Scott Walker, The Only One Left Alive

by Norman Ball

24 March 2013

 

Today’s Scott Walker has become all about drawing the curtain down.

Today’s Scott Walker has become all about drawing the curtain down. The Holy Grail he seeks is the hermetic seal. His fear of self-dilution is a strangulation device that refuses to allow even his beautiful voice a proper voice anymore. He is caught up in an onanistic self-embrace. Was the young Scottie Engel bedeviled by a suffocating stage mom, one wonders, not unlike poor Judy Garland? Sadder still, Walker is winning back his public persona with each successive abyss, err, album, which means we’re losing Walker to Walker. Soon, as one of his work chums pointed out, there will be nothing left to release. His audience will evaporate (with the possible exception of Jarvis ‘I’m a genius too’ Cocker who clearly harbors his own motives for fanning the avant-garde flames.) To all this, Scott may one day soon collapse blissfully into his own rapt embrace. Hell, he’s been singing to crowds since he was a kid. Perhaps he’s earned the right to crowd all crowds out and be left to his sonic experimentations, fellow lost travelers welcome.

In my hurry to register official disappointment with Bish Bosch did I fail to mention Walker is a genius? Certainly he’s flashed the right stuff in moments past, genius being an intermittent condition at best. But all the swirling Scott-is-god talk strikes me at this moment as an empty appellation reflecting people’s fundamental sense of failure and consternation at not being able to connect with Bish Bosch. ‘Genius’ is the most laudatory term they have in their market basket of responses. Apparently, and for reasons other than the music, they seem convinced ‘something is there’, though they are unable for all the world to lay their mind’s ear on it. Thus they applaud out of mystified yet dutiful respect, burying their confusion in superlatives while holding their ears. The resultant critical response is an abdication where grade inflation abounds:

“Like the movie director David Lynch, Walker is an artist that people—fans and non-fans—seem bent on “getting”, as though there was anything to “get” in the first place. Let’s pretend there isn’t.”
—Mike Powell, Pitchfork (8/10 stars)

“…it’s music that clearly requires a lot of time and effort to fully unpick, while defying you to play it often enough to actually do that. For a lot of listeners, including his fans, that would make Bish Bosch a pretentious failure: who wants to buy an album you can hardly bear to listen to?”
—Alexis Petridis, The Guardian (4/5 stars)

“…maybe he’s still a cultural vegetable, just a good name to drop before you get signed to Sub Pop, even if you never actually listen to the records.”—Joe Gross, Spin (8/10 stars)

Once upon a time before modern music sought the reassuring shadows of elder gods, Walker’s work arrived to genuine acclaim. The incomparably insightful David Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame beat me to the explicatory punch recently with an extended reflection on Scott Walker’s 1978 song “The Electrician” (ostensibly released as the Walker Brothers’ last official single). Let’s say I’m glad my shock and awe is shared over this piece of music as it remains for me, even after all these years, perhaps the most evocative and disturbing song the ‘pop genre’ has ever produced.

The flamenco interlude is an ebbing siesta-daydream chained to the rack of programmatic, puritanical soul-destruction. Lorca’s blue guitar (a loaner from Stevens) is no match for all that sustained voltage. The last few bars of the song have the naked light-bulb in the ceiling relinquishing its 60-watt juice for the Larger Cause. Even more ominous, that god-awful throbbing sound is the Spiritus Sanctus bleeding out beneath the onslaught of state-of-the-art terror techniques employed by some Josef Mengele wannabe under Henry’s Kissinger’s careful tutelage. Yes, The Marathon Man is there too. You can practically smell cindered soul-content and burnt flesh wafting in amidst the torturer’s mantric recitation. The clash of cultures gets weirder still. Both victim and perpetrator are enjoying the moment in some sort of sick-assed, trans-hemispheric BDSM symbiosis. Walker’s music is awash in power imbalances—a toppled Mussolini, galloping Cossacks, lashed eyes, nails applied to faces—the more extreme the imbalance, the better it seems to fulfill Scott’s power-drenched vision.

Please, this is far from a 911 apologia. Nonetheless Walker is choreographing an undeniable karmic arc, a decades-long power exchange, uncoiling between ‘70s-era, third-world torture victims at the hands of first-world imperialists and third-world terror perpetrators striking back at first-world citadels near the outset of the new century. This bipolar world is delineated further by Elvis and his non-surviving twin brother Jesse (the former’s black cocaine shadow-form) rendezvousing climactically at the Twin Towers 911 event. We suspect Jesse long ago lost his soul in a CIA-funded, Pinochet black iron prison. His tormented ghost now returns with an unholy vengeance—jailhouse rock indeed. (See my May 2011 Skope magazine article on the Walker documentary 30 Century Man and lost-twin dynamics.) This is Walker’s sonic boomerang. Spaced by nearly thirty years, he sound-scapes the global feedback loop of cultural domination, submission and retributive recoil. In the latter phase bipolarity collapses in upon itself. Violence and inhumanity form a ubiquitous atmosphere as both hemispheres literally bleed together. Audience perishes in the collapsed towers, leaving Elvis to mutter inconsolably to himself on the blank prairie:

“I’m the only one
Left alive.
I’m the only one
Left alive.”
—from “Jesse”

So, “The Electrician” finds its seedy apotheosis in 2006’s “Jesse” on The Drift. I’m with Scott on much of The Drift. God help us, we need more of this. He loses me though on Bish Bosch’s dwarf star SDSS14+13B which I’m told is the coldest sub-stellar body yet discovered in some galaxy far, far away. Thank you for that. Now bring me the cattle prod.

Admittedly, I’m drifting into the realm of what literary critic Harold Bloom would call a ‘strong reading’ of Walker’s ‘text’. Yet I believe his formidable art demands an equally formidable response. Oscar Wilde called criticism, “the only civilized form of autobiography.” There is, as Wilde suggested, no real division between art and criticism. One soul deserves another.

Speaking of souls, poetic voice (artistic soul to some) is a manifold admixture of native gift, honed skill, indelible spirit, gritty experience, sound judgment, febrile imagination and tabasco sauce. Neurosis can creep in and alter this delicate stew. As one astute critic commented of poet Philip Larkin, what has generally been attributed to his morose voice almost certainly contained a strand of clinical depression. This would be a discordant strand of course—something that took him further from himself, even as it is no doubt (mis)read by many as greater fealty, or convergence upon an inner core. Presumably, the extent of an individual’s pathology dictates the distance false coordinates loom from ‘true dead center’. Mind you, I’m not diagnosing poor Scott here—but merely suggesting how [mood disorders and] psychological tics can disfigure or occlude ‘indigenous’ artistic voice.

In a similar vein, I wish to gently chide Walker (as I just know he’s waiting for me to weigh in) by saying that, with Bish Bosch, he has permitted the nooks and crannies of his psychological apparatus (i.e. his taciturn, reclusive tendencies) to commandeer his poetic center. There is an unshakable interpersonal and social component to art where the artist must endeavor to reach us as we will not do all the reaching on our own. Every relationship is hard work. Self-absorption is a failed tactic, in art no less than in love. In short, Walker is succeeding, devilishly well, at keeping himself to himself. Each release finds him more withheld to the point where the solipsism on Bish Bosch becomes deafening. We’re still here Scott, some of us anyway, and we are not all store-room dummies. Now, while you still have the chops (and you do), can you please put your back into a fucking song?

Music, and the watery-flat MP3s it wafts in on these days, is no less a consumable than are hot dogs; whereas show business is still an old-school shrew that hangs on through all manner of calamity and stricken-auteur-pose. In the Show Business for Dummies book, there are no Scott Walker references. Judy and Mickey however have their very own chapters. So yes, we’re light years from Kansas, land of unabashed show-biz lights and colors. Walker’s not to blame for the culture slippage. He’s just one of many artists, a chronicler, who elects to provide a narrowing window where we might still press our noses against the studio glass and imagine music being produced about something and for someone.

If Scott Walker is, as his art seems to imply, the only one left alive, then the social dimension of creativity is headed for a more reclusive or voyeuristic phase. In fairness, the very notion of audience has become discredited or is now thought to consist of a dullard home-crowd hardly worth pitching to anymore. However this new frontier of music (should we even call it that) with neither antecedent nor destination beyond itself, makes of Scott a dull Omega Man indeed, at least to these old-school ears. Where there once was an abundance of showing (and the chaste belief in another’s active engagement), there is now only watching a master invoke insider-art from a roped-off distance. In the somnolent words of the late David Foster Wallace, are you immensely pleased.

Not I, Mr. Wallace. But I’m getting old and besides, I have a bench to warm.

Topics: scott walker
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