Strictly Confidential (Ferry), Roxy Music 1973
Strictly Confidential – Part 1
I’m not sure what Bryan thought his roots were, but they probably had more to do with Marilyn Monroe than with any musical influences
Tim Clark, former marketing director of Roxy Music’s label
Gimme your body
Gimme your mind
Art for arts sake
Money for Gods sake
I. American Gothic – Goddess of Love
For Bryan Ferry, Marilyn Monroe was America’s most important visual icon – or at least until Kate Moss came on the scene, apparently – and in 2002 he co-wrote with Eurythmics Dave Stewart a song specifically about his feelings for Monroe – ‘Goddess of Love’ For anyone following the plot, it goes without saying that Marilyn Monroe was a key motif in the delivery of Roxy’s cinema music. (See: Virginia Plain Part 1-5; Beauty Queen Part 2). The lyric for ‘Goddess of Love‘ contains traces of old obsessions – “nobody cares like I do” is a throw-back to the hand-on-brow Romantic sensitivities of ‘Sea Breezes‘ – yet what stands out is the love impact Monroe had on Ferry’s zeitgeist:
Goddess of love
Never a day goes by
Goddess of love
When I don’t cry
A fun song with a throw-away funky lightness, the solo track confirms what we already knew from ‘Beauty Queen‘: Ferry’s first true love is a matinee movie star pulled from the pages of a magazine cover, not necessarily a flesh-and-blood girlfriend or cupid’s memory. Early single ‘Virginia Plain‘ confirmed the Ferry world view: that art, glamour and the processes that make them are more interesting than narrative earnestness. The tools of commerce and advertising – magazine covers, cigarette packages, fashion design – are utilized by Roxy Music to gain maximum effect, connecting directly into the circuitry of the consumer and their desires. These experiences produces a deep emotional connection as the listener falls in love with the moment, song, performance, artist. It makes sense then that in ‘Goddess of Love’ all that Ferry has left is to leaf through Marilyn Monroe’s magazine articles and pictures (will you spend a little time with me?) and feel the emotional impact of time gone by.
Style critic Peter York once memorably said that Bryan Ferry had led such an avant garde ‘art-directed existence’ that he should be “hanging in the Tate [Gallery]”. It comes as no surprise then that with his training and sensibility, Ferry interrogates to a high-level the patterns and strategies of narrative story-telling and art presentation. This sensibility accounts for the duality that exists in his work: stories of decadent romance that peel open the mechanisms of infatuation, effect and glamour while holding fast on the idea that the song itself is the “ideal of beauty” not the artificially pampered female model or lounge-singer. For Ferry, the the human experience “is all about contrast” (Telegraph) and this produces a wonderful depth to his work – the pinks and blues of Roxy Music juxtaposed with the somnolent, tormented darkness of For Your Pleasure. When Roxy cut a convincing path up the charts in late 1972 the giddy excitement was palpable (opens up exclusive doors/oh wow!), yet a sense of dread clung to many of the lyrics – ‘Virginia Plain‘ was a zippy roller-coaster ride populated with dead teenage idols; ‘Pyjamarama‘ posited that “sacrifice” was the key to paradise; ‘Beauty Queen’ lamented the end-goal of fame: Solo trips to the stars (Where do they go/We’ll never know). Utilizing his eye for narrative, Ferry took these contrasts and, while enjoying his new fame and perks, saw clearly its contrasted darker qualities, and no one epitomized these qualities and their inherent sadness like Ferry’s beloved 50s Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe was all about sex – or at least, that is how she was packaged and sold, a process that she, her audience, and the Hollywood system cheerfully participated in. Acutely aware of her appeal, and insightful to boot – “People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts” – Monroe used her looks to crawl out of a tough life: she had a mentally damaged mother and grandmother, lived in foster homes, was a victim of sexual abuse, and was married at 16. Yet in spite of the difficulties she was strong and intelligent, supported in part by reading, writing and literature. The full import of reading and writing on her life was not discovered until 2010 with the discovery and publication of her poems, intimate notes and letters, entitled Fragments (book and re-titled documentary). The poems are good, some very good, and the quotes and personal notes are compelling. Monroe knew the game she was playing (“An actress is not a machine, but they treat you like a machine. A money machine”), and was equally articulate in describing the disorientating affect of fame and its un-reality:
There was my name up in lights.
I said, “God, somebody’s made a mistake.”
But there it was, in lights.
And I stood there and said,
“Remember, you’re not a star.”
Yet there it was, up in lights.
For the sensitive Monroe, fame became a trap of misappropriated identity and crushed creativity. She resented being controlled by the movie studios, where, as cultural critic Elizabeth Winder noted in her business article on Monroe, you can “forget about talent, creativity, or even free will—the studio controlled your every move, from the roles you accepted to the directors you worked with to how often you went to the bathroom and occasionally even whom you married.” Monroe fought against the pay discrepancies that went beyond simple male discrimination. Even co-star Jane Russell made more: for 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe made $18,000; Russell banked $100,000.
As an indicator of Monroe’s internal strength and resolve, it is worth quoting in full 20th Century Fox’s treatment of the star as she tried to branch out into more challenging and meatier roles:
“Monroe deserved better from Fox, and she knew it. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was their highest grossing film to date, earning more than $5 million worldwide ($50 million in today’s dollars). Surely they’d give their power earner a raise, some respect, and a little independence. She longed to challenge herself, to take on meatier roles, like the lead in playwright Henrik Ibsen‘s Hedda Gabler or Grushenka from Dostoevsky‘s The Brothers Karamazov. She’d just finished reading Emile Zola‘s Nana—the perfect novel, she thought, for a film adaptation…[but film mogul Darryl F. Zanuck] already had her lined up for River of No Return, a formulaic Western with a sloppy plot. Bound by her contract, Monroe submitted with clenched teeth: “I think I deserve a better deal than a grade-Z cowboy movie in which the acting finished second to the scenery,” she said.
The next time Fox presented her with an idiotic script, Monroe flung it back with “TRASH” scrawled on the title page in heavy black marker. Zanuck’s secretary sent her an ominous telegram ordering her to report for work … [but] the star was already on a plane to New York, dressed in dark glasses and a black bobbed wig, traveling under the name of Zelda Zonk” – Article, Marie Claire, 2017
Monroe eventually won the dispute with Fox, and was re-signed with a higher salary (the bump to 100K per picture she had originally demanded). She formed her own Production Company and joined the famed Actors Studio for Method Acting (Brando, James Dean, et al.). But the damage was done. The lines became frayed and the talent was broken down by the repetitiveness of the questions, the male newspaper hacks engaging in sexual innuendo bordering on bullying, and it never did work out for her, in the end.
If fame goes by, so long, I’ve had you, fame. If it goes by, I’ve always known it was fickle. So at least it’s something I experienced, but that’s not where I live.
Marilyn Monroe, Fragments, 3rd August 1962, shortly before her death.
Fame is fickle and not to be trusted is a riff on a poem by Emily Dickinson, titled ‘Fame is a Fickle Food‘.
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s Corn —
Men eat of it and die.
The arts-mad Ferry would know the Dickinson poem, and would have clocked already that fame was a fickle food that even the crows would pass over (“men eat of it and die“). Moreover, Ferry would have felt keenly – like everyone must have done in 1962 – that Marilyn Monroe’s story was tragic, tragic in the real sense of the word – a character flaw unhelped by an unyielding and fickle society – and that something beautiful and real had been trampled on, ultimately defeated by the American Dream.
Here’s Monroe take on the subject:
They taught my body
to squeeze grapes.
Warm wine pours out.
And once or twice,
a slick skin.
The depiction of loss of self – the “slick skin” – is devastating and insightful, extremely poetic (a Roxy song title contender), and ultimately sad. For Bryan Ferry and his famous pop-art mentor/teacher Richard Hamilton, Marilyn Monroe’s suicide had a lasting and keenly felt emotional impact both on their art and on their personal lives.
II. American Gothic – My Marilyn
I’m not obsessed by suicide by any means, but the idea does interest me.
Bryan Ferry, interview, 2015
In our reading of ‘Strictly Confidential’ Part 1 we suggested that the song was a dramatization of the mental condition schizoaffective disorder, which involves ongoing hallucinations and other distortions of reality. Voices heard within the mind telling the person they are going to rot, die, kill: a chilling and debilitating experience experienced by many people, some famous enough – such as Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett – to impact the public’s perception of the condition for a generation. In ‘SC’ Ferry wrote a powerful song that utilized conventions of Gothic literature, dramatizing the frightening grip voices or “fragments” of unreality can have on common experience. Thankfully, the narrative was hopeful – the “magical moment” does eventually come with the light of morning (the spell it is breaking) but the song is realistic enough to know that mental illness does not simply vanish, it is like many ailments of the body and mind, and has to be managed, treated, endured. (Is there no light here/Is there is no key?).
So rich is the For Your Pleasure song cycle that an alternate reading is readily available however, as the magazine cover girl Ferry is love with in ‘Beauty Queen‘ segues into the suicidal voice in ‘Strictly Confidential‘. Unfortunately, in this reading the suicide is not averted but executed according to plan – the “magical moment” of death becoming the final answer to is there no light here/is there no key? Many critics have commented on the “otherness” of For Your Pleasure, the “shimmering alien beauty” of the record (Burchill) combined with Ferry’s “odd vocal styling” (Rolling Stone), the “swooning, crooning, yelped, panted, whispered and robotically intoned narratives of covert confession” (Bracewell). The voice is the thing in ‘Strictly Confidential’ – there is never a time when we hear the line “Before I die I’ll write this letter” that we do not think that the narrator is a woman – a man singing the song in the voice of a woman, to be exact (and not the sound of a “dying insect” as Kevin Orton over at Soundblab rather humorously hears it). Nothing we can offer in court as evidence, of course, but that “odd vocal styling” and “swooning, crooning, yelped, panted, whispered” intonation is otherness personified – ghostly, a shimmering alien beauty indeed.
The mapping of the cult of celebrity’s darker side as it segues into the suicide letter in ‘Strictly Confidential’ was first noted in ‘Beauty Queen Part 3‘ and is worth repeating here: “The haunting image of soul ships passing by, not touching, no communication possible, shows our narrator haunted and alone – in front of a flickering television set, perhaps – for he is himself on those magazine covers now – locked in a solo trip into the unknown. A faint icy-echo in the vocal is introduced at the top of the line gliding so far (4.10) to emphasize the point, sounding like cold death itself and beyond the experience of us mere mortals (the eye cannot follow). The final question is stunningly posited as he looks towards his own future – Where do they go? We’ll never know” – (BQ Part 3).
The answer to “where do they go?” was all too obvious – the public and Bryan Ferry were aware by the early 70s of the crippled fates of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield – ‘Virginia Plain’ told us as much – and as a connoisseur of Hollywood folklore Ferry would know the story of Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle, the woman who gained notoriety after she jumped to her death from atop the “H” on the Hollywoodland sign at the age of 24. Yet it is the the great Beauty Queen herself – Marilyn Monroe – who is the perfect subject for any writer wishing to express or reach for an emotional coherence that is beyond their reach. Ferry was struggling with voices at his heels in the track ‘Strictly Confidential’, and his song-writing worked hard to present the fears brought on by fickle fame, aging, ambition, of expressing doubt and projecting an internalized agony akin to madness. Perhaps this is why Ferry loved and kept returning to Marilyn Monroe in his work – physical attractiveness and iconic status was a factor to be sure – just ask Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer – but also because Monroe was a reader, writer, fighter, leader, a singular force working within and against the fame-making machine. The Goddess of Love stood for and represented a warning for those that would follow her, those “clutching at straws” in anticipation of fame’s fickle food.
Studying under pop art guru Richard Hamilton, a young Bryan Ferry would have been captivated by Hamilton’s My Marilyn oil on canvas painting, and also acutely aware and admiring of Andy Warhol‘s famous images of Marilyn Monroe. In the months following Monroe’s death, Warhol used a publicity photograph of the actress from the 1953 film Niagara to create more than twenty silkscreen paintings of her, such as the Marilyn Diptych, 1962 (T03093). According to the Tate Gallery, Warhol found in Monroe “a fusion of two of his consistent themes: death and the cult of celebrity.” The interrogation of the cult of celebrity begins on FYP with ‘Beauty Queen‘, segueing into ‘Strictly Confidential‘ before expanding out towards Warholian replications into the hard rocker ‘Editions of You’. Under the influence of Richard Hamilton – who had sent Ferry friend and co-student Mark Lancaster to New York to study with Warhol – Ferry absorbed the principles of of Warhol’s and Hamilton’s work – with emphasis on the formal strategies of Hamilton’s My Marilyn. For Hamilton, the guru of artistic distance, emotional objectivity and found objects, My Marilyn was a rare personal piece – the inclusion of “My” in the title points to a need to separate his own version of Monroe from Warhol’s, but also, tragically, it also has a marked meaning: Hamilton’s young wife had been killed in an auto accident in 1962, the same year as Marilyn’s death.
The screenprint is composed of a series of the final photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken by George Barris over a three-day period weeks before her death. What is striking is that Marilyn marked up the negatives and sent them to Barris herself, composing the lay-out and final selections. Hamilton wrote of the process in his Collected Words: “M.M. [Marilyn Monroe] demanded that the results of the photographic sessions be submitted to her for vetting before publication. She made indications, brutally and beautifully in conflict with the image, or on proofs and transparencies to give approval or reject, or suggestions for retouching that might make it acceptable.” (p.65.).
For Hamilton, the Barris photographs – later called The Last Photoshoot – were akin to a suicide note written to a mass audience by the actress, her editing an example of her mental state, Hamilton explaining her psychology in the following way: “there is a fortuitous narcissism to be seen for the negating cross is also the childish symbol for a kiss; but the violent obliteration of her own image has a self-destructive implication that made her death all the more poignant.” Hamilton shows us that the symbols used by Marilyn (crosses and tick) were not just as an approval or a rejection but a demand for communication, approval, artistic acceptance, an act of self-destruction hitting back at everything she had already made and achieved but was trying to repair.
Sequencing is important in For Your Pleasure: the imagery in previous track ‘Beauty Queen’ is Ferry’s re-telling of the Cult of Celebrity, drawing heavily from the scenes of Marilyn’s final sunset beach photographs as orchestrated by his art guru Richard Hamilton in one of the teacher’s most personal works: the image references the same beach setting (life’s patterns drawn in sand); the all-important photographic image (treasure so rare); the glamour girl (the gold number/summer lover of fun); the wind unable to erase the memory of your face. In the end, like his solo tribute to Monroe some 30 years later, Ferry – the ultimate Hollywood devotee – admits to his female idol that All of my hope and my inspiration/I drew from you. ‘Beauty Queen‘ exists as the haunted sister song to My Marilyn, before turning into the woman crying for help in ‘Strictly Confidential‘: the woman who yearns for release (will it be sunny then I wonder); questions life’s choices (Marking the time spent on our journey/There isn’t much we have to show) and wonders now in these final hours if the desire for fame and wealth was worth it (Counting the cost in money only/Strikes me as funny don’t you know). Ferry would continue to document fame’s alienating impacts – the next track on the album, ‘Editions of You’, being an homage to magazine replication and the need for artistic transcendence – interrogating the landscape, questioning the cost of the need to be loved by strangers. The story continues on For Your Pleasure in ever increasing sinister overtones, digging deeper into the psyche of its composer with each successive track, for here every dream home holds a heartache and every Hollywood lagoon shields a bogus man.
Marilyn Monroe, a personally marked-up shot taken from The Last Photoshoot; MM + MM 45rpm + BF 45rpm of MM; New York Mirror announcing MM death; the old Hollywood sign in need of repair in 1978 (before Alice Cooper and others kicked in the funds for a new sign); Richard Hamilton‘s My Marilyn, 1964; signed George Barris photo, MM Last Photoshoot (beach shot); My Marilyn, alternate; Richard Hamilton, self portrait.
The original photos considered for this entry were enigmatic and haunting: a series of transparency slides found by US photographer Meagan Abell in a box of vintage photographs in Richmond, Virginia in 2015. The setting is 50s/60s California: the model and photographer unknown. Abell set the internet alight with her search to find the owner and attain more details. Alas, the mystery remains today. Look West my friends, and tell us, what do you see. http://www.meaganabellphotography.com/