Today’s birthday boy, Bryan Ferry, was the front man for Roxy Music, one of the best bands of the Seventies. Roxy’s run lasted from 1972 till 1982—they arose as glam with a vengeance, bringing together the lounge-lizard stylings of Ferry and to some extent sax-player Andy Mackay with the glammier, prog-like style of Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, the band’s distinctive guitarist, and gradually became a main purveyor of tasteful “adult rock.” Ferry was the main composer, though sometimes Manzanera or Mackay collaborated with him. Eno went his own way after the second album, which meant the overall aural dynamics became less avant-gardist, though the quality of the song-writing improved, at least up through Siren (1975).
Today’s song sends me back yet again to 1973. I think I’m going to try to impose a moratorium on music from that year which is the single-most cited year in the Song of the Day series, so far. While there is something worthwhile in all 8 Roxy studio albums (there’s quite a gap between Siren and 1979’s Manifesto), “Mother of Pearl” stands out as not only the first Roxy track I ever heard—on the radio no less—but also, to my mind, Bryan Ferry’s finest. The song is definitive for what I take Roxy Music to be but it’s also definitive for what I most appreciate Ferry for.
Ferry’s persona, developed in his songs and showmanship, is a kind of rakish ladies man, Byronic and flirting with bathos. His sufferings are the woe-is-me of the man who can’t help but feel accosted—poor fool—by any charming or lovely female in his vicinity. It’s as if beauty—in human form—acts as provocation always and only. But of course, once attained, any object of desire tends to inspire ennui, that disaffection with one’s lust and detachment from one’s desire that quite cowls the spirit. So Ferry tends to be singing about how much he wants X or how barren his life is now that it’s bereft of X or how dull it is now that it’s clear that X is not at all what he wanted. Occasionally, he’s just a guy enjoying his good fortune with his babe of choice, and sometimes he’s distressed by his treatment at the hands of a particular object of desire—which I suppose almost makes her a subject—and, particularly, on the album Siren when the object was a specific person (model Jerry Hall, pictured on the cover), that state of affairs tended to produce some grand wallowing (two songs I love on that score are “End of the Line”—which flirts (as well as Roxy can) with Country—and “Another High,” where the lifelong ladies’ man tries to re-imagine himself as a certain lady’s man, once she’s having none of it).
“Mother of Pearl” is a great soliloquy by a guy who stops, in the midst of his “party-time wasting,” to reflect on why he never seems to get his prize. The object of his pursuit turns into a pumpkin by morning? Perhaps, but Ferry is able to work up some wonderful poetic conceits to suggest the stakes of the chase, and of the loss that occurs when each Miss misses the mark. “With every goddess a let-down / Every idol a bring-down / It gets you down / But the search for perfection / Your own predilection / Goes on and on and on and on.”
The kind of perfection he has in mind? Mother of Pearl, which, in the poetic realms to which he’s paying courtship, might as well stand for the Muse: “Lustrous lady / Of a sacred world.” You know, that figure of forbidding beauty who will not be attained, nay mortal, nor even caressed save she be seduced by the very best—the most artful and clever, or passionate and disarming—palaver that one can provide.
“Thus even Zarathustra / Another-time loser / Could believe in you.” Well might we reflect on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in his hermit’s cave beguiled by moonlight in a spider’s web—so nacreous, don’t you know—or by his own Ideal. Even philosophers can have an ideal that takes human female form, more an Athena than an Aphrodite, no doubt. Maybe even an Artemis? “… something / Just out of reach, glowing / Very Holy Grail.” [We’ve already got one . . . It’s a verrry nice-eh.]
So our hero pines for that girl “highbrow, holy / With lots of soul / Melancholy shimmering,” possessed of “Serpentine sleakness” (“like a simple tune”) who might also better those “career-girl cover” types—“exposed and another / Slips right into view” (bed one model, you’ve bedded ’em all—and this one cried “ennui—oui—oui” all the way home).
And it’s not just that Ferry’s lyric dallies so well with this wan and heartless mood—“thinking of life’s inner meaning / And my latest fling” (a priceless pairing)—it’s that his vocal drips, no, breathes dry irony, as well as brandishing its surfeit with a cartoonist’s sense of caricature. Not only does he know his target—“so-so semiprecious in your detached world”—he knows all the feints and foppery of this languishing poet-lover: “Oh looking for love / In a looking-glass world / It’s pretty hard for you”—where both desired and desirer spend all their time looking at themselves mirrored in the most perfect object either can find. For the nonce.
So that the refrain—“Mother of Pearl / I wouldn’t trade you for another girl”—becomes a statement of disaffection with what the world can provide (“I’ve been looking for something / I’ve always wanted / But was never mine”) in favor—arguably—of what that more precious world within can provide. The pearl in the oyster, let us say, the gleaming little nugget that one cherishes in those hidden recesses, hermit in a cave fashion.
The song begins with a rave-up meant to mimic the kind of clubbing atmosphere that should be the source of the kind of “what’s that coming ’round the corner” heart-stopping encounters our boy lives for, then quickly steps down into a morning-after shuffle, with wonderful little fills and asides from Mackay and Manzanera and Eddie Jobson, as the singer airs his griefs. Suffice to say it’s a song that, first heard at 14—virginal would-be poet and Nietzsche-fancier as I was—amused me greatly as indicating strong enough reasons why the rituals of courtship would probably not go well.
Divine intervention / Always my intention / So I take my time