Bryan Ferry’s Whistle: An Observation on an Aspect of Millennial Culture

You do not have to click on the links to fully appreciate this post. But it may help.


Last weekend, after much awaiting with bated breath by we at the Addison Recorder, Baz Luhrmann’s film version (version being the key word) of The Great Gatsby opened in cinemas. This piece is not about The Great Gatsby as a movie, especially since none of us have seen it, although I will return to the subject before the end. It is about the soundtrack to a degree, for while the soundtrack is on the surface as misguided as the film, there is one thing the music gets right.  For a few minutes, the film’s score gives way to a singer whose suave, languid, sophisticated persona was made for Fitzgerald, and who has in all likelihood inspired many of his fellow Gatsby contributors, including Florence + the Machine, Lana Del Rey, and even the tuxedo-clad master of ceremonies Jay-Z, with his theatrical, high-art musical stylings—Bryan Ferry.

Ever since hearing “More Than This” for the first time, years before Bill Murray and Scarlett Johnasson went back and forth in a Tokyo karaoke bar, I have been a fan of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. Their importance and influence have been written of enough in many other articles and books, but while many would agree (and I don’t disagree) that their mid-1970s albums, Stranded and Country Life, albums featuring their own singular interpretation of what Mr. Cook and his erstwhile associate called in our last piece “THE SOUND,” my personal favorite recording is what has gone down as their only number-one single.

In the aftermath of John Lennon’s murder, when everyone from Elton John and Paul Simon to Paul and George were trying to pen tributes ranging from the quirky to the strained metaphorical to the inappropriately bouncy, Roxy Music instead took Lennon’s own words and released their interpretation of “Jealous Guy.”

Both Lennon’s original and Roxy Music’s cover are compelling songs for different reasons.

A bit overshadowed as the “other” single from the Imagine album, “Jealous Guy” as John Lennon conceived it is a very deceptive song. Incessantly, gorgeously melodic, the song is arranged for Nicky Hopkins’s piano and Phil Spector’s graceful strings while Lennon sings it in a gentle, quavering voice, lulling you into a soft security blanket—until you pay attention to the lyrics, words full of depression, loathing of self and others, and the threat of violence. Lennon’s unchanging voice grows all the more menacing until the final, softspoken “look out, babe” is more terrifying than if he’d roared it out in a primal scream, an appropriate creation for a man who spent his life extolling love and peace while seemingly ready to fight anyone who dared to disagree with him. The one moment of relief is the instrumental break, when Lennon whistles the melody with a lightness and ease over the Wall of Sound.

Roxy Music takes “Jealous Guy” and makes it sound like, well, a Roxy Music song for four minutes. Ferry, his voice rising, falling, expressive, sounds not as much terrifying as desperate, pleading, asking for understanding. The strings are replaced by lush synthesizers. And the instrumental break features Ferry’s two constant cohorts, Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay, stating the melody on their guitar and saxophone. It’s sleek, a bit sexy, a bit artificial, a foretaste of the rest of the eighties.

Then, right after the final verse, Bryan Ferry starts whistling, at first imitating John Lennon, then, as the synthesizers and drums push their volumes louder and louder, leaving the song behind and channeling something new, an expression of heartbreak and wistfulness and, ultimately, love. It’s as if Verdi had written a whistle into one of his arias and John Coltrane was improvising off of it. As if the last human alive had only one final moment to express something real and true, had lost the use of his vocal chords, and was channeling every emotion into this controlled breath.

Ferry whistles for two and a half minutes, is still whistling as the song fades out, makes a listener think that somewhere he may still be whistling. He never stops.

Why doesn’t he stop?

When I think of the things which I never stop doing in my life, three immediate practices come to mind. The two obvious to those who know me and click on the Recorder are writing and reading, pursuits indulged in often at the expense of sleep, health, and general sanity. The third is the one which my mind and heart would most like to cut back on, knowing all the while it cannot be given up entirely and perhaps for that reason finding it harder to slow down. Specifically, it is the constantly connected, plugged in state of affairs, a surfeit of Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, texting, anything which can be done on an iPhone to connect you to the rest of the world. It is a slow and steady but easily dominating habit; when I think of how much I have used my iPhone this year alone, the calculation leaves me embarrassed.

The communicative technology of this age has a strangely isolating effect: we choose who we talk to and see what we wish to see, leaving us blind to aspects of reality and some of the grander truths which arise from the encompassing of multiple points of view, truths easily missed when we focus too much on our own. I have every news source available at the twitch of a thumb but know less about the world and its happenings than I ever did.

Worse, communicating via the mediums of social networks and terse, emotionally vague tweets and texts is a universe away from face to face interaction or even the telephone, when one can at least hear excitement and anger and sympathy. You need never let another soul come in contact with your unadulterated personality. You are protected. You are safe. And with this safety the risks necessary to intimacy and strong human bonds are lost.

Yet here is humanity, at least humanity as I directly experience it in the presence of my closest and not so closest friends, my colleagues and family in the comics world, even my relations, who all have the same accounts and the same infinite flow of information streaming past their persons, to judge by the amount of memes, articles, ramblings, and 140-character blasts of prose which never cease. This is small consolation at first and none at all upon further reflection. We may be equally ignorant, equally solitary and potentially depressed about it in ways we can’t or won’t admit. And we can so easily justify this behavior in the name of human connection, of wanting to be in touch with the world, or at least our strictly defined niche within it. So we tweet and post and do it all again in the next hour, the next day, the next month, over the course of year after year. We have taken our existence to an excess I am positive the founders of the Internet never conceived.

Yet for all the somewhat reactionary thoughts expressed above, it is an excess which this writer understands all too well.

Ours is a searching generation. We grew up with a sense inherited from our parents and grandparents that there was a certain way of things. You mature, go to college and find your vocation (or don’t go to college and still find your vocation), commence making a living at said passion, get married, save money, buy the house, put the kids through college if they want to go to college, retire. This is how my father and mother and aunts and uncles and all the parents of my friends (whom I have met), all of the adults I respect in life have lived, a stolid, solid, middle class existence. Then everything shifted. The economic model broke down as jobs went overseas and housing crashed. College expenses spiraled into increasingly prohibitive realms. Employment opportunities dried up. Getting to work at your vocation full time seemed more and more a luxury. I am one of many people in the circles closest to me who work a job which has little to do with my education and nothing to do with my personal goals by day—and I have sometimes worked two of these jobs at once, as have others—to pay the necessary bills and student loans, and pursue my passion by night. It is a frenetic life without much rest, and explains why my sleeping and sometimes my health suffer. I am not complaining. This is the way life is for now and only the obstinately foolish beat their head against it. But what brings me feelings of sorrow and longing is the essentially solitary state of this life for those who live it. Our energies are directed toward fulfilling OUR OWN basic needs and then laboring at OUR OWN visions and dreams. It is a life which leaves little time for other people.

And we are aware that besides the picture described above, life was not always this way. My bookshelf is dominated by works from the 18th and 19th centuries, after the Enlightenment, the days which laid the groundwork for the modern. These books, fiction and non-fiction alike, which are read and reread by so many in college, paint pictures of human societies whose differences from our own go beyond the obvious ones which play for great comedy in time travel movies. Europe and Asia were once dominated by monarchy, aristocracy, well-delineated class systems in which a person knew where they stood, and knew at the same time where others stood and with that knew something about them. In the United States (and a few other places), democracy was a flourishing experiment in a land with an expansive frontier. There was a sense of possibility, of the chance for an equality and living on terms of mutual friendship and co-existence, and as slavery ended and civil rights were increasingly guaranteed and protected, a sense of things getting better.

Today, the old delineations are gone, the frontier is settled, and the egalitarian American spirit has produced, it seems, a culture of extremes, of the rich, the poor, and the working classes who get by while the middle class shrinks into obscurity. But this is not, in my opinion, the most drastic transformation. Forging bonds with others was necessary to live in the days before advanced travel, before the telephone, far before the Internet. It was through personal connections that communities were settled and collective action for change, from the American Revolution to the marches on Birmingham, took place. Today we have increasingly less time for personal connections, to get away from work and necessity to meet and become intimate with our fellow men and women. We know little of our elected representatives and see collective action appear to be futile. We see actual communities shrivel and die while our Facebook friends and Twitter followers increase. We live alone with our Hulu, our Netflix, our videogames and 400 channels, never needing to break away. We, with our significant other or spouse if we are the most fortunate, live lives very separate from the rest of the population.

And yet, there is that indefatigable, relentless crush of communication and activity through those channels which are so easily open to us, so many efforts to reach out to other people through this particular wide-ranging avenue.

Because in a world where spare time is limited and our efforts to change the system, and change that, may be uncertain in efficacy, we seize the chances we have to find a conversation, express ourselves, because we know it has not always been this way.

There has been much discussion of the usage of social media during the Boston bombings and the manhunt in Watertown. Because Mr. Cook has his own as yet unpublished thoughts on this subject, I do not wish to speak too much, but I will say what fascinated me was how many people kept sharing information and asking questions even after the police asked that social media curtail how much they were broadcasting. It did not seem to me that this was from malevolent or self-serving motivations on the whole, but rather a desire to become part of something, to share in a giant moment with so many others.

For we believe—we know it is possible—that we have something to contribute to society, that we can commune with people for important reasons in important times. In a generation where the social pressures and the technological advances have, as I said, made it difficult to find the energy to go out into the world to work for change, even to interact, we may at times presume the idea of our making a personal impact, or helping turn a major movement, to be impossible. But we put our stream of consciousness on Twitter and Facebook, search for love or a hook-up on OKCupid, and fill the comments sections with debates where we try to explain our point of view and influence others, hoping someone will respond, will agree.

Say what you like about the current imbroglio over Benghazi, but weren’t we all willing to believe—and this still may be true at least to an extent—that a video somebody stuck on YouTube, the same way we all can stick a video on YouTube, could spark an international incident? We bought the idea because deep down, hopefully for more positive and altruistic reasons, we wanted to believe that our own expressions could do the same thing.


I am in a book club right now—an online book club at that—reading all of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past over the course of a year. It’s no spoiler alert to say that in the end, Marcel’s search for lost time ends successfully, but that end comes after 4,000 pages or so of him recalling so much and analyzing it even more, down to the minutest detail and subtlest shades of thought. Proust would have loved Facebook, I think…he could have written all of it in the very moments.

Yet contemplating this labor, and the satisfaction of its result, leads me to this sudden understanding. Why can’t we stop, I asked, why do we persist in this behavior, this not-that-communicative communication, this constant straining of WiFi and smart phones? I think it is because there is a particular motivation behind our excesses, or at least many of them. We do not overindulge and explode because we gluttonously crave the sensation. We push things to excess because we are aware that there is something lost in our life, something we may perceive as irrevocable, and we believe that maybe the more we engage in an activity, the more of a chance there is that what was lost can be recaptured, recreated, restored to the place we want it to have in our lives, in all lives. We want the sensation. We want the act. We want what made us feel.

Thus, Baz Luhrmann tries to recreate the thrill and sensation and magic of a classic story and a time gone so far by by pulling every trick in the book, including the most unnecessary ones, to try to immerse his audience and show them something new, make them rediscover, put them in a land they’ve never been and fill it with wonder, no matter how misguided his vision may be.

And we, when society and its structures constrain our abilities to meet and act person to person, in true community, we pour our personal lives into the Internet, hoping that one of thousands upon thousands of writings and snippets and videos and reposts may connect us to someone or something meaningful, may make us feel as if we took part in something greater than ourselves, greater than the day to day life of making ends meet and hoping there will be enough time for your own personality to shine through for a few precious hours before going to bed exhausted and alone, may make us believe the truth we so often lose sight of, that our actions can make a difference…and though it is a hard step from slacktivism and goofy one-lined conversation to being out in the world getting things done and making true, real friends and relationships, a day may come, maybe sooner than we think, when enough people will be convinced to start a cultural shift away from all this into something new, something adjusted to the new state of the union and the world, but still full of humanity. Full of shared humanity.

And Bryan Ferry responds to a senseless tragedy by taking a man’s song and bringing it a new magic, enough to make us believe that the song will never end…that the goodness and possibility of life will never end…that the record will never stop even as it fades and the whistle enters eternity.


Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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