Bryan's Long-Distance Race to Perfection: You Magazine - Sun 21st Aug

Bryan's Long-Distance Race to Perfection: You Magazine
21 August 1994

By Louette Harding
It cost Bryan Ferry £2,000 a day - from his own pocket - to record his new album. At the same time his wife battling alcoholism. Ferry talks exclusively about professional and personal pressures and how he stuck with it.

Bryan Ferry has just finished an album. His magnum opus, it was six years in the making, off and on - mostly on. During this time, Ferry's wife was fighting alcoholism and addiction to drugs, his mother died, and, in the background, his record company was growing anxious.

He met us in Marrakech. The first night he joined us for dinner but seemed either distructed or bored. The next morning, however, our photographer, Geoff, returned from a protected shoot in 42 degree heat, raving about what a great bloke Ferry was.

Ferry met me in his suite, pouring mint tea with a waiterly flourish before stretching himself out on the sofa, a position which appeared composed and confiding but in fact allowed him to gaze at the ceiling, avoiding eye contact altogether. He hates doing interviews, and only truly relaxed after the subject of his wife and her problems had been dealt with. Until then he spoke hesitantly and softly; afterwards more articulately and with a Georgie lift. He wore blue shorts, polo shirt and espadrilles. Lankily attractive, he certainly doesn't look 48: his hair is only just turning grey and gravity is only just plucking at the soft folds of his face.

He grew up in county Durham, where his father, who had been a farm worker until driven off the land by the Depression, tended his ponies. "Had two sisters. My mother spoilt me because I was the only boy. We never talk intimately at all - very working class in that sense. We were as quite as mice, eating high tea in front of the television." He wasn't popular. "I had friends, a couple of boys I played tennis with, then a couple of boys I went cycling with, but I always felt I was on the outside of the gang. I was a bit precious, never boysy."

The family used an outside lavatory and tin bath until they moved to a "posh" council house when Ferry was five.

With his mother pushing her children to better them through education, Ferry grew ambitious: "I've always wanted more." But thereby he looked with fresh, critical eyes at his parents and their boundaries.

"In the sixth form I was getting into my art - my creative, bohemian phase - and I thought, "Oh no, I'm not of you lot". I was... I can't think of a word other than ashamed, which sounds so awful. I remember being very cross with my dad and saying, "Oh, what do you know? You're just a miner." And he was so hurt. He hated being called a miner, not because of a snob thing, because he wasn't that, but he never was like those guys - they were much rougher. He wasn't a softie, he was this great boxer, used to fight for money, take on anybody and brag about it. He once knocked the teeth out of this guy down the pit because he caught him hitting a pony.

"But I was studying the great writers and artists and I loved i, felt so much at home with the people I was suddenly discovering, and so it took me well away from the aesthetics of my environment and I rejected my parents in my mind. I felt like a cuckoo."

Off he went to Newcastle University and a degree course in fine art. He spent most of his time playing in bands, but working-class doctrines had been instilled for him so he buckled down to work in his final year. "I thought, "I've got to do this", so I would always be able to get a job, teach. I was always quite insure of myself, painfully shy sometimes." His young sons are "much more confident" than he was. "That's the great thing I would like for them. I was held back by feeling that I had to have a degree or I'd never make it at anything. Otherwise I might have become a musician at 18. Three or four years earlier might have a huge difference." So it seems he still wants more.

A succession of odd jobs in London followed Ferry's graduation. But he knew what he wanted to do, and in 1972 formed Roxy Music (disbanded in 1982), almost instantly becoming a music hero and cultural icon. The arty bohemian phase came good. He was working frantically, touring, and saw his parents maybe once a year. There were never any recriminations from them. But he had realised, because it takes a long time, that they were incredible. I was very fortunate that my parents were still alive when I was successful. The first thing I did when I made some money was buy them a house. Just a little house, really, but better than what they had. With a telephone.

"In 1976, they moved down to Sussex to look after my house as I was away all the time. If I'd have said, "Would you move to the moon?", they'd have gone on the next shuttle. They'd have done anything for me. "I rather wondered if his sisters felt excluded, but even before I could finish the question he interjected. "No, not at all. I don't think they felt left out by any means." And then - and this is typical of him - he vacillated: "You'd have to ask them, I don't know." He speaks fondly of his elder sister, whose sons are now at university: "She's feeling all grown up." Ferry still feels much as he did as a teenager. "The president of America is younger than me. Incredible!"

How much we think we'll change and how little we do! Ferry has been dubbed his own greatest invention but in fact, not far beneath the mannered image, he remains unchanged. A "moody" child, he is an intense and burdened adult, though he has a winning sense of irony. He says reports of suicidal urges - "young person"s angst" - are wildly exaggerated. Has he been in therapy? "Er, yes, I have been. but not, like, every day. Once a week." And is it any good? "Yes it is." Squirmingly uncomfortable, he retreated to facetious comment. "Whether it's worth the money or not, I'm not sure."

There was a pause, then he added, "But it wasn't because I thought I was going mad or anything like that. It was nothing to do with me, in fact. My wife is on the 12-step [detox] programme, so it's helped me discover about that, and understand what the programme is. "He doesn't sound entirely convinced, though he said, "The people who are on it seem to thrive on it."

He then rambled on ambiguously. "For me, I don't think I have a problem. Perhaps I do? I don't know. I like to drink every evening but not vast amounts. Sometimes I drink too much but I don't go drinking whisky during the day or anything like that. In fact, I don't drink anything during the day." His evening consumption , I should point out, was a Campari and soda, a couple of glasses of wine and a lager - nothing exceptional. "I'm not going to give up drinking just yet," he said. "I gave up smoking five or six years ago."

Ferry married Lucy Helmore, then 22, in 1982. Sparky and amusing, she came from a very upper-middle class background, a source - to Ferry increasing irritation - of undying fascination to newspapers. Ferry bought her mother's home in Kensington, using Sussex for weekends. They had four sons, Otis, Isaac, Tara and Merlin, now aged between three and 12. And Lucy became a goddess of the glossy magazine social pages. It was in an interview late last year that she first revealed she had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings for two years, culminating in nine weeks of treatment at Farm Place, a fashionable detox clinic in Ockley, Surrey.

Ferry said, "I didn't read those things... I can't remember what they said." I do not know whether he was honest or disingenuous, but I suspect the former. Reluctantly, he commented, "She comes from a generation of people where they all went into the programme in their 20s or something, a particular bad sort of, bad group of poeple...well, not bad, they're pritty sick - a lot of heroin about and all that kind of thing. All those upper-crust kids are very spoilt. Thank God, it's never been a part of my life. When I was at university I saw a friend with herion addiction ruin his brain. Put me off it for life.

"Lucy comes from what they call a disfunctional family, right? Divorced parents. And I think she and her brothers suffered from that. It's hard for me to understand because of my parents, although when I was little they did go through a period, for year or two, when they fought constantly. In the working class environment in which I grew up, parents grew out of those." And he added, movingly and tellingly, "I much prefer sprinting, but sometimes it's a long-distance race and you've just got to have stamina and guts. That goes for a lot of things, whether it's marriage or work. I think life is full of ebbs and flows, rises and falls, things getting hot and cold, and you have to adapt to them. Or try to."

Ferry's life, before he met Lucy, was slipping towards the tawdry - "just waking up and not remembering what you did last night" is how he once phrased it. On my raising this with him, he retorted, charmingly but firmly, "I never talk about drugs in interviews, if that's what you're getting at." He was always purposeful. "There wasn't that much time for the partying time. I was so full of things I wanted to do, and no other commitments. No girlfriend. Lived on my own."

He is, despite his family, no less absorbed today. He was never made a duff album, but you get forgotten if you leave years between releases. On the latest album, "Mamouna", tracks were reworked, lyrics laboured over. He scrutinises but seems ever unsatisfied: "No more than most artists, may I point out." He agrees that he is "definitely" a difficult person with whom to live. So it may be possible that he has been a cause of Lucy's problems? "Oh, could well have been. But it's hard to know what is the right thing ever if you've got a career where the work is your life and the family is built around that - the way I am." He sighed havily, before the mocking irony surfaced. "But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Give me a better line than that," he pleaded. "But I think you're right. It's bad for a marriage when a man works too hard or too long."

The need for the perfection is not just confined to work. He is just a fastidious about his homes, and tells of rubbing marble powder into the plaster of a wall in London for days on end to get the right effect. He loathes self-service petrol stations; can't stand holding the nozzle because so many other people have touched it before: "Very Howard Hughes, I know."

Ferry's perfectionism reached such a pitch while making "Mamouna" (a Moroccan girl's name, which also means good luck) that he had to sell his New York apartment to raise funds to continue in the studio. "I got a bit lost with it; I'm not ashamed - afraid - to say it. You don't realise it's not going well, but the time's going by and you're not actually getting anything finished. I was constantly rewriting. I didn't have a producer or a manager for a year or two. If I had, perhaps he would have said, "Hey, I think you're spending too much."

"We had to work in a big state-of-the-art studio. You have to pay for it for the whole day, and that's before you've paid any of the guys, so it's working out at L2.000 a day. So if it's not going well, it's two, four, six, eight - the money going up and up. No wonder you get bloody obsessive about it. That's why you tend to work 12-hours days." Most have put pressure on Lucy, seeing the zeroes ticking up. "Probably did." She raised the issue with him, and certainly helped to break the stalemate by engouraging him to kiss and make up with a former maganer, and to take time off to do an album of cover versions, called "Taxi" last year.

"It was a refreshing rest from "Mamouna". When I went back to work on it, I wrote five new songs and it all started coming in a flow again. There are quite a few pieces left over, so I might get another album out of it." The rich sound of "Mamouna" reveals the care (and expense) that Ferry lavished on it. But he said that he does have regrets about the amount of money spent.

Still, they are hardly on their uppers compared to some, as Ferry knows well. He says it is "incredibly important" to him that his children have a sence of proportion. "I'm very conscious of them not being spoilt brat-type children. Where I come from it's normal for parents to remonstrate with children, flare up, let them know when they've crossed the line. My mother would get hysterical and then simmer down and I think I'm a bit like that." This is a trait I understand but my very restrained mother-in-law does not. "Oh, are you kidding me?" Ferry exclaimed. "Oh... I won't say! I just go "hear, hear." Two of his sons are now at broading school. "That was hard for me to deal with at first, them not living in the house all the time. But I was out of house so much these last few years that I think it was better they had at least some male authority figures."

Ferry's father died in 1984, his mother in 1991. "My great sadness now is that three of my children never saw my dad," he said. "And they don't have my mother around - the best grandmother you could ever have. He would have been great. I sort of carry him - the half of me was him - to them. And I have to be my mother to them, nag them about school.

"My dad died just like that [he snapped his fingers]. It was a terrible blow for me. And I... [his voice wobbled slightly] ...I kept blaming myself. That I hadn't... got enough help for him for the garden. It used to have six gardeners and he was doing it nearly all when he died. He used to win prizes for his vegetables. It was a lovely sight to see row after row of them. He loved doing it, hated spending money. If I'd had two gardeners helping, he'd have gone crazy, I used to say, "Get a taxi and go to the pub." He'd walk.

"My mother died of cancer, so we were prepared for that, but even then we didn't know how long: weeks, day, months? Suddenly, she started going down. She was an incredible fighter, really tenacious." He was holding her hand when she died.

"I've always liked the idea of religion because I like the ceremony. It's a mysterious thing and they should keep the ritual, it's part of the beauty of it. I would like to believe, but I don't think I have faith. Not yet. But I like to think that my parents are around me and I certainly feel very strong memories of them when I'm in my house or graden. I can see the spirit of my father in my children."

And now? The trite ending would be that he has emerged, resurgent, after these very difficult times. He chuckled: he certainly does not understimate the journalist's capacity for the banal. Then, "Who can tell?" he added superstitiously. "Who can tell?"

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