Renewed Faithfull


September 6, 2002


Marianne Faithfull is an unassailably cool embodiment of rock history, a living link to the Swinging London of the mid-’60s (“As Tears Go By”), the hedonistic decadence of the early ’70s (“Sister Morphine”), and the angry punk from later in that decade (“Broken English”).

Unlike many of her peers, Faithfull isn’t content to rest on her laurels: Her new album “Kissin Time” is her strongest since 1981’s “Dangerous Acquaintances.”

Yes, the singer gets a welcome boost from an all-star cast of Generation X collaborators, including Beck, former Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, and Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz. But giving too much credit to the hired help shortchanges own biggest assets: the distinctive croak of that famously raspy voice, and the piercing wit of those literary-to-licentious lyrics.

Faithfull performs at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage, at 8 p.m. on Sept. 13 (tickets are $22.50—a much better bargain than her old mates in the Rolling Stones, who perform at Comiskey Park the same night). I spoke to her from her home in Dublin shortly before the start of this tour.

Q. It was a pleasure to see you singing with Zwan a few months ago at the Q101 Jamboree. Do you get the impression that Corgan is having fun with his new band?

A. I’m really pleased about that, and it’s nice to see that Billy is working with [drummer] Jimmy [Chamberlin], because I love Jimmy. I like the other guys very much, as well, and they’re good, too. Billy has really proved himself, and he’s now free to go where he likes and do what he likes. He’s lightened up a lot, and he’s having much more fun. That’s not to put down the Pumpkins, but they did go through a hell of a scene, didn’t they? They lived through the rock ’n’ roll nightmare, but a lot of people do. Anyway, Billy has got through that, and thank god is still there, still working, still creating, still himself.

Q. “Kissin [CQ] Time” is a really strong album. I’m interested in how you chose the people you collaborated with.

A. It was so simple, really. I knew them all, so that was one thing; that just made it easier to call them up and organize it. But it was a very simple criteria: First, I had to know their records and like them very much. Secondly, I had to have seen them live on stage and liked their performance and thought they were really good.

Q. Why did that matter?

A. It just does. I think like that. I know there are some records that are just records, and they’re not meant to be reproduced live, but I like songs that when you take them out, they change a little bit. I want songs to live and breathe and have a life of their own. So yes, I had to see them live. Then, I had to like them as people. When you collaborate eyeball to eyeball, which is what we did, you have to like someone. And the other thing which is very important is they had to like me. Lots of people don’t, and that’s fine. [Laughs] I wouldn’t want to make a mistake and go to somebody who really can’t bear me and ask them to work with me. That would be a drag, wouldn’t it?

Q. How did the collaborating actually work?

A. The only time I actually had something ready, because I was a bit scared, was with Beck. I had ideas in my head, but an hour before Beck arrived—alone, driving a car himself—I suddenly got absolutely terrible horrors, because I do know Beck, and I know that you have to get his interest very quickly. He hasn’t got endless patience; you have to interest him immediately. So I sat down an hour before he arrived and I wrote down the final version of “Sex With Strangers.” Then I was sitting there, twiddling my thumbs, watching the ducks and sucking my pencil, and I thought, “Should I do something else?” Because he only agreed to do one. But I thought, “Why not?” Then I had one of those lovely experiences, which alas do not happen very often, and I wrote “Like Being Born” completely. So when he arrived I had two things to show him, and both he absolutely loved. The next day we went in to start work on “Sex With Strangers,” the basic track.

With Billy and I, we literally walked around each other like cheetahs or something. Like an animal courtship. He’s really intense. He’s not a difficult person to work with, I can tell you. He’s not a pushover; he expects a lot. But so do every one of my collaborators. Damon [Albarn]--that was frightening. I had the lyrics to “Kissin Time,” and I was so afraid that he wouldn’t like them. And I don’t know if he did like all of them. It was one of those situations which is inevitable if you’re a lyricist as well as a musician, where there was his tune and I had written my words, and they weren’t exactly the words he would have written. But with Billy and I, it was like making love through music. Which is a famous old trick—I’ve even seen the Everly Brothers do it, back in 1965. They leaned together so close and sang off the bones of each other’s face, and that’s how Billy and I were working. There are other intimate things, but I tell you, writing a song with somebody is one of the highest intimate forms there is, and very sexy. I’m certainly not denying that.

Q. To what extent was there a Mrs. Robinson crush sort of thing happening with the men you worked with?

A. If you’re talking about a slight erotic element, which you are, yes, of course there is! [Laughs] They’re not expecting to shag me or anything, but yes, there is an erotic element, and it’s quite obvious. It gives the record a special fizz.

Q. It’s a very un-politically correct album. Most of your collaborators are members of Generation X, my peers, and we grew up in a world where sex is potentially lethal, which is very different from the Swinging London of the ’60s that you represent.

A. The album was written and made in another world, really. The world has changed so much [post-9/11]. I don’t know what the next record will be like; it won’t be this. But “Sex With Strangers,” for me and Beck, it was really a bit of fun. Obviously, I don’t have to tell you—all of you are much more sophisticated now then we were at your age when it was all starting, really. But occasionally I speak to an idiot and I have to say, “Well, let me tell you this does not mean that Beck and I go out and have sex with strangers. It’s not a song promoting sex with strangers, just like ‘Sister Morphine’ was not a song promoting morphine.” But I suppose this does fit into this [post-9/11] world, because I suppose I still do think: “Have as much fun as you can, because you may not have long to live.”

Q. I’m not sure the world has changed all [ITAL] that [ITAL] much. I was reading a sociologist who documented a huge baby boom exactly nine months after 9/11; sometimes when the world is ending, people turn to each other with renewed vigor.

A. There’s got to be one! That’s really what “Sex With Strangers” is about, that sort of apocalyptic vibe. And O.K., if I have to be P.C., which I must say I’m not, use a condom! I believe you all do anyway, all my friends of your age. They are so well trained, they wouldn’t shag without a condom. Me, I can’t bear it. That’s why I’m in a relationship: The thought of having to make love to somebody with a condom, I couldn’t bear it. I’m in another generation, we’re not used to that. But just because of AIDs and things like that, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of fun.

Q. Nico, the former chanteuse with the Velvet Underground, is another iconic woman from your generation. What inspired you to write “Song for Nico”?

A. Two things: I really like her work; I didn’t know her as a person. I felt it was time somebody wrote a real homage to Nico, and I thought I was ideal to do it—partly because I didn’t know her, so I had no personal ax to grind. I really could write from the perfect position, which is detachment. And secondly, I felt for so long people have said to me, “Oh, your tragic life, your tragic life.” And what I wanted, one of the points of that song, is as a contrast. A lot of people don’t get that. They think I’m writing about me, in a way, but I’m really not, I’m writing about Nico and I’m writing about a [ITAL] truly [ITAL] tragic life. I’m trying to show, “Come, come: Get some sense of real life or death here. Get your tragedy right. Do not mistake a charmed life, which is what I’ve had, with a really tragic story, which is Nico’s. Don’t put people into a stereotype.”

Q. Rock has resorted to the horrible cliches of the “Behind the Music” world, where everything has three acts.

A. Well, yeah, but that’s bulls--- and we know it. I notice they haven’t done a “Behind the Music” on Nico.

Q. There was a good documentary, “Nico: Icon,” and an excellent biography, [ITAL] Nico: The End [ITAL], written by James Young.

A. That’s the one I read. I was writing “The Pleasure Song” with Etienne Dahos and staying with him in Paris, and in the meantime I was reading this biography, and that’s when I got the idea. That’s when I realized what I didn’t know; I only knew her work. I didn’t know that she had such a tragic life, and so I wrote “Song for Nico.” It’s got various positions in the record: It is a song for Nico, and I do want people to go and listen to “The Marble Index,” which is a masterpiece. But I also put it in there because in case you think I’ve had a tragic life, just look at what a tragic life is. I’ve had my ups and downs—I call the sad period of my life, which is the drug period, “my learning curve.”

Q. You have always been against living in the past, but it’s a short list of your peers who take a similar stance against nostalgia.

A. The Stones do quite well.

Q. Do you really think so? I’ve seen every tour in the last 20 years, and I never need to hear them play “Honky Tonk Woman” again.

A. There was a golden moment, and I was very lucky to be involved. I’ve seen a lot of Rolling Stones shows, and I’ve seen a lot of great ones, and I’ve seen some pretty dodgy ones. But it’s a great show, especially for somebody who’s never seen it before.

Q. Still, they don’t challenge themselves creatively the way you do. You’re always pushing yourself out on the edge.

A. I only do it creatively. But I’m not interested in nostalgia, correct. How do I say no when I’m offered all that money to go on ’60s nostalgia tours? I just say, “I don’t do nostalgia. Sorry.” I mean, nobody asks me anymore. They’ve got that now.

Q. What are you planning for this performance?

A. I do quite a lot from the new album. I try to pull a lot of old stuff, too, but it’s quite impossible to do something from every record I’ve made. What does get left out is anything from that lovely record I made with Angelo [Badalamenti, “A Secret Life”], because in a way I think that’s a record that’s meant to be performed as a piece. You’re not really meant to take things out of it. I think it was the beginning of my classical period, really, and it’s a great shame that it was never performed as Angelo and I wanted it to be, which was at Carnegie Hall with an orchestra. That’s what we wanted.

But I’ve got a whole new audience out there that has no baggage, and I’m working particularly for them. I’ve heard that the new album is going down quite well, and I’m really pleased. I think it was time; I think people were ready to let go of the old thing, and it was time for me to be allowed to do something else. Not that I haven’t done a lot of different things. [Laughs] But especially after the Kurt Weill stuff, it was great to make a lovely pop album like this.