waters tells Rolling Stone via e-mail. "When Marianne started work on this new album and said ''Ave yer got anyfing for me, love,' in her adorable broken English, it struck me that I had. Where did I put? Ahha!"

He then highlights one of the song's verses:

And the sparrows will sing on the boulevards again
And the corridors of power will be walked by thoughtful men
The assassins and priests like mythical beasts will surely fade away
Kalloo kalay

"The combination of La' Faithfull's effortless epitomizing of Marie Marianne, the spirit of the revolution, liberty herself and Lewis Carroll's slaying of mythical beasts seemed to me an entirely apt fit," Waters explains. "I love the recording, it is musical, moving and like all her work, inimitable." 

"He's one of my dearest friends, and I love him and he's everything a real gentleman rock star should be," Faithfull says of the singer-songwriter, whom Faithfull met before playing the mother in his 1990 Berlin production of The Wall. "He's not a misogynist. He is not only in it for the money. He is a great man."

Faithfull herself has been introspective lately, as her manager Francois Ravard recently cajoled her into contributing captions for Marianne Faithfull: A Life on Record, a photo book that came out earlier this month.I had nothing to do with it at all," she says. "I refused until right at the end."

But her tune changed when she looked through the finished product. "Isn't it beautiful?" she says now. "I would have never thought of doing that. It's just so not my way. I don't look back."

The book begins with her childhood and continues through the present day, featuring shots of her with musicians including David Bowie, Roy Orbison, Jagger, Serge Gainsbourg ("I could kill him for dying," she says) and Metallica. It also includes shots of her father and mother – a British Army officer turned professor and an Austrian aristocrat, respectively – that she calls her favorite part of the book.

"I'm always completely stunned by my mother's beauty," Faithfull says. "She didn't think much of my music. Both my parents just thought it was something I should only do for money. They didn't understand why I wasn't very rich, but nor did I sometimes."

The singer has long credited her mother, Eva von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso – who had studied ballet before leaving Austria with Faithfull's British father after World War II – with impressing the value of art on her before her death in 1991. "She was also a very concerned with status, and she very much wanted me to have a lot of money and a lot of status, thereby gaining it back herself," Faithfull says. "She'd lost everything because of Hitler, in a way, and I was meant to bring it all back. But that was not my intention at all.... I must have broken her heart, and I'm really sorry. I wasn't going to live life the way she wanted me to live. No way." 

Incidentally, Faithfull has inherited an aristocratic title but chooses not to use it. "Why would I want to use that when I'm Marianne Faithfull?" she says.

Whether she likes it or not, recent gigs have also given the singer the chance to reflect. As expected, her set lists have leaned heavily on Give My Love to London, but they've also included songs from "Broken Biscuits" and, of course, "As Tears Go By." Although she doesn't currently have any U.S. dates planned, she hopes to do a "very short tour" at some point. "I don't really see myself as a pop star, so I don't have to do those kinds of endless pop-star tours," she says. "That's not necessary."

Still, despite her recent injuries, the healing singer remains insistent on supporting the record on the road. Why? "It's the responsibility of being Marianne Faithfull, my dear."