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Scott Walker, The Only One Left Alive

Norman Ball

Scott 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.

"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.

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