In the crush of reporting on the premature death of Amy Winehouse, much was made (probably too much) of her inclusion in the “27 Club,” that exclusive eternal nitery where music stars Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and now Winehouse all found themselves, age 27, famous and dead.
But the club doesn’t claim all likely members. Winehouse was born two decades after legendary singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull had already begun her own season in Hell, which, like Winehouse, started in early pop music stardom and culminated in full-blown life-threatening drug addiction. Faithfull was knocking on the door of the “27 Club” when she was that age.
Winehouse is gone before seeing her 30th birthday, but Faithfull is poised to celebrate her 65th, in the midst of touring the world and on the heels of making one of her finest records, “Horses and High Heels.”
Comedian Russell Brand recently all but blamed the Fourth Estate for Winehouse’s demise, noting, “Our media … is more interested in tragedy than talent, so the ink began to defect from praising her gift to chronicling her downfall; … ephemeral tittle-tattle replaced her timeless talent.”
Faithfull, speaking on the phone from Paris on a break before her fall European tour, doesn’t disagree with Brand, but her emphasis isn’t on the big bad press, but rather the big bad biz.
“I haven’t really spoken about it, but I do have strong feelings about her loss,” Faithfull says. “She was an amazing talent. But the music business is a loathesome thing. I don’t mean to be too tough about it, but it’s true. For anyone creative or sensitive, it can kill. It happened to Cobain and to Elvis, and it happens over and over again.”
Faithfull is as meticulous and unsparing in her dissection of the pitfalls of stardom as she is in her devastating chronicles that comprise her body of work, whether it be the albums dating back to her 1979 comeback breakthrough, “Broken English,” or her starkly honest autobiography, “Faithfull,” first published in 1994.
In the singer’s view, it’s not simply an individual’s vices that bring down major talents before their time; there’s also something inherently difficult in a life lived in the spotlight.
“Drugs and alcohol kill, and everyone knows it. People did try to help, as they always do,” says Faithfull ruefully of Winehouse.
Faithfull herself had fallen prey to drugs to the point, decades ago, when she was living on the streets of London’s Soho district, surviving on handouts.
In Faithfull’s view, Winehouse hated being famous. “That’s what people can’t bear. Fame is incredibly upsetting.”
Faithfull’s take on the travails of show business ring with truth not just because of her personal journey, but also that voice, which exudes some miraculous mixture of both pain and the persistence to endure it, no matter the cost. As her musical collaborator on “Horses,” Doug Pettibone says of Faithfull, “She could read a restaurant menu and make you cry.”
Some key points in Faithfull’s bio provide a vivid illustration of not only the forces that can overwhelm an artist in any medium, but also the special demons lurking around every corner of pop stardom:
• Faithfull was a beautiful teenage pop star whose “As Tears Go By” (penned by Richards and fellow Stone Mick Jagger) was an international hit. “I was very pretty,” she recalled in one interview, “and that was a big part of the problem.”
• She was on newspaper and magazine front pages around the world as the longtime girlfriend of Jagger. As she told one interviewer: “My first move was to get a Rolling Stone as a boyfriend. I slept with three and decided the lead singer was the best bet.”
• A few years later, Faithfull was a heroin addict, hitting one of her personal lows when she became homeless in Soho.
• Her rebirth began in 1979 when she had moved beyond addiction to achieve one of her artistic highlights, the acclaimed and gritty “Broken English.”
Even a cursory listen to her magnificent new work, lovingly produced by longtime Faithfull studio whiz Hal Willner, offers insights into those more positive aspects of her showbusiness work, the ones that seem to have won out over the darkness she’s unstintingly chronicled in three decades since “Broken English.”
In its eight cover tracks — Willner and Faithfull’s careful curation of ’70s gems and underheard nuggets such as Brit folk-rocker Jackie Lomax’s “No Reason,” Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Goffin-King’s delicate “Goin’ Back” — Faithfull celebrates the healing power of love and hope and friendship.
The singer says the album fully expresses her current, hard-won peace with the world. “Oh god, I’ve really adapted to my lot. I really do enjoy performing, making records and writing. Probably performing most of all.”
To tap into that self-awareness, Faithfull has branched out beyond music, carving out a nice career as a solid character actress in European films, including a startling star turn in the very naughty but heartfelt, “Irina Palm” as a granny determined to raise money to save her ill grandson’s life, even if that means sexually pleasuring anonymous customers.
Faithfull laughs and says of that very indie film, “The English couldn’t get over it. They tend to like things that aren’t as straightforward — you know, period films and local films like ‘Calendar Girls.’?” She’s also co-starring with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a film adaptation of Albert Cohen’s celebrated 1960s novel “Belle du Seigneur.”
If anything distinguishes the 2011 version of the famed chanteuse, it’s Faithfull’s ebullient, but worldly mood, captured dramatically in her “Horses” co-composition, “Eternity,” which samples the eerie and evocative Moroccan musicians recorded in the field in 1968 by the late Brian Jones on the album “The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.”
On the terrific electronic press kit that colorfully recounts the making of “Horses” in New Orleans, Pettibone, who co-authored “Eternity,” chuckles about the irony of their collaboration, which he cites as “the first happy song Marianne Faithfull ever wrote.”
Its lyrics nicely sum up both Faithfull’s tumultuous journey and the dual-edged sword of her current bliss: “You better jump for joy, shake with fear; this is an everlasting year.”