Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Curious Case of Scott Walker

     My dear wife and I saw the Scott Walker documentary 30 Century Man recently, and it left me befuddled and bemused.  Many of you may be familiar with the Walker Brothers, thanks to oldies radio (I heard the song included below the other day whilst perusing the used clothing and records at Goodwill).  They weren't brothers, and none of them were named Walker.  But that was swinging London in the '60s, I guess.  Scott was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, and found pretty major success and fame in England as part of the aforementioned group.  Scott was clearly the auteur, the artistic one, and couldn't stand the strictures of pretty-boy pop stardom for long.  Before you could say "Jaques Brel", he was off on his own, recording album after album with only his first name and a number as the title.  Pretentious?  You betcha.  Here's a sample song title, from Scott 4: "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime"). And dig these lyrics from "It's Raining Today", off of Scott 3: "It's raining today/And I watch the cellophane streets/No hang-ups for me".  It's like the Carpenters for denizens of the Left Bank.
     The Walker Brothers eventually reunited and put out a few albums in the latter half of the Seventies; one of them is called Nite Flights (David Bowie, one of the famous or semi-famous Scott fans featured in the documentary, included a song entitled "African Night Flight" on his album Lodger, which I suspect is a tribute).  The stuff from Nite Flights that they put in the doc sounded pretty good to me, but the album is out of print and prohibitively expensive so I probably won't own it anytime soon (unless I happen to stumble upon it in the crazy cat lady's store).   In the last twenty-five years or so Scott has only recorded sporadically--he's the Thomas Pynchon of pop, occasionally surfacing to lob another musical missive at a largely unresponsive public (which doesn't seem to bother him very much).
     I was struck by a few thoughts while watching 30 Century Man: it's probably not a very good idea to have people listen to music and film them while they're doing it (does anyone really want to watch Radiohead listen to the music of Scott Walker? Not me!); a side of beef makes an intriguing visual statement in the recording studio, but it's not the best percussion instrument (take a listen to "Jolson and Jones", from the 2006 album The Drift, and you be the judge); and is it possible to get around that vibrato of his?  It's pretty off-putting to me, disturbingly so.   "Jolson and Jones" is nightmarish, there's no other word for it.  (It also features the braying of a donkey).  It's like one of the people featured in the documentary said--he finds a chord, and then finds the dischord.  (You gotta love the line "As the grossness of spring lolls its head against the window", though).  This is music for a bad, bad trip--a far cry from the perfect pop 
of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", which I prefer. I know he's considered to be a brilliant artiste by some, but still.  He comes across as a thoughtful, intense guy in the film, and his music is definitely unusual, but I find it borderline unlistenable, and therein lies a problem--it all but screams, "Listen to this!  This is difficult, brilliant music, and you should listen to it simply for that reason!"  It's kind of hard to believe these two songs were done by the same person.  Maybe it's persons.

1 comment:

Ian Tanner said...

If you want to hear the stuff off Nite Flights, I can save you the expense of buying the album. I can email you the tracks, or suggest purchasing an excellent box set. I honestly forget the name of the box set (!!), but it's on Amazon, and it's 5 discs. It's a great cross-section of his career, and contains the 4 songs he wrote for Nite Flights.
I bought the NF album last year, and it really DID cost a lot of money... and other than Scott's songs, it's unlistenable crap.

Thanks for writing your Blog on Scott.