By Rex Weiner
Under a Manhattan sky that cannot make up its mind whether to rain or not, camera technicians are adjusting tripods, setting lights and arranging backdrops, ignoring the police helicopters clattering overhead. The President is in town to address the United Nations on the latest world crisis. Assistants tending a table of expensive items—men’s boots, sunglasses, carrying bags, everything branded with the unmistakable monogram and quatrefoil of Louis Vuitton—move with careful deliberation.
Ferryboats crossing the Hudson River sound a low warning note with their horns, as though signaling that out there, beyond New Jersey’s jagged skyline, lies a troubled land.
Just a stone’s throw from the river, on the rooftop of photographer Mark Seliger’s West Village studio, everything is under control. This is a Vuitton shoot, after all. A Kim Jones shoot, to be specific, and the London-born LVMH designer, a calm intense young man, is on hand to make sure the model shows off his latest creations in the best light—fabrics and colors inspired by a recent visit to the Atacama desert in Peru.
Bryan Ferry emerges from the make-up room to confront a rack of clothing. Jones holds out a long ash-colored coat. Ferry amiably tries it on, its luscious wool fabric falling to a place between knee and shoe. He studies himself in the mirror with eyes accustomed to honest self-appraisals.
“He’s a style icon to all of us,” Jones observes quietly. “He comes from a generation that changed all the rules.”
Ferry sits down and waits for the shoot to begin. He emits a slight cough occasionally. One leg over the other, a foot bobbing gently, he is a man who knows how to come to rest, but only when he must. A throat infection caused him to cancel shows in Washington DC and Boston. Nevertheless, the show went on in New York and Philadelphia. Although reviews said those shows seemed restrained, the King of Romantic Rock’s legendary panache was noted a week before in Toronto where, according to one report, “the crowd finally rushed the stage during Love is the Drug and stayed there for Virginia Plain, Editions of You and the encore songs of Let’s Stick Together and Ferry’s moving version of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy.”
The new studio album he’s promoting—Avonmore—is his 15th solo effort, his 23rd recorded album counting the Roxy Music releases. “Mainly my own songs, eight new ones,” he tells me, adding. “It’s important to show people you’re still writing.”
It’s an odd thing to say for such a prolific lyricist—David Bowie’s favorite songwriter, according to Ferry’s biographer Michael Bracewell. Perhaps it’s something only another writer of a certain age would understand. And anyway, it is not called the Can’t Let Go Tour for nothing. With the US leg of the tour completed, a string of European tour dates lie ahead of him to the end of the year. Another twenty-two date UK tour in January has just been announced. He’ll swing back to the US next summer, playing up and down the West Coast. Ferry is sixty-nine years old.
One of the most striking tracks on Avonmore—which features guests such as Nile Rodgers, Ronnie Spector, Mark Knopfler, Maceo Parker and Flea— is a cover of Robert Palmer’s Johnny and Mary. Thanks to his son Isaac, a dance music enthusiast, the track is a collaboration with the Norwegian synth wizard and DJ Todd Terje. Ferry has been performing the song in his shows, slowed down from Palmer’s peppy beat, the curious words delivered with a breathy melancholy…
Johnny's always running around
Trying to find certainty
He needs all the world to confirm
That he ain't lonely
Mary counts the walls
Knows he tires easily
He rises, pausing before the mirror to fiddle with his hair. It is breezy on the roof now, potted plants swaying , miniature birch and dwarf pine, graceful grasses. About fifteen people, Seliger’s trained crew and others from London, Paris, Milan, and L.A., are assembled to carry out their various roles, everyone performing their appointed task with silent precision.
“Look over to your left,” directs Seliger, lean and agile in tight jeans and white Adidas, a slight twang in his voice betraying his Texas roots. “Don’t smile. Yeah. That’s good. Beautiful. Relax one second…”
Against the white no-seam, hands in pockets, now smiling, now serious, Ferry gives the camera a professional turn. Seliger clicks away rapidly.
“Lean into your right hip with your right hand holding the jacket open… love that. Very John Wayne!”
Ferry smiles. Unlike Mick Jagger and other fellow rockers, he’s never acted in movies, but he moves instinctively, knowing how to take direction.
“Flirt with me! Now give me your tough guy face, your best Robert DeNiro…”
Ferry rotates before the camera, showing all sides, the coat flaring. Vaughn the hairdresser tends to his ruffled locks, flecked with grey.
Seliger pauses to check the images on a laptop. “The quietness in his eyes…” the photographer observes aloud. Then he moves everybody inside, switching from the tripod-mounted Mamiya to the more intimate hand-held Pentax, with Ferry bathed in warm sunlight beaming down through a skylight.
The shoot goes well, running to the late afternoon. At last, we’re sitting together on the rooftop, staring out across the river as the afternoon fades. Ferry clutches a cup of tea, a scarf wrapped around his ailing throat. He’s not feeling great, he tells me, though you wouldn’t know it from the photos he’s just shot.
“I try to sleep,” he says. He has no special diet. He doesn’t go to the gym or perform workouts. “The show gives me enough exercise,” he says with a chuckle. ”I’m quite lucky.”
Bryan Ferry has been lucky indeed. The son of a Northeast English farmhand, he saved his money from a part-time job in a tailor shop to buy one 78 record each week, listening to American blues and R&B imports. From his days studying fine art at the University of Newcastle, Ferry formed bands that helped lead the second wave of British rock, following the Beatles and Rolling Stones with a style that combined fashion and art theory with fanciful lyrics. Achieving early success with Roxy Music, Ferry’s smoky good looks and romantic liaisons with a string of models and high society babes like Jerry Hall and Amanda Lear established him as rock’s Number One Casanova, the one rocker for whom black tie and tuxedo were trademarks.
He’s single now, having recently divorced his second wife, Amanda Sheppard, after less than two years of marriage. The UK tabloids had fun with the fact that Sheppard, a public relations executive, was 30 years younger than Ferry and had told her friends the marriage fell apart because of her husband’s “unreasonable behavior.” His first marriage, to socialite Lucy Helmore, ended after 21 years together, and stretches of drug abuse for each. Their four sons, Merlin, Isaac, Otis and Tara, are often in the gossip pages, having been tagged the “feral Ferrys.” The Sunday Times Rich List estimates Ferry’s worth at nearly 38M Euros, behind Roger Daltrey but about the same as Sade. When not touring, he retreats to his country estate, a grand home on spacious grounds known as Little Bognor House, near Fittleworth, West Sussex,
None of this seems to be a good topic for discussion as Ferry sips his tea by my side and we watch the sun dipping towards the horizon. The conversation moves easily, however, from one thing to the next. I mention Bowie, as a fan of Ferry’s songwriting. “I never see him!” says Ferry “He was a big supporter of Roxy Music early on. But he lives here in New York and I’m in London.,” he says, adding, “I don’t really have many close friends in the music world. Most are mainly in the art world. Because I work with musicians, and after all day with them in the studio, you know…”
The shoot, fashion, and style: “Style is something you really shouldn’t think about too much,” says the man who has been on countless Best-Dressed lists. “It’s hard to analyze. All aspects of design interest me—architecture, fabric, furniture. When I was a young boy, sixteen, seventeen, I worked in a tailor shop on Saturdays, got my interest in clothing then. I’m very eclectic about clothes. I like to mix things up , old-fashioned Saville row things with something new. Kim is very good, works with very good fabrics. Clothing is about details.”
Music and fashion were intermixed in the UK when he was growing up. The Mods and the Rockers… “I came from Newcastle in the north, a Mod town in the mid-Sixties.”
Ferry should be writing a book, like Keith Richard’s autobiography. “Keith’s book was entertaining to say the least,: says Ferry, “And I would write one someday, but I’ve never been so busy as now I enjoy touring, performing.”
Is this the life he imagined for himself, growing up in Newcastle?
He thinks about this and replies with a memory from 1967. “I once hitchhiked to London,” he recalls, “to the Roundhouse to see the Stax Volt Revue. They were touring England. I saw Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave… and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
I mention the cover of Johnny and Mary. “It’s a beautiful song, haunting lyric,” he says. “I like songs that have a mystery about them.”
Johnny's always running around
Trying to find certainty…
Overhead the helicopters hover nervously, their chop-chop noise forcing a pause in our conversation. They are guarding the president’s limousine as it travels up the West Side. Ferry stares into the distance where the pale October sun is sinking lower across the river to where New Jersey rears its industrial head briefly before giving way to the land beyond.
Kerouac once said “In October, everyone goes home.” But Ferry is not home, nor is he going home anytime soon—he’s on the road, and the road goes on, like rock n’ roll goes on, whatever the state of the world, to a cool shining Avalon glimpsed once upon a time by a poor man’s son in a fevered dream.