The guy can't help it : Daily Mail and Guardian South Africa - Fri 14th Apr

The guy can't help it : Daily Mail and Guardian South Africa
14 April 2000

Lindsay Baker proposes that Bryan Ferry, who plays in South Africa this week, is the perfect example of a rock star growing old gracefully

We don't really like our rock stars to age. Should they be allowed, at age 54, to wear leather trousers and persist in performing?

As a rule, we prefer to think of them as they were in those early moments, when they first started to seep into our psyches. When Roxy Music appeared on Top of the Pops in 1972, they seemed freakishly exciting and grown-up, with their futuristic rockabilly look. As the poised Bryan Ferry launched into the trilling, peculiarly hypnotic strains of Virginia Plain, it felt as if they had crash-landed into a landscape previously populated only by lumpen Osmond brothers.

Roxy Music were pure, distilled glamour. Through the Seventies and early Eighties they reigned supreme, with hit after glorious hit. With Jerry Hall on his arm, Ferry became an icon of urbane cool. Roxy Music revamped the idioms and attitudes of popular music with their weird concoctions, their arrogant bravado, their visual flair, and their singer's half-drawled snarls and warbles.

So it comes as no great surprise that Ferry is such a picture of impeccable composure this evening in Amsterdam. It's only to be expected that he should saunter, unruffled, out of his dressing room and stride coolly down the backstage corridor to the stage. Ferry doesn't do flustered. He is known, after all, as the master lounge lizard. Although he has written and produced some of the most innovative and exciting music of his time, the popular perception of Ferry is still invariably linked with one or other of his languorously elegant images.

On the afternoon before the Amsterdam concert, the floppy-haired, slightly craggy Ferry sits sipping sparkling water, and speaks quietly in a voice that wavers between plummy English gent and lilting Geordie. He is as you would imagine he would be - tall, handsome, elegant in his tweed jacket and cords.

Ferry has attained heights of sophistication so at odds with his upbringing as to seem improbable. Home was in a tiny, impoverished pit-village near Durham; his father was a farmer and sometime pit-worker. Ferry was listening to music at five years old, and "obsessive" by the age of 10 or 11. As a boy, Ferry had a newspaper round, and he would read the music papers as he walked down the street.

He knew early on that he wanted to escape, that he didn't quite fit in. "I'm not sure if cuckoo's the right word," he muses, gazing absently out of the window, "but I remember feeling like I wanted to expand, go to New York, or go to London initially, which is pretty normal ... for people to gravitate towards their capital city if they're ambitious."

As a teenager, he travelled every Saturday to Newcastle, where he had a job in a tailor's shop. He used to love it when the teddy boys strolled into the shop. He would look on admiringly as they strutted like peacocks in their velvet-collared jackets. He saved his wages to buy winklepickers and Italian suits - and jazz music.

He admits freely that, for the purposes of the most recent album, As Time Goes By - a collection of Thirties standards, many of which feature on the current tour - he borrowed from the style and phrasing of Billie Holiday in her Thirties period, and her arranger Teddy Wilson. One of the first records he remembers buying was an EP by the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis. On As Time Goes By, he returns to the likes of Cole Porter's You Do Something to Me and Kahn and Donaldson's Love Me or Leave Me. "Most of the great songs are love songs, it's as simple as that. Whether I'm that romantic, I don't know - as much as a northern boy can be," he laughs.

His childhood wasn't hard, he insists. "It depends how spoilt you are now. We didn't have a car or a telephone or a fridge. I worked in all the holidays to make money. We always felt poor, I guess, but I was never deprived of anything." He loved Newcastle. He remembers a mod clothing shop called City Stylish, one of his favourites. "Newcastle was a mod stronghold, really."

After jazz, Jimi Hendrix was his next love, and then, when studying fine art at Newcastle University, he favoured the "more esoteric art music" of John Cage and his ilk, "but only up to a point". The look of things was always crucial. Ferry was taught by pop artist Richard Hamilton at art college, and it was his influence that spawned the "cover girl" look of the Roxy album sleeves.

"To go that route seemed the only option," he says. "I mean, we could've had a picture of the band, looking rather glum, which was normal, standing on a cobbled street or something. But I didn't fancy that. The pin-up was a great way to sell things traditionally, whether it was a Cadillac or a Coke bottle or a packet of cigarettes."

The mermaid with the killer fingernails and the come-hither expression on the cover of the 1975 album Siren was Jerry Hall, hired by Ferry. She soon moved into his Los Angeles mansion - she was 18 and he was 30 - and for two years they were a most dazzling item. She even performed the memorable, high-pitched yelps on the classic Let's Stick Together of 1976. It was Ferry, so the story goes, who introduced her to his friend Mick Jagger.

Nothing happened until Ferry went on tour to Japan and Australia, declaring - Hall later claimed - that he would not be calling her because it was too expensive. She was furious ("I mean, he was a rock star!" she later commented), and went to New York where she came across both Jagger and Warren Beatty at a dinner party. Both men were interested in the statuesque Texan blonde, but it was Jagger who took her home. "That was it," she said later. "I behaved very badly. No excuse."

What with Roxy's growing success in the States allowing for an increasingly glossy lifestyle, fantasy and reality began to blur for Ferry, not least during the Jerry Hall phase - he, the dashing, white-tuxedoed lounge lizard; she, the goddess-like übermodel. By the end of the Seventies, with the release of Roxy album number six, Manifesto, the intended irony of the Roxy sensibility was beginning to fade. The New Musical Express took to calling him Byron Ferrari.

He already owned a country pile in West Sussex, and when he married society gal Lucy Helmore in 1982, it was all too much for some commentators, who branded him a fake country gent and an arriviste. Much was made of the difference in backgrounds of the couple, but, he points out, she wasn't the first person he'd met from a different class. There are differences, of course, he says. North, south. She went to boarding school, he didn't. He went to university, she didn't. She is 14 years his junior. "But she's not an heiress, as was often claimed, with a stately home," he says.

The couple have four boys, and the eldest, Otis, now lives in Ireland where he works for a horse dealer. "Which is funny, because that's what my dad always liked." His wife doesn't much like being written about, he tells me, which is not so surprising. He has, in the past, referred to the marriage as "turbulent", and in interviews described her as "a Virgo ... not easy", and as "Garbo-esque".

In 1993, she revealed that she had been admitted to a rehab clinic to be treated for drink and drug dependency, and Ferry admitted at the time that he was prone to depression. An obsessive career in music has its drawbacks: "The other side of your life suffers, that's for sure, but I'm not crying about it." His marriage has survived. "We've managed to keep it together all this time," he says with a smile.

The Ferry aesthetic is rather more subdued these days than at its height of febrile Roxy sensuality, and has been for a number of years. He chose an image of a horse for the sleeve of his 1994 album Mamouna. "That went down like a lead balloon," he laughs. It must, after all, have been rather wearing, being so mercilessly cutting-edge in the Seventies and early Eighties; that high-octane, highly sexed sensibility, you would imagine, might wear thin in middle age.

Is this new, nostalgic preoccupation a kind of backlash, I wonder, against the unrelenting edginess and modernity of the Roxy days.

"Yes," he agrees. "Or a backwater ... a salmon pool," he chuckles. He's particularly pleased with his orchestra, which includes a classically trained brass section as well as the strings. "As soon as you start having strings, you stop calling it a band. They're not used to this kind of rock'n'roll touring, which means they're not jaded old session players, so it feels very fresh. There are no guitars thrashing about or anything like that - it's more subdued, more intimate."

Ferry seems rather to relish the freedom from fashion that comes with the old standards territory, though he is still a fan of some contemporary music - Beck, Radiohead, Missy Eliot, Macy Gray, Massive Attack, Tricky.

"But I don't hear much that blows me away. This record is different from all that, and that's why I'm pleased that it's done well." He draws a comparison with the recent, hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club album. "It's very refreshing that a record that's against the time can do so well."

He seems to be rather enjoying this more mellow phase of his career. Making the album was "really angst-free, which was a real change for me with record-making. I put a lot into it, and as a rule it can be quite traumatic, but with this it was as if I'd been waiting to do it for many years and suddenly it all came rushing out."

In the past, his voice has been buried in the mix, but now the approach is different: "The songs are so strong that just to sing them like a conventional singer felt very new to me." The record has done pretty well, considering the low-key approach, and the new European tour has been a sell-out.

He spends his money, he says, on "decorating" his life - "having things around you that you like to look at", and collects art from the first half of the last century, particularly the Bloomsbury artists. "Not really great art, but decorative, cosy to live with." He has no plans to leave England, though the idea of a warm climate does appeal.

The self-made glamour of Ferry's persona and the romantic despair that undertows much of his music have led to comparisons with that well-known figure of fatal elegance, Gatsby, a victim of his own aspiration who kept others at a distance with his affluence. "I've been compared to Dracula as well," he responds, with a loud, throaty laugh.

Is he happy? "Well, it's not a word I bandy around so much ..." he says, and stares into the distance, looking neither quite happy nor quite unhappy.

Later this year there will be a "rock album", which he has been working on with producer Rhett Davies and Roxy Music founder member Brian Eno. It's not quite a Roxy reunion, but a tour is not out of the question.

On stage that evening at the elegant Concert Gebouw, Ferry sweeps through the old standards with aplomb. The show is polished and beautifully crafted; his voice is mesmerising. This is the rock star growing old gracefully.

Which is, presumably, the whole idea. Ferry, the art-school graduate, has always known how to put together a persona. So, at 54, he still gets to wear the leather trousers, but with a dinner jacket - a combination that he carries off with a languorous, long-legged charm.

The cover of As Time Goes By is adorned with elegant, demure fashion illustrations from the 1930s. He dislikes using images of himself these days, he says, "because you can never find enough glamorous photographs of yourself. And that's worrying if you're vain," he adds, laughing.

"As the years go by, you feel the same inside but you look slightly different."

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