When Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks died, as far as I could tell, nobody claimed “actually, the Buzzcocks were bad.” He was universally loved. And looking at the fulsome praise being showered upon Scott Walker, who died Monday at 76, it seems his art was equally acclaimed. In Walker’s case this almost feels disrespectful. For a musician who took so many jagged (if, in the big picture, natural in their progression) turns into the wilderness, it feels like to love it all is to misunderstand Walker’s sonic and narrative perversity.
I’m not casting doubt upon those who are expansively praising an artist they love. As someone’s whose tastes run closer to “basic” than “genius,” I can only wrestle with the man’s work and death as I know how. I’m merely saying that, with all due respect to the universal accessibility of Shelley’s music, Scott Walker’s art is not for everyone. Should someone write an “actually Scott Walker was pretentious rot” piece, I’ll respect the impulse. I’ll still want to throw a chair at the author, but I’ll respect the impulse.
Scott Walker was a colossus with (to mix the mythic metaphor) titanic, livable footprints in the islands of both art-minded orchestral pop music and the straight-up avant garde, but I’m hardly a scholar and always a solipsist, so I can only talk about Scott Walker as his music soundtracked my life. I discovered Walker in my twenties, and his music has been a constant soundtrack to low drama, prosaic cruelty, and high inanity ever since; he’s operated as useful cultural shorthand for finding my own, like ancient Christians drawing a fish in the sand. While most of the tributes to Walker have been forgivably male-heavy in the listings of those he influenced, I always heard about Scott Walker from women. Bartenders, drug buddies, record store clerks, and especially musicians pointed me to different Walker eras, depending on their own whims and taste. Walker obviously influenced Pulp and Bowie, but I have always heard him in grande dames like Jarboe and Ute Lemper, in dark experimentalist friends/peers like Wax Idols and Azar Swan. If filigree and This Mortal Coil were in the mix, Scott Walker was sure to come up in conversation. In fact, for me, and countless others if I need the defense of numbers, Walker’s crooned drama was Goth finishing school. If you weren’t inclined to go full into creepers and pleather, if you preferred your Christian Death tattoo as secret surprise for that special someone as opposed to a full ankh sleeve, 1969’s Scott 4 was the album you received upon your graduation from Miskatonic University. A decade before Nick Cave would stretch Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours into Flannery O’Connor fantasia, Scott Walker was treating every torch song like a bonfire on a blue moon. And if you expect me to use less florid wording in relation to Scott fuckin’ Walker, look elsewhere. The man deserves all the rococo at my disposal.
So the sophisti-goth (or as Jim Sclavunos of The Bad Seeds always called them “moths,” or goth+mod) evolution goes like this: you’re born loving The Cure or Joy Division or whatever, then you get into Sisters of Mercy, then you get into Nick Cave (or you don’t) then you get into Scott Walker (or you really don’t). This is not a required or even necessarily admirable path, I’m not trying to make people feel bad for their taste in an obituary, but if you want to wake up one day in a nice ruffled suit but still not have a real job, it’s the path. And Scott Walker is the destination.
The act of putting on a costume, trying to be smarter or fancier or more glamorous than you really are, is often looked down upon. We call the people who do so “try-hards” and make fun of corpse paint. We love artists like Scott Walker for following their own path, consequences be damned. And of course that’s praiseworthy. I’m not taking Scott Walker’s passing as a weird excuse to shit on honesty! But I don’t think truth, or perhaps rather MEANING IT in all caps, is all that’s worthy in this life.
Scott Walker put on a number of capes in his long career. Before finding success in the U.K. in the late 1960s with his brothers from other mothers, The Walker Brothers, Walker, who was born Noel Scott Engel outside Cincinnati on January 9,1943, sock hopped and lite-rocked from Ohio to NYC to Los Angeles. He even, in a cruel or sweet addendum to Dick Dale’s recent death, tried his hand at surf with 1963’s “Devil Surfer.”
While it’s generally accepted that Scott Walker’s genius was hinted at early in his career in the church organ dirge of The Walker Brothers’ b-side “Archangel,” that doesn’t mean that the behind-the-stage-session-musician teenybopperdom of the rest of the trio’s catalog isn’t a gas. Pretty boy pop can break a heart as easily as high art. Hitting where hormones and camp intersect, teen pop, done right, i.e. without condescension or cynicism, is always your party where you can cry if you want to. Listening to Walker’s 1968 duet with Dusty Springfield (from her short-lived BBC variety show, It Must Be Dusty), complete with precious if knowing banter, of “Let It Be Me” is as good a metaphor for pop music as you can make up. The video lost, only the audio remains of these two pillars of sentimental art and artful sentiment, singing to each other out of sight. It’s like being just outside a dream and makes one damn the cheapskates at the BBC for erasing the tapes of Springfield and Walker’s respective tv shows in all their showbiz sweet hokum glory.
The Walker Brothers were pretty, pretty boys; cheekbones and paper drum sticks, and I love ‘em. I’ve never been traditionally pretty myself; never more than a four in the flyover states, but, in my youth, I was a solid coastal seven so I can get down with the grift. If, considering what a freak-scene triumph 1978’s Nite Flights, a pop sanctioned grift it ever was. In fact, while we’re here, pour one out for the Monkees’ recently departed Peter Tork, another gifted artist who made beautiful sounds from the confines of a garbage industry.
In the mid-sixties, before he was hailed as a genius, but no longer content to just be handsome, Walker himself saw Jacques Brel, the (elusive) Belgian chanteur and wanted to be that. So after leaving the Walker Brothers in 1967, a version of Brel with all the passion, existential dudgeon, and arthouse literacy, and minus all that sweat, is what he became. Brel partisans may critique Walker’s interpretations of “Jackie” and “My Death” as too arch or not arch enough, or just too… English, but Ohio’s black sheep boy simply took the other being that moved him and wore it like new skin. Only the most anti-clerical of Brel’s fans can begrudge a man’s will to be born again. There’s an air of affectation to Walker’s aural sunglasses in the rain, but what is art (or punk or birth of any kind) if not becoming what you previously were not.
I can’t speak to Scott Walker’s later work; Tilt, The Drift, the meat punching and drone collaborations and all that. I’m not proud of the fact that it’s only upon his death that I’m revisiting his last decades and finally hearing what so many heard before me. I don’t like being told what to do. Talk of wisdom as it applies to notions of artistic genius makes me want to run away and listen to Cro Mags exclusively. My partner, Zohra, always appreciated the later work more, especially the fretless basswork masterpiece of 1984’s Climate Of The Hunter, but we once found ourselves at a (quite fantastic otherwise) festival where there was a listening “party” for Walker’s 2014 album with Sunn O))) where the listeners were expected to face forward in a literal church and just… appreciate. This perceived (by me) scholastic veneration, this fucking piety felt such an anathema to Walker’s cool joy, and made it impossible to keep straight faces, let alone listen. In retrospect, neglecting Walker’s more “difficult” work is my loss. Played Tilt at the bar the other night and it bangs. Hardly any customers left at all.
People say Scott Walker was always himself like that’s a compliment. But I’ve known a few fully realized assholes who would be doing us all a favor by being literally anyone else. So let us praise as well the pose, the striving for reinvention that made Andy Warhol leave Pittsburgh and Scott Walker leave teen idoldom; the scary choices we make as poseurs and hipsters, to stop being what we were because what we were perhaps sucked. My authentic self is maybe pure nerd malice in bluejeans, but I don’t want to be that. So I invest in cigarettes and Scott Walker LPs.
If you view art and meaning as the opposite of what I’ve said; that art helps us discover or brings us fuller into what we actually already are, well, Walker would probably agree with you. When I think of these complications of the very idea of authenticity, of lyrics-as-diary being valued over storytelling (certainly some of Walker’s characters were not very nice!) and of those old tired notions of pop as fake and rock as real (as if those distinctions, if they even matter, are ever correctly applied), I think of baseball hats and Mac Demarco and I die just a little. The argument over authenticity is a narrative I wish us all to be excluded from. Walker’s deep wail is as authentic as the human voice can be and the lyrics of the first four solo albums certainly imply that people are at some point fucking, but the songs, drenched in strings and choral chimes as they are, are the angelic opposite of Iggy Pop’s dirt an ocean away. Scott Walker, at least in his ‘60s pop and troubador eras, is so far from proto-punk it’s barely qualifies as rock music at all, thank god. I wouldn’t want everything to sound like this music, but, twenty years a bartender and all too well acquainted with grit and the prosaic, I can’t imagine an existence absent it either. Give me the truth, but, please, temper it with new wave. Becoming more yourself or becoming someone else, it’s semantics. You are who you end up as. Scott Walker didn’t teach me it was OK to be weird. He taught me to be a phony, until the suit and aspiration eventually fit.