Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Purveyor of Thresholds: Why Scott Walker Is God

"See the man with the stage fright
Just standin' up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again."
                                  – from "Stage Fright" by Robbie Robertson
Author Barney Hoskyns has rightly observed that though The Band’s leader Robbie Robertson wrote this 1970 song ostensibly about Bob Dylan, who had stopped touring live in the late '60s, it could also have been about the shy Robertson himself, who had experienced stage fright the year before during The Band’s first live concert. Naturally it could also be about any emblematic singer who has experienced what Levon Helm called “the terror of performing” or any person who, as William Ruhlmann once put it, has discovered “the pitfalls of fortune and fame.” And as the song itself declared so openly, “Since that day he ain’t been the same,” largely as a result of the personal price he had to pay for being able to “sing like a bird.”

But given the year, 1970, and given Scott Walker’s own notoriously famous stage fright (which was known to be almost paralyzing), I’ve always felt that the song especially captured some the core dilemma eating away at Walker himself. Like Dylan, who rejected both the trappings and the demands of celebrity after flying too high and too fast in the '60s, not to mention mangling his motorcycle, Walker also withdrew from the public eye after his own Icarus-like trauma: the discouragement he felt after his first four post-Walker Brothers solo records failed to meet his own exacting (and probably unattainable) expectations.

By calling Walker a purveyor of thresholds, I suspect I may have identified the ongoing link in his long chain of career shifts, one that makes his strange evolution all the more like a detective story. Instead of The Maltese Falcon however, we’re searching for the “real” Scott Walker, hidden behind a vast array of performing disguises and blurred by his own frequent need for solitary refinement. Due to his ever-expanding anxiety and cynicism about being an “entertainer,” he was famous for retreating, at regular intervals, from the stage, the studio, the spotlight, and the industry itself. But these retreats were mostly strategic and have, I believe, more to do with his primary specialty as a singer-songwriter: he occupies a unique zone of perpetual motion and persistent change, and makes a fluidly mobile and psychologically peripatetic kind of poetry.

His mode of working requires him to alter his direction, shift his focus, pass through yet another threshold and move the goal line we thought we knew so well once he has reached it. He’s like a professional baseball player who hits home run after home run but always kicks the bag away from himself just as he’s reaching home plate. The more we listen to his wistful musical atmospheres over the years, the more we get the sense that he has to remain in between his past successes and his future challenges. This might be because, as we begin to explore his songs and their musical containers more deeply, we quickly see that it is the threshold experience that is the true subject of all his work, from 1966 right up to 2016 and beyond.

Whether it’s the threshold of a recently ended romance, as in “Make It Easy On Yourself,” “Love Her,” or “My Ship Is Coming In,” from his early phase, or that of the isolating displacement in “Farmer in The City” or “Clara” from his mature Tilt or Drift phase, he’s always in between. What makes his emotionally interstitial dwelling places so unique, of course, is the unusual fact that ten years might pass before he moves on to and through his next threshold. The records which result, however, are always well worth the wait, at least once you acquire a taste for what the dishes on his menu offer and for the strangely discomforting nourishment they provide.

Given how unusual his songs and musical material have become over the years, it might surprise some readers to hear about the trembling anticipation with which each new relic is greeted. When it was learned that he was involved in producing a new record after eleven years of silence, Dazed & Confused Magazine (the ideal title for a publication trying to follow his tracks) mounted an expedition to the outer reaches of the avant-garde to bring back a rare dispatch on Walker’s movements. Their editor, Rod Stanley, tried his best to get something out of the taciturn singer-songwriter, probably amazed that he had agreed to be interviewed by the media in the first place. In doing so, Stanley had a suitably cautious approach in mind. Wearing kid gloves might be an even better description:
For the last couple of decades, Scott Walker’s unsettling, experimental and occasionally downright disturbing music has drawn on such diverse narrative sources as Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin brother, the films of Ingmar Bergman, and the public execution of Mussolini’s lover. For one track on his 2006 masterpiece The Drift, his long-suffering percussionist was even made to pummel the side of a piece of pork to get just the disquieting, meaty thud that the composer could hear in his head.
It’s all a long, drawn-out and guttural cry from his beginnings. The enormously influential and respected Walker has long been mythologized as a reclusive enigma with a deep fear of live performance, although he insists that he really just likes his privacy in which to work.
When Stanley expressed pleasure at the rumour that Walker was working again on a new album, he was met with the artist’s usual polite but firm disdain. As he pressed him about the new material on The Drift, he naturally wanted to hear anything that could be shared about it. The artist: “If you’ll indulge me, I’d rather not discuss the new recording, as it is still ongoing. One lives in hope.” Not the most promising of interview openings ostensibly designed to promote a new record, but then again, this, after all, is the purveyor of thresholds he’s talking to, not the conveyor belt of records his label likely dreams about.

Stanley tried to maneuver to the making of the music itself, referencing the fact that his recording sessions were historically thought to be rather “emotionally intense.” The artist: “They can be. But they can also be deliriously intemperate. The only thing I require is that the musicians have a sense of humor. I mean life, and attempting to bring the work off, is hard enough.”

The Editor gingerly pointed out that he had not performed live for many years, but that recently in a concert at The Barbican, the singer did acknowledge the crowd’s applause from the sound desk, and he wondered if these performances went any way to repairing the “damage” he has spoken about regarding his feelings for performing. The artist: “Things were so primitive when I was performing. I simply could never achieve the results I was after. It was all quite traumatic for me as a young man. Things have changed dramatically. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll surprise myself and actually walk out on a stage again.”

Just who on earth is this enigmatic man? In many ways the answer resembles the text of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as well as the screen scenario of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but with Scott Walker playing both the roles of Willard and Kurtz at the same time. Rather than the more orthodox torch singers who pine for a lost love, his songs have always really been about one side of himself searching for the other: we’ve only been privileged passengers on board his sad ship sailing downriver.

Magnet Magazine was equally reverential when J. Edward Keyes broached the seminal subject of Walker’s return to releasing another new record: “After surviving pop stardom in the ‘60s, Scott Walker left the spotlight, disappeared and began practicing the dark art of deconstructing songs. With his first album in 11 years, the cult hero demonstrates how to reappear completely.”

For Keyes, and in fact for the rest of us in the business of thinking about music as art, when it comes to telling the Scott Walker story, it was important to keep an eye on what he called “the facts”: “Because Walker is a legend, and legends by their very definition exist in opposition to the truth. Keeping all the plot points in their proper proportion requires a firm and unswerving dedication to reality.”

He’s totally right, mostly because that reality often defies belief. As we know, the plot involves a dramatic and charismatic main character who almost accidentally (only a couple of months after arriving in England in ’65) outdistanced the popularity contest with both Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger for a time. The main character becomes a teen idol and heartthrob who has several nervous breakdowns, disappears for decades at a run, comes back occasionally to make an album, does an inordinate amount of drinking, meets strangers in bars who adore him and from whom he runs in panic, and influences the entire course of contemporary music from the shadows.

As Keyes quite rightly points out, “Without the proper measure of intellectual steadying, the whole thing could devolve into a prolonged sideshow of empty mythologizing.” The odd fact is, though, that unlike most myths, this particular mythology is also completely true and actual. Truth, as usual, is far stranger than fiction. True: the length of time, 11 years, since his album The Drift, was the same length of time between his last album Tilt (1995), and the last one before that, Climate of Hunter (1984). It’s almost as if he planned it that way, according to an arcane schedule, maybe utilizing what Brian Eno once referred to as “the clock of the long now.”

During that same historical period, of course, as Keyes reveled in reminding us, there had been three presidential elections, one impeachment, and five seasons of American Idol. In esoteric Walker-land, his next album, whatever it might be, was always going to be released “next year,” and as Walker himself puts it so candidly, if somewhat demurely: “Well I’m always foolishly optimistic. There’s really no excuse for how long it takes me to write anything, but, you know, here we are.” But where exactly are we? Foolishly optimistic, that phrase alone can raise howls of ironic chuckles from Walker acolytes worldwide, given the subject matter and themes of his decade-long self-imposed writing assignments.

“It’s just a big waiting game for me. It’s always the lyric – that’s the very devil. If I can get that right, that informs absolutely everything. And that’s the time consuming thing. I might work on three songs over a period of years, just figuring out how each piece will fit, how’s it’s going to sound, how it sings. In the end I just have to wait for it, and it’ll turn up. Somehow.” Naturally there’s never any adequate explanation of what getting it right might really mean. However, I love his sardonic description of any given piece: how it sings. He doesn’t sing it; it sings itself through him. There’s an alchemical key hidden there somewhere. But what door could it possibly open? The multiple doors containing the mobile Scott Walker thresholds, perhaps.

Keyes called his profile piece ten years ago “Exit Music,” which is especially and doubly ironic, since Walker never does actually exit, so to speak, and because his music itself is constantly, if secretly, about entering and exiting those beautifully designed thresholds over and over again. Another word for "threshold," of course, its actual origin, is "limen," derivative of "liminal" and "sub-liminal": a limit point of physiological or psychological response. As an adjective, it means situated at the sensory threshold and hence barely perceptible, therefore the absolute threshold is the lowest amount of sensation detectable by a sense organ. The ears, let’s say, or the brain.

There you have it: the reason why Scott Walker’s music is an absolute threshold. Not only are most of his meanings subliminal and experienced beyond or below the surface of our listening apparatus and the intellect we usually use assess what we call “music,” but his sounds are probably intended to be experienced physiologically. It’s the same way, really, that The Beatles' music was designed to be listened to, not with our heads but with our hearts (which is likely why much of it, even the earliest examples, still sounds like it was made tomorrow). So, if his music is subliminal in nature, surely that explains how and why we should use an appropriate if oblique strategy when we assess its creative arc over the years.

The recurring point in this essay, or its recursive nature, will be that his early avant-pop material – and for that matter even songs like “Another Tear Falls” (1966), “Walking in the Rain” (1967), “Plastic Palace People” (1968), “Big Louise” (1969), or “Shutout” (1978) – are also meant to be absorbed subliminally. Surrendered to, in other words. If you experiment with the act of surrender, in his hands you’ll be properly feted, emotionally speaking. Don’t stop to think about what you’re hearing, though; just let your ears do the thinking.

Now, this strategic approach I’m suggesting won’t hurt one little bit, even when you cross the Rubicon of the ultimate thresholds he offers you, the ones past Climate of Hunter and on into the veritable wildernesses of Tilt, The Drift, Bish Bosch and most recently Soused. Your ears will hold you in good stead, even if your mind starts to squirm ever so slightly (perhaps especially once you discover that on The Drift, a world-renowned percussionist was required by the score to pound with his fists that huge hanging side of pork to get the right “drum” sounds Walker was imagining . . . which he did marvelously, and which just happened to be the perfect sonic effect for that particular “song”).

There are, of course, different kinds of mind-squirming going on. After all, some people’s minds squirmed in 1965 when they heard the lilting and lush sentiments in his letting-go-of-your-mate tune “Love Her,” for The Walker Brothers (it did, after all, somewhat resemble Perry Como on mescaline); and again in 1969 when his fourth solo album release contained his romantic ode to the plague, “The Seventh Seal” (yes, inspired by the cheery chess-playing death figure in Bergman’s film of the same name); and naturally yet again when they heard 2006’s merry melody “Cossacks Are,” from The Drift. Once you get used to squirming, the rest is a walk in the park, though in the dark.

But while strolling along through his unmanicured gardens in the collective unconscious, it’s also useful to remember that no matter how wildly the weeds are overgrowing the footpath, if you listen with your body, all will be well. It’s also helpful to remember the proviso proffered by J. Edward Keyes, again in Magnet Magazine: “In addition to frustrating fans and flummoxing the press, another effect of these decades long delays is the portrayal of Scott Walker as a spooky, enigmatic recluse. The truth is a lot less romantic.”

In fact, even though he is plenty spooky and yes, a hermetic recluse, in addition to being incredibly erudite, he’s also a very funny guy. Assuming you appreciate the rarefied humour of Samuel Beckett and Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line of course. If those authors dropped by for tea and scones with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, you’d have a good sense of how the Walker party would rock on.

Even in his early days with his “brothers” band, which seems not only like another century away but also on another planet from today’s material (though only on the surface, I’ll be suggesting as we progress), they were far from the clones or doppelgängers of The Righteous Brothers they were often mistaken for. I maintain that Scott Engel was already firmly entrenched in his emotional architecture but that he chose to construct different buildings from the plans, as required by the tenor of the times.

In Keyes’s profile piece “Exit Music” he would appear to concur with my extravagant theory:
There’s something more sly and decadent about the Walkers’ wall of sound heartbreakers. Their 1966 triumph, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” reads like a blueprint for Pulp and The Divine Comedy, with Engel playing the role of dashing intellectual, instilling each song with romantic longing while giving interviews in which he praised the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. But the insane disparity between actual mortal teenagers and outsized icons began to manifest itself in ugly, awful ways.
My theory at this stage, perhaps not so extravagant after all, is that you don’t go from
singing melodies like “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” (which Walker’s chum at the time, Jonathan King, crooned in ’66 on the same episode of the pop show Ready Steady Go!) to compositions requiring a classical percussionist to beat up slabs of meat unless you already have that psychic mindset and are only pretending to be a pop star. In fact, Jonathan King outlined the peril facing his friend early on when he observed, “The problem was that Scott got bigger and bigger as a pop idol and he absolutely hated it. I rather enjoyed the celebrity, but Scott hated the fact that the adulation was simply (he thought) because he was a good looking guy and not really because he was a brilliant singer.” Which he was, and would prove to be on his own terms, fifty years later. "Better late than never" has never taken on such a poignant meaning as in the strange case of Scott Walker.

Naturally the crisis came to a head rather quickly once The Walker Brothers became momentarily bigger than The Beatles, a brief but alarming wave of scary acclaim, at which point Walker became more and more depressed and totally scared to death of going on stage, revealing a degree of stage fright that was staggering by anyone’s standards. Eventually he stopped turning up for gigs, or else turned up late and refused to go on, not unlike other shy geniuses such Syd Barrett or Peter Green, though for different reasons. Walker tried to escape by entering a monastery to study Gregorian chant, something no fan of his later music would be surprised by at all, but his fans tracked him down and unnerved the monks so much with their frenzy that they had to eject the poor frightened star.

It was at this dark stage that his friend King explained that Walker had tried several times to kill himself, once even being found (in August 1966) face down in his London flat with the windows closed and the gas on. He was carried past hordes of stunned teen-aged girls seeking an autograph, off to a hospital where he was unable to even conjecture on what had happened. As he attempted to clarify it, “Pressure wasn’t the only reason. Nobody has the right reasons. The truth is I don’t remember a thing.” A few months later, The Walker Brothers disbanded. Meanwhile, Scott Walker would stage the first of his many disappearing acts, relinquishing the stage, the spotlight, the business, the world itself, in order to recharge his creative battery.

The world, or at least the contemporary and commercial shape it has assumed, was definitely not enough for Walker. As troubled as he was, he was still also a consummate survivor and he took the necessary time off to reinvent himself as a solo artist on four remarkable records released between 1967 and 1969. It was the second of his four or five careers. After that, he withdrew once again, spending the '70s, as he puts it, drinking, and releasing a handful of records on auto-pilot. But once again, not only was his story not over, but it was just barely beginning.

Ironically, his incredible voice would be featured on a song called “Only Myself To Blame” from the soundtrack to the James Bond film The World is Not Enough, but the director, Michael Apted, found it too dark and gloomy for the end of the film, and it was never used. Soon enough, but not fast enough, Walker was reborn yet again. And as would soon become abundantly clear to all and sundry, it turns out he was really only pretending to be a pop star after all.

Well, all right then. If he isn’t a pop star and he never was a pop star, then exactly what is he? Apart from potentially being something without an actual name, he’s a poet of tortured romanticism, of course. (Think Arthur Rimbaud or Charles Baudelaire wearing sneakers and a baseball cap.) But he’s not the kind of poet who always needs to use words, since sometimes a groan, a moan, or even an atmospheric texture will do the trick. So will silence. Perhaps his most audacious trick of all. Say nothing. Do nothing. Be everywhere as a result. I’m not saying this is a contrived pretension on his part, only that it’s worked out rather well for him in the long run. Especially since he most likely thought there wouldn’t ever be a long run. Certainly not from the perspective of that London flat in 1966.

But we’re now a long way from that sad vantage point, even though sadness hasn’t left the picture one little bit; in fact it’s been engraved on the picture frame in gold. By 2016 he had achieved a rarefied cultural status (emphasis on the word "cult") and aesthetic stature afforded few musicians, pop or otherwise. Considering the fact that he didn’t want to be alive at all in 1966, the fact that he’s the emperor of his own conceptual kingdom in 2016 is no mean feat: to live for half a century after you wanted to die is indeed an impressive accomplishment. As is his rather remarkable transformation from the artist into The Artist.

Back in 2007, the year after this transformation took place when The Drift was being celebrated, and when an even more obscure composition for choreography was being puzzled over, Anthony Battaglia was coming to grips with the chameleon-like Walker phenomenon quite effectively for Pitchfork. “Industrial hums are not inherently dramatic or musical,” he ventured. “There are numerous ways to engender drama, most of them suggestive of intent or austere to the point of making the presence of 'art' unmistakable. Musicians can lean on what’s signified in their names (Iannis Xenakis) or the imagery on their album covers (graphs, power lines, nothing), or they can set industrial hums within surroundings that amplify their abstract nature (atmospheres, beats, more industrial hums). Another way to engender drama is to simply be Scott Walker.”

Battaglia went on to outline the creative strategy by which Walker has, since relaunching himself in 1995 with what he called his “comeback album,” Tilt, maintained a formidable presence in art-music circles. Predominantly he has accomplished this, against all odds considering his origins, by aligning himself with the aims of high modernism:
He’s assayed atonal sounds. He’s bedded down with formalism. He’s invested the process with gestures, such as making a rhythm track by punching a big slab of meat found hung on a hook in a butcher shop. Walker has banked lots of reasons to be taken seriously no matter the context. With a focus on classical music denuded in an avant-garde vein, Walker sounds attuned to old Alfred Hitchcock scores composed by Bernard Herrmann.
The composer in question has, of course, been doing this, to varying degrees, for half a century, and as Battaglia astutely pointed out, “It goes a long way to revealing the strengths of an artist who has established himself as a serious composer as well as a monumental presence—even when he’s not there to be heard.” Thus we bump into the crux of the Walker crusade: absence. It doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder; it makes the art grow bolder.

As Walker himself has observed, “I can’t speak for everyone, but the country (America) has definitely become more accepting of my offerings. I had a vacuous decade in the 80’s where I lost some traction, but I think it probably helped the work.” Only someone unique like Walker could either imagine that a decade of relative inaction might actually help their work, or even imagine referring to that work as his “offerings.” He has a downright medieval attunement to his own muse. And they are offerings, after all, whatever any potential audience may make of them over the years. And they were offerings, sometimes burnt offerings, even from the beginning.

His first four solo recordings, numerically titled almost as if they could have gone on forever (Scott 23, for instance, could have sounded especially heavy), are now regarded as certified pop masterpieces. Yet I still tend to identify them not only as avant-pop but also as the kind of existential lieder that would eventually pull him directly into full-fledged abstract sonic compositions. This elemental force was always already there in his work, hiding or hidden, behind his pretense of being a pop star, waiting to either emerge slowly or explode out suddenly. He chose to let it leak out at a glacial pace.

When I say "pretense," of course, I don’t at all mean it to be confused with "pretentious," but rather with the presentation of self within the circumstances that presented themselves to him, just as they do with all of us, to some degree or another. Given his ambivalence about containing his “offerings” in popular formats, it was his first major turning point back in the late '60s to encounter the work of Jacques Brel. One of my favorite descriptions of Brel’s oeuvre lilts along like this: “Saucy, scabrous and surprisingly existential, Brel turned life inside out, scraping off layers of myth and folklore to uncover the ugly reality underneath.”

His music, then, took on the shape and texture of what Walker called “a merger of Franz Kafka and Gil Evans.” And Keyes hits the hammer right on the head when he points out, “The grand experiment crested with 1969’s Scott 4, Walker’s best work of that decade and the first album written entirely by him. It remains a fascinating exercise in deconstruction, a snapshot of the exact moment where the singer begins to peel away from the song. There’s a tangible element of subversion in the way he sings, pushing against the sonic chiaroscuro with pointed questions about the existence of God and the rationale of war. Taken as a whole, the album sounds like a message from another dimension.”

One of the themes here is the contention that it was indeed a message from another dimension, just not one separate from us in space, but rather a dimension linked to us by time. I contend that such material was actually transmitted from the future of Scott Walker -- in other words, from the present phase we and he have been living in since the mid-'80s when he turned the ultimate corner and began to surrender totally to the grandeur of the existential torch songs that had always been lurking inside him.

Whatever you might call that Scott 4 record, though, it tanked dismally, a sales disaster for the artist and his label, not even making it to the very bottom of the pop charts. Naturally it didn’t, since it wasn’t really pop but rather the future of pop which would eventually be explored by bands such as Japan, Dead Can Dance, or The Eurythmics, among many others. Walker explains, "The record company started clamping down on me. They only wanted me to record middle of the road dross, and my manager said to just do it, and after a while we’ll be able to record originals again. Of course, that never happened.”

With songs like “The Electrician,” from the ill-fated 1978 reunion release by The Walker Brothers after three disparate albums, he gave notice in a powerful way that was hard for his befuddled bandmates or the label to ignore. This, they realized, was what had been lurking inside of Scott all along; it’s why we thought he was so strange. And it scares the hell out of us.

Naturally, the reunion evaporated only a couple of months after the release of Nite Flights, and, as Keyes has observed, “It was at this point that Walker assumed what has become his most identifiable characteristic: his penchant for disappearing.”

Since his resurrection with Climate of Hunter in 1984, and for the thirty years and six or so brilliant albums since then, I think it’s fair to say that now he’s able to record his originals again. But only because the world has finally caught up to him. The world which is never enough.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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