Bryan Ferry in a New Town
Bryan Ferry is sipping a delicate Temjanika wine, endemic to Macedonia’s central region, at one of Skopje’s more upscale restaurants, Vodinica. In Skopje this evening to perform at Universal Hall, he’s on a tour to promote his new album, Dylanesque, his interpretations of 11 of his Dylan favorites. A lavish dinner is being laid out for him and the band by the Skopje-based production company which has brought him to the Balkans, the aptly-named Avalon Productions and, as was true in the early 1980s, at least, the weather is cold with intermittent rain, Roxy weather as it was known then and perhaps will be once again. In an August 1983 interview with Musician magazine, Bryan admitted as much stating that “…the rain does seem to follow us wherever we go. The band likes to make jokes about it; we call it ‘Roxy weather.’”
While this is not Roxy Music but instead, its creator, the godfather of cool is on his second foray into Macedonia, the first being a mere 15 months earlier at Macedonia’s delightful Lake Ohrid with Roxy Music where the concert was moved indoors due to the threat of rain, the concert the night before in Thessaloniki having actually been canceled because of rain. And this is only one stop on a tour of four capitals of Southeastern Europe. He had played Belgrade the night before and would play Ljubljana, the alluring capital of Slovenia, two nights hence before moving on to Croatia’s capital Zagreb the following night.
The oft war-torn Balkans of the ’90s might not seem to be a preferred venue for a man who creates and exudes style and propriety (and perhaps the weather) wherever he sets foot, but as I’m going to learn, there is in life, at least for Bryan Ferry today, much more than this. As I tell Bryan and the assembled band that chilly night in Skopje, their presence helps to reinforce the fact that Macedonia — and the other countries of the Balkans — are just normal European countries and part of the European family of nations. It gives the people hope, not to mention a rockin’ concert, after a long and often torturous decade, to have such personalities visit and perform in these countries. While Bryan is not necessarily in the business of making people feel good about their countries and place in the world, it is gratifying to know the little side benefits of bringing a small measure of happiness to a people who have struggled to simply be accepted as normal Europeans.
Since I’ve been working in the Balkans for 15 years and know the promoters, I’ve been given the privilege of being able to tour, as it were, with him and his band on this short gig, part of a year-long plus tour which began in March of 2007, and manage to steal away a few minutes with him at a smart corner café on a busy Ljubljana street the day before he performs there. As I arrive, Bryan is on the phone. He’s fashionably dressed wearing dark slacks, a navy blue great coat, dark jacket, tie, navy blue v-neck sweater, blue oxford shirt with French cuffs and beige loafers — what might be called iconic rock star chic. I sit and chat with his tour manager, Levi, while we order coffees, or as is the case with Bryan tea, and as soon as he finishes his call I find myself sitting on the left hand side of Bryan, the brace of us sitting next to each other as opposed to across from each other, watching Ljubljana glide by.
I start asking away and he adopts a persona of slight reserve, staring out whilst I ask questions, though very attentive to my questions and very aware of his answers. It turns out to be more of a conversation than an interview and he speaks very softly in a cultured English accent while I’m frantically trying to scribble my notes and pay attention, straining to hear his soft voice above the din of Ljubljana’s vehicles.
Why Southeastern Europe, I inquire? After all, not every major musician or band comes this way. Having visited Ohrid and Belgrade just the year before, this is an encore, as it were, with Ljubljana and Zagreb thrown in as — I dare say — a second encore. “I’m always looking for fresh places, new destinations,” he asserts. “We’ve been to all the standard venues in the UK and major European cities. It’s a natural curiosity and seems a sensible thing to do.” I want to throw in the name of one of his songs, that it is perhaps a New Town he wants to visit but restrain myself, not knowing if such humor will be welcome. But he continues in the same vein, adding that he has asked his promoters, in the past, to look into new venues he’s never been to before but they always cry poor, in a way, noting that he — and probably more importantly they — will not make much money. But money doesn’t seem to be his primary motivation. “Why go then?” I throw out. “Creative, artistic fulfillment,” he comes back with. “One of the great things about new venues is that you always get a new audience hungry for your material,” he states. The audiences in these new towns are highly receptive and enthusiastic and that too fires him up.
He’s looking forward to some new venues on this tour, including Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, in that order, along with Russia, where he’s played private shows before. He also lists places he’d like to play in Eastern Europe that he hasn’t before: Romania, Hungary, Montenegro, Albania. He finds the countries of the Balkans agreeable, “really picturesque” as he says. Having done a wee bit of sightseeing around Lake Ohrid in Macedonia and the old town of Belgrade the previous year, he’s curious about new places. “Kiev?” I ask shifting geography. “Yes, we tried to set up a show there once but it didn’t work out.” He hopes to play there one day.
He has been to Budapest before, to film a short promotional spot for Mercedes Benz titled The Porter, in which he played a diamond trader insider type. I ask him about his roles in film as he has dabbled here and there. “You recently starred in an ad for Carlsberg beer in which you engaged in very self-deprecating humor,” I state. A slight laugh grips him. “Diversification” he chuckles. I tell him that there’s a lot of support out there for him to play the villain in a Bond film or at least do the title track. He says he’s always interested in new things and that “it’s better to play the villain.” I tend to agree. I always preferred Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker though I hesitate to ask Bryan if he’d consider playing Dick Cheney though infinitely more handsome. The issue of retirement tiptoes into our conversation but he’s not really keen on retiring. (Fans, you may now rejoice.) “I don’t know if I’ll ever retire….” His voice trails off. In any instance he would probably be at a loss as to what to do if he did. It’s difficult to imagine Bryan Ferry lounging on a beach or potting plants in his garden.
He has a great deal of affection for Dylan and his work and admits that he only does covers of songs that he really loves. He is considering a North American tour at some point and it would only be fitting considering that the United States is the home of Dylan. While the two men have never met — and as Bryan admits it’s “best that way perhaps” — audiences in the United States may be more receptive to Dylan interpretations than to some of Bryan’s and Roxy’s early material which he does perform on this tour and which may be a bit lost on less aware American audiences.
I want to ask him if he’s aware of the on-line petition to the Right Honorable Prime Minister to encourage Her Majesty to grant him a knighthood (you must be a British citizen to sign it) but he’s interrupted by a phone call and soon after, starts discussing dinner plans with Levi. While I’m just a humble Yank, I can’t help but think he deserves it considering all that he has done for Queen and country in his 35-year plus career. He has left an indelible mark on the music of his generation and then some and the world is richer for it.
A Macedonian friend of mine describes Ferry as “the greatest gentleman ever” and in a world where barrels of ink, or as is the case today, billions of bytes, are spent offering up superlatives to describe Ferry, perhaps the simplest — the 12th century Middle English gentilman — is the best after all: “a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior” as my online dictionary defines the word or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The flowering of civilization is the finished man, the man of sense, of grace, of accomplishment, of social power — the gentleman.” In a world often seemingly gone mad, Bryan Ferry exudes the qualities of a gentleman, harkening back to a more simple time. The fact that he can do so whilst creating such splendid music only adds to his sometimes ineffable image.
Back in Skopje, the organizers, Avalon Productions, inquire if he would be so kind as to play his 1982 hit Avalon, since they named their company after his song and album. While he doesn’t promise anything before the show, he surprises everyone and performs it as one of two encores, to the delight of an appreciative and very vocal sing-along crowd, the one and only time it has been or will be played on the European tour. Now that is a gentleman.