Scott Walker, The Only One Left Alive

Scott Walker
Bish Bosch

“We’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs… and color… and a lot of lights to make it sparkle. And songs – wonderful songs. And after we get the people in that hall, we’ve gotta start ‘em in laughing right away. Oh, can’t you just see it…?”

— Judy Garland, “Babes in Arms”, 1939.

Not far from my home there’s a small dilapidated inn that’s over one hundred years old (hardly a venerable age by European standards, but a cause for hyperventilation in history-starved America.) I’d mention its name except the owner would probably spit in my next draft beer. It’s not like he needs the publicity. People routinely line up to get in.

This inn is more than a shithole. It is a gratuitous shithole. Something between gallows humor and esprit de corps pervades the well-heeled clientele who flock there. Soggy hot dogs get forked out onto paper plates and communal piles of condiments litter the tables in nondescript plastic pouches. No detail has been spared that could possibly obscure the owner’s abiding contempt for his patrons. Surely his refusal to fix the gimpy tables is tied to some perverse, service-sector pique. On Saturday’s the average wait time for a bench exceeds 30 minutes. Splinters cost extra as do refills on sodas.

Adding insult to appetite, there are probably a dozen new restaurants within a half-mile radius where the thoroughly mortgaged owners sweat every detail: the menu, the décor, i.e. that whole obsequious and tiresome mélange known in marketing circles as the dining experience. Such can be the affection-bias enjoyed by venerable acts and storied buildings. Chef Gordon Ramsay would also do well to note that, while the customer is king, the latter sometimes prefers, in lieu of a before-dinner aperitif, a swift kick in the balls; as to why, well, that’s sort of between the king, his blue blood and his dominatrix.

I mention the Shithole Inn as a run-up to discussing Scott Walker’s new album Bish Bosch not because there’s a picture of him in the back grinning shyly beside the asshole who splits his time running the joint and running all the way to the bank. I mention it only to point out the massive and under-exploited masochistic seam in the Western consumer’s overly catered-to psyche. People are sick of the patronizing entreaty to buy this and that ‘because they’re worth it’, especially when, deep down, they believe they’re not worth much. Universal appeal is a watch-phrase for ‘we’ve got you read like a thin book’. The time has come to steer the car inexplicably into the trees if for no other reason than to fuck with the product placement folks at GM. Inscrutability is the next big thing. So, listen up all you would-be marketing Svengalis: We’ve been patronized to distraction and we’re not going to take it anymore!

Some quarters are fighting back. The deluxe version of Bish Bosch comes with a fold-out nail bed. Curiously, there is also a barcode on the back. This tells us some label flunky wakes up every morning needing to sell this bitch. All coy posing aside, an album release is a social gesture. Otherwise it would have remained a basement tape. A serious artist (as opposed to, say, a funny one) sometimes fancies himself diminished or compromised by his audience, poor precious dear. Certainly he doesn’t want to be seen working for the general public like a circus pony. It’s a timeworn avant-garde trope to invite an audience to crane forward provided they don’t make any noise. And for God’s sake don’t ask inane questions ala Mel Brooks in The Critic (1963): “What da hell is dis?” Candor is for oafs. No, cutting-edge art must be allergic to plebian accessibility. Mass appeal is a sign something has gone horribly wrong. Obviously the mineshaft canary isn’t far enough ahead of the dopes with the pick axes if some kid with a Justin Bieber t-shirt can hit it with a BB gun.

In art, pretension is currency and funny money all at once. Indeed within this highly ritualized being-seen scene the honest artist, much to his dismay, may find himself surrounded by a dilettantish clique who, for social (or self-identity) reasons of their own, want to be noted primarily for frequenting exotic locales. They glom onto the Walkers of the world, not as unabashed appreciators of art, but as conscious tailors of their own salon experience. Indeed there’s a whole sub-genre of marketing that hinges on snob appeal, people using product as a pry-tool to distance themselves from, say, Nickelback nonentitude while nudging themselves closer to Grey Poupon mustard. The contour of the lever becomes incidental. The art becomes an instrumentality. Within this consumer-driven formulation, the artist himself is little more than an affinity marketing label, not an artist at all. These inauthentic responses to an artist’s work can make him feel lonelier still. Better to be honestly misunderstood than dishonestly embraced.

“You cannot complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read…. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.”

— Samuel Beckett in a letter to Sylvia Beech (commenting on an early draft of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake)

Fair enough, it’s music. But is it to be heard?

Beneath Walker’s willful obscurantism, there pulses an unmistakable earnestness and a strong sense of artistic mission. Scott is as honest as the day is long. It’s just that, ever since 1984’s Climate of Hunter he has been cataloging his night terrors in the broad daylight of sound with an encroaching private resolve that practically necessitates an expanding audience remove. He alone can attest to the fidelity of the completed albums which is another way of saying Scott needs Scott and a handful of indentured studio musicians who take orders well. Increasingly, we are becoming dispensable listeners on a Doppler shift — ker is choreog — with no audible, coherent way in. The songs have been scrubbed of silly hooks, an ‘innovation’ that has to distress the marketing department. Nothing is trying to pull you in. All assistive listening devices have been shorn.

There is nothing more plaintive than a blue-haired lady on a Scott Walker Internet forum hoping against hope the next album offers the long-awaited return to form: “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, part deux”. In his efforts towards dismantling easy listening (see comedian Billy Connolly’s hilarious take on that rather ludicrous MOR genre), Walker has banished the familiar guideposts of bridges, refrains, hooks and grooves. He has retired his signature baritone because he knows it produces a surfeit of listener enjoyment and a bridge to a determinate past. As fan David Bowie notes (quite apropos here despite the obvious Dylan reference) in his recent Walker peon “Heat”: all love is theft. Walker wants no part of the love of millions. And why should he? Not only does the only man left alive loathe sharing himself, he has allowed certain personal idiosyncrasies to have run of the place. Surely ‘Omega Men’ Charlton Heston and Will Smith proved beyond dispute that, left on our own too long, eccentricity has a habit of taking over. Soon Mickey Rooney’s hambone exhortations to ‘put on a show’ recede into that seductive goldmine, the artist’s head, where weird scenes rapidly take center stage. Think of performance then as a dilutive salve that works against the artist’s inward darkness. Act out or die not trying.

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.