Psalm – Part 1
I. The Beautiful Idea
In The Red Hand Files Issue #130 (January 2021), Nick Cave provided insight into his personal connection between religion and creativity:
William Blake said ‘Jesus is the imagination’ and these words have always resonated with me. They have bound together the notion of Jesus and the creative act, and lifted it into the supernatural sphere.
A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.
One day, you will write a line that feels wrong, but at the same time provides you with a jolt of dissonance, a quickening of the nervous system…This is the idea to pay attention to, the difficult idea, the disturbing idea, shimmering softly among all the deficient, dead ideas, gently but persistently tugging at your sleeve — the Jesus idea.
Much of Bryan Ferry’s writing occupies the same territory, anticipating the ‘jolt of dissonance’ that accompanies the appearance of the ‘beautiful idea’ – that mysterious and hard-won insight that begs for inclusion in a song. (Ferry: “I believe each line must have a punch of some sort and that, strategically, certain lines should give the listener a specific jolt”). The selection of material and subject is vital to Ferry, but the singer also presents in his work a humility at the mysteriousness of writing and creating. Just as we can locate Jack Torrence’s writer’s block as the true terror in Kubrick‘s The Shining (“all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play…”), so too Ferry delights in describing the terror of the blank page, of not finding the right words at the right time (see: The Bogus Man), of not being articulate or insightful, of having to wait on an artistic revelation before the deadline, of not receiving the beautiful idea, the Jesus idea.
Question [Interviewer]: What sorts of things guide your songwriting? And are you a disciplined writer, or . . .
Answer [Ferry]: Oh, I have to be dragged to it by wild horses; I find it very painful, very hard work. The tunes tend to come much more readily than the words; the words are a bit of torment, ’cause I’m quite particular about words, and I love words.
Haunting me always are the voices
(Tell us are you ready now?)
Sometimes I wonder if they’re real
(Ready to receive you now)
Or is it my own imagination?
(Have you any more to say?)
Discussing ‘Strictly Confidential’ in June 2018, we tracked the Bryan Ferry persona across the first three Roxy Music records and two non-album singles:
I. (Roxy Music/’Virginia Plain‘): The dream and drive for Fame. The mask is donned for the first time. You become someone else. Many possible futures.
II. (‘Pyjamarama‘/For Your Pleasure): Fame arrives. The effects, shocking. Audiences love you (UK). Promoters hate you (US). You arrive at your Hollywood Promised Land and experience disillusionment. The constructed Roxy state-of-mind – the dream mask – is becoming real, attaching itself firmly to the surface of your skin, like fingernails digging into flesh. There is a mix of happiness, anticipation and pride – and also fear and uncertainty about future outcomes. Decisions are made.
III. (Stranded): “Roxy Mania” takes hold in Europe. The mask settles, inseparable from your own skin now. Human relationships disappoint. All that remains is aesthetics, the striving for the perfection in art that you cannot find in life. You reach for another cognac, stranded.
While an over-simplification, the journey above tracks decently enough as narrative, bringing us squarely to ‘Psalm’, the last song on the original first side of Stranded. The end-stop is fitting as ‘Psalm’ feels like a culmination of sorts: just as For Your Pleasure closes on goodbyes (“ta-ra”), ‘Psalm’ is a set-piece designed to rid its author of the rigors and stress of intellectual analysis and art theory in favor of harnessing a greater range of musical and emotional expression in his work.
As a result, the first set of songs on Stranded are obsessed with the subjects of change and transformation. Street Life announces “now I’m blinded, I can really see”; “this brave new world’s not like yesterday”; “back to nature boys/Vasser girls too”. While Romantic classic Just Like You is concerned with “shifting planets”; “alchemy iron turns gold”; “chameleon color”, “seasons change”; “everything changes” and so on.
And then Amazona turns up, the no-zone that serves as a holding place, where “everything is nice”, contains no fear, “no doubt”, “no fall-out”. The literary academics call this the liminal space – the “space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully in something else. It’s a transition space”. Ferry opens the first side of the album with a warning – “you may be stranded if you stick around” – and closes it with an invitation for him (and us) to transcend our condition, to join him in a leap of faith:
“Why don’t you step through the mirror and see?”
Soon you’ll see
We’re almost there!
So many questions: Where is there? Paradise? Heaven? (“Is there a heaven?/I’d like to think so”). Or is this an attempt at epiphany (“now I’m blinded I can really see”), a leaving behind of the tortured thinking soul in return for a glimpse of Jesus emerging from the tomb. Does ‘Psalm’ attempt to harness and re-create the beautiful idea, the “universal, eternal Mind, or Spirit” that William Blake called the Imagination? If so, then ‘Psalm’ is the destination, and you and I are almost there..
II. Believe in Me
Retaining a typically warm ambience that is so common to Stranded, ‘Psalm’ starts calmly enough with church-style organ and a pleasant eight note refrain in the key of F Major (musical characteristic: “Controlled calmness/religious sentiment”) provided by the ever-tasteful and talented Eddie Jobson. Emerging from the shadows, Ferry’s sunken vocal begins with:
Try on your love like a new dress
The fit and the cut your friends to impress
Try on your smile square on your face
Showing affection should be no disgrace
Ferry pitches tone and diction perfectly for the Sunday pulpit: clarity of language (“love/smile/affection”) is backed with simple rhyming couplets (“dress/impress”; “face/disgrace”). As a result, both narrator and Roxy Music create an atmosphere of inclusion and calm: The church organ soothes and oscillates within the hall. The congregation assembles, eyes focused on the televangelist out front: this is more of a rock star performance than is usually given credit for (a connection that clearly pique’s Ferry’s interest), as the televangelist (“tele” = television/ “evangelist” = preacher) combines the classic TV / glamour / commercial motifs that are the foundations of the Roxy Music aesthetic. David Bowie turned the rock star pulpit into a display of fascistic power and influence (“This ain’t rock n’ roll – this is genocide!”) whereas Ferry sees the power opportunity as a pull towards existential questions of how to live our lives in this new age (“Penthouse perfection/But what goes on/What to do there/Better pray there”). No matter: this was brave new world thinking in 1973 and neither glam superstars or the public knew where it was going to end up. (At a guess, somewhere around 2020).
Having honed his writing style across two albums, Ferry presents a favorite narrative point-of-view technique in the first stanza, addressing someone off-screen in the second person (You): “your love”, “your smile”, “your friends”, “your face”. For today’s sermon, the girl from ‘Amazona‘ is in attendance (“Sometimes paradise around your corner lies”). The man at the pulpit may be calm and welcoming in tone, but he engages in a brittle attack, disapproving of the appropriation of love and religion as a fashion statement (“try on your love/like a new dress”), identifying this church-goer as little more than a devotional groupie seeking attention and admiration like those fashion house ladies from ‘Just Like You’ chasing “last year’s fab-rave” (JLY).
Try out your God hope He will send
Kindness from strangers on whom you depend
This is delicious stuff, as Ferry recreates the stock-in-trade Roxy Music male persona – men who are calm and seductive on the surface but stick the knife in for the romantic kiss-off: “I’ll move up close to you/I’ll use you and I’ll confuse you//Still you won’t suspect me” (Ladytron). “As destiny wills it so seasons will change/Just like you.” (JYL). In the end justice usually prevails as the male protagonist is left in the cold with his stylish suits, wall-coverings and G-Plan apartment.
“Believe in me”
Once seemed a good line now belief in Jesus
Is faith more sublime
“Believe in me” contains multitudes: it’s the end-game to the arguments the heated lovers always have; it’s the televangelist’s call to his obedient and willing congregation (arms raised – “believe in me!”); and it is one of the key tenets of Christian thought, the sum of the teachings of the Gospel:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The phrase is also a signal of change: One of the fun aspects of Ferry’s writing is that he enjoys teasing the reader with diverse persona and different narrative points-of-view. In Roxy Music, narrators are typically unreliable (‘If There is Something‘/’Chance Meeting’), and shift and turn and reveal secrets over the course of a song. The male narrator will dig in by scolding the love object (“Try on your love like a new dress”) yet by song’s end he often appears foolish (“I may seem a fool to you”) and winds up castigating his own self (“I can’t see the Lord short of perfection/I’ll try to be good”).
In this regard, ‘Psalm’ replicates the narrative design of ‘Pyjamarama‘ (Roxy’s second Top 10 single) wherein Ferry stages a Noel Coward comedy of manners in the same spirit of the play Private Lives. Jealousy, envy, lust, (maybe) love, retribution and punishment are doled out over several verses as we witness a subtle but gradual shift from female to male incredulity. (“They say you have a secret life”/”I may seem a fool to you”).
And so, shifting focus, in the fourth stanza the girl from ‘Amazona‘ is practically forgotten:
“Believe in me”
Once seemed a good line now belief in Jesus
Is faith more sublime Head in the clouds
But I can’t see the Lord short of perfection
I’ll try to be good
“I’ll try to be good” is cute (and funny), yet more compellingly, it also reveals a considerable shift in perspective. Earlier in the sermon our Evangelist had taken a hearty crack at the ex-lover (“Try out your love/Try out your God”) yet by the fourth stanza he is gradually turning the gaze inward, beginning to recognize his own failings (“I can’t see the Lord”). A transformation is taking place – a conversion if you like – a movement towards that “faith more sublime.”
There could be a question mark here (“Is faith more sublime?”) in order to support the previous album’s key existential consideration “Is there a heaven?” (In Every Dream Home). The poetic notion of the Sublime is extremely important in this verse, as Ferry and writing partner Simon Puxley (PhD in Literature and Philosophy) understand and apply the concept of The Sublime to their religious poem ‘Psalm’.
The ‘Sublime’ has three distinct connotations: i) as adjective, sublime identifies “excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”. ii) As verb, sublime occupies a chemical process “of a solid substance change directly into vapor when heated, typically forming a solid deposit again on cooling.” iii) As archiac term, sublime “elevate to a high degree of moral or spiritual purity or excellence.
By asking is “faith more sublime” Ferry uses one of the key concepts of English poetry and delivers neatly in one package the three key themes of the Stranded triptych: Beauty. Transformation. Perfection.
III. Hanky Panky
In a July 1974 interview with New Musical Express journalist Nick Kent, Bryan Ferry commented on his admiration for religious poets and their artistic intensity:
It’s strange how the most degenerate kind of characters can flirt with religion… What’s always interested me is the gradual process of a lot of poets and the phases they go through. Like intense love poetry, over 20 years or so it can become stranger and stranger, and more introspective, until it reaches this amazing religious intensity. John Donne, for instance, was always the most amazing one for me.
When considering an artist’s work, it pays to take note of their heroes: for Ferry, Richard Hamilton and Marcel Duchamp provided the pop-art ambition and technique for Roxy Music, ‘Virginia Plain’ and ‘Do the Strand’; the Hollywood glamor of Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo were the inspiration for a new rock n’ roll ‘cinema’ music, and so on.
“When writers are mentioned,” Kent writes, “[Ferry] names Proust and F.Scott Fitzgerald. His favorite poets appear to be T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath, with John Donne taking pride of place”. And so we map these influences in the work:
Proust: Monumental, difficult, stream-of-consciousness (see: ‘Song for Europe‘);
F.Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby, America, the New World. Adjective; meaning excessively extravagant, cool, stylish. (See: um, BF’s entire career).
T.S Eliot: Modernist. The Waste Land. ‘April is the cruelest month.’ (see: ‘Just Like You‘).
Sylvia Plath: Confessional poetry. American. Alienation. Self-destruction. Suicide. (see: ‘Strictly Confidential‘).
Kent continues: “His admiration of the metaphysical strain made me remember a conversation I once had with Eno, when the latter stated his contention that our Mr F. would reach a peak of creativity and then crack and become totally committed to some organised religion”.
Ferry replies: “I could see myself perhaps falling into that.”
Kent continues: “Ferry after all could be seen as a direct inheritor of the whole John Donne school of hedonistic wit which consequently turned to religious fanaticism as the years took their toll.”
Ferry replies: “It’s a very interesting process isn’t it? All these gay blades getting up to the incredible hanky panky when they were young – but who at the same time wrote very moving love poetry until they ultimately approached religion with the same fanatical zeal.”
Ferry’s hero John Donne was a metaphysical poet of considerable intellect and passion, but the pull for modern audiences (and Ferry) is the peculiar juxtaposition of the profane and the secular. Biographers tell us Donne’s life had a painful trajectory: “frustration in hopes for courtly preferment, an intense love life with some rough patches, and at last settling into the godly role he played so well as a prominent minister in the Anglican Church. In short, Donne went from sinner to near-saint.” (Sense Sublime).
The “amazing religious intensity” that Ferry so admires in Donne is presented in ‘Psalm.’ Moving through the song, His Eminence The Most Reverend Ferry gains increasing ecclesiastical emotion and energy:
I’ll stand at His gate
I’ll wait for His sign then I’ll walk in his garden
When it’s my time
No longer preoccupied with previous concerns (no withering ‘Just Life You’ failed romance; no Church girl’s Sunday fashion pose) the narrative becomes pure Southern rock n’ roll – the Reverend shares the pulpit with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Elvis.
Nearing death’s vale
He’s here by my side
He leads me to paradise
A mountain so high
The change is startling: you find yourself rooting for the great dirty rock n’ rollers of old – those degenerates that “flirted” with religion and genuinely feared the consequences of having lived a life of sin. Jerry Lee went to Memphis after being booted out of Bible school for boogy-ing up a hymn during worship services (The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1). At 14 he was called The Killer. At 22 he took a took a shine to his future teen bride Myra Gale Brown, first cousin removed, marrying her at 13 (while he was still married to someone else). Jerry Lee occupies a world of “snakes and swamps, sweltering heat, Pentecostal Christianity and fear of sin” (The Guardian). This too is the world of ‘Psalm‘: swampy, stranded, awaiting rescue – just like the girl on the cover. The degenerate sings the Lord’s praises in an attempt to avoid the clutches of hell..
Don’t be afraid just treasure His word
Singing His praises I know that I’ll be heard
Ferry clearly identifies with these rascals, the pulpit poet John Donne (“the most amazing one for me”), and Elvis (“I was, and always will be a fan”). The fact that Ferry uses ‘Psalm’ and religious hymn as a continuation of the rock n’ roll spirit (“I’m always juxtaposing contrary elements. It’s kind of a perverse streak in me”) is at the heart of where Stranded‘s experimentation stands.
In 1970, Jerry Lee was served with Myra Gale Brown’s divorce papers. In a last-ditch attempt to bring her back, The Killer went to her church, Brother E.J. Davis’ Church on Highway 61 South in Memphis, and played an hour’s worth of gospel, having announced that he was giving up on worldly music, and was embracing the Lord:
Forget all your troubles you will feel no pain
He’s all that you need He’s your everything
When I’m feeling all at sea deliverance is that distant shore
I will not be worried someday His house will be my home
This is the story ‘Psalm’ tells: From disdain (“Try out your God”), to self-realization (“I can’t see the Lord short of perfection”), to full-blown belief (“His quiet waters will never run dry”), to final break-through, religious epiphany (“for evermore”) – the degenerate’s transformation is complete. No longer stranded, but transformed – as William Blake was, as John Donne, Jerry Lee – from sinner to near saint, The Reverend is also saved, in art at least, For evermore…
For evermore for evermore for evermore for evermore
For evermore for evermore for evermore for evermore
For evermore for evermore for evermore for evermore
Part IV. I Would Like to Be a Saint
A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea.
To discuss ‘Psalm’ in terms of irony, or its opposite, is reduce the song to its formal properties: the track is, after all, a religious psalm, both in form and intent. That’s the gag. Or that’s the earnest struggle. Either way, ‘Psalm‘ (like all great Roxy songs) accommodates your personal preference. Not so much a ‘message’ song as a revelation song, ‘Psalm’ traces and re-enacts the discovery and arrival of the beautiful idea, words captured in time, for evermore. (Words that will outlive it’s creator). John Coltrane did the same thing with A Love Supreme – his hymn to God and Spirit. On a 1966 tour of Japan, Coltrane was asked what he wanted to be in 10 years. He replied, “I would like to be a saint.” And so they built a church for him in San Francisco (that is still open). The Church of St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane (www.coltranechurch.org).
Nick Cave too sought the same engagement with Jesus and the Imagination as Coltrane. On Cave’s beautiful ‘O Children‘ the horrors of the Gulag are detailed for the (now) old men who perpetuated the original crimes. “Forgive us now for what we’ve done/It started out as a bit of fun.” Children are taken by train to the concentration camps to be gassed. On the terrible journey Cave urges them to sing, sing:
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
And lo and behold a conversion takes place – “We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun!” – as Cave imagines them away onto a different train, away from this hell. Saved for evermore in song. “Is that such a stretch of the imagination?” Cave asks, and we dare not argue.
Conversion, change, self-invention, frustration (“stranded”): no one would make an argument for a fully conceived, unified concept in Stranded, but there is an ambience and mood that yolks the disparate elements together. Endlessly fascinated by modes of perception, Ferry delights in showing us how different characters (bogus men, creeps, poets, lovers) process information through their ragged, even sleazy, version of the world. Just as a playwright lays down multiple versions of themselves, Ferry adopts a religious persona for ‘Psalm’ that teases out connections between faith and fashion, propaganda and pop, between those lacking conviction, between the faithful and the faithless. There is existential angst to be sure – the peering towards the threshold (“far beyond the pale horizon”), is tantalizing, but the way forward is unclear, no closer to resolving the problem of being “stranded between life and art” (Gestrandet an Leben und Kunst”: from the German stanza of Bitter Sweet).
And so ‘Psalm’ ends the first glorious period of Bryan Ferry’s writing. After ‘Psalm’ we get a song-cycle less concerned with dreams turning to reality, dream homes turning to heart ache, or questions regarding the existence of heaven. Instead there is a reduced scope, with Ferry narrowing his concerns down to – in the words of Roxy artist and friend Nick de Ville: “I’ve got this problem. I’m writing this pop song”. The bright lights and the harassing phone calls are now a fact of life: the pale horizon has been crossed over. The state of being stranded between life and art is grudgingly accepted. Art, life, religion – offer no escape. As a result, there is less to say and – by the time of 1982’s Avalon – lyrics are largely superfluous, the music having to bear the weight of the Imagination.
‘Vigil’ implies watchfulness. Anyone trying to attain perfection is faced with various obstacles in life that tend to sidetrack him. Here, therefore, I mean watchfulness against elements that might be destructive-from within or without.
Next: post-conversion blues: The end of another affair? Serenade!
Credits: The Church of John Coltrane; Jesus steps from the Tomb, Red Hand Files Issue #130 (January 2021); tranquil Ferry, Amsterdam 1974; ‘Veiled Virgin’, Giovanni Strazza ; fellow degenerates John Donne, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bryan Ferry seek salvation.