The fastidiousness should not surprise, yet somehow it does. When two mugs of tea are placed on the wooden table in front of him, Bryan Ferry leans forward and lifts them straight off again. ‘Can we get a couple of magazines to put these on?’ he says to his assistant in his wispy, halting voice. ‘Or some pads. Thick ones. This table has got some rings on it already.’ He is fussing, in other words, even though his manner and speech could not be more languid. And, though I don’t know much about furniture, I’m pretty sure the table he is fussing about is fairly ordinary, not obviously antique.
The reason it shouldn’t surprise, of course, is that this particular rock star is known for his exacting taste in, well, everything – suits, paintings, cars, women, houses, wine, even interior design (Nicky Haslam once said that Ferry was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it). And he is capable of making grown producers cry with his, shall we say, attention to detail in the studio (his album ‘Mamouna’, released in 1994, featured 112 musicians and took five years to complete). Also, he is quite a strict and controlling father to his four grown-up sons (his words not mine). He is traditional, believes manners maketh man and likes to have the dinner table set properly.
Age doesn’t seem to have mellowed him, or left its patina. He is 62 and still looks as he has always looked – tall, lean and lupine with his floppy, side-parted hair still (suspiciously?) dark. When I suggest he hasn’t changed much, he sucks in air and says, ‘I don’t know. There are days when I look in the mirror and see the picture of Dorian Gray.’
Yes, but he’s not exactly rock-star addled is he? He’s no Keith Richards. ‘Mm, mm. I suppose when I started I was 25. Fairly grown up. I was never a wild, teenage pop-star type.’
Perhaps he simply cared too much about how he looked in those narcissistic and, at times, epicene early years: the eye patch and shoulder pads, the pencil moustache, the dinner jacket and studiously undone black tie. Tom Ford, the designer behind the Gucci brand, once said that Ferry was the ultimate style icon. And Peter York once memorably said that Ferry had led such an avant garde ‘art-directed existence’ he should be hanging in the Tate. He must love that quote, I say. He smiles shyly, avoids eye contact and hunches his broad shoulders as if drawing himself in. ‘I tend to be rather downplayed in real life, compared to my on-stage life. Quite self-contained. But I think my life has been interesting, for sure. Whether it is an artwork, I couldn’t say. Certainly, I’ve no intention of pinning myself to an art gallery wall. It’s a funny thing being such a shy person yet being a singer in a rock band. It’s a sort of contradiction.’
He certainly enjoyed his reputation as an aesthete, an exquisite, a dandy. But he thinks in retrospect that the emerald-green eye-shadow and the fake leopard-skin jackets of his early Roxy Music days were a mask to hide behind. ‘I felt I was playing a role. I felt the music was me, but the presentation wasn’t, necessarily. The spotlight can be a real handicap. It’s one of the reasons I like being in a band. Safety in numbers. I suppose it is quite hard to get on stage for the first time and so the clothes and the make-up helped. It can still be quite hard even now, when I’m not in the mood. You know, I think, “What are you staring at?”‘
We are in a high-ceilinged room above his recording studio near Earl’s Court, the one he once jokingly referred to as his Führerbunker, to his later regret. The walls are white-painted brick, the rugs Arts and Crafts. There are dustsheets over the furniture and, on the walls, paintings and prints by his friends and mentors the pop artists Richard Hamilton and Mark Lancaster. He knows a lot about fine art, does Ferry. Collects it. Has spent a lifetime studying it. Even did a degree in it in the mid-Sixties at Newcastle University, near to where he grew up in County Durham.
His father was a miner there, in charge of the pit ponies. It was a life of tin baths and outside privies. The contrast with his adult life in the South could not be greater: the aristocratic friends, the sons at Eton and Marlborough, the imposing country house near Petworth in West Sussex, the elegant town house in Chelsea (the one with the Bentley parked outside). There is still a trace of the North East in his vowels, but it is like ink that has faded in the sunlight. When you ask a question, he will murmur agreement softly under his breath, ‘mm mm’, and just when you think that’s all you’re getting, out will waft his answer.
The career shift from artist to musician seems to have been unplanned. ‘After graduating, I moved to London and found work as a supply teacher. Then I kind of drifted into music. I remember discussing it with Mark Lancaster. After he went to live and work with Jasper Johns, he told me it was much cooler to be an artist than a rock star. I’m not really sure why I didn’t take his advice.’
Instead of taking his easel to a garret, Ferry taught himself the piano and began to write music. He teamed up with five other musicians, including Brian Eno, he of the peacock-feather collars and synthesiser, to form Roxy Music. They also worked with the fashion designer Anthony Price to combine the look of glam rock with edgy, intelligent lyrics, innovative electronic music and highly stylised vocals. Their first single, Virginia Plain, came out in 1972. After that the hits kept coming: Let’s Stick Together, Do the Strand, More Than This, Love is the Drug, Avalon…
But Ferry’s love of art never went away and now he thinks not pursuing art as a first career has meant it has retained its allure for him. ‘The art world today is very social. I’m always going to dinners and openings. I have quite a few friends who are artists and dealers. I’m much more at home in that world than the music world. More comfortable.’
It was his aesthetic sensibility that landed him in trouble last year. In an interview with a German magazine, he described Albert Speer’s buildings and Leni Riefenstahl’s movies as ‘beautiful’. The tabloids savaged him and he apologised, explaining that his comments had been taken out of context and that they did not mean that he approved of the Nazi regime. On the contrary, he found it ‘abhorrent’. The Mirror in turn had to apologise to Ferry for misleading its readers in its reporting of this story. Among other things, the paper admitted that Ferry hadn’t even mentioned the word Nazi in the original interview. I’m glad The Mirror apologised. I remember thinking at the time that the press were being unfair to him. He was, after all, merely echoing a legitimate and respectable academic view that, as the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, ‘Fascism is the aestheticisation of politics.’ Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings were beautiful. It was their context that was ugly. When I raise this subject, Ferry folds his arms and rocks forward as if in a straitjacket. ‘Ah. Please don’t draw me into this again. So boring.’
OK, I say, but I want him to tell me what it felt like to be monstered by the media after so many years of enjoying a good relationship with it. ‘It was like being in some film noir. Bizarre. Very scary actually. And very ugly. There was a feeding frenzy and because there is 24-hour media now…’ He trails off. ‘I’m sort of speechless about it. I don’t want to say anything because… You could be in disguise. One becomes totally untrusting.’ He sighs. ‘It was all so…’ He sighs again. ‘It was so absurd. Anyone who knew me would tell you it was… ridiculous.’ He looks over his shoulder to the table behind him, searching for something. ‘I have this letter about it from a friend. A film-maker… Actually, can we change the subject please?’
OK again. In 2000, Ferry, his wife, Lucy, and two of their sons, were flying from London to Nairobi in a Boeing 747 when a mentally ill passenger dashed into the cockpit and grabbed the controls, forcing the aircraft to plummet. Is it true he told his son off for swearing as the plane plunged? He smiles. ‘Oh yeah. Wouldn’t you? I sort of woke up to hear my son.’
In those seconds when he thought he was going to die, what went through his mind? ‘Did I contemplate my own mortality, you mean? It all happened too quickly for that. The pilot said afterwards we were five seconds away from death. It was the co-pilot who pulled us out, while the pilot was fighting with the intruder. After that, I did consider life was beautiful and rich and in glorious Technicolor. You have to savour every moment. When I’m on a plane now I feel much easier about it because I can’t believe lightning will strike twice. Also, since that episode, I have tried to get a better balance in my life, between work and everything else. But it’s a struggle. Last year, I think I toured too much. The ‘Dylanesque’ album. I was on the road for nine months, on and off. My real life got left behind.’
‘Real life’ meaning? ‘Well, I’m quite curious. I like going to galleries and things. I go out a lot. Not an at-home type. I don’t cook. I like to be entertained.’ While he has been talking the intercom has been buzzing and the phone has been ringing. He now says to the intercom: ‘Hello? Hello I’m busy!’ The phone rings and this time he crosses the room and picks it up. ‘Hi, someone keeps buzzing me and I’m in the middle of an interview. Could you, kind of, shoot them? Thanks.’
An engineer and a producer are waiting for him in the studio, it seems. ‘We’re just working on something; building it up around a piano motif I’ve recorded. Some of the best things I do are where I think I’m not being recorded, so you almost have to trick yourself into recording.’ He’s always making notes for lyrics, he adds. Has notebooks scattered around. ‘I suppose if I ever stop doing it, it will be a sign I’ve grown up.’
He folds and refolds a piece of paper as he talks. He smoothes the table with the side of his hand. He doodles and fidgets. Endearingly, he is not really sure why he has agreed to this interview, as he doesn’t have an album or a tour to promote. But there is a reason of sorts, the film Flashbacks of a Fool. It is directed by Baillie Walsh and stars Daniel Craig as Joe Scott, a decadent English film star who is suddenly tipped into a mid-life crisis by the death of a childhood friend. The flashback of the title is to the early 1970s, with one particular Roxy Music track acting as a trigger to memory in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When Ferry saw a preview of it, he was moved to tears. When he realises I won’t be seeing the film myself for another few days, he asks, fastidious man that he is, if I would like to meet up again afterwards so that I can tell him what I made of it.
And so we do, at his house just off Sloane Square. In the intervening days, another example of his attention to detail, he has sent me a copy of a book I was asking about: Re-make/Re-model, by Michael Bracewell, a history of the cultural influences that led to the formation of Roxy Music. I tell him I liked the film, by the way. It is intelligent, subtle, funny and, above all, evocative. It had me dabbing my eyes, too. Along with David Bowie and George Best, Bryan Ferry seemed to epitomise that glamorous period. ‘I think the girl in the film who mimes to one of my songs was a great improvement on the original,’ he says. ‘I found that quite touching, actually. She looked very good, very much like an idealised Roxy fan with the make-up and the clothes.’
In the film, the teenage Joe has eye-shadow applied by this girl, so that he will look like Ferry. I ask what Ferry’s father, the Durham miner, made of the eye-shadow. He laughs. ‘Not sure, actually. We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t see a lot of my parents around that time. They didn’t move down from the North until about 1976, when I bought my place in Sussex. I was away all the time, so they moved in there and had a new lease of life. They didn’t drive, poor things, so they were kind of stuck there. But they liked to walk and they thought it was paradise, which it was, which it is. The South Downs are beautiful. I don’t think my dad felt uprooted. For him, the world was wherever he was. A vegetable garden was his world. He wasn’t interested in flying to New York or Paris. He was quite a solitary figure. A real one-off. My mother was much more gregarious. She used the telephone.’
Does he look like his father? ‘A bit. I’ve come to resemble him more as I’ve got older. It’s like when I see pictures of my sons and I think they look just like me, or how I did at a certain age.’
He says it is a mild regret to him that his sons don’t know the meaning of hardship; don’t have anything to compare their comfortable lives to, as he does. ‘It’s good to have layers in your life. If I’m in a limousine on the way to the airport, I still haven’t forgotten what it is like to stand in the rain at a north-eastern bus stop for hours. I do have memories of deprivation, but I don’t carry them around like some bitter, Left-wing hammer to beat people on the head with. The human experience is all about contrast.’
He concedes that he made a conscious effort to bury his old identity and invent a new one. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you see the house I was born in. It wasn’t very nice. And the fact that I wasn’t born into a house with tapestries and paintings makes me appreciate these things more. I do like to surround myself with beautiful things. I’m not into cash or stocks and shares and markets. All I’m interested in are things. Art. They are very important to me.’
This time he makes the tea, a pot of it. As he pours we talk about the book he sent me. In one passage it notes how many gay men there were in ‘the Roxy circle’. Ferry went for an androgynous look, of course, like Bowie. Did he ever find himself questioning his sexuality? ‘Oh God, no, but the art world, the Seventies world, was such a gay world. One of the principal architects of Roxy, that whole movement, was Anthony Price and he never married. He designed the first album cover and was very influential. He’s still a dear friend. Quite a character. That was the time a lot of people like him were coming out. I’m not sure Roxy had much of a gay following though. I think that was more Bowie. Roxy was a group of straight guys from the North with girlfriends.’ He gives his shy grin, eyes downcast. ‘I’m not trying to apologise for being straight, but I did go to co-ed schools. That might have had an influence on me. I think a lot of my gay friends went to single-sex schools.’
And, of course, the album covers were the stuff of heterosexual teenage fantasy. One, ‘Country Life’, featured two scantily clad models. It had feminists in an uproar, resulting in it being sold under brown-paper covers in America. But in Britain people were pretty relaxed about it. I remember it well. Many was the teenage hour I would contemplate it. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘it’s remarkable how liberated the climate was then. There is much more political correctness around today. What you can and cannot say. As I discovered last year. In a way it was much freer in those days. You could speak your mind. You certainly wouldn’t have got told off for talking about Albert Speer’s buildings in the 1970s.’
His main collection of Bloomsbury paintings is in his Sussex house, but he does have some here. ‘That’s a Wyndham Lewis,’ he says, when I ask about them. He stands up and leads the way out into the hall. ‘And that’s a Duncan Grant. Through this is a Paul Nash.’ We talk about Nash’s letters from Passchendaele and discover that both our grandfathers fought there, both for Yorkshire regiments. Mine survived. His died there. ‘I found his name at dusk on a memorial in Belgium,’ Ferry says. ‘It was freezing cold. So many dead. Awful. I became really tearful. I just stood there sobbing.’
In the drawing-room there are pots containing dozens of neatly sharpened pencils. There are pads of paper fanned out, art books and brocaded cushions. Everything is tidy. I don’t see any photographs of the women who have been in his life, but I suppose you need only look at the Roxy album covers for them: Playboy playmate Marilyn Cole, supermodels Amanda Lear (who would later date David Bowie) and Jerry Hall (who left him for Mick Jagger in 1977). The album cover girl he married was Lucy Helmore. That was in 1982. She was the one he had the four sons with. When they divorced, 20 years later, he cited her adultery. She was nevertheless awarded £10million in the settlement, or so the reports said at the time.
Since 2003, he has had been with Katie Turner, who is 35 years his junior. The relationship seems to have been on-off – off last month but apparently on again this, according to the tabloids. The trouble, reportedly, was that she wanted children, whereas he felt he was too old to go through all that again. How’s his love life at the moment, I ask? He laughs and groans and says something that should be quoted only in the context of our previous conversation: ‘Oh dear. I should have been gay, shouldn’t I?’
So the story in the papers? ‘Oh, I didn’t read it. Presumably, it was asking: Will they, won’t they? Don’t know, is the answer. Saw a friend for lunch today who said there was something horrible reported. A friend of mine said… A friend of Katie’s said… But they never reveal who these friends are. Hope your love life is more straightforward than mine.’
Well I married a Catholic, I say, so yes. ‘I was married to a Catholic for 20 years,’ he counters. ‘Didn’t stop our marriage ending in divorce.’
He worries about the effect his divorce might have had on his children, not least because they don’t have one place to go to that they can call home. He was lucky, he says, because he grew up always knowing where his parents were. He is taking two of his sons to Seville tomorrow morning to watch a bullfight. ‘It’s quite festive. You feel in contact with Spanish culture. They respect the bull. Admire it and yet fight it. Very similar to people who hunt foxes. They respect them.’ He grins. ‘I’ve suddenly realised this is a controversial thing to say. I don’t want to be controversial.’
Bryan Ferry controversial? Never! ‘Well, nowadays, it doesn’t take much.’ He folds his arms and puts his feet on the coffee table at the same time, the self-conscious man trying to be open and relaxed. Parking charges and speed cameras are his biggest bugbears at the moment. It’s not that he has become a grumpy old man, he says. He was a grumpy young man. Certainly, there is a contrariness to him, an understated wilfulness. His eldest son, Otis, seems to have inherited it. He was the one who broke into the House of Commons to protest against Labour’s ban on hunting. ‘People usually come up to me and say your son is a hero, give him a hug for me. People like a rebel, I suppose. The hunting ban was mean-spirited. And futile. Because it has made hunting cool.’
He is proud of his son, he adds. But what is it like, after all these years of having the attention himself, suddenly getting his toes trodden on by his son? ‘Very annoying! Especially for someone who has come from the “me” profession. Forget him. What about me!’ The comment suggests that while Ferry may be a reserved man he is not without a dry sense of humour. I ask if he is a Conservative. ‘Never was anything really. Never really voted. Always lived in a huge majority where I don’t think my vote would have made much difference. Where I was born it was a 23,000 Labour majority and now I live in a similar Tory majority. But yes, I am conservative by nature so it would be fair to say I was supporting them now. That said, I always felt politics and art don’t mix very well.’
Not since the Nazis tried it, right? He looks puzzled for a moment then rolls his eyes. ‘Oh. I see. Politics and art. Right, right.’