John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Strange Career of Scott Walker

Remembering the baritone-voiced American who became a hit in England.

By - Apr 5th, 2019 03:49 pm
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Scott Walker. Unknown photographer [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)]

Scott Walker. Unknown photographer [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)]

Scott Walker has died, but it’s not the one recently voted out of office, the same one who now charging $25,000 a speech to share his charisma with true believers on the right. Nope, the former governor lives, so who, you may ask, has actually died?

That would be the lead singer of the The Walker Brothers — a group that had two huge hits in the mid 60’s, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy On Yourself.” They sounded as big and dramatic as any Phil Spector wall-of-sound production, but they were done in England by three Americans expatriates living in swinging London. They weren’t really brothers either, nor were they Walkers — they just liked the name. Scott had taken over lead singing duties with his manly baritone that sounded so out of place coming from what looked like a skinny teen. They were an instant hit in England and seemed destined to be an unstoppable powerhouse, capable of creating endless hits — so of course he left the group and ended that part of the story. Where he was headed no one would have guessed.

It’s been said that England and America are two countries divided by a common language, but I think we’re really divided in our love for Scott Walker. After he left the band he had a long, fairly successful career in his adopted country. As time went on, that massive voice, which suddenly sounded very upper crust and operatic, was heard on increasingly bizarre experiments. Many of them were self-penned, and sound like he was trying to alienate the fans who adored him. Somehow this new approach was lapped up by Brits. In America it failed to win converts. Just how little he was thought of here was obvious — I could find no obituary in the New York Times* and, more tellingly to me, there was little mention on Facebook, where quite a few of my friends obsess endlessly about music. Being a good American, I didn’t know his later work so I decided I needed to investigate just what he was up to after that initial rush of success.

I found my way to Youtube and searched for “Scott Walker Music.” Here are a few of the songs I found: “Jackie” “Tilt” “My Death” “Plague” As these cheerful titles indicate, this guy may have invented a strain of orchestral Goth. With swimming pools of liquid reverb poured over choruses and symphonic streams of strings everywhere, you wouldn’t say he was timid when it came to making big statements. I understand how it might be fun to listen to a guy like this with tongue in cheek, but he was clearly serious and I can’t say I find it appealing.

Pop stars are poor puppets — they simply won’t do the things you want them to. If I was pulling his strings, I would have led Scott back to study the lyrics of “Make It Easy On Yourself.” Written by Hal David, it tells a story in plain but effective poetry and leaves the complicated stuff to composer Burt Bacharach. No wrestling match between words and music is found in any of their work. This allows the listener to relax while getting lost in the worlds they create. I know there are those who feel music must be intellectually rigorous and challenging. There’s room for that and I enjoy artists like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell who created bodies of work that manage to be both literate and understandable. But a pop song isn’t Ulysses — or this:

Do I hear 21, 21, 21?
I’ll give you 21, 21, 21
Do I hear 21, 21, 21?
I’ll give you 21, 21, 21

[Verse 1]
This night you are mistaken
I’m a farmer in the city
Dark farm houses ‘gainst the sky
Every night I must wonder why
Harness on the left nail
Keeps wrinkling, wrinkling
Then higher above me
Esau, esau
Can’t go by a man from Rio
Go buy a man from Vigo
Can’t go by a man from Ostia
Hey Ninetto
Remember that dream?
We talked about it so many times

© Scott Walker

This ramble is taken from the truly inscrutable song, “Farmer In The City,” by Walker.

In a way these kind of things are beyond criticism. I can’t say they’re bad if I have no idea what they mean.There are those who like them, but I picture these people as having difficulty with the ins and outs of human emotion.

Life is hard, so should music be homework or recess? When artists start believing the sometimes pompous things written about their work, something wonderful is lost. I think that happened in Walker’s case.

I don’t like criticizing the recently deceased, so let’s leave it at this: Feeling the wonder of those two massive hits by the oh-so-young Walker Brothers is human and warm. Be sure you listen to them, they’re remarkable. Now that one of the more puzzling artists to emerge from the British Invasion is gone with all his secrets we’ll never know why he decided cryptic was better than direct. Somehow I think the Koch brothers are involved.

*Since I wrote this the New York Times ran on obituary on Walker, some four days after his death, and the paper seems as puzzled by his later career as I am.

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