The Scotsman MARCH 4, 2007 - by Aidan Smith


The last time I was there I sat under an apple tree and thought to myself how easy it would be to contrive an excuse to nip round and ring the bell and say: "Can I have my ball back, mister and... hang on, didn't you used to be Bryan Ferry, the most stylish man in the world (retired) who now advertises Marks & Spencer?"

Or... "hang on, didn't you used to be Bryan Ferry, leader of the most influential rock group since The Beatles, and aren't you worried that in reforming Roxy Music you risk tampering with the legend?"

My wife's grandparents live next door to the great Roxy godhead when he's enjoying the country life, and right now I'm thinking about when might be the best moment to drop this into the conversation. In the end, I don't. He's such a shy, private man and it would surely freak him out.

Even without me mentioning this most tenuous of connections with Sussex soil - hey, we're virtually family! - I'm unnerving him. Something to do with the way I ask questions about his career then can't quite resist answering them.

But my questions are important. Not the one about flogging M&S: he can make their machine-wash suits sing and obviously I'm wearing one myself today. No, I mean the Roxy question, or as it's known in our house: The Roxy Question. First, though, we must talk about Bob Dylan.

Downstairs in his HQ in Kensington, west London, a backing band including Chris Spedding on guitar are waiting for this interview to finish so they can continue practising the Dylan covers which comprise Ferry's new solo album and tour. "We're very under-rehearsed," he admits.

This is all very un-Ferry. The man's a perfectionist, spending years on his records. But Dylanesque is a very un-Ferry release, recorded in just three days.

Slowly and quietly - Ferry is one of the great "um-ers" and a world-class "ah-er" - he reveals he hit an impasse with the Roxy reunion album and, frustrated by this, was determined to put out a record this year.

"After a couple of months of working on the Roxy album I realised it was going to be a long project. I didn't want to wait before I released some new music. I've been touring pretty consistently since As Time Goes By [his previous all-covers album in 1999, most from the 1930s]. Whether with Roxy or on my own, the live set will always need freshening up. The quickest thing I could do was a Dylan album. We laid down the basic tracks, added some strings and mixed the record in... um, what's the place called again?... ah... LA."

Ferry got me into Dylan. My father had some of his folk albums but it's the duty of every boy to disavow his dad's musical choices. Their drab sleeves - the John Wesley Harding LP was remarkably unremarkable - confirmed I was correct in this.

Then in 1973, Ferry - whose Roxy album covers for some reason tended to make more of an impact on a teenage lad - released A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall as his first solo single. Instantly, I acclaimed Dylan as a genius.

Ferry chuckles at this. "It's nice to be able to turn people on to something new. But at first I didn't get Dylan either. The others at university - the ones with beards - were into him but he was too folky for me. I was a soul boy and didn't feel the need to step outside my world. But then Dylan went electric and then I got him."

Ferry's Hard Rain was a belting version of an acoustic number that Dylan sang in a murmur, and its driving beat and gospel choruses offended the purists and maybe caused one or two of them to shout "Judas!". But this didn't discourage Ferry.

Down the years he's covered Dylan often, and well. Frantic, his previous solo album, featured a version of It's All Over Now, Baby Blue that ranks among his best ever interpretations of someone else's songs.

Dylanesque takes its cue from that cover. These days Ferry's voice is quite crumpled. At first it was a shock to hear that swoonsome croon break on Baby Blue. Now it fits like a favourite jacket (timeless classic, obviously). Maybe if he'd sounded as gloriously tired as this a few years ago, when he obsessed about his music too much, he would have concealed the 'deficiencies' with studio artifice. Anyway, everybody gets old, even your heroes. Ferry is sixty-one.

"Hard Rain was the first track on my first solo album [These Foolish Things] and even then I thought Dylan had so many fantastic songs that an entire album of covers would be possible," he continues. "But that wasn't the time to do that. I was forging my own career, forming my own body of work."

Just a bit. These Foolish Things was released in the summer of 1973, sandwiched between Roxy's second and third albums. Three fantastic records in just nine months. No wonder he slowed down.

Family life - and strife - were contributing factors. He had four sons by the socialite and former model Lucy Helmore before they divorced five years ago. His dates have reportedly included another socialite, Lady Emily Compton, the ER actress Alex Kingston and, most recently, Katie Turner, thirty-six years his junior, who he met when she was a dancer on the 2001 Roxy reunion tour.

While his father was pondering - and pondering - his next move, eldest son Otis dramatically became the most famous Ferry around.

Was Dad proud of the twenty-four-year-old's arrest over his hunt protest at the House of Commons? "Yes I was. And I've stopped assuming that when people spot me at the airport, they're going to come up and say: 'Loved that last album.' They only want to talk about Otis. I feel like I've fathered Robin Hood."

Does he see anything of his young self in master-of-foxhounds Otis? "Well, he's very Scorpio. I suppose I was obsessive in a different way. I had to make my mark creatively whereas he's doing it through a lifestyle he fiercely defends. He's found his passion early; my other boys [Issac, Tara and Merlin] are still developing.

"But maybe Otis is more like my own father who was a ploughman until the farm went bust and then went down the pit to look after the ponies. Otis lives in a tiny cottage with his dog and gets up at 6am every day. He doesn't lead a pampered life. But if you're asking if he has a better time as a young man than I did, I would say no. Being born in the north-east and having to struggle was good for me."

At sixty-one, Ferry could simply sit back and take the acclaim of a new generation of art-rockers (he likes Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire). He wants to travel, rather than tour. With the fourth Roxy biog in nine years due out this summer, he wants to write the real story. But there's still music to be made.

So, the new Roxy album. Three decades ago, I couldn't get enough of this new sensation, this fabulous creation. Now I'm not sure I want any more. There were only ever two series of Fawlty Towers. Maybe three Roxy albums - the first three - would have been perfect.

Ferry says he understands why the reunion is half-thrilling fans, and half-terrifying them - and why Brian Eno remarked after the first sessions: "I fear I'll be talking about this for the next twenty-five years." The interruption has delayed the album until winter 2008.

"None of the songs are finished; they're all works in progress," he says. "But I enjoyed being back in the studio with Brian and the guys and hopefully, after this break, the album will come together. It's quite a pressured situation because expectations seem to be pretty high. So, for now, thank God for Dylan and his beautiful songs."

Last question: he's never met Dylan; does he want to? "Not desperately. I only saw him play live for the first time last year and he was great. But I'm not going to seek him out. I wouldn't go knocking on his dressing room door or anything."

Quickly, I nod in agreement. You would never catch me pestering my idol.