The enigmatic, fascinating composer and singer Scott Walker (1943-2019), who died last month, left a body of work that will take years to fully absorb. Starting as a pop idol with The Walker Brothers, he did to pop music what Godard and David Lynch have done for modern cinema. Tosh Berman offers both a tribute and a career-spanning overview of this fascinating artist.
In 2006, I was working at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip, across from the iconic Tower Records. One day, I noticed that David Lynch was across the street in the Tower Records parking lot, along with a cow and a huge poster for his film Inland Empire. The film had no distribution, nor budget to advertise, so Lynch decided to go to the Tower Records parking lot to promote it. He brought a cow along, presumably to attract the attention of curious passersby.
I rarely have the urge to buy music for someone. Nevertheless, I walked across the street, went into Tower Records and purchased Scott Walker’s The Drift CD. Tossing the bag and receipt away, I went up to David Lynch and told him that I admired his work and would, for sure, see his new film. I then handed him the Scott Walker CD and said, “I think you will like this.” He had never heard of Scott Walker and who knows what he did with the CD, or if he even listened to it. Still, I felt I had to make the introduction between the worlds of David Lynch and Scott Walker. (Walker died on March 22 at age 76).
“Farmer in the City” by Scott Walker could easily appear in any film by David Lynch:
Listening to the late Scott Walker’s recordings last night with the lights out, I realized that David Lynch’s world is one of dark imagination while Scott Walker reflects a political and spiritual truth that there is no God, nor good and evil, just existence. Lynch lives in a moral world, perhaps even a right-wing world, but Scott Walker’s landscape is one of torture, dictatorship, colonialism, and bad deals between countries or cultures. Lynch, I suspect, is not a reader of political theory, but Scott Walker dwelt in European legislative/cultural history. Lynch’s account is from Alfred Hitchcock; Scott’s take was from the regime of Mussolini.
Lynch is a masterful sound artist. It’s important that one sees his work in a proper movie theater with a great sound system because like the other film god, Jean-Luc Godard, he uses sound as another layer or element of his overall work. Scott Walker just does sound, and if you are in a proper room, sound-wise, and play his music loud, you’re sent to a space dominated by Scott’s vision. While his music plays, there is no exit in this room. I have never had such a listening experience where I’m totally drawn and trapped by the sounds.
On the surface, there seems to have been various Scott Walker identities. The pop Phil Spector-influenced Walker Brothers, and then the European-obsessed Scott, from the albums Scott 1 to Scott 4, and the late 1960s/early 1970s fascination with MOR music, and his admiration for singers such as Jack Jones. Then comes the avant-garde, Musique Concrete Scott. Many prefer the old 1960s recordings by Scott and see them as distinctly different from the later experimental sounds. But the truth is there is one Scott Walker artist, and all roads led to the later avant-sound that he created. In other words, one shouldn’t dismiss his early pop music-making years from his experimental approach to making music.
Scott Walker was very much on a journey and his life was a map. He was a consistent musical artist who went from Point A to Point Z, and usually took the main highway, and rarely left that boulevard of dreams. Every step he made, and even if he had a misstep here and there, still brought him to the finish line.
When an artist of stature dies, one is saddened that more work will not be released. With Scott Walker, I feel he made enough music for the world. Even though in his later years, a decade would go by between album releases, I have all I need of Scott Walker as an artist. In other words, he finished his life’s work before dying. The same can be said for David Bowie. What both of these artists left here is endlessly enjoyable work but also work that provides nutritious food for the soul and brain. In a sense, the entire discography of Scott Walker is one piece. Each album is a chapter to the long story, and the narration runs through his work.
If the recordings were a novel, the story would open in Hamilton, Ohio. In the mid-19th century, the city produced vaults and safes, cans for vegetables, papermaking machinery, steam & diesel engines, and in the 20th century it produced Noel Scott Engel (Walker). Scott came to California with his newly divorced mother and, as a child actor and singer, he was discovered by one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, the singer Eddie Fisher, father of Carrie.
It was at this time that Scott was groomed to be a pop music idol like others of that period. He made recordings, but they never took off in the commercial sense, and his life in California was totally the opposite of a surf/beach Los Angeles youth, which meant he developed an interest in jazz artists like Bill Evans and European art films. He took up the bass guitar and did studio sessions, including becoming a member of The Routers.
Around this time he met guitarist and vocalist John Maus, then known as “John Walker.” They joined forces with drummer Gary Leeds, who became Gary Walker, while Scott Engel became Scott Walker. Together, they were The Walker Brothers. The Walker Brothers went to England, made records that were much influenced by Phil Spector’s production techniques, as well as using various great Brill Building-era songwriters.
In between these pop classics, Scott wrote songs as well. What was distinctive these songs was the difference in attitude toward the pop establishment of the time, even within The Walker Brothers. His lyrics dealt with loneliness but had nothing to do with youth angst. They were more grownup, so to speak, more existential in their depth.
The first composition that I’m aware of by Scott Walker is “You’re All Around Me” (co-written by Lesley Duncan) on The Walker Brothers’ first album Take It Easy.
This lyrics contained a strong sense of narrative, and his work throughout the 1960s, both solo and with The Walker Brothers, had a strong story-telling aspect to it, or at the very least, a descriptive of the singer’s world. A lot of this had to do with the influence of Jacques Brel, a master of giving color and place in his narrative songs. Scott Walker learned how to sing a tale through Brel’s influence. It wasn’t until The Walker Brothers’ 1978 Nite Flight that another musical direction becomes noticeable. The lyrics were more fragmented but chosen with precision, becoming almost like Musique Concrete in their forcefulness and in the overall sound of his compositions.
From the albums Tilt (1995) to Soused (2014), the work became darker, hysterically funny in parts, and overall political in the sense that the music dealt with power, both historically as well as personally. A visual sensibility can also be detected in his work. I can’t think of too many composers who equally strike a visual image to their music. John Cage is one, and the artists involved in Fluxus, and Yoko Ono. Scott Walker was a sound artist who worked his music like sculptures.
The Drift has a song called “Cue” that features percussion on a big wooden box that was constructed in the recording studio. When you see images of the box, it looks like a work of minimalism. When Scott sings “Bam Bam,” one hears the banging of the box which is violent and startling. I can only find images of this box in Stephen Kijak’s documentary on Scott called 30 Century Man. Tim Painter built the box for the session, but not sure how much input he got from Walker about the visual aspect, but it is a very distinctive and unique sound. Not pretty, but very ugly.
Walker’s music realistically deals with ugliness. It’s not something that can be sold as a spectacle, but more from an emotional angle, but with great intellect and acknowledgment of the history around the work. The aural aspect of Scott’s work is intensely studied, and one gets the impression that he thought about the task before finishing it in the studio. Therefore, that is why it takes a long time to write the work, and ten years will pass between album releases. By the time he gets to the recording studio, the work is finished in his head. This is less like a rock ‘n’ roller and more like a monk focusing on his art, similar to letting whiskey age in a wooden barrow. Marcel Duchamp is also an artist who took his time and often worked in secrecy, which I suspect was Scott’s technique as well.
Scott Walker is an artist of deep mystery. As of this writing, it is still not clear how he died last month, and I suspect we will never know. Still, he is an artist who did not leave a massive number of recordings, but each album is essential. Some are complete statements, others are part of a series. I think of his first solo album to number “4” as one complete and separate project. And I also feel Tilt, The Drift, and Bish Bosch are all part of one project.
The last album that he recorded with Sunn O))) Soused, sounded like another chapter to a novel. We don’t know if that was the last and only chapter to this ‘narrative’ or even if it is just a novella. Scott didn’t do miniature works. He worked with a canvas and a large timeline that is very much the 19th to the 20th century, and his music fits in a context that cannot be separated from one’s history or the culture of that world.
Scott Walker framed the world through his art, and he was one of the rare figures to capture the unease and evil of the world, in such a manner that is surprisingly beautiful and even at times hysterically funny.