An icon of Sixties London, who lost much of the next decade to heroin, Marianne Faithfull now finds her equilibrium in isolation and work. Will Self met the gravel-voiced singer, and was utterly seduced
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THERE'S nothing much crasser in life than being told by someone, shortly after you've met them: "You really remind me of so-and-so..." It's bad enough if this aide-memoire is someone well-known to your interlocutor, but far, far worse if it's someone famous. When I was in my early twenties people used to tell me with monotonous regularity that I "really reminded them" of Pete Townsend; disregarding entirely the fact that inch for inch you could have extruded at least three of the wiry axeman from my lanky frame. It drove me up the wall; reducing - as it did - the unique harmony of my features to his beaky ubiquity. One of the few conceivable beneficial side-effects of notoriety that I can imagine would be to discover that Townsend is now afflicted by people who inform him that he really reminds them of me.

But how inconceivably worse it must be for Marianne Faithfull, who, at 52, still resolutely resembles herself. For Faithfull is the very quintessence of notoriety - she's the 20th-century icon conceived as a supporting role for a put-together persona. She's the photofit picture of intimacy itself. The ultimate rock-chick, she was a proto-wild child who bedded the most feral of them. Swellegantly squired through the Sixties by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, she ended up shooting smack on the Soho streets in the Seventies; and over the last 20 years has clawed her way back to become the thinking person's femme fatale, a gravel-voiced chanteuse whose poignant readings of her own material - as well as the sorrowful standards - have earned her a top billing at the fin-de-siecle cabaret.

So it hardly seemed suitable to tell her that she really reminded me of my friend Maria. It was in the husky intimacy of her voice, the readiness of her wit and the vulnerability of her crooked elbows, when set beside the theatricality of her spread hands. Like Maria, Marianne has a tendency to slide into an arch, Grande Dame-ish tone; but invariably, comments which begin to describe parabolas of pretension are then shot down by rasping laughter, or still more abrasive coughs - for both of them are steady smokers. And like Maria, Marianne is clever, well-read, engage - everything you could want in a lunch companion.

In truth, I didn't hit upon the Maria resemblance until some time after I'd met Marianne for lunch, because while I was with her she was so much herself that I found myself gulled into the sense that I in fact did know her really well. Marianne was good enough to say that she felt the same way about me - but I wasn't convinced. Indeed, in retrospect I wonder whether her ability to make me experience her as so familiar is not the very essence both of what made her famous, and of what made her so vulnerable to that ghastly notoriety.

There's that, and there's also the fact that she is a perfect composite character for me to know. If I'd had the opportunity to order up an older, wiser sister for myself from celestial central casting, it would be Marianne. The outsider's upbringing in the suburbs of Reading - her mother a doubly-exiled Austrian aristocrat, her father an errant idealist - has given her a Janus-faced take on Little England. The long sojourn in the Bermuda Triangle of rock-stardom has brought a warped insight into the foibles of the egoist; and then, of course, there were the drugs.

If I'd met Marianne 20 years ago I'm sure we'd have been talking highs and lows the way druggies do; but this being 1999 we talk recovery: the virtues of 12-step programmes, vitamins, therapy, acupuncture, friends, isolation and routine. Yet even while discussing these most mature of considerations, there's a mercurial, capricious character about Marianne which won't go away. Intimacy and immediacy - the dramatic synergy so slickly and falsely imparted by narcotics - are qualities that she has written into her character the way "Brighton" is through rock.

So it was that I found myself utterly seduced by Marianne - reluctant to bother her with tiresome questions, content to talk far too much about myself and, indeed, say anything which would provoke more of her fantastic gravelly guffaws. Of course, I had met her before - as a logical pairing we've crossed paths on the publicity circuit - but as she came barrelling across the restaurant I was struck anew by the force of her beauty.

Her face bears the self-inflicted scars of a woman who's been driven to slice away at the looks which have masked her soul. "An angel with big tits" is how Andrew Loog Oldham, the upper-class thug manager of the Rolling Stones once revoltingly described her; and it's easy to imagine how a myriad remarks such as this might have forced her to a self-mastectomy as well as the suicide by a thousand cuts of heroin addiction. She has all of that beauty still, but it's now annealed by the hard times. The once ethereal girl has been pressed between the panes of life, and as time has coursed by she's the figurehead that's weathered it.

She was dressed entirely in black: black jacket, black T-shirt, black skirt, black stockings and black shoes. The black clothes suggested restraint - the stockings a lack of. While we spoke her accent moved between haute- bourgeois and mockney as she adjusted its tone with the subtle modulations of a virtuoso trombonist. "Fucking" was used principally adjectivally; "darling" mostly in lieu of my name: truly, her presence was the essence of the demi- monde. Initially I'd regretted arranging to meet her at the Ivy restaurant in Covent Garden, for this eatery is like the green room of celebrity itself, so often are famous faces getting filled there. Yet, as Marianne hailed a selection of those she recognised - the artists Sam Taylor Wood and Peter Blake; the actors William Shawn and Jonathan Kent - I realised that this was more or less the ideal circumstance in which to view her: in amongst the cavalcade.

Yet while Marianne was in it - "I must go and say hello to him, he's a great friend..." - with the bluebird tattooed prominently on her left hand in the approved criminal fashion, she was clearly not of it. In England for three weeks to promote her new album, Vagabond Ways, and perform two concerts of Kurt Weill songs with the London Symphony Orchestra, she was staying not at a stylish hotel ("I couldn't afford to anyway"), but with Anita Pallenberg, with whom she's still great friends. One of the songs on the album, called "File It Under Fun", is about long-term friendships, and to me Marianne said, "I don't see discard as an option - to give me credit I really try not to discard people."

Nor do they try to discard her. When it came up that she'd sung a song from the album at the Royal Albert Hall memorial concert for Linda McCartney, I asked Marianne if she'd known her well: "I didn't know her well, but she made my friend very happy, that's the main thing ... Paul and Linda were living their own life, you didn't see them at parties or things, but when I was really fucked up they were so kind - not overly understanding, but on my side. She was a decent woman really."

Marianne's rock'n'roll friends are set to be portrayed in a film of her autobiography, Faithfull, which is due to commence shooting this summer. "This is my big shot," she told me. "I can buy my house in Dublin, although I know there are all sorts of things that can go wrong..." Nevertheless, in anticipation of being portrayed she'd been to see the putative "Marianne", Cate Blanchett, who's currently appearing in Plenty. "She's a big girl," Marianne purred. "I didn't realise how tall she is." I demurred, saying I'd met Blanchett and she was, in fact, a wee thing. Marianne pressed on: "She did look very tall to me - anyway, she's a lovely strong girl, I think she's very beautiful - she's my first choice." Beautiful as Blanchett may be, this is no piece of typecasting. A small-breasted woman with her feet firmly on the ground, the actor is the complete reverse of Loog Oldham's definition of Marianne.

Marianne is finely divided about her own ravaged looks. When, late on in our talk, I referred to the forthcoming film again, she thought I was asking whether she still had any acting ambitions and replied, "I don't think I've got a chance in movies because of the way I look..." thus simultaneously acknowledging her beauty and its transfiguration.

Her father died a year ago and remembering him drags Marianne back into the purlieus of her eccentric upbringing. Her father had been an intelligence officer during the war and in the Fifties he began a commune. "I went down to the commune to see him, he'd had a heart attack which stripped away his defences. He kept saying `Oh my poor love' whenever I came into the room, and bursting into tears." Had they always been close? "He was the great unrequited love of my life, but when he was dying I was able to ask him these questions, and he answered them. He told me about some of the things he'd seen in the war and it was clear that he'd been terribly traumatised. He came back a committed pan-European, determined to help prevent it happening again."

Major Glynn Faithfull set up something which he termed the "School for Integrative Social Research", but the Baroness Eva von Sacher-Masoch, the high-toned war bride he'd brought back with him, turned out to be non-integrable and she left the commune, taking the young Marianne with her. Had her father, I wondered, died fulfilled? "No! It was a nightmare! My dear stepmother - who really helped me to get my place back at the family table - became ill with leukaemia. She had to go into hospital - and they kicked him out of the commune! I mean, he did run it as if it were an autocracy, but it was a commune and they voted on it. He and my stepmother died within four weeks of each other."

Marianne had been there to cope with her father's death, alongside her step-siblings, but despite feeling affection for them she told me: "I'm not really able to cope with a family. I mean, I'm trying..."

"Trying is lying." I thoughtlessly quoted a slogan I remembered from my days in drug rehab - but Marianne, rather than laughing, looked extremely hurt. I didn't feel inclined to mention her son, Nick, the single issue from her short-lived marriage to John Dunbar (the hip proprietor of the Indica bookshop, which was widely credited as being the crucible of "Swinging London") in the early Sixties. She lost custody of him during her drug addiction, and evidently the scar tissue covering this wound is still thin.

She drank two or three hot rum toddies during lunch to try to quell the croak in her voice: "I shouldn't be having a drink at all," she said, "but it's a long day." A long day of interviews and photo-shoots, then the concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, then a brief sojourn back in Ireland before the band arrives from the States to tour the new album for three weeks around Britain. "I have to be very good on tour now, or I just can't do it." Good on tour - and continent at home as well: "The way I have to live is very quiet, very cool, that's part of the reason why I stay in Dublin - it would be much harder in London."

Marianne admitted to me that following the publication of the autobiography in 1994 she'd had "quite a relapse", but she wasn't referring to heroin: that she's eschewed entirely since she cleaned up in the early Eighties. Yet there's an assumed bravado about her pronouncement that "my liver's a little delicate - I have to be careful". Just as there is when she claims that she can maintain "a distance" between herself and the grotesque cartoons the world continues to make of her. Clearly the distance needs to be a physical as well as a psychic one: "I was nine years at Shell Cottage [her former home in the Irish countryside], and I was very isolated and very lonely, but it works. I learned to be more self-contained, which I really needed to do."

There's been isolation, there's been routine and, since the release in 1979 of the album Broken English, there's been work, work which Marianne takes extremely seriously: "It's very precious - it's my work, so I don't want it to get fucked up by my ignorance or my arrogance." To me she compared her gift for music to her father's ear for languages: "He was a brilliant linguist, he could speak any European language." Clearly she thinks of herself as an interpretive singer rather than an expressive one, but she conceded that she "lost herself" in performance, and that the emotions were paramount for her. "How d'you think I keep straight?" she abjured me. "I do it by work, days and days and days of work."

She delicately consumed some expensive leaves, and when I offered her one of my oysters she declined it as follows: "I won't, thanks - they remind me of giving head." Endlessly assailed by others' sexual projections, she still remains in control enough to tease. Caught in her charm - the very essence of which is to make time an interloper - I wasn't so much sorry as gutted to see her go. However, there was the Albert Hall to look forward to. When I'd asked if I could come to the concert, Marianne chuckled and purred: "Of course you can - you can come and sit in my box with Anita. Stick around and have a drink afterwards." And that was promise enough to sustain me for the intervening week.

At the Albert Hall, on the night, I found myself peculiarly nervous. I took my wife along, and bizarrely I found myself worrying that she might not enjoy the concert. Bizarrely, because it's my wife who's the fan of Faithfull's music rather than me. She'd bought the albums; I merely listened to them. Together we scrutinised the thronging audience, playing the Zeitgeist game of confronting our own ageing by observing the wear of our contemporaries. This lot were so like ourselves that they all looked like people we might know; we didn't simply spot the odd acquaintance, we kept seeing three or four possible versions, composites from the past.

The allotted seats were in the body of the Hall rather than in a box, although I could see Anita Pallenberg a couple of rows in front. I kept saying to my wife, "I do hope she'll get a decent crowd...". I realised that I was nervous both of Marianne and for her. Nervous of, because I was still suffering from the delusion that she was my New Best Friend; nervous for, because, while I had thought Vagabond Ways as good as anything she's done to date, I couldn't quite believe that the vulnerable person I'd met in the Ivy could withstand the dark chill of the great auditorium, nor rise above the massy sound of a full symphony orchestra.

And, sitting there, it occurred to me that this was the strange essence of Marianne: this ability to generate in me such a fervid co-mingling of concern and anxiety. It's all there in the voice, which is a beautifully expressive instrument rather than an interpretive device. No wonder Marianne has chosen to sing Kurt Weill, because the half-singing, half-talking, expository style his songs require is such a perfect Gestalt of her own divided nature. And, in particular, the song-cycle "The Seven Deadly Sins", with its "dual" narrators, presents a twisted take on our ingrained image of the libertine woman as a succubus.

Not that my fear abated yet. The orchestra tuned up magniloquently; Carl Davis strode on and spoke grandiloquently; but would Marianne's voice be all right? Would the cough have ravaged it, or the hot toddies? When she walked into the spotlight I picked over her appearance in the way a forbidding and judgmental mother might: was that thigh-high slit in her formal, black skirt necessary, or even appropriate? Did she have to carry that bottle of Evian onstage with her? And what was she going to do with her glasses? But when she squared up to the microphone, her round belly pushed proudly forward and her arms angled as if she were about to embark on Augean washing- up duties, there was no mistaking the seriousness of her intent. And when she opened her mouth to sing, the voice emerged intact, at once harsh yet soft, intimate yet remote, beautiful yet damned.

When the gig was over, Marianne's friends and acquain-tances started to gather in the artists' bar. I wasn't naive enough to imagine that I was going to be part of some little coterie, but I didn't really want to see her like this: from in amongst all the other stage-door Johnnies, hoping to be burnished by association. I wanted to confine my memories of her to intimate ones, whether intimate conversation or intimate singing. I didn't want to share her with any other Tom, Dick, Keith or Mick. And in this desire I am paradoxically, I suppose, just like all the others.

`Vagabond Ways' is released by It Records on 14 June