A few words inspired by the recent induction of Bryan Ferry’s band Roxy Music into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s more or less a meaningless honor, even if well overdue – bands can be inducted 25 years after their founding, and Roxy, thanks to the divergent geniuses of Ferry and fellow founder Brian Eno, was the most influential and groundbreaking presence to emerge from the early 1970s glam rock movement apart from David Bowie. And Ferry was almost as protean, as multifaceted and chameleonlike, with all the loungey lizardlike charm that suggests, as Bowie.
Even if today Roxy Music is remembered mainly, if at all, for its last album, Avalon, an ethereal album that is to makeout music what Shakepeare is to clichés. And Ferry remembered, generally, for remaking Avalon over and over over the course of his solo career to limited degrees of success, as if trapped in that ether, a Phantom-Zoned wraith in a white dinner jacket.
It wasn’t, he wasn’t, only that. Ferry as #menswear style icon has helped perpetuate the cliché of his Avalon days and sound, aloofly dapper as a gyrfalcon alights on his Savile Rowed wrist and Sophie Ward pirouettes. He was better remembered for his conservative elegance than his music: my first exposure to him was in the first issue of Esquire Gentleman 25 years ago, a very short-lived Esquire spinoff that was supposed to actually focus on clothes, and I bought my first Ferry albums on the basis of his languid, polished charm.
It was only as I worked my way back through his catalog that I choked with surprise on the earlier mad glam, tiger-striped, quiffed like outer space Teddy Boys, sweaty, exuberant, retro, musical attempts at Pop Art and perversity like Roxy’s early Remake/Remodel (whose chorus was the license plate number to the Studebaker Ferry had had in art school) or In Every Dream Home a Heartache, a pained love song to an inflatable doll. Ferry maintained a prolific solo career alongside his early Roxy stuff, quickly turning out effusive, brilliantly flamboyant covers of Bob Dylan (to this day the only form in which I can stand Dylan) and the Rolling Stones. His second solo album saw him posing in white dinner jacket in front of what appeared to be the end of a showbiz party around an LA pool. The look, languid and decadent, stuck, even if his sound stayed sardonic and energetic.
The man didn’t seem to become the pose until the end of the 1970s. Punk and New Wave (including quite a few bands heavily influenced by Ferry and Roxy) came into fashion. On the heels of his worst-performing solo album, The Bride Stripped Bare, Ferry reformed Roxy Music with a new, more polished sound and lyrics underwritten to haiku obliqueness.
It’s Bride that resonates most with me now, his last album before that sea change, a name taken from Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, a surrealist sculpture. The bride in question is conspicuous by her absence, easy to suppose is Jerry Hall, who had left Ferry for Mick Jagger during the recording. The bachelor is the one who’s bereft, nerves bare and taut. From my middle age, the album appears cohesively intense, lonely, dark and bitter, the nighttime inner monologue of a romantic in Los Angeles, where most of it was written (Ferry recorded it in Montreux, Switzerland with a bunch of LA session musicians). Living in Los Angeles in my 20s after college, I certainly ran the lyrics of a song like “Can’t Let Go” through my head driving at night through West LA, even if I wasn’t following a route from Bel Air like Ferry:
It’s a winding road from Cuesta Way Down Sunset to the beach Though Canoga Park is a straight safe drive It's too far outta reach.
But now the headlights are flashin' by so fast All directions seems the same And the windscreen wipers keep a beat repeatin' You can't let go again
True to the album’s sound, its cover was cold, metallic angular blues and grays, with Ferry himself posing in a dark leather sportcoat (far from Anderson & Sheppard country squire, this) and skinny tie. But the man’s style, too, was never quite the arriviste cliché people assumed of the rock star insulating himself West End chic like a wannabe country gentleman in a drafty castle. Even if he continued to use Anderson & Sheppard and Cleverley for custom suits and shoes, he patronized Versace in the 1980s, ordered flamboyant custom shoes from Berluti, and friends ran into him at a fitting at Italian tailors Rubinacci a decade ago. He toured in a dinner jacket and leather trousers for a sterling album of Tin Pan Alley covers, As Time Goes By, continuing to be a genius reinterpreter… and that’s what Roxy had been at the beginning, a forward look back, a fanciful futuristic nostalgia act for 1950s rock and kitsch whose sound Eno hashed into Digital Age squiggles.
I came for the pose, stayed for the camp, and best remember the raw. A fame worthy of recognition.