When a 17-year-old Marianne Faithfull finished the final take of her 1965 hit “As Tears Go By” — penned by a young duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as one of their first original songs — Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham “came and gave me a big hug,” she recalled “‘Congratulations darling. You’ve got yourself a number six,’ he said.”
Richards remembered the song in his autobiography as “a terrible piece of tripe” and “money for old rope,” but it actually peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for nine weeks, no small thing. So popular was “As Tears Go By” that the Stones themselves recorded a version the following year. Their take also entered the Hot 100, where it peaked at number six.
The story of the song represents in brief the evolution of its original singer. Fated in her early years to be known as little more than Jagger’s muse, an image she grew to hate, Faithfull went from hanger-on in the sixties, “an essential component of the Swinging London scene,” writes reviewer alrockchick; to a homeless heroin addict; to a legend revived, her “whiskey-soaked” croak of a voice the perfect vehicle for delivering smoke-filled tales of weariness and betrayal.
Along the way, there was “As Tears Go By,” a song Faithfull came to embody, though she didn’t think much of it as a teenager. (See Brian Epstein introduce her on Hulabaloo, above, in 1965.)
She was “never that crazy” about it, she said. “God knows how Mick and Keith wrote it or where it came from…. In any case, it’s an absolutely astonishing thing for a boy of 20 to have written a song about a woman looking back nostalgically on her life.”
The “boys” had help — at first they cribbed the title “As Time Goes By” from the famous tearjerker in Casablanca. According to Loog Oldham, he locked the two Stones in a room together and said, “I want a song with brick walls all around it, high windows and no sex.” How that became a Marianne Faithfull signature is something of a mystery. At times she claimed Jagger wrote the song for her; at others, she emphatically denied it. But as the contrast between her voice and the song’s saccharine, maudlin nature changed, so too did the power of her delivery, which is not to say her first recording didn’t warrant the attention.
“The voice on ‘As Tears Go By’ and ‘Summer Nights,’” altrockchick writes, “has an airy, surreal quality; the voice on Broken English,” her 1979 comeback (which does not include “As Tears Go By”), “is as real as it gets” and only got more real with time. In a Nico-esque monotone drone, she revisited the song she made famous in the mid-sixties in the 1987 take above for the album Strange Weather. She had just recently gotten clean and lost a lover to suicide.
The weathered vulnerability she projects is worlds away from the dreamy melancholy of the past, her voice “a far cry from the 60s sweetness,” The Music Aficionado blog notes. “Years of substance abuse and constant smoking dropped her pitch and made it raspy.” These qualities are even more pronounced in a 2018 version of the song from the album Negative Capability. It functions almost as a coda for a career as an interpreter of the songs of others, though she’s written no few of her own (and may yet release another version of “As Time Goes By.”)
She is remembered for much more than her first hit, but Faithfull’s revisitation of “As Tears Go By” over the years seems to speak to an ambivalent acceptance of Mick Jagger’s constant presence in her story — and a graceful, if not exactly uplifting, acceptance of the inevitable ravages of age and fame.
You can hear her very recent interview on the Broken Record podcast below: