One of the lesser-known cuts on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things, ‘River of Salt‘ was an obscure B-side single sung by American singer and actress Ketty Lester, written for her by Bernard Zackery, Irving Brown, and Jan Zackery. Never released on an album or as a single in its own right, ‘River of Salt’ is a miniature miracle that never found the audience it deserved. Lester had hit gold previously with the brilliant ‘Love Letters‘, a song that went to the top of the charts in both the US and the UK in 1962 (and one that David Lynch picked up for Blue Velvet). Chasing another hit single, Lester recorded and released three more ballads in 1962 but failed to repeat the success of ‘Letters’. That such a fine song as ‘River of Salt’ could be buried and forgotten as a B-side is testament to the quality of Lester’s output.
In choosing ‘River of Salt’ for the album, Ferry was in many ways drawing attention to his skills and appreciation for pop as a continuum, similar to the Art world reaching back into the (not so) distant past for its raw materials. Choosing well-known tunes was one thing – every one knows The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin – but branching out into jazz and Motown, and giving the nod to artists like Nat King Cole, Ketty Lester, and Smokey Robinson was risky, especially for a working-class English boy from Newcastle. Expressing his love of the form, Ferry had very distinct ideas and tastes about music pre-rock: “The difference between then and now is that where you once had two almost clearly defined categories – singers and songwriters – you now have a situation where all song-writers have to be performers … and sometimes it doesn’t work very well” (BF, 76). While rock-stars enjoyed referencing their rock roots – David Bowie’s Pin Ups/John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll – Ferry was reaching back to an earlier musical milieu. While not exactly singing The Great American Standards yet (that would come next in Another Time, Another Place) there was nonetheless an emphasis on classic singer/songwriter partnerships juxtaposed against the titan and preeminent standard These Foolish Things which, by choosing it to title the album, provided Ferry with a new mask: that of the lounge-lizard Romantic, the unrequited lovelorn personality whose confessions are framed by a writer’s self-conscious awareness of his own misery (and charm). A cigarette that bares a lipstick’s traces..
After the literary maelstrom that is Bob Dylan’s highly allusive and poetic ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall‘, Ferry pulls a fast one and gives his audience a 1 minute 48 second love ballad. As metaphor, ‘River of Salt’ is as basic as it gets:
River of salt
Flowing from my eyes
Seems as though
I can’t realize
My love is gone
She’s left this town
River of salt
Keeps flowing down
Metaphors can be exaggerated so much they become comical (as in, “Her tears were a river flowing down her cheeks and beyond”), but ‘River of Salt‘ has an innocence similar to Ferry’s cover of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ with its root metaphor of a lovely flame that dies, creating smoke, then tears (They said someday you’ll find/All who love are blind). In ‘Salt’ the bereaved lover also sheds unending tears while mourning the absent sweetheart. Although simple, the lyric may be onto something – there are no pure salt rivers in the world (according to Earth Science) and so the song taps into the Romantic idea of a bitter loss stretched across eternity, the Artist (hand on brow) writing reams of poetry à la climbing mountains, swimming oceans, walking thousands of miles to prove nothing less than everlasting love and commitment. Ferry knows the pulse of the song is earnestness tinged with a knowing wisdom and delivers it as such.
The musical set-up on ‘River of Salt’ is fantastic, and the track can be seen as a breakthrough in romantic sincerity for Ferry, a writer who in his own work prefers distance and irony to get to the heart of the matter. Richly recorded, bass and drum set the pace and are framed by a lovely electric piano chord introduction, laid down by professional session player Dave Skinner (who played for Roxy on the 1979 ‘Manifesto’ tour and solo Manzanera and Ferry records). By contrast the Ketty Lester recording is a bit stiff in these opening bars, with the double bass prominent but not particularly well-recorded, and the corresponding drum accompaniment sounding like it is being played with cutlery. In contrast, Ferry’s cover version is like hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire and white tiger rug. His vocal is (almost) stripped of its trade-mark quiver, and is delivered straight: Bryan Ferry the lounge-lizard/troubadour is born here, in this track, and in under two minutes he has set the stage for the appearance of his white tux and dickie-bow, glitter eye-liner be gone.
In most respects These Foolish Things is a love album. Songs like ‘Tracks of My Tears’; ‘Don’t Ever Change’; ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever;’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’; ‘River of Salt’ strive to capture and represent love’s sentiments in all its various colors and Ferry is keen to present them to a young 70s audience. What is telling is that he tackles these originals from a vantage point of sincerity and eagerness to please, as if covering a track like ‘River of Salt’ note-for-note is the purest form of flattery. After dealing with love as a postmodern game of signs and signifiers – ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’; ‘Ladytron’; ‘Editions of You‘ – Ferry shifts his writing towards regaining (or finding) love in its full range of emotions. He does so from two directions: writing his own songs and covering the songs of others. While For Your Pleasure is cold to the touch, purposely distancing love in favor of a blow-up sex doll or bogeyman sex, These Foolish Things tackles love as an emotion lived and experienced by other people – in its 1 minute plus Ketty Lester’s ‘River of Salt’ has all the emotion it can handle – and so in his musical arrangement Ferry chooses not to mess too much with the established formula, as if by not doing so he might spoil a song that had once provided a lifeline to his personal feelings and experiences. For Ferry, Foolish Things was only “half successful” (NME) because he felt he did not experiment enough on the source material. If he had done so with ‘River of Salt’ it is very likely that the Third Roxy Music album Stranded would have been a very different recording – mature, yes, but insulated and aloof, instead of warm and tropical, full of emotional heat. Without ‘River of Salt’ it’s possible we might not have had ‘A Song for Europe’ … and where, dear friends, would that have gotten us?
It often seems that Ferry is using his music, not as an end in itself, but as an attempt to create an identity for himself, a reality beneath all the style.
Next: The template for ‘Every Breath You Take’: Ferry covers ‘Don’t Ever Change‘, the same team that brought you hits from The Partridge Family, The Hollies, The Cookies, and Rod Stewart – Ladies and Gentlemen, Gerry Goffin and Carole King!
Recorded: AIR Studios, England June 1973.
Pics: Detail of the 1672 sculpture Entombment of Christ, showing Mary Magdalene crying; RMS composite, ‘River of Salt‘ original pressing & original Love Letters LP; signed BF Foolish Things; below, it’s tough to make a living in the music business: Ketty Lester in Blacula (1972).
Til next time!