A gentle and perfect song – no matter who covered it – Bryan Ferry nonetheless contributed significantly to the canon when he recorded ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ for his second solo album in the summer of 1974. Ferry himself was smitten by the track, in interviews calling the lyric “perfect” and “beautiful”: “As a person who likes to sing other people’s songs, I have come across songs which are just so perfect, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, say. How on earth could they get things to fit together so beautifully?”
For those of us who have followed Bryan Ferry’s career closely, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a pivotal moment – arguably the singer’s most successful synthesis of taste and sentiment applied to other people’s material since the initial 1972-3 Roxy Music madness made him a star. Indeed, ‘Smoke’ marks Ferry’s break-through to a broader audience, evidenced by Ferry’s solo appearance on the The Twiggy Show (‘BBC Show of the Week: Twiggs‘) in October 1974, singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ as he lounges in white tux, red waist-band, nursing an ever-lit, ever-burning cigarette (Geddit, smoke gets in your eyes… Etc). Ferry presents himself here as a continuation of the lounge-lizard persona established only months previously with the ‘These Foolish Things‘ video. Only the naff dancing seen behind Ferry’s head (in the shadowy background) gives this away as a non-sleazy, decidedly non-Roxy, presentation.
I have promoted a belief for years that this Ferry appearance was actually from Top of the Pops – our hero propped up at the piano – but either the research or the memory is failing, and I’m not willing to admit to either. Nevertheless this telecast had a profound effect on my own personal narrative as it marks the introduction of Ferry and Roxy into my life: already vaguely familiar with Virginia Plain, Street Life and The ‘In’ Crowd, it was nevertheless ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ that really got its hooks in me, which is odd, don’t you think – given its classicist and old-time sentiment – for a young boy already smitten with the excess of Glam in the form of Slade, Sweet, and – of course – God himself, David Bowie.
They ask me how I knew
My true love was true
I of course replied
Something here inside
Cannot be denied
Ferry’s affection for the lyric as poetry is spot-on: a series of repeating five-line stanzas concluding on gentle end-rhymes (knew/true; replied/inside/denied), supporting a point-of-view that is situated largely off-screen (“They ask me how I knew…”).
Part of the genius of the lyric for ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is how it positions its emotions, situating sadness in the innocence of the lover, and cynicism in the heart of the crowd. ‘They ask me how I knew/My true love was true‘ is a pretty tough question to hear when you’re deep in the throes of passion. Nevertheless, the hapless lover is lectured: “They said someday you’ll find” –
All who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes
“So I chaffed them,” is this love-bird’s response:
…and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love
Yet today my love has flown away
I am without my love
There is a terrible outcome in these lines, as the audience assertion that “All who love are blind” becomes, in a turn of dramatic irony, to be true. The lover dismisses the idea of falsehood (“And I gaily laughed”) but admits before stanza close that “my love has flown away.”
Ferry brings a considerable amount of emotional heft to these lines. The howl of pain is earnest and unforgettable: “Because I am-ah without … myyyyy-yy love” he sings, the impact of grief stretching just long enough to get under your skin and – I am beginning to suspect – this is the moment that one young Glam fan, at least, became hooked on Ferry and Roxy, and never let go.
For Ferry, this is a point of convergence, for as all Romantic heroes know, it is the cruel observer, the unfeeling crowd, that is both judge and jury in matters of the heart. The conclusion of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ obliterates the hope of idealized love:
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes
Faced with the truth, the lover is defeated (‘tears I cannot hide‘) and in order to save face, he adopts the language of the crowd, quoting their words from the first stanza: ‘So I smile and say, “When a lovely flame dies, Smoke gets in your eyes”’.
No wonder Ferry loved the song: he’d just finished writing an album, Stranded, that grappled with the nature of love and the failures of the human heart. The greatest sadness of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is that sentiment and emotional vulnerability is conquered by cynicism, resulting in this, the saddest of sad songs, and one of Ferry’s most memorable solo performances.
I’m much more at home working with a craftsmanlike written song like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes‘ which has an incredibly clever lyric. It’s a piece of poetry in a way.
Credits: Full LP cover spread, Another Time, Another Place; single cover; uncredited children, circa 1920s; The Intrigue, Painting by James Ensor