As Years Go By, Mark Hodkinson’s definitive biography of Marianne Faithfull, was republished as an updated and revised edition by Omnibus Press last year. When it was first published in 1991 Marianne was a bit sniffy about it but the author and myself both felt she’d used it as a reference point for her own book Faithful that was published a few years later.
In this extract it is February 1980 and Marianne, married to her guitarist Ben Brierley, is visiting New York to promote her then new album Broken English. It would be an eventful trip…
Marianne was booked to appear on the prestigious television show, Saturday Night Live, the principal influence on American mainstream culture with a weekly audience of 30 million viewers. “After years of poverty and struggle it was a magical trip for Ben and me,” she said. “For the first time in my life I was on the verge of being accepted for who I was, and it made me extremely apprehensive.” [Island boss] Chris Blackwell realised the importance of the appearance and contacted an old friend, Mim Scala, and asked him to effectively chaperone Marianne. Scala, the grandson of an Italian immigrant, had been an agent in the early 1960s, representing both actors and musicians, among them Cat Stevens and Richard Harris. He had hit the hippy trail for several years, painting and recording ethnic music in Morocco, Spain and Sri Lanka, before becoming, in 1972, Island’s head of promotions. “At this time, Marianne was, by her own admission, a naughty girl,” said Scala. “Her capacity for abuse was well-known. My first job was to see that rehearsals happened and that Marianne was healthy. This meant no drink or drugs. She was a wonderful mix of lady and tramp. My main task was to spoil her fun and freeze out any bad company.”
A limousine was waiting for Marianne at JFK Airport driven by a chauffeur who routinely worked for the comedian and heavy drugs user, John Belushi. The driver offered Marianne ‘supplies’ but Mim told him his services were not required. Booked into New York’s prestigious Berkshire Place Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Marianne was in the lobby when the elevator doors opened to reveal Anita Pallenberg. According to Scala, the pair ‘fell into each other’s arms screaming and shrieking like Macbeth’s witches on Prozac’. They went up to the penthouse suite but were interrupted by Scala ‘before too much damage was done’. The rehearsals went well at the NBC studio and Scala phoned Blackwell in Jamaica to tell him Marianne was on good form.
The next day, Marianne went missing three hours before she was due to appear live on the programme. Scala tracked her down to a toilet where she was sitting at a stall with a bottle of brandy between her knees. She had also taken procaine, an anaesthetic used at the time by dentists. “Apparently it freezes the top of your head, leaving you feeling blissed out like you’re suspended in a great block of ice,” said Scala. Marianne revealed later that one of her backing singers ‘who loathed me on sight’ had sourced the drug for her, supplying it as a substitute for cocaine. While she was sleeping it off, Mick Jagger called at the hotel to wish her well. Scala refused to let him see her. “I couldn’t tell him that she was unconscious on a bed from too much brandy and procaine,” he said. “I know she would not want her first meeting with him in ages to be like this. So I stuck to my guns."
[Marianne’s manager] Mark Miller Mundy had also travelled to New York, to oversee the sound and liaise with Warner’s staff. He was peeved to hear Scala informing everyone that he was Marianne’s ‘manager’ and in this assumed role had agreed that she would appear at the Mudd Club in downtown Manhattan, a punk venue renowned for its ‘sheer kinkiness’ and boasting gender-neutral toilets. “Scala came along against my will,” said Miller Mundy. “He had somehow managed to persuade Chris to pay for his ticket. He’s an old hippy. He thought when we were in America it was the Sixties all over again – you had to get fucked if you possibly could and you had to take as many drugs as possible. To Marianne it was an excuse to party. She was having a high old time.” Scala had agreed that Marianne would appear at the Mudd Club directly after Saturday Night Live but the band had only rehearsed three songs, the number required by the television company. When Miller Mundy said they should pull the concert, Scala said he had already received the fee. Marianne had taken exception to Miller Mundy’s manner throughout the trip. “He had taken on the role of personal tormentor and papal representative of snotty, authoritarian patriarchy. I had been told what a complete piece of shit I was and I was beginning to believe it,” she said.
The procaine affected Marianne’s voice and she struggled to talk, let alone sing. A masseuse was summoned to the dressing room to help her relax. Meanwhile, outside the studios a line of stretch limousines belonging to directors of Warner’s ringed the entrance like a circle of wagon trains. The red light went on and the cameras were set. Chevy Chase, a Saturday Night Live regular, introduced Marianne. Her hair tousled and wearing a tight top and jeans, she took hold of the microphone ready to perform ‘Broken English’. “When I opened my mouth to sing, a strange strangled whisper came out. I had lost my voice. It was a moment of true horror,” she said. Miller Mundy reached for the dials on the mixing desk. “I turned the echo up but it was still a complete disaster,” he said. “It was really important but her voice had gone because she had been up all fucking night, the day before. She blew it. There was not a single car outside before she finished. Her voice was like a gargle, a kind of croak.” The singing became even more fractured by ‘Guilt’, especially during the opening section where almost every other word failed to leave Marianne’s lips.
The performance was the subject of great legend but since it pre-dated universal home recording, it was, for many years, heard about but largely unseen. In December 2010, however, a Marianne Faithfull fan, Melissa Jimenez, posted the footage on YouTube with the caveat: ‘I’m not doing Marianne any favours by uploading this in bad quality. But if you were curious as I was to see this infamous performance and what all the fuss was about…here it is.’ Most viewers posting comments on the site were surprised it had been remembered so negatively. Indeed, while her voice did break up, the performance was strong and confident and the musicianship first-rate. As an artist caught at the vanguard of punk and new wave, she was setting a precedent for a raw and edgy style of delivery that soon became routine. “She got through it fantastically,” said Mim Scala. “But we all knew she was a bit shaky. On the other hand she always looked vulnerable when she performed.”
Anita Pallenberg was in the dressing room at the television studio, exhilarated by Marianne’s performance. She insisted she go through with the concert at the Mudd Club to fulfil her destiny as a ‘punk diva’. “What you must do now is go all the way,” she told Marianne. “Forget about those fucking record company idiots with their fucking golf carts and their hot tubs.” She promised Marianne that when she sang ‘Sister Morphine’ she would shoot up in the toilets and become her ‘angel from hell’. On the drive to the club the streets were clogged with traffic and Marianne had to take an elevator to the top of a building and make her way across the Manhattan skyline to gain access to the venue. Word had travelled through New York’s underworld about her appearance and the city’s hardcore alternative set made the pilgrimage. “There’s no good going on about old troupers and all that. That’s all very well, but it’s a load of shit,” Marianne told Rolling Stone. “The point is that you’ve given your word. You’ve got to do it, even if you can’t sing a fucking note. And lo and behold, I couldn’t.”
As she took the stage a member of the audience passed her a bottle and she gulped down most of the unknown contents before starting. Marianne kept upright by holding on to one of the pillars on the stage. Her voice was frail and barely audible. Miller Mundy was so angry that he left after the first song ‘in a fury like a splenetic rat’ – according to Marianne. Mim Scala considered the concert one of the most thrilling rock ‘n’ roll events of his life but Miller Mundy referred to it later as a ‘total disaster’. The reviewer from Rolling Stone wrote that it was ‘bare and scary, like nails scraping across a floor.’
Ben Brierley was in contact with Marianne by telephone throughout the fateful day. “It is just not true that she was out of her head. She was scared,” he said. “It was psychosomatic and she lost her voice and that’s not bullshit. If it were, I’d say so, because she was out of her head on a number of occasions. Miller Mundy had a lot to do with it. He’d say things to her like: ‘Either you do this gig really well, or your whole career is blown’. It used to freak her out.”
Miller Mundy was exasperated because, as he saw it, she had used the New York trip as a chance to party and hang out with old friends rather than regenerate her career. He disagreed wholeheartedly with Scala that it formed a perverse but significant rock ‘n’ roll episode (a view he felt Scala was bound to hold as he had orchestrated, or at least sanctioned, most of the chaos). “She has always blamed Jagger, the fact that he arrived just as she was about to go on. I don’t think it is true exactly. She should never have been allowed to go on the trip in the first place,” said Miller Mundy.
On the flight home Miller Mundy chatted with Marianne. Appropriately, Scala was positioned between them, asleep in his seat. “I have a theory about Marianne,” said Miller Mundy. “And that is that in a way she is terrified of succeeding. With Broken English she had an opportunity to really make something of what she had always promised. There is something deep inside Marianne. She has a fear of success. She can cope with failure far more easily.” He asked her repeatedly why she had not applied herself. She shrugged her shoulders and said she did not have an answer. Just two days before the Saturday Night Live appearance, Marianne had told a reporter from a New York magazine: “I want commercial success and I want recognition from my peers. I have a great need for that. I’ve just been mocked for years, and it gets to you.”