PRINT Summer 2007


Scott Walker

LAST YEAR IN VISUAL ART could have been a good one for Scott Walker. The atmosphere in his songs would, superficially at least, have been appropriate for the various melancholy biennials in New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. The Francesca Woodman installation in the former Jewish girls’ school at the Berlin Biennial might have been inspired by Walker’s music: yawning abysses, multiple light sources, peeling wall paint, and disappearing bodies. Then there were all the debates about “romantic conceptualism,” and the ongoing and seemingly never-ending rediscovery of Yves Klein and Bas Jan Ader, both artists who thematized the idea of falling. Walker’s songwriting aesthetic may be seen as sharing common ground, his songs, too, enacting a long-drawn-out fall—from the securities of conventional musical forms, as well as from the securities of subjective existence—though it is a fall often broken before its end by the conventions, both musical and emotional, of Romanticism.

Now and again Walker has tried to address the political condition of the world, but only where some personal fates and histories from the sphere of politics resonated with his poetic universe. Eastern European evildoers especially seem to hit a nerve—Stalin, Miloševic, and the like. Walker’s biographer, Lewis Williams, describes the songwriter’s politics as “humanitarian” rather than “sloganeering,” but what this often means—as in “The Old Man’s Back Again” (1969), Walker’s outstanding song about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which takes the perspective of a confused Soviet soldier under orders to attack—is that Walker’s politics is not, in fact, political at all. Politics as such, he may think, brings too many familiar concepts into an obdurately unfamiliar world. Analysis is, at any rate, too grounded for his taste. The individual words in his lyrics often don’t connect in any conventional sense; instead—as Walker says—they are “springboards” that allow you to get from one place to another.

Springboards and abysses provide the very finest material for the construction of a Künstlerlegende of the type described by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in their 1933 classic, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist. The artistic legends in Kris and Kurz’s book were created by biographers, critics, and the like; most pop legends, by contrast, are self-made. Walker’s own take on his artistic persona is evident in his songs, with their homages to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Genet and their evocations of physical violence and primal distress, but his legend is one of involuntary periods of silence, of losing his first audience and never finding another, of the clash of avant-garde ambitions with the world of pop music, and of the soul of Xenakis trapped in a boy-group body. This legend was surely not willed, let alone deliberately constructed, by Walker himself—which makes it all the more powerful.

Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006) is a return to the old model, however: As it begins, a voice-over outlines the classical myth of Orpheus, set to images of a statue; we then hear a fragment of Walker’s 1967 song “Orpheus.” This was one of the first songs that the star of the boy group the Walker Brothers—then known as Scott Engel—wrote for the band, and it helped lay the foundations of his self-invention as a singer-songwriter after the teenage fame he had won with the trio of singers, who had moved two years previously from California to London, where, with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (1966), they had successfully introduced a brilliantly polished and ambivalent ice-cream-parlor tristesse into the sexualized, upbeat atmosphere of mid-’60s pop.

The story of Orpheus is always the most proximate myth for pop musicians. On the one hand, he is the artist who has truly lived what he sings; on the other, he is the artist who went down, as far away as possible, and returned. Orpheus invented the comeback. In Walker’s “Orpheus,” however, the underworld was the frivolity and so-called sexual liberation of the ’60s, in which he already recognized the bittersweet melancholy that would find its clearest social expression in the swinger clubs of the following decade.

With his extremely eccentric singing style—characterized by extremes of pitch, sharp transitions, and flamboyant vibratos—Walker contributed to the idea that highly pronounced individuality was the only permissible legitimation for singer-songwriters to reject the band format and tell only of themselves: Around the same time, Tim Buckley, Van Dyke Parks, Roy Harper, David Ackles, and Biff Rose similarly explored uncharted territory in their solo careers. Only by around 1970 had the singer-songwriter became a standardized Californian model, in the détente that followed the cultural revolution of the late ’60s. By that time Walker had already made four successively more idiosyncratic solo albums, which, taken together, make up his first strong artistic statement, which was followed by the first long period of critical and public neglect—caused by the usual problems eccentric musicians face with the narrow-mindedness of their audiences, of their record companies, and of the culture industry in general.

Walker may be a man of pathos, given to oversize feelings and aware of the impossibility of expressing them, but he has always taken the details in his songs from the real world, sometimes making very accurate observations about contemporary social reality in the process. We do not find out anything about Walker’s view of the world or what drives him in Kijak’s film, however. What we are dealing with here is a fan dedicated to presenting his hero as a visionary genius. When there is something resembling interpretation, it is almost always about the process of creating a masterpiece. So we see footage of enormous slabs of meat and sheets of plywood being used as percussion instruments, and find out what tricks Walker used to force a string orchestra to sound like a horde of bombers. But the distance necessary for any critical assessment that goes beyond hagiography is avoided at all costs.

While no mere mortals get to discuss Walker, a host of illustrious musicians talk at length about their relationships to his work. Among them is a very cheerful David Bowie—the film’s executive producer, who looks like the fresh-faced owner of a mini-golf course at a British seaside resort—and a few stars from the past decade such as Alison Goldfrapp and Jarvis Cocker (who do little to contribute to the investigative endeavor). Damon Albarn of Blur proposes, not unreasonably, that Walker’s “adopted Englishness” is the key to his generation’s fascination with the songwriter. Johnny Marr of the Smiths, who has matured into a thoughtful social historian, is interviewed in what looks like a pub—a fitting place for his ruminations. I should also mention Cathal Coughlan, formerly half of the excellent band Microdisney, who comes across as intelligent, and Gavin Friday, formerly a Virgin Prune and one of the musicians who ensured that Walker was recognized by the New Wave generation as the path-breaker for their discovery of a glorious infinity of artistic passions and illicit paradises. (Julian Cope, who did the most to bring about Walker’s comeback, with the 1981 compilation album Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, did not want to participate in the film.)

Marc Almond touches upon a crucial point—namely, how much Walker shared the attitudes of Kitchen Sink Realism: the chasms and pitfalls on all sides, the sense of being deeply disturbed, thrown for a loop. It’s not that John Osborne’s plays or the social-realist black-and-white films of early and mid-’60s Britain directly inspired Walker, but that this was the world he was looking for when he arrived in London, a world he knew from television. For a while, the colorful hubbub of Swinging London obstructed his view, but Walker realized that he needed only to take a few steps away from the scene to find his beloved black-and-white world: bleakness, poetic dereliction, housing projects, bad weather. The irony of such a situation, in which a grim and depressing social reality was the almost cherished fulfillment of the promises of television, is perhaps something like the formula for Walker’s art as a whole. His music is not in fact about estrangement at all, but about all-too-familiar aspects of the world and its horrors.

Insightful and illuminating comments such as Almond’s are rare in this film. The most beautiful scenes are perhaps those featuring Walker’s acquaintances from the older generation, such as the improv artist and composer Evan Parker, or Walker’s musical mentors Peter Olliff and Angela Morley. Old-timers from a disappearing world—musical arrangers, orchestra leaders, and the like—describe working with Walker and attest to his great talent. When these people speak it gives the documentary more atmosphere than is achieved by all the talking heads of contemporary pop. Indeed, it is certainly a mystery why someone aiming to canonize Walker would solicit an opinion from Sting—a musician whose songs are good for nothing, and who of course utters exactly the banalities about darkness and existentialism that one would expect of him.

As this well-intentioned, often informative film conscientiously works through documents of a life’s work, another problem soon becomes apparent. When we hear Walker’s early songs, the camera roves circuitously over old press photos, lingering on printed lyrics, covers, and entrance tickets before scooting back to newspaper reports, then pausing over a poster of Walker, from whence it zooms into a top-forty chart or a clipping from New Musical Express. When Walker’s more erratic compositions start playing, the camera dances through towers of typography, made from Walker’s lyrics, which float toward us in three dimensions. It is a painfully misguided attempt to make sound and image correspond (since music is, in a sense, continually moving, the images must move incessantly, too). Elsewhere, there are grainy black-and-white images, layered and interwoven; nature photographs bringing to mind both Anton Corbijn and ECM record covers; symbols, tools, and objects; and textured surfaces that recall the typically slick handmade look of the 4AD label’s covers, like the one for Walker’s most recent album, The Drift (2006). In other sequences, Andrei Tarkovsky is pimped up to the speed of MTV, Windows Media Player visualizations are wheeled out, and someone was evidently even sweet enough to find a copy of the Luzerner Zeitung mentioned in one song.

That said, however, Walker himself does appear on the screen regularly, in excerpts from two recent interviews for this film. He comes across as reserved, interested only in discussing his work—an unpretentious technician of his specialized art, ready to explain anything that pertains to its production. He is silent about almost everything else. He looks at the same time very alive and deeply troubled, a bit like a recently shorn animal. Or like someone whose reward for having escaped from pop music and its celebrity culture was, in fact, a punishment: his very own, far more resolutely obsessive fans.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a Berlin-based cultural critic and professor at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.