This is really going somewhere.
— Brian Eno
“I’m not a get-up-and-sing-a-song singer,” says Scott Walker. You might call this an understatement. You might also call it devastating. In answering interviewer Muriel Gray, Walker’s repetition of her own phrasing makes clear how little she understands what she’s asking about (and the interview is thus rather notorious). It also indicates why he walked away from pop music.
This is the question that’s repeatedly asked of Walker, as well as the question that is approximately answered in Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, premiering 10 May as part of Sundance Channel’s Doc Day. Once famous as a member of the chart-topping Walker Brothers (none actually siblings or named Walker), Walker has since become better known among musicians than mere mortals. Stephen Kijak’s film is less a conventional documentary than an exploration of Walker’s transformation, from Ohio-born boy band member to Garboesque legend. That’s not to say the film explains exactly how he got from there to here, or whether it matters, but it does poke and probe at some very basic concepts of music and language, following Walker’s lead into abstraction and a frankly compelling sort of indefinition.
That’s not to say the film is wholly abstract or indefinite: it features talking heads and old footage, as well as a lengthy talk with the reclusive Walker. But it also honors the spirit of his experiments, playing bits of his music and pondering his methods, changing up the usual linear structure with split screens and some frankly funny irony. Lulu initiates the innuendo with her declaration: “Let’s be honest: I had the biggest crush on him.” As she explains — as if she needs to — the film shows fan-mag-style images of the strikingly pretty Walker. “The voice resonates,” Lulu says, “but he was so gorgeous.” Her crush on young man formerly known as Noel Scott Engel, she says, was much like that of other 16-year-old girls, though she endured the exquisite agony of touring with the Walker Brothers, which meant she also endured the occasional pat on the head. With this brief interview, the film summarily deconstructs the sexual yearning — and consuming frenzy — inspired by pop bands as we know them, and refocuses attention on Walker’s on-and-off-again efforts to elude such inspiration.
As Walker describes it, such efforts were less consciously rebellious than a function of his own vision. (Richard Hawley suggests, “He was kind of delving into the dark psyche of man.”) Walker had better — or at least very different — things to do than rehearse the career patterns of so many pop singers. His rich baritone helped to make his resistance somewhat mysterious, at least in the annals of pop music, but his voice was and is exponentially more complex than even its unusual sound. Seeking a way to distill music — and his voice — to essentials, to break down what it means to make, present, and hear a song, Walker retreated from his success and sought instead to develop a whole other kind of art.
He had a jumpstart on this with the Walker Brothers, whose popularity was rooted in England. Johnny Marr remembers the band’s sound and inclination as distinctly British, despite their American backgrounds. “It was as much about England in the ’60s as was “Day Tripper,” he says. “There was some sort of gothic and beautiful gloom about the sound of those Walker Brothers records in particular.” Still, their sound was already old as they started (and they weren’t so entertained by fans turning over their van as some other pop stars might have been). By the end of the 1960s, the Walker Brothers were supplanted by another new sound, that of tour-mate Jimi Hendrix.
But as the bandmates were headed in different directions anyway, Walker sort-of remembers, he was ready to embark on his solo career. “I’m not really in it for the money,” he says in an interview from back then, “I’m in it strictly from a creative point of view.” Just so, Walker left behind the “hell” of the pop life and began working with new arrangers and producers.
As the documentary recounts, Walker’s erratic output over the next decades has been obscure and exhilarating, usually at the same time. Walker explains his thinking in a radio interview with Alan Bangs: “I’m rather working toward a silence,” he says, “Where it could come to me rather than force it. It’s kind of a kaleidoscopic process.” The film shows images of lakes and black-and-white plains dissolving into close-ups of Walker’s eyes, album art made eerily fluid. Peter Walsh, Walker’s producer since 1984, adds, “I was a little bit surprised by the amount of mystery that was there.”
With all this discussion of Walker’s oddity, it’s a little bit surprising that he’s so completely accessible during his interviews. Funny, self-aware, and bored with all the image questions, he explains his process and his goals with a charming lack of guile. If his process and goals remain intangible, so be it. The music becomes more tonal and less melodic (in fact, he instructs musicians during one session not to play a melody: “It keeps the whole thing disjointed,” he says, “We’re not making groove records”). Some sessions have become legendary: percussionist Alasdair Malloy percussionist is instructed to punch meat, his fists pounding and slapping and pounding; for The Drift, Walker tells conductor Mark Warman, the string section will “want to be playing those strings more violently than they ever have before.”
From his long-developing recordings to his movie scores (including the one he conjured for Leos Carax’s Pola X, which took years, he remembers, given that both he and the director work slowly), Walker has been and continues to think through the possibilities of sound. Michael Morris sees in Walker’s work a likeness to Eliot or Beckett, in which sound fragments are clues to larger concepts or themes. “He is a poet and a composer of the unconscious,” says Morris, “And if one wants to look for logic in his work, it’s more the logic of a dream world.”
Walker puts it this way: “You shouldn’t take the songs too literally. Often I’ll take a political idea or an idea that we all know and that’s a springboard to another place to another sort of world.” At last, he says, “It almost comes down to a personal message of a self. Ultimately your work is yourself. I’ve had very bad dreams all my life so everything is big. It’s way out of proportion.” Interviewees don’t try to define what he’s doing. Walker smiles, “They’re not songs anymore.” To its credit, the film doesn’t pretend to know quite what they are.