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Story of a song.

By Anthony Howell.

Marianne at 19, with Sarah the dalmation. Clicking an image will launch a slideshow.

I ONCE WROTE a song for Marianne Faithfull. Words and music. Recently I found a link to it. It’s on YouTube – more than 65,000 views – I’m impressed! It says it was recorded in 1965. That was when I was 20; Marianne was 19. She put it out on a CD, I discover – the expanded CD issue of her first album simply called Marianne Faithfull.

She alone is credited with writing the song, and I remember being a bit pissed off at this at the time. But she told me that it would have been too much work to convince the record company to issue a contract. Instead of doing that they would have insisted that she simply sing a standard to which they already had the rights. My song came out on a 45, as the B-side to ‘Counting’ by Bob Lind.  It didn’t get anywhere particularly, even though at the time she said that she preferred the B-side.  Anyway, she sang it, having altered the lyrics of the second verse.  It’s called ‘I’d Like to Dial Your Number’.1

I KNOW MARIANNE because when I was fifteen and at Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading, I decided to become a ballet dancer.  The enlightened headmaster gave me permission to go up to London once a week for a class. And so I arrived for my first lesson at Andrew Hardie’s School of Dance – without a jock-strap.

The young woman who ran a dance class in Reading where I first started my pliés had neglected to tell me that such a thing was de rigeur for boys. This provincial teacher was remarkable in her way – full of energy and enthusiasm.  I remember her turning pirouettes when she was eight months pregnant. Drew Hardie promptly put me right about my attire in his dour Scots way.  Immediately after the class in fact. Ignominy! I would never be able to look those girls in the face.  But none of them had deigned to glance in my direction anyway.

Although I was a decent gymnast, had even won the senior gym competition while still a junior, I still had matchstick legs and ghastly elbows with knobs on. And as yet, as to dancing, I had not the faintest clue. Notwithstanding this, I starred as the principal and only dancer in the school opera that winter. Our female lead in this production was an import from the convent school down the road – a frighteningly beautiful girl, with an odd name.  I already knew her – she was in the Reading ballet class.

She had a strong voice and a prominent acting style and the entire school fell in love with her. Appropriately, she began an affair with Michael, our headmaster’s son. Marianne and I had a great success in this opera. Her success was natural enough.  Mine was because I turned at least six pirouettes in my grey woollen tights – but only by dint of the fact that I’d placed the ball of my foot on an upright nail.

I left Leighton Park early, got accepted by the Royal Ballet School and lived below my grandmother in a Kensington basement. I was just as taken up by writing poetry as I was by learning to dance. Ballet demanded the mastery of its technique, so for someone who’d started late there was a lot to learn – discipline, for instance. To master the dance was not a matter of spasmodic inspiration. Exercises at the barre had to be done every day, not just when you felt like it, and done properly, and improved upon, and improved upon again. I decided to apply the same rigour to my writing.

At weekends, I would return to Reading and meet my friends, who were still schoolboys, and ride my pony Steeldust and chat with Marianne. She was already a powerful personality. Her mother, Eva, was a Sacher-Masoch, a baroness, and very Austrian. I used to joke that Eva Faithfull had been married to a man who ran away from her. She was a Catholic, and remained married to him. Eva was a lover of the suffused sort of poetry we associate with Richard Le Gallienne, Arthur Symonds and the Georgians. When I began writing appalling love stuff in this vein, Eva was the only person who encouraged me.

EVA LIVED WITH her daughter in a tiny house in a working class district, but the place exuded a civilised European sensibility.  I found the house and its occupants fascinating. Then her mother and mine became close friends. Eva used to maintain that this was because they were as alike as chalk and cheese. Eva, city-bred, smoking incessantly, equipped with delicate Viennese manners; a woman with a wonderful sense of dress and of decor. My mother, a foxhunting vet clad in muddy slacks, straw in her hair, a weathered non-smoker. Eva bought one of our dalmatian’s puppies.

Eva had a certain Continental chic. She possessed a dry sense of humour wreathed in tobacco smoke. She was charming and un-British. My mother seemed more like something one stumbled across on a ramble – a tree-trunk at a crossroads, its branches pointing in no definite direction. She too could be amused by Eva, but she also liked to quell her flights of fancy with a dose of incontrovertible common sense.

Our mothers shared certain characteristics: they both befriended the friends of their children, and they were both single mothers in an age when this was less common than it is now. Eva articulated the romance in my persona. This was helpful, if tinged with a Viennese glow. At least she treated me like an adult. We spoke breathlessly together. I confess I visited their house as much to see her as to see her magnetically attractive daughter. As often as not, Marianne was out. I used to imagine her naked somewhere, next to the handsome Michael, whom she had chosen at the opera – loving without caution, and thinking perhaps that if a Durex were to be used, she would then have to confess to it, when after all to confess to promiscuity was bad enough in itself.

Having always been rather undemonstrative, love, when it came to me, was necessarily a reaction formation. It was so unusual to feel it that I needed to exaggerate. And so I discussed Clemency, or rather my hopeless love for her, with everyone. With Marianne, for instance, who took a more sceptical view of it than her mother. The desire to discuss one’s love-life is a form of boasting which can turn into self-pity, and this became combined with what I felt about poetry and what I felt about dancing. I got art and love mixed up somehow. It was an amalgam which appealed to Eva though.  It was what the Georgians were about.

Then we were all doing it, talking about love. Michael was telling me how he felt, and Marianne was telling me how she felt, and sometimes our mothers would chime in and tell us how they felt – Eva leaning towards Goethe, combining love with philosophy and poetry; my mother speaking quietly about the past, about an indelible thing in her, her love for my father, who had died before I was born. Her love for him was a like a shadow over her, transforming her subsequent life.

I sensed that one’s love ennobled one, made one a better person:  one could do deeds in one’s lady’s honour.

SOON AFTER I became this cranky advocate of courtly passion, Marianne was abducted by a promoter – at least he abducted her as far as we were concerned, ‘we’ being the group of intellectual and not-so intellectual boys who were in the habit of gathering at Eva’s little house to discuss love and life and art and poetry with her and her daughter. His name was Andrew Loog Oldham. As a ballet dancer, I thought of Oldham as a Von Rothbart who had kidnapped our swan.

I remember listening to ‘As Tears Go By’ as I smoked a cigarette with a disconsolate Michael in the tarmac playground of a school in that poor district where Eva lived. The song was being played over the radio, and we heard it as it wafted through some open window, and realised that a friend was achieving her apotheosis. As schoolboy intellectuals, we didn’t approve of ‘As Tears Go By’. We disdained it. We knew our friend. The song was vapid, and she had spunk!

The saccharin version of Marianne promoted by the music industry seemed a sham. It compromised her dynamic, hard-hitting talent, her intelligence, her very existence. She knew enough about good poetry to know that the lyrics were trash. But Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had written it for her. And, as Jagger pointed out later, we intellectuals denounced his lyrics, and yet his songs are still being played. But who remembers our intellectual poems?

Never mind that. We felt that she had sold out. At the same time we were proud of her. But secretly. Meanwhile my chum Bob Stuckey played the piano at the jazz club in the Ship Inn. He was a master. Just sixteen. Two years later he was playing the Hammond organ as the resident keyboards man at Ronnie Scott’s old place, with Dudu Pukwana on sax.

I saw my beloved Clemency, a fellow student at the Royal Ballet School, as a pale pre-Raphaelite lily, especially when she complained of migraines, but I knew that Marianne was no such thing. And of course, since Broken English, she has become a robust songwriter and chanteuse with the sardonic quality of Lotte Lenya. I think I must have told Marianne about my sitting next to that wonderful actress and singer in Sadlers Wells, at the first night of a production of Mahogany (I was just lucky enough to have the seat next to her!) and I guess I showed Marianne the poem I wrote in Lenya’s honour.

BOYHOOD SLIPPED OFF downstream. Days of bathing in the Loddon, with the dalmatians guarding the towels, and then not swimming in the Thames at Sonning, after we’d noticed that the swans had scum-lines. Days of setting up poles in the paddocks for my friends to jump as I taught them to ride. They were all drifting away from me, these images, and perhaps my advocacy of the poetry of a bygone age was a vain attempt to suspend my own past and to keep it, keep it from passing. I was becoming an urban person and losing my own keenness for the hounds. There was one memorable hunt-ball though, for, sparing no expense, my mother took a party which occupied an entire table.

The party included Marianne, and Geraldine Chaplin, also a student at the ballet school, and David Wall – who was just then a rising star of the ballet. It was rock and roll in tuxedos. Then the Gay Gordons, and the girls glittering and the huntsmen coming up to pay them compliments. I danced a fine waltz with my mother. And truly I feel that seldom since have I mixed in such elevated company. You could say that my career began near the spotlight, and ever since I have edged towards the wings. The Royal Ballet swiftly discovered that while my dancing was shaky I could definitely act. So within a month of entering the school I was cast as an ancient fellow in Petrushka, and then as the father of the ballerina in Coppelia. It amused the company that the oldest character in these ballets was being played by the youngest person on the stage. That was at Covent Garden, in the opera house. Now it’s a break to secure a booking on the terrace of some impoverished gallery – and that’ll be in Chad or Macedonia!

­­­AS I MASTERED ballet, I fell out of love with it: only my adoration of Clem kept me at it. I joined the touring company of the Royal Ballet, which she had joined a year before. By that time we were actually dating, but not sleeping together. On the day I went on tour with this company for the first time, she told me our relationship was over.

The one good thing that came from my time in the company was that I met the French horn player in our orchestra, who happened to be a very avant-garde composer. He was called John White. I asked him why he had joined a touring orchestra. He said he was interested in musical mistakes, like when the brass came in a bar or two early in the first act of Giselle. You had to be in an orchestra touring the provinces for that!

Marianne was living in Knightsbridge. When the company had its summer season at Covent Garden, I would meet up with her. Sometimes we would see each other at Indica, the avant-garde art gallery run by her husband, John Dunbar. Here for the first time I saw op-art and concept art. The odd Beatle would turn up at the private views. Everyone was cool. The Beatle was just another guy who liked innovation.

A year later, I had dropped out of the ballet and become a dope-smoking bohemian. I needed to survive, so I tried modelling. By then Marianne was seeing Mick Jagger, and she gave me a couple of his Mr Fish shirts to wear to the photography session that was to provide me with some promotional shots. The shoot didn’t turn out so well. I looked grumpy rather than mysterious. But what happened to the shirts? They’d be worth a fortune now. I think one of them got torn and ended up lining a dalmatian’s basket. I need to hunt for the other one.

It was then that I wrote the song.  I also wrote one for Dudu, called ‘Marie, My Dear’, to a sad melody that he composed. He never used my lyrics though, because breasts were mentioned. He also changed his girlfriend at regular intervals, and always re-christened the song with the new girl’s name.

I TRIED TO make my lyrics for Marianne as mournful as I could, so that it would be right for the pop market back then. I sat with John White, in his Notting Hill flat, and sang it, and he wrote down the tune. I have to say it’s pretty sentimental, and within months of its coming out I felt ashamed of it. Years later, Heathcote Williams, the author of AC/DC – a play which took the Royal Court by storm back in 1970 – wrote a song called ‘Why D’Ya Do It’? that Marianne performed on Broken English. It was a song with some of the hardest hitting lyrics ever written. I’d have been proud to have written that!  Heathcote’s tragic mistake was to suck instead of blow when fire-eating outside the flat of his then-girlfriend, Jean Shrimpton. But there’s something magnificent about this too. Heathcote! A fine writer and a great character!

Back in the sixties, Marianne’s career was overshadowed by Jagger’s. When I saw her recently, I mentioned that she had been a pop-star, and she said, ‘No, I was just a little pop singer.’ The media focussed on her private life rather than her talent – there were the police raids, the Turkish Delight ad farce of being rolled up in a rug.

This marginalisation of her gift was stressful in the extreme.  She became a junkie and an anorexic (and bear in mind that it’s the anorexia that may have proved fatal to Amy Winehouse, not the addiction).  I was partial to marijuana myself, but felt myself to be too airily spaced out naturally to be able to risk where I might be taken to by LSD, coke or heroin, so I was something of a drug namby-pamby. I witnessed some hairy moments though.  Once I took a hugely tall and fit Californian with a blond moustache to visit Marianne in her pad in Covent Garden. Competitively cool with each other, they decided to shoot up.  It was such a ceremony – warming a spoon and finding a vein!  The Californian giant immediately conked out.  But completely!  It didn’t seem to affect Marianne very much.  I sat there, with a slightly fixed smile, wondering if he was going to die.  Luckily not.  But I became even more wary.  Friends on H became bug-eyed and desperate. Friends dropping acid, well – I’d say they just seemed to lose their edge, cease being as active in their fields as they had been. After a while, I tended to avoid those I knew who had a habit, and that included Marianne.  Books which glorified the drug scene bored me, though I envied the money they made for their authors.

MARIANNE KEPT TRYING to break out of the pop-singer mould – there was an acclaimed performance as Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Royal Court. Then came the film Girl on a Motorcycle, directed by Jack Cardiff – but most of the time it was a man in drag standing-in on the bike. Marianne also played Ophelia to Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet in the Tony Richardson production at The Roundhouse.  But the British public like to keep their notables in the boxes they originally slot them into, so Marianne remained, in most people’s eyes, Mick Jagger’s sexy girlfriend, and then his ex.

Even so, there were rousing times. At the time of the Oz trial, I was invited to put together a programme of poetry for the magazine’s benefit at the ICA. I invited Marianne to participate. She read The Tiger by Laura Riding – read it magnificently, with the growling power of a tiger – skinny as she was, and twisting her hair, coked up probably, but with a dynamism that maybe owed something to her friendship with Alan Ginsburg. She embodied poetry as performance and just held everybody spellbound. The evening ended in a Dadaist way, with all the performers wandering down the aisle, calling for their mothers – who then chanted a final poem in chorus on the stage!

Marianne has always had wonderfully hip friends! Mason Hoffenburger – the co-author with Terry Southern of Candy – was once staying in her flat. Gregory Corso was her favourite beat poet. She knew Burroughs. These days, I admire her more than I did then, since I was always snotty about the pop.

Now I hugely appreciate the way she has re-invented herself, a process that began with Broken English. This album is a milestone in UK music history. Every track is a revelation; she really comes into her own as a songwriter, and even to the cover versions of songs such as Working Class Hero she imparts a sort of heroism.  The voice is no longer the wistful voice of the sixties singer;  instead it has a smoky depth, a husky edge that conveys raw emotion. Marianne has gone on to write songs with the cream of today’s indie rock scene including Beck, P. J.  Harvey, Nick Cave and Damon Albarn of Blur.

Jean-Paul Sartre once said that Juliette Greco had the sort of voice that he would like to write songs for. Marianne has just such a voice. Listen to her renditions of Brecht/Weill, Hollander and Coward on 20th Century Blues. Or her masterful recording of the Seven Deadly Sins.

TO CLIMB OUT of the dark place celebrity can throw you into is no easy task. Amy Winehouse didn’t quite manage it, and neither did Billie Holliday. It’s usual to blame the drink or the drugs, but bear in mind the pressure of performance and promotion is simply immense – one night in this city, the next in that.

And don’t underestimate the strain of single-handedly facing up to the intensity of a massive crowd. If you’re the lead act– or the only act – it’s down to you whether the show succeeds or fails.  If it goes tits up, you’re going to feel wretched, guilty. And then, the stress is everywhere – it goes with the excitement – for everyone backstage, from the star to the stagehand, is outside the stage-door smoking whenever the opportunity arises. You have to be able to eat, you have to be able to sleep, you have to be able to relax.

Marianne found a guru. She developed the most powerful Tantric muscles on any female in London. She lived with Mick in Cheyne Walk by the Thames in Chelsea for a while. And then, to get away from the pushers, and the bitchy press and the stereotyping, she removed herself to India and then to Ireland, to Shell Cottage, near Dublin, a wonderful rococo retreat, literally covered in shells, where she lived like some retired mermaid – except that she never retired; she just went on reinventing herself. She was powerful in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera – which I saw her do in Dublin in 1991. Then, just a few years ago, she starred at the Barbican as the devil, Peg-Leg Sue in Robert Wilson’s ‘musical fable’ The Black Rider, by Tom Waits based on the book by William S. Burroughs. I went backstage to congratulate her. Now her only addiction is to cigarettes.

MARIANNE HAS SINCE been adopted by the French, thanks largely to the indefatigable support of her manager François Ravard. François and Marianne met in Dublin, and for fifteen years he was her boyfriend. He is tireless in the promotion of her career, and with his support she has become a Parisian fixture – the city’s only English-speaking chanteuse. Her concert last November in Paris was packed and she was given a five-minute standing ovation at the end. The show lasted more than an hour – just her and her versatile guitarist Doug Pettibone, who has played with Dire Straits and Lucinda Williams. In between numbers Marianne chatted with her audience.  What came over was the naked personality, the Marianne I know – utterly natural, human.

The pop-singer is a ghost in the background, for what we have now is a ‘voice’, a voice of stature – I rate her with Dietrich and with Lenya. Recently, she and I were chatting on the phone about Zaz, the young singer currently being hailed as the new Piaf. This is a voice that brings tears to the eyes, I said. The thing about the human voice is that it never lies, said Marianne. If you have that integrity as a singer, that is what comes through, that is what moves the listener.

Last week, she showed me her medal.  The minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterand, came backstage when she was performing in March at the Théâtre du Châtelet. He gave a charming speech and conferred the medal upon her. The siren of the sixties is now Madame le Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. Others awarded this gong include Dizzy Gillespie, Clint Eastwood, Patty Smith and Michael Caine.

Earlier this year, Marianne read her selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a theatre in Paris. She has just reprised Sister Morphine for a Rolling Stones Tribute concert at the Carnegie Hall. Next autumn she will star in the Linz opera house production of The Seven Deadly Sins by Brecht and Weill. The conductor will be Dennis Russell Davies, who premieres most of Philip Glass’s symphonic work. When she was a kid, she wanted to be an actress – and the pop-world proved a diversion. Now she’s both singer and actress – and mighty at both.


More: Marianne Faithfull is the curator of an exhibition at the Tate Liverpool called ‘Innocence and Experience’. A Fortnightly review of the exhibition by poet Denis Joe is here.

A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

NOTE:

  1. Above: The video of ‘I’d Like to Dial Your Number’.
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Brenda
Brenda
5 years ago

I remember this song very well.I had no idea that you had written it.I always loved it. I was with Marianne for a short time in her life and enjoyed every minute. Spent lots of time with Eva in Lennox Gardens.I am too am in theatre. Love performing in the Arts theatre here in Canada. Always a joy to me.Best wishes Brenda

Diana Shore
Diana Shore
6 years ago

It was a Sunday afternoon when I answered the phone in Anthony’s house and Marianne asked if he was home. Anthony was out at a reading and I explained where he was and suggested he call her when he was home. She did dial that number, and they spoke at length the next day. To have a friend such as Anthony is a rare thing indeed. I stayed with him for over a year while my life turned summer-saults around me. During that time he appeared not to notice when my son and friend came to say in the studio,… Read more »

John Blazé
John Blazé
8 years ago

This is an excellent read, but do not forget that the FIRST record Marianne ever made was in a school performance of ‘The Time Travellers’ by Donald Pitcher, in which she played Merope (Daughter of Sophanax) and a vinyl disc survives somewhere (unless she has bought up all of them!)which I want to copy in CD format for the school Archives. Worth remembering that on 18th. July, 2013 (next week) it will be exactly 50 years since the great Donald Pitcher died. My programme reveals that Archemoros, (a Priest of Zeus) was played in the opera by one Anthony Howell!… Read more »

Lexington Green
Lexington Green
9 years ago

Agreed. This is superb. Thank you for these memories and these insights. Of all the many beautiful singers and actresses and models of the 1960s, I think Marianne may have been the most beautiful. She certainly had the most beautiful smile, she smiled with her eyes, it gave her an innocent look. I cannot imagine what she must have been like in person in those days. It is so fortunate she survived her encounter with drugs, which massacred so many people and wasted so much talent and potential. It is also a terrific boon that we have YouTube to bring… Read more »

Maggie
9 years ago

Probably the best article on Marianne’s life I’ve ever read. Thank you Anthony!

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