There are many fine obituaries of the great Scott Walker, which will provide details of his long, fascinating and productive life. This does not claim to be one of those.
Oh! 20th century!
You are the century of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the century of Howl
Drs Oppenheimer and Mengele, Drs Debakey and Goebbels
The genius of Leni Riefenstahl, the horror of Leni Riefenstahl
Moe, Larry and Curly, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner
Oh! 20th century, you slapstick bitch,
Romanovs dead in a Siberian cellar
Diana dead in a tunnel in Paris
Juden Aus! on a Berlin shop window
Hang In There Kitty nailed to the wall of a finished suburban basement.
Oh! 20th century, you atomic bitch
Big Joe Turner, Big Joe Stalin, Little Joe McCarthy,
Officer Joe Bolton on WPIX
Officer Bull Connor holding the leash of an attack dog
Birth of a Nation and Wings of Desire
The sound of Dresden’s fires, the sound of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band
The sound of Supersized Fries, the sound of Arbeit Macht Frei
We! We: We grew up in awe of the spires of the Emerald City, and grew old watching the towers tumble. We! We: We grinned and wanted to ride on a Double Decker London Bus, and wept at the blood on the busses on 7/7.
The truth, the truth, the truth, the truth was the sound of Scott Walker, only he made this sound, only he could climb into a recording studio and summon the last century.
Man, Noel Scott Engel, you could have been Dean Reed or Dean Moriarty (maybe you were a little of both?). You could have been some holy unholy Four Season or holy Ramone. You could have been, easily, Anthony Newley or Glenn Branca. But you chose to be Scott Walker, the baritone at the end of the Universe, the baritone who described a century as no other singer did.
Gunther Grass (whose drummer Oskar was perhaps the musician closest in spirit to Walker) gave the 20th century a name: Barbaric, Mystical and Bored. These three words describe Walker, at every stage of his career, neatly and beautifully, and with accuracy and mystery. They also describe each one of his most magical and memorable works, too. “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (barbaric, mystical, and bored). Scott 2 (barbaric, mystical, bored). Scott 4 (barbaric, mystical, and bored). Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel (true, a compilation, but sometimes you have to go there) (barbaric, mystical, and bored). Bish Bosch (barbaric, mystical, and bored). The Drift (barbaric, mystical, and bored). His songs from the final Walker Brothers’ album, Nite Flights (barbaric, mystical, and bored). And then, the greatest album of the 21st century so far, Soused, so barbaric, so mystical, so bored.
Certainly there were musicians (I mean pop stars) who very occasionally scratched the same pale puppy stomach, the puppy of life death, the barbaric, mystical and bored Mahakala, who wrapped his.her arms around both Erich Honecker and Brian Eno, Botha and Mandela, Riefenstahl and Riefenstahl, Leonard Cohen and Roy Cohn. PiL on Metal Box/Second Edition and Flowers of Romance possibly came closest, and I will note some others shortly. But only Scott Walker, Mahakala’s chosen baritone, went to this place, where the wrathful form of the Buddha invented new tunings, and stayed there, and explored there, and made art there, and explored further. And Scott Walker is the sound of that exploration, especially the sound of The Drift, Bish Bosch, and Soused (but also, true, it’s on “The Electrician,” “Big Louise,” “It’s Raining Today,” and many others). We salute other truth-seekers, Louis Armstrong and La Monte Young and Nick Drake and Tim Buckley and Ochs and Patti. But only one artist stayed in the bosom of the truth for life, leased with an option to buy and then bought the bosom of the truth. No one sucked the red tit of the truth longer or harder than Scott Walker.
Here are some words, not mine, that describe that sound, that Scott Walker sound: “(The Buddha) thought that by means of a wrathful form he would be able to subdue the degenerate beings of this Age of Darkness. And seeing many beings who practiced Dharma and yet were unable to escape from the Bardo realms, he thought that by a wrathful form he could also protect them from the Bardo. And he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy, experiencing only suffering, and that by a wrathful form he could provide them with an antidote to their suffering, so that their needs could be met by their simply making the wish.”
Maaaan if that’s not a description of Walker, especially the trilogy Walker created in the last ten years of his working life – The Drift, Bish Bosch and Soused — I don’t know what is. His last three albums reflect the cancer cures and the cancer causes, the Berlin Airlift and the Enola Gay. Wingless arms of radio wrapping the earth, Wingless talons of ether warping the earth.
There are people who make art because they have no choice.
There are people who name their fear art.
There are people who name their dreams art.
There are people who name their nightmares art.
There are people who see the horrors of the 20th century and turn it into art.
Their name is Scott Walker.
There is a kind of fear that is mostly beyond description
There is a kind of love that is mostly beyond description
There is a kind of hope that is mostly beyond description
There is a kind of awareness that is mostly beyond description
This was the art music of Scott Walker.
This century of terror, and poetry, and poetry about terror — this was both the canvas of Scott Walker and the story painted on the canvas by Scott Walker.
Scott Walker considered pop, art, and the heart one object. Scott Walker lanced pop, art, and the heart with one arrow. Scott Walker was the greatest pop singer of his time, and the greatest pop artist of his time (I do not say this lightly). His 2013 collaboration with Sunn O))), Soused, is the greatest album of this century. It is the only album of this century that equals the shock and achievement of Pet Sounds, Who’s Next, or the first Ramones album (I do not say this lightly.) Scott Walker considered the past a foreign country he was not interested in visiting again — not when there were unmapped lands to explore.
He is as irreplaceable as any artist in pop history.
Irreplaceable? Really, irreplaceable? Why?
Others aspired to be him, the artists’ artist. And those pretenders, sometimes they scratched genius and had the natural red lips of the truth, or sometimes they just artfully applied the lipstick of truth to mammon’s thin lips. But they begged to be let into Scott Walker’s confessional, because he always told the truth, even when it was a shrug to say, “What is truth?”
Some very famous people traced a chalk outline around Scott Walker’s shadow and made this chalk outline their identity: Bowie, Bono, Yorke and his pretentious pretenders, that’s just a start. But they would not stay in that place, because – oh, this is a truth – only those who were willing to not come back could fully inhabit Scott Walker’s outerlands/innerlands. That’s why Bowie’s most truly Walker-esque album – Blackstar – could only be made when he knew he was not coming back.
You say Scott Walker was The Greatest? Why?
This was because of a fearlessness, the willingness to translate the clay of the last century and the coming doom of the next one, full of mirror shards, barbed wire, microchips and poison gas, loved and loveless, unlovable and blind with love, into a language that had no borders but the imagination. Generally, this place is the land of authors and artists, but not musicians. Musicians sometimes briefly visit these strange places – we recall Metal Machine Music, or McCartney’s Fireman, and, of course, Neil’s Arc – but these men, sages they may be, only visited these lands, they did not choose to stay there and try to find shambhala.
And this is important: It was wrong to call him experimental, and I have seen so many obituaries over the last few days refer to his work as “experimental.” But he wasn’t experimental. An “experiment” implies curiosity without joy. It implies dilettante-ism: bloody Radiohead, with their collections of howls and birdcalls masquerading as genius, do “experimental” rock. I hate the fucking word “experimental” when applied to Walker. Like Ginsberg, Rothko, Richard Gerstl (whose self portrait haunts me and speaks to me in the same way that Walker’s music does), Scott Walker did not “experiment.” Scott Walker allowed his heart and his bile and his hopes and his fears and his frustration and his experience to guide him to pick up this instrument, make this gesture, scratch that itch. That’s not an experiment, that’s a compulsion, the artists’ compulsion. He made terrible, beautiful things out of the skin of his heart.
I searched (and found) words that I had used in the past to try to describe Walker’s post-1985 work — Climate of the Hunter (1985), Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), Bish Bosch (2012), and Soused (2013). I loved some of these words. Then I deleted them, because I thought the following said it best, and especially described his masterpiece, Soused.
From the book of Revelation:
“And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed. And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon , and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise. And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!”
That, friends, is the sound of Soused. Soused is the sound of the waters turned to Wormwood. And so very, very much of Scott Walker’s work, for fifty years beforehand, foreshadowed Soused.
Only one recording artist in history had the courage to tell that story, and tell it with the effortlessness and impact of an earthquake. And it sounds like an earthquake, it sounds like Dresden fires and towers collapsing, it sounds like the gnash of flesh and steel in a Paris tunnel or a Polish death camp, it sounds like computers that link us and chain us, the sound of the guitar that bored and elated us, the sound of the atom that changed time and held time hostage.