‘Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row’
‘He had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it. Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would ever be … ‘
(Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Tender Is The Night’)
‘Can’t let go, There’s a madness in my soul tonight, Can’t let go…’
(Bryan Ferry, ‘Can’t Let Go’)
In 1978 Bryan Ferry experienced something new in his, until then, wholly successful and glittering career – failure. His fifth, and to my mind by far his best solo record, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ an adult work drenched in passion, paranoia and desperate desire emerged at the height of the punk era in the UK and was (apart from a few critics and Ferry fanatics like me) roundly ignored. I guess you just can’t fight the Zeitgeist.
Up until that point Bryan Ferry, particularly as the principal songwriter and focal point of Roxy Music, had been a virtual ringmaster of the Zeitgeist. Roxy Music had materialised in public consciousness in 1972 with their staggeringly accomplished debut single, ‘Virginia Plain’. They didn’t look or sound like anyone else – an extraordinary feat in the modern pop era.
It seemed as if they had arrived as uber-glamorous spacemen, at warp factor 8, from an exoplanet in a distant galaxy where a particularly brilliant museum curator had created a group which would simultaneously celebrate and guy the whole postmodern project in music, fashion and the fine arts and do so with thrilling musical and intellectual confidence. And, they made records which were undeniably brilliant works of pop ephemera, huge hits!, as well as being carefully crafted art projects.
Bryan Ferry was after all a fine arts graduate who had been a star pupil of Pop Art maestro Richard Hamilton as well as someone who loved the suave look of Cary Grant alongside his reverence for the deep soul sounds of Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. The first three Roxy Music albums, ‘Roxy Music’, ‘For Your Pleasure’ and, ‘Stranded’ remain peaks of artistic creativity in popular music – endlessly replayable as they give up layer after layer of meaning and pleasure.
Roxy Music, initially a dizzyingly collaborative entity drawing on the disparate talents and influences of Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson became very much Bryan Ferry’s band after the departure of Eno before, ‘Stranded’ was recorded. The next two records, ‘Country Life’ and ‘Siren’ though excellent by anyone else’s standards represented a falling off in ambition and intensity of vision for Roxy Music.
Bryan Ferry had also commenced a solo career with a series of records which showcased his distinctive take on pop history as he intriguingly covered artists as varied as Lesley Gore and Bob Dylan. These records acknowledging the treasures in the Great American Songbook as well as the products of the Brill Building were highly enjoyable exercises in style with a capital S.
But, from the evidence of, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ sometime in 1976/1977, events in Bryan Ferry’s personal and artistic life (which I choose not to speculate on) pushed him to to write a series of songs , frequently self-lacerating, which displayed, once recorded, a ferocious, hitherto unknown (and never to be repeated) emotional and vocal intensity.
He also chose to cover songs from Lou Reed, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Al Green and J J Cale which along with his lovely, infinitely weary and regretful version of the Irish ballad, ‘Carrickfergus’ (see below) constitute what can only be described as the biography of a heart and soul in torment. The whole record can feel like the last semaphored SOS of someone who has hit bottom and can’t yet see a way out.
There is something like terminal despair in the unanswered question posed at the end of, ‘What Goes On’ – how does it feel to be loved? How could that be the situation of someone who in, ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ knows no depths to the love he is prepared to give, ‘Any kind of love you want, I would get for you.’ Of course, sadly the truth sometimes dawns that love no matter how strong is sometimes denied, abused and rejected. Being loved does not always flow from loving.
A martial, crack of doom, drumbeat kicks off ‘Sign of the Times’ the opening track on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ and immediately we are cast into a maelstrom of sound with Bryan Ferry raging like some urban Lear as he contemplates the bloody signs of the times with the leathered and lipsticked struggling chained and bound as they wait (welcoming?) for the hard lines to come down.
In the midst of the madness, in a world where we don’t know why we laugh or cry, why we live and die, he still wants to wreathe a rainbow in someone’s hair as a contrasting, perhaps countervailing, sign of the times. The song may have been written as ironic commentary on the times but the performance is anything but ironic or distanced.
Throughout this song and the whole record the studio veteran musicians, often derided as session mercenaries, seem to these ears to play, in response to their leader’s example, as if their lives depended on leaving no realm of emotion unvisited (not excluding emotional enervation and paralysis: the song, ‘When She Walks in the Room’ seems to drift in the ether like some weightless narcotic smoke ring of loss.)
The centrepiece of the album for me is, ‘Cant Let Go’ which I consider the greatest performance of Bryan Ferry’s career and one of the greatest performances by anybody in the rock era. ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wide screen journey into a landscape offering no hope of redemption. The song is a postmodern epic (Ferry has always had a filmic imagination) echoing the Hollywood creeping insanity of Hitchcock’s, ‘Vertigo’ and the repellant allure of Wilder’s, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ while prefiguring the desperate hall of mirrors madness of David Lynch’s, ‘Mulholland Drive’.
The song follows and incarnates the nightmare situation of a man, a man who knows there is no waking up from this nightmare. A man who is a self-aware exile from the havens of love and home. Some disaster expelled him from home; a love gone horribly wrong has propelled him left him West to the land where pain (so they say) might be avoided.
Once there, he finds that a life without pain can only be found in the grave – a grave he finds himself not yet ready to occupy. He goes on as a man who finds that it doesn’t matter where he drives because all directions end up being the same. The driving is important as the whole song seems to take place inside the tormented mind of someone looking through the rain spattered windscreen of a car speeding nowhere fast in endless loops.
Bryan Ferry’s superlative singing on this song seems dragged from the depths of his being and worthy, in its commitment, of the Stax soul masters he had hitchhiked to see in London when he was a student. His voice here has wonderful presence, power and a desperate nuanced elegance which survives even as he is about to be overwhelmed by the terrible storm. The terrible storm which remains one car wheel behind, one car wheel away from overtaking him, one car wheel away from destroying him. Rain streams down as his soul fights a battle between the consolations of finally feeling no pain and the not yet buried desire to live again.
Wasted and cold, exhausted from a hundred sleepless nights, he has to try to hold on, to hang on by his fingertips or else he will be lost forever and the madness in his soul will take full and permanent possession of his life. Afraid in the dark, there is no relief in celebrity, now he is only a face in the crowd, one more anonymous face, endlessly circling the purgatorial freeways.
The music enveloping Bryan Ferry as he fights his life and death battle has a wonderful sense of the movement between control and loss of control. The musicians accelerate and decelerate, rising and falling with the increasingly desperate situation of the singer. Waddy Watchtel on lead guitar, urged on by the string arrangement, sends shining sad spirals of sound echoing into the seemingly endless dark of the night.
As the song reaches its resolution you are left wondering whether this represents the car being driven off the road into the canyon or rather a hard stop allowing, after a deep shuddering breath for life, one more chance to begin again.
Perhaps the repeated final anguished cries of, ‘Can’t Let Go’ is a wounded acknowledgement that to be able to feel the need not to let go is proof that some strands of a man who might still find the will to hope, might yet wish to live, survives.
Perhaps that’s the spirit animating the elegiac version of, ‘Carrickfergus’ I leave you with now.
I will close, as I began, with a Bob Dylan quote, which seems particularly apposite to my take on, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’:
‘Pain sure brings out the best in people, doesn’t it?’
Though I think that, ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ is by far the best record of Bryan Ferry’s career it is heartening that a recent project, ‘The Jazz Age’ featuring 1920s style recreations of songs from the Roxy era was a triumphant success on record – as were the concerts that followed.
I also have enormous affection for his album of Bob Dylan songs, ‘Dylanesque’.
Since this post was written Bryan has joined the distinguished company of rock stars turning 70! Reports from his current tour show him still to be in very fine form. Delighted to add this picture of him celebrating his three score and ten!