It’s a summer evening in Paris,and the British style icon, musician, and muse Marianne Faithfull is smoking a cigarette and reminiscing about “the best drugs I’ve ever had in my life.” In another era—the ’60s, say, whenFaithfull was known as the doe-eyed ingénue to Mick Jagger’s swaggering sex god, or the late ’70s, when she was the punk phoenix rising from drug addiction and homelessness to growl through her confessional album, Broken English—this conversation might have gone in a very different direction. But today, at 67, the cigarette in question is electronic (“I’m antismoking now,” she says, having tossed her last pack 10 months ago), and the drugs she’s referring to, which, she says, are unlike any she’s ever taken (“I’m a simple girl, really. It was just heroin”), are painkillers she received while hospitalized for a fractured sacrum last year. (She’s now recovering from hip surgery.) “If you go into the seven deadly sins, things like drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, that’s all over,” she says of her life today. “Sex, who knows? But as far as I can tell, I think it’s probably over, yes.”
And yet, the illustrious emblem of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, who recently told the press that a former boyfriend, Jean de Breteuil, supplied Jim Morrison with what turned out to be a fatal dose of heroin in 1971, is set to ring in her 50th year as a performer with a host of celebratory projects. There’s the book Marianne Faithfull: A Life on Record (Rizzoli), out in November, a photographic memoir that draws from her personal archive of rare ephemera (lyrics, letters) and archival portraits by David Bailey, Steven Meisel, and others. There’s also a new album, Give My Love to London, which features seminal songwriters (Nick Cave, Roger Waters, and Steve Earle) and a superb band of performers (the Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos, Brian Eno, Ed Harcourt, and Portishead’s Adrian Utley). And, to top things off, she’s the new face of the Saint Laurent Music Project, creative director Hedi Slimane’s ad campaign–turned–rebel roster that also includes Courtney Love and Kim Gordon. Faithfull’s windfall of cool collaborators is impressive—but then, she has been a magnet for them since she was 17.
Faithfull was still a schoolgirl when she was spotted at a party by the Rolling Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who invited her to sing on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ track “As Tears Go By” without even knowing if she had talent. (“I saw an angel with big tits, and I signed her,” he later recalled.) Her honey-coated voice carried her to the top of the charts, though she continued to follow the path set by her high-born parents (a British spy and the Austrian baroness Eva von Sacher-Masoch) and married her Cambridge-educated boyfriend when she was 19. The duality of these two worlds fascinated the London press (all set to be a lady—then “this pop thing happened,” one headline read), and the story got even better when, by age 20, Faithfull decided to trade uptight domesticity for far-out free love, hooking up with Jagger to become a kind of rock ’n’ roll Bonnie to his Clyde. In her memoir, photographs of the couple capture a blissed-out woman coming into her own. As Salman Rushdie writes in the foreword, “With her big baby-blue eyes and her angelic expression, she looked as if the darkness of the ’60s couldn’t touch her.” Which, of course, is Rushdie’s way of foreshadowing that it would.
In 1967, in a now infamous raid on Keith Richards’s country house, the police discovered the band mates ensconced in a “strong sweet unusual smell” and a “Miss X” wearing nothing but a bearskin rug. (“When she dropped the rug, I heard Mick Jagger roar with laughter,” the police report notes.) You can guess which detail the press liked best, but for Faithfull, it wasn’t funny. “My absolute Waterloo,” she says today of that drug bust. “That spoiled the whole thing for me. The ’60s just turned to shit.” She was maligned in a way that the men were not—shamed in the press and by the public. “I used to get hate mail. I read those articles, and I read those letters, and I believed what they said. I began to hate myself, and I began to hate God.”
Two years later, she released the controversial drug ballad “Sister Morphine,” coauthored with Jagger and Richards, as a B-side to “Something Better,” but it was pulled from the shelves after two days. (In 1971, the Rolling Stones would rerecord it on their album Sticky Fingers, failing to credit Faithfull until she pursued legal action.) By then, her relationship with Jagger had ended and she had descended further into the heroin addiction that would cost her custody of her son Nicholas (from her first marriage), her home, and nearly, after one drug-induced suicide attempt, her life. Faithfull recalls that an iconic Cecil Beaton photograph taken of her in 1968 and included in the book—one that shows her gazing dreamily behind a peacock fan—was conceived to cover her heroin-induced acne. (“Very smacked-out,” she writes in the accompanying caption.)
She emerged from that difficult decade with the gruff new voice she used on her 1979 comeback album, Broken English. “Nobody expected me to do it,” she says. “Walking away, going, ‘Ha!’ I developed a voice and was able to say all the things I really wanted to say.” She’s been steadily releasing records ever since, exploring the range of that voice, notably in her tribute to the German composer Kurt Weill in 1998’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and in this decade’s collaborations with male stars like Beck, Billy Corgan, and Rufus Wainwright. And so, a new generation of admirers, from Stella McCartney to Kate Moss—who appears in many snaps with Faithfull in the book—has embraced her. This month, she’ll set out from her home in Paris for a 30-city European concert tour. “What I love best is making records and performing,” the singer notes simply in the book’s final pages before closing with this: “My motto: Never let the buggers grind you down.”