Brian Ferry

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The Independent Online

I suppose I should confess that, as a young teenager in the Seventies, I was horribly promiscuous. Let me see: I slept with Donny Osmond, then Bowie, certainly. I even had a brief thing going with David Essex at one point. But I think Bryan Ferry was always my absolute favourite, even though, caught at the wrong angle, something quite unpleasant and almost Alvin Stardusty could happen. I shared a room with my older sister at the time, who, annoyingly, always wanted to yatter like mad after lights off. "Be quiet," I would have to tell her. "I'm sleeping with Bryan Ferry at the right angle over here!" Eventually, and stupidly, I betrayed him with Daniel "Rubber Lips" Jacobs in the car park behind the Golders Green Odeon. I wonder, has Bryan forgiven me yet? Shall I tell him the experience with Daniel was ghastly? A big mistake?

We meet at his recording studio in Kensington, London. He doesn't appear to recognise me, which isn't that odd, because I guess he's still hurting, and trying to put a brave face on it. (I bet he blanks Jerry, too!) He arrives looking, as ever, as if he has somehow been marvellously suspended in an After Eights commercial. That is very Eighties, I know, but to update him, you'd have to put him into, say, a Ferrero Rocher ad - "Ambassador, you are spoiling us with the exclusive chocolates you can get down any old Spar shop"- and that just isn't Ferry sophistication at all. Mr Ferry is beautifully chic, of course. Anderson & Shepherd jacket, Ralph Lauren shirt. Shoes? "Shoes by Cleverly," he says. Who are Cleverly? I don't know, but I would guess their wares aren't widely available though Barratts. No, he says, he doesn't ever rush into C&A to see what's new for this season. "Although I do hear they do very good clothes."

I don't think it matters what Bryan Ferry wears, actually. He is, irritatingly, one of those people who just is stupendously stylish. Whereas I could take an evening dress by Yves St Laurent and make it look like a bin liner, he could take a bin liner and make it look fab. "Yes," he agrees, "although I'd probably have to style it first." Rubbish, I say. These days, bin liners come with those bunny handle things which could easily slip over your ears, creating a sort of beard-cum-frock that, on you, would probably look totally adorable. He smiles. Nearly. But that is something of an achievement in itself.

He doesn't smile easily. He seems rather sad and melancholic, even. I don't know much about true melancholy, I must say. I've never felt so bad that a nice new cardie from Oasis couldn't cheer me up. I don't think a nice new cardie from Oasis would do it for him, though. He doesn't make eye contact. He looks away, and downwards, while squeezing the bridge of his nose between two fingers. He talks so effortfully and languidly that sometimes there are 50-second pauses between his thoughts. That makes conversation tricky; it's hard to know if he's finished saying something, or is still mid-way through it. Often, we end up like two people dancing badly round a room, bumping into walls, treading on each other's toes, not having an especially glamorous or diverting time. Do you think you're good-looking, Bryan?

"It's only recently, looking back at old photos, that I can see I had something..."

Is that it? Is something else coming? I'll count. "1, 2, 3... 46, 47, 48, 49..." Nope, that's it. I'll pitch in, then. "Which of your records do you think...?"

"I wonder, now, why I didn't feel more confident. But I didn't. I always felt inadequate."

Of course, I try to cheer him up. Come now, I say, Jerry Hall wouldn't have gone out with one of the Krankies, would she? Tragically, that fails spectacularly. "Who are the Krankies?" he asks.

I don't know why he's like this. It's not as if he's having a bad hair day. He is 56 now, but the hair looks as thick and beautifully arranged as ever. Perhaps he just is like this. Certainly, he has always had a dark streak. At university, he later says, he used to cut out the poems of Sylvia Plath and stick them on his walls. That is not known to indicate an essentially cheerful nature. He is a great worrier, too, and sleeps badly. He takes pills. I give him some advice once given to me. If your worries keep you awake, I tell him, visualise a box, put them in there, tie them up, and refuse to have anything more to do with them until morning.

"Does it work?"

"No, it didn't for me, because I worried I might not find the box again, and that got me very worried indeed."

"I think," he says, "I'd worry about what string to use." He is not without his light moments. Although they are touchingly rare.

Is he unhappy, in some way? Maybe. OK, there are many old rock and pop stars who are content just to sit on their back catalogues, but I don't think Bryan is one of them. I think he wants to be out there, composing, creating, as he was with Roxy Music back in the Seventies, when our delicious romance first began. Sorry, Bryan, about Daniel and all that. I was foolish. "What?" he says. Honestly, how long is he going to keep this up for, do you think?

His latest album, As Time Goes By, is a collection of Thirties standards. "Miss Otis Regrets", "Falling In Love Again", "You Do Something to Me", that sort of thing. It's very good, actually, and I heartily recommend it. Still, I'm not sure it is what he'd choose to do, if he had the choice. I'm not saying he's washed up. I just think he thinks he may be washed up. There is something almost ghostly about him. He seems to be drifting about in a world somewhere between what he once was, and what he no longer is.

He did, of course, create some of the most exhilarating music of his time - "Avalon", "Slave to Love", "Dance Away", "Angel Eyes". But that doesn't seem to happen for him any more. His last two albums - Bête Noire, in 1987, and Mamouna, in 1994 - were not successful. There was talk of a further album - Horoscope - but then nothing seemed to come of it. "It just kind of broke up," he says. Does it become harder to compose, as you get older?

"Yeah. Because you sometimes think you've said it all before. Because you don't have the devil-may-care confidence of youth. Because you don't bring a sense of newness. The best time to be creative is, actually, when people don't expect anything."

"And does this depress you?"

"I have my dark moments. I try not to be dark. I try to be cheery with my friends. But if you're trying to create, then you have to dig deep, and you can find yourself in dark places."

"Did therapy help?"

"Do you think I've had therapy?"

"I read that you had. You've had a nibble of it at least, haven't you?"

"Yes, a nibble. It's good to talk to someone sound. I don't really want to say any more than that."

He was born in the pit village of Washington, Co Durham, where his father attended the pit ponies at the local mine. His house was a Coronation Street-style back-to-back with a tin bath hanging inside the back door and an outside loo. Can you imagine Bryan Ferry using an outside loo? An outside loo, Bryan! Yuk. Were there spiders in it? "I don't recall."

He always loved glamour, yes, first Hollywood movies, then clothes. He remembers his first stylish outfit - "An Italian suit, with a high, three-button collar, and a pair of finely pointed shoes that went with it." He studied art at Newcastle University, then moved to London, where he founded Roxy Music in 1972. Their first single, "Virginia Plain", was a huge hit, turning Ferry into a superstar and cultural icon. Nine hit singles and five hit albums followed. Did you fall into the instant stardom traps, Bryan?

"I think the main one was trying to make hit records instead of doing what I liked. I did what I thought was wanted, not what I wanted. I got into a dark maze where I couldn't see the light, and I think I've been there since Bête Noire, which is a long time. It's a shame, because I tried really hard then, but I think I was chasing the wrong thing."

Would you relive the Seventies?

"Yes, I suppose so, I certainly liked a lot of the work I did. It was a very productive, foot-down period for me. Maybe it took its toll. Maybe I did two careers then. Maybe it was silly of me to expect the Eighties and Nineties to be as productive."

He dated Jerry, but married Lucy Helmore, a society belle whose father insured racehorses. They settled in big houses in London (Kensington) and West Sussex (Petworth), with gardeners and valets and maids and nannies and all that. He got a lot of stick for that, was accused of being an arriviste and faux country squire, out of touch with his roots. But I can't see it. Did David Bowie opt to stay in the back streets and marry Madge from the bingo hall? Or Rod Stewart? Or Mick Jagger? But he did dispatch his four sons - Otis, Merlin, Tara and Isaac - to boarding schools. Why?

"I thought it wouldn't be fun for them at a London day school... no space, no fields, no fun.

"But London schools are great!" I protest. "They're tremendous fun, plus you get to be very good at shoplifting. Tell me what you want, and I'll nick it for you."

"I take it you are against boarding schools?"

"Well, it's not something I'd do to my child, because I need to see him every day."

"Well, yes. I can see that. In an ideal world I'd say no, I wouldn't want to send them to boarding school. This is all too complicated to go into."

Perhaps it is. Perhaps, even, it was better for the boys to spend part of their time away from home. Lucy - who revealed in 1993 that she had been receiving help for drink and drug addictions - has certainly had her problems. And Bryan doesn't seem to have been about much. Do you think you've been a good father, Bryan? "It's hard being a father." Hard? "Because of the obsessive nature of my work. I've never learnt to switch off very well. Looking back, I wish I'd adjusted my working hours. Now the penny has dropped, I do try to give more of myself."

Did your wife complain about your absences? "I can't say. Maybe. She might have done. Probably. It's very hard when you are driven."

He does seem frighteningly, and tiresomely, self-absorbed. I wonder what he finds amusing and distracting. "Hmm. Well. there must be something." Telly? "No." Cinema? "My attendance isn't very good on that score." Books? Yes, he says. He should, he continues, read more than he does, but he did recently pick up Conversations with Billy Wilder, which he found delightful. And he collects art, too, of course. I ask him which work of art he would choose to own, if money and availability were no object. He says: "Oh, I'd much prefer a lovely field with a tree in it." Blimey, Bryan, I exclaim, I can't nick that for you. Imagine the size of the coat I'd need! He smiles again. Nearly. He does remember me, I'm sure.

Bryan Ferry plays the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 11 April

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