The word on Marianne Faithfull isn't good. The grande dame of rock'n'roll debauchery can, it is said, be difficult, demanding and given to huge hissy fits. When it comes to dealing with the press, she is known to have a particularly short fuse. And the early signs aren't good. The night before our interview in San Francisco, I meet her manager and boyfriend, François Ravard, a dishevelled character in Woody Allen specs, who tells me how a journalist was recently sent away with a flea in his ear and ordered to "read the bloody book!" - referring to Faithfull, her gloriously frank 1994 autobiography. Worse still, she's apparently exhausted. As well as gearing up for her stage role in The Black Rider, William Burroughs' Faustian fable which she first performed in London - she plays the devil, of course - she's in the throes of promotional work for her new album, ominously titled Before the Poison.
Before I meet her, I must attend a press conference where she will discuss the play. The turnout is impressive and the air fizzes with anticipation. After a gushing preamble from the producer, in sweeps Faithfull, all spike heels, huge cleavage and smouldering sexuality. Amid the popping flashbulbs, she works her audience effortlessly, fielding questions about her drug-addled past and talking eloquently about her role. When asked about the similarities between her own life story and that of the late Burroughs, who accidentally shot his wife while on acid, she replies in her cracked, 60-a-day voice: "Well, I didn't kill anyone if that's what you mean!"
Afterwards, Ravard does the introductions and then Faithfull goes home for a nap. I'm to meet her for a "proper chat" in a couple of hours at her apartment. In the meantime would I be "a darling" and get her a bottle of her favourite perfume, the men's cologne Habit Rouge?
Faithfull, I notice, has a way of charming people into doing things for her - one beseeching smile and you're rendered defenceless. While I go foraging for perfume, the dutiful Ravard is dispatched to the famous bookshop City Lights to get a pile of books: "Lots of Chekhov - and something silly."
At her apartment, the door has been left ajar. There I find her, specs on, feet up and sipping tea on a sofa. See? Not so scary after all. Where once upon a time Faithfull was touchy about being quizzed about her past, now she is remarkably candid, and clearly revels in her status as rock's primary horizontale (along with bedding three-fifths of the Stones, she also seduced Gene Pitney, Jimi Hendrix, Chris Blackwell and David and Angie Bowie. She did, however, turn down Bob Dylan). Her anecdotes - of which there are so many - are punctuated by loud guffaws that are so rasping you don't know whether to laugh along or call an ambulance. Yet there is a certain detachment in the way that she looks back at her life. One gets a sense of a woman removed from herself, as if looking at her life through a pane of glass.
Her hot-head reputation is, she tells me, something that she's stuck with. One of the reasons she agreed to the press conference was to convince the San Francisco literati that "she's not bloody Hydra". After getting a particularly vicious pasting in a Sunday newspaper a few years ago, she put herself through her own media-training course which involved repeated screenings of Fellini's film about the paparazzi, La Dolce Vita. The problem seems to be about expectations. "It's all about the myth of Marianne, you see," she explains. "People have always had this idea of what I should be like - the beautiful rock star's girlfriend, the washed-up drug addict, f the stroppy singer. The fact that I might have a personality of my own seems to be neither here nor there."
The myth began in March 1964 when, aged 17, Marianne went to a party given by the singer Adrienne Posta. There the Rolling Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham famously looked across the room and saw "an angel with big tits". Within a few weeks Faithfull was in the studio recording her first hit, "As Tears Go By", written for her, at Oldham's behest, by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. More hits followed, including "Come and Stay with Me" and "This Little Bird", along with a series of tours with the Kinks, Gene Pitney and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Although she married the artist John Dunbar and had a son with him, named Nicholas, she soon started a passionate but ultimately destructive affair with Mick Jagger. For years they were pop's golden couple, though by the end of the decade their relationship had turned irretrievably sour.
In 1969, Faithfull lost the baby they had conceived together, seven months into the pregnancy; not long after, she took an overdose and spent six days in a coma. Their relationship limped on for another year, during which time she got deeper into heroin. On one occasion Jagger, who had by this time developed an unhealthy fascination with the aristocracy, took her to a dinner party given by the Earl of Warwick at his castle. There she passed out at the table, falling face-down into a bowl of soup. A few months later they went their separate ways. By 1971 Jagger had married the Nicaraguan model Bianca Perez Moreno de Macias and Faithfull had lost custody of Nicholas and was living as a homeless addict on the streets of Soho.
Throughout the latter half of the 1970s and 1980s, Faithull made the occasional album - among them the querulous 1979 classic Broken English - and took small roles in a series of unexceptional films. By the mid-1980s, she'd failed to kick her habit and was sent to a clinic in Minneapolis where she started an affair with a fellow junkie named Howard. When, a few weeks later, Faithfull announced that their romance had no future, he threw himself out of a 36th-floor window. The shock of his death finally persuaded her to get clean for good.
That 1994 autobiography, an exhaustive trawl through her darkest decades which both dispelled the myths and reinforced the legend, broke a long silence. Writing it, she says, was "awful, a nightmare. Going over the things one did again and again. Did I really do that? Did I think that? Did I actually say that?" So why put yourself through it, I ask? "The money, mostly," she sighs. "But I also wrote it to put it all from my point of view, to show what I remember and how I saw it and to draw a line under it all. Finish! Fini! I think I was very angry, just because of all the misconceptions and all the bullshit. In the end it was rather positive. It gave me a sense of perspective. It was like I'd been carrying around these heavy cases for a long, long way and I put them down at the station and I walked off."
A large chunk of the book is inevitably taken up with Jagger, whom she describes upon first meeting him as "a cheeky little yob", and the establishment's distrust of the Rolling Stones which culminated in the notorious Redlands drugs bust. Although Jagger chivalrously took the rap for Faithfull's stash, the fact that she was found covered in nothing but a fur rug was leaked to the papers, along with a bogus story about a certain bar of chocolate.
The memory still stings: "Well, it was just too ridiculous," she hisses. "There may have been drugs but the one thing [Mick, Keith and I] all agree on is that were was no bloody Mars bar. But you know it's happened before, to Oscar Wilde, where somebody just gets too grand and too successful, and is having too much fun. In Australia it's called Tall Poppy Syndrome. A poppy grows up too high you cut it down. If you're not humble and grovelling enough and if you're operating outside of society they will come down on you. The clever thing they do is pick on a weakness that a person has anyway and let them hang themselves. They didn't manage to destroy Mick and Keith and, though I f was the most vulnerable, they didn't manage to get me. They did destroy Brian [Jones, the Stones' drummer who drowned in his swimming pool], though, which was dreadful."
These days she doesn't see Jagger and Richards much but she still regards them as close friends. "We went through an extraordinary experience together, and because of that we have a bond," she says. "I keep in contact with a lot of old friends but I have a lot of new friends too. One of the things I like about younger people is that they don't care about my history. They can hear in my voice and in my songs that I've been around the block but they really don't care at all. Sometimes I have to give up on my own generation and say to myself, 'Well they didn't really get me.'"
It's one of Marianne Faithfull's many contradictions that she feels both misunderstood yet utterly in control of her fate. The drug addiction and homelessness were her own doing, she says. "The point was to be anonymous. To have no address, and no phone number and have no one bothering me. For years I always had people looking at me and I wanted it to stop. In that respect I think I was very successful." In her book she expresses infuriation at always being perceived as a victim, yet she insists she was hamstrung from the very start by her beauty.
"Being beautiful is a sort of short cut," she explains. "You can get through things pretty easily. In my late teens I learned how to be loveable, how to be charming. People really responded to it and they liked to have me around. I think one of the reasons that I've got more skilled and hard-working is that I can't just depend on my looks. I'm not as sylph-like and beautiful as I was and I'm nearly 58. I have to work harder."
Marianne credits Ravard as the primary influence behind her latest creative surge. "He understands me and he feels very strongly that what I've got shouldn't be wasted. He helps me channel my energy in a positive way. When I look at what I can really do when I'm firing on all cylinders I think it's a shame that I didn't start cracking along more quickly."
She is, of course, keen to talk about Before the Poison, the follow-up to her 2002 album Kissin' Time which saw her experimenting with a broad range of sounds and collaborators. Before the Poison is a more focused piece of work, built primarily around collaborations with Polly Harvey (aka PJ Harvey) and Nick Cave. It is quite possibly her best work yet - Harvey's arrangements in particular seem tailor-made for Faithfull's Dietrich-meets-Waits singing voice.
"You know she's quite intimidating, that Polly," confides Faithfull. "She's a very determined little thing and she's got this face she makes, a sort of crumpled look, if you don't do what she wants. I was insecure about tackling this high range on her songs so she sent me to a voice coach who also coaches Mick and Bono. So that was very grand, and very expensive, but I think it was a good idea. Polly is very clever really, even if she does put you through the wringer to get what she wants. I think she did me proud."
Marianne Faithfull was born in 1946 in Hemel Hempstead. Her mother, Eva, was the Baroness Erisso, a dancer and actress descended from a long line of Austro-Hungarian aristocrats called the Sacher-Masochs. Marianne's great-uncle Leopold wrote the book Venus in Furs, which gave rise to the term masochism. Her father, Glyn, was a British spy and an eccentric whose own father invented a sexual device called the Frigidity Machine with which he hoped to cure the nation's libido problems. Marianne spent the early part of her life at a commune in Braziers Park, Oxfordshire, though when she was six her parents separated and she moved to a small terraced house in Reading with her mother.
"We had no money, of course," she remembers. "But I was still brought up very much as a little princess. My mother adored me and it's one of the reasons I got through everything later on - at least that's what my shrink always said. The fact that I was able to get over my drug addiction at all was to do with my mother's love. Some love, even if it's a bit smothering, is better than none."
At seven she was sent as a charity boarder to St Joseph's Convent School where, to fit in, she converted to Catholicism. By the time she was 13, she was taking major roles in Shakespeare plays put on by local repertory theatres. In her early teens she also made regular sojourns to London with her friend Sally Oldfield (sister of Mike). Together they would go to plays, go on CND marches and hang around outside jazz clubs to gawp at the cool kids going in and out. "Even as a teenager I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, because I was so clever," exclaims Faithfull. "I was fascinated by all kinds of culture. I thought, 'Shall I be a writer, shall I be an actress, shall I be a singer, shall I be a dancer?' It's such a wonderful thing, being young and having every possibility open. Until you've made a choice, you don't need to give up the other possibilities. What happened to me was that I never got to make the choice. I was chosen."
Now, at last, Faithfull is having her cake and eating it. At a time in her life when most people's careers are winding down, hers is flourishing. More importantly she can, when she chooses, be left alone. When she's not touring, she divides her time between Ravard's apartment in Paris, and Dublin, where she has lived for the last 15 years. Crucial to her happiness is that fact that she's not angry anymore - she has, to use her word, "mellowed". When it comes to regrets, Faithfull has got plenty though, as she sees it, "an unexamined life is not worth living. I see my life not this sort of freak show but as a learning curve. I think people think I'm joking when I say that but I'm not. I look at people in the music business now and I see how screwed up they get and how low they go. I think how stupid they are. I want to say to them, 'You don't need to do that. I did it for you.'"
'Before the Poison' is out now on Naïve Records