“Dylanesque” isn’t what comes to mind when you think of the suave, new-romantic, once-and-future frontman of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry. But time and again throughout his career, like so many other artists, Ferry has gone to the Dylan well. And though he may not resemble the craggy-voiced Dylan, he’s always found a way to make songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Simple Twist of Fate” his own. Indeed, he’s had so much success revamping Dylan songs over the years that he’s finally released a full album (on Virgin) of newly recorded and reinterpreted Dylan tunes. The title: Dylanesque.
When I get together with Ferry in New York’s Carlyle Hotel to talk about the new album, he’s looking slightly disheveled — in a GQ kind of way — in faded blue jeans, a light blue shirt, and a loose green tie, his elegantly mussed black hair dangling across his angular face. At 61, Ferry is affable and cordial, but at times his body posture gives away his age as he sits practically prone in an easy chair.
Dylanesque is an 11-song tribute to an artist Ferry has never met and hadn’t even seen in concert till last year. At that concert, Bob did what Bob does nowadays: he stood at the piano, faced side-stage, sang songs, and said nothing. “My teenage sons took me,” Ferry says. “Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have made the effort. He wasn’t playing guitar. He didn’t even come to the front of the stage. The audience don’t mind; he gets away with it. He’s great.”
When Ferry was first carving out a solo career in the early ’70s, his radically revamped “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was his first single. He went on to record “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” And the songs on Dylanesque aren’t, for the most part, surprising choices. Ferry brings his expressive baritone and his reined-in art-rock sensibility to the familiar and poetic “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “All Along the Watchtower.” The bulk of the tracks were written between 1964 and 1975, though Ferry does include “Make You Feel My Love” from the 1997 Time Out of Mind. He talks about the decisions that went into making Dylanesque, as well as about his career, and he addresses the furor that erupted in England earlier this year when the tabloid press distorted remarks he’d made to the German national Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag about Nazi-era German art.
There are hundreds of Dylan tunes, and you managed to cull it down to 11 tracks that clock in at about 42 minutes. What went into choosing or rejecting certain songs?
I think that’s the proper length of a record. Rhett Davies, my producer, and I just think of it that way. And I didn’t really think about what I didn’t want to do. Certain songs have an appeal. “Positively 4th Street” stood out. I like the lyrics, I like the tune . . . there was no pain in terms of flogging away at it. Either it works or it doesn’t work. I like to think there are a few different moods in the songs. Different keys, and eight or 10 ballads.