ON THE SOUND PRACTICE OF ACHIEVING A MORE CONVINCING SILENCE: SCOTT WALKER’S ‘THE DRIFT’ AND ‘30 CENTURY MAN’

May 23, 2011
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“In his dreams he had been warned against this change, seen the dear face and heard the unspoken words.” from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Ohio Impromptu’

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“I seem to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Though I remain intent on my Original Nightmare. It took me decades to hone it back to its primal terror (All that happened in the cradle—and before.) I was a product of the black pedagogy favored by Ohio’s German community at the time. There was a struggle to break my spirit. Daddy’s big black Teuton boot was the first instrument I ever suffered against.

Before that, I was the tiny victor of a darker triumph of the will. That’s why the uneven, shimmering specter of the twinless twin fascinates me. There is, in it, the eternal absence, the unspeakable void, a mother’s silent interrogation. Then, the outsized need for spotlite. Beckett shared it with Bion. Elvis with Jesse. Liberace with his embarrassment of sequins so clearly stitched for two. The North Tower for a few moments as its uncemented alliance collapsed in a plume of smoke and ash. Who can forget that image of the shocked survivors staggering beneath the weight of all that ash, their twin nose-holes signaling the blackest drug, the antichrist’s euphoria—a pure and perfect dread?

How Elvis bore this premonition, I will never know. When I met him briefly in ’57, his skin was an ethereal sheen of blankness. Call it innocence. Maybe it was the klieg lights. I felt an eerie plasma holding him aloft above the pedestrian fray. As his beloved Gladys would often say, a surviving twin carries the soul-power of two. On that night, I could see how he believed her. I promised his wretched bedazzlement to a song. But only when I had settled on the apogee of my own consummating silence.”— notes from an Unsung Stranger

Well, at least that’s what the bedside pad said in the light of morning. Automatic writing. I’m a believer now. Some hands are driven into the hands of others because the devil requires legions of playthings. This infernal age has no shortage of functionaries who barely rise to the excitement of evil. Pop stars require minions. Though I held the nightstand pen, in this instance, I did nothing consciously to drive it across the blank page. Yet strangely, I am no less committed to the contents. The paragraphs are mine. I recognize the epiphanies. However the time signatures and phrasing are the work of another. Movement can’t be captured in a paparazzi flash. But that’s where this tension gets its legs.

Through the dominant wards and nurseries
A flugleman moves
In the lung-smeared slides and corridors
A flugleman moves –from ‘Cue’ (The Drift)

If an artist isn’t moving, he’s dying. There’s always an idealized or imagined end-point on the lip of the horizon, a telos. The journey is an asymptote. It hints seductively at arrival but each step forward only splits the distance between where one stands and infinity–or our own personal stand-in for infinity, death. The seductive allure of a crushed-velvet litter kissed with rose petals, the climactic ovation, keeps the artist moving. As for actually resting on ones laurels, that locus is jealously guarded by the grave where hopefully there’ll be a way to pipe in some applause. This is music enlisted for art; even at its best, a glorious thankless task.

Then there’s music enlisted for product. I can already hear the wail of the aficionadas. Their knee-jerk reaction is to hoot and jeer the shameless deformation of sound constructed for profit. But the world runs on business. Businessmen want a template, a product that reverberates against the last one, that doesn’t require a whole new promotional direction, that leverages sunk cost, etc. Familiarity, while perhaps breeding artistic contempt, lowers the standard deviation of failure which in turn allows for a lower target ROI. Come on, businessmen in the music business are not a crime against humanity. Let’s ease up a bit. If anything, it’s fatuous artists putting down stakes for a steady paycheck that seed the cash-crap-crop. There’s more than a little hypocrisy in that half-in, half-out stance.

Some artists are savvy enough to split the difference and offer up serviceable product within the business frame. Some succeed in productizing their variedness. Listeners will follow them to hell and back. This speaks to a fearsome personal brand which is very rare. We have probably seen the last of fearsome brands because record companies routinely discard new groups whose second albums fail to match the sales of the first. The grand forty-year arcs of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Clapton, Bowie, Elton, etc…derive their satanic majesty from the occasional stupendous failure. We will rue the death of creative mishap. Music enjoyment owes much to evolutionary half-steps, though this hit-and-miss theme hardly preaches to a choir of pensive moguls.

The replicating ferocity of the digital age has done much to erode the old-time record company as patient father-figure. Shelf-lives have lost their shelf-life. No one can afford to incubate. But again, if you were cultivating and investing in a product that, within days of its debut on your shelf, was being proliferated madly on the street corner, how forgiving would you be of bohemian invention? Hey kid, you’re on your own for noble experiments—and I’m cutting your allowance.

Others–either through naiveté or an unforgiving muse–succumb to restlessness and slit their own commercial throats. Perhaps they are staunchly committed artists. Perhaps they are befuddled narcissists who mistake their popularity for a birthright. Perhaps they come to regret it deeply.

Contending between the twin-poles of business and art is this hugely deformed creature perched on bar and staff. That would be the music celebrity or pop star, an amalgam with its own toxic brew of priorities and agendas. At best, celebrity should be a by-product of accomplishment and duly earned acclaim. Yet so many realms of art have been overrun by celebrity and its tempting accoutrements. None of this is a great revelation, but the celebrity meme is such a powerful one that it bears repeating. VH1 Behind the Music et al chronicle the all-too-familiar, falling into and out of fame story, with its cathartically redemptive recovering of fame in the final frame.

I said redemptive and cathartic only because the TV voiceover guy does. How did stepping in a fresh pile of dog-shit, only to return triumphantly to the same pile of shit in the end, ever graduate to an uplifting tale of human spirit and endurance? They beat the booze and got the screaming chicks back in the end–and not a moment too soon, if the liver is allowed its pickled POV. Meanwhile the limo full of nubile wastrels and reconstructed rock gods disappears into the Sunset Strip. Fame recovers another recovering band of alcoholics just in time for a lucrative come-back tour. Lassie where the hell are you? Or was that your ginger pelt we saw Ozzie snorting fleas out of? We warned you girl about the infernal wheels of the tour bus.

The celebrity frame has routed all other achievement benchmarks. No one even questions the primacy of the fame-objective. I mean, who in their right mind would discard screaming chicks with cavalier abandon, not to mention the limos, the paparazzi, the flashbulbs unless they are hopelessly drug-addled or hovering on the edge of sanity? Don’t give us that solitudinous artist shit. No one hands fame over unless the keys are demanded back. If the fame split, then you lost your game, dude. Lights out.

“The invasion of the child’s soul is the first bullet fired. It’s said Joyce put everything in while Beckett took everything out. The ambitious apprentice masters the trade in order to subdue his master. I studied Spector’s wall of sound and for a time worshipped within that saccharine hall. It was the sixties. We were indulgent, man; Steppenwolf on Tuesday. Sarte, Thursday night. Then, a farmer’s boy in Londontown. The most acute stranger.

Through the gas-gas-gas phase, I remained a covert ambassador of the night. All that made me who I am occurred under darkness–of the womb, of the midnight hour. I am the bearer of portentous nightmares. I resist all the received wisdoms: of groove, of arrangement. The paradox of the composer is that he prepares holy silences. If he succeeds, music invades like a drunken Cossack. I make craters in the earth. So do you. 

The calcium deposits of sleepwalk. I’ve washed away bridges, torn out hooks, banished melody. I want anxious craftsmen honing their trade like freshly seeded infidels. After decades under tyranny of night terror and one unspeakable recurrent visitor (who even now my carved-out space is powerless to coax forward), I suppose I am prepared, like few others, for what is in the air. If I can deaden the silence, and offer a low-slung stage of blocked-sound, my darkest friend with ink-bled eyes might yet oblige us with his presence.”—notes from an Unsung Stranger

In a low-bar form such as popular music, the guy who shows up with half-a-plan is a genius in the same way the pigeon is eagle in a field of sparrows. That’s not to say the occasional eagle doesn’t flash his talons. But we should reserve the term for epoch-changers, Leonard da Vinci, Mozart and the like, only the rarest birds. Like grading on a curve or selling brand-name toothpaste, genius-minting sort of elevates everyone in the vicinity. Suddenly they didn’t just drop out of school at 15 anymore. I mean, they were misunderstood geniuses. So for them gym class was a particular bitch. That’s why we hear the designation at least three times a day. The label is good business.

So I’m leery of all the inside-shop fawning over Scott Walker in the beginning of 30 Century Man, the 2006 documentary. There’s more than a little celebrity value-distortion at work. A goodly part of the reverence seems falsely tendered. We have the fame-game and its enlistees expressing a mixture of incredulousness and inverted-narcissistic-admiration towards a man who walked away from fame before fame was entirely done with him. Nobody does that. (Between the lines: “Certainly we wouldn’t.”) Stop taking my picture or I’ll stand under the trellis where the lighting’s bad. Whoa, such forbearance. Such courage.

Who better than a mirror-gazer to miss a mirror pointing back? The silly mythos that has sprung up around Walker’s self-imposed exile seems culled from an insecure celebrity’s worst nightmares: Bigfoot lives, that big shy hairy lug, but he has declined interviews for years and only consents to grainy photos taken from 200 feet away.  Not only that, he wears a baseball cap. He watches dart-players in pubs. He runs a fish and chips shop. What if Walker is frying haddock for a living? Quick, someone throw him a safety-line. With their heartsick speculations, the musing narcissists give away the fish and chips shop. He could be one of us, but he’s relinquished the firmament to revert back to one of them. What the hell is he thinking?

In fairness, there is some genuine musical appreciation going on as well. But as to where the music ends and the hubbub begins, who’s to say for sure? Quite apart from his fame trajectory, Walker is deserving of musical esteem. That is the central feature of his narrative arc. The music’s the thing. Walker seems to genuinely believe this as well. That he may be just an artist with ambivalence towards fame only makes him Joan of Arc in a roomful of preening celebrities. There are a lot of magnificent, obscure artists. By celebrity-logic, perhaps they should stop creating because the limelight will never single them out for applause. Others like to distort in the other direction by defending obscurity as an unerring red badge of artistic courage. However some people are deservedly obscure (i.e. they suck) while some compelling artists manage a degree of popularity. Binaries don’t work well, especially in art. Lights out.

“I reject studio camaraderie. Dull easy comfort breeds cacophonous tangents. We offend the silence by traipsing across it like storks without wings. A session guy once mused ‘misery clings to tape.’ How true! Perfection is the enemy of a ragged fear and loathing. The silence wants you in and out. Your mission is preposterous anyway. By all means come prepared and know the terror you seek. But don’t mock the void. It’ll have you soon enough.”—notes from an Unsung Stranger

There are two revealing interviews, both on Youtube, where we find Scott Walker not so much offering information as fighting uphill for his life’s narrative against a stubbornly reductive celebrity frame. There is a corollary in the narrative record. 1984’s Winston sits across the table from O’Brien’s bright new lieutenant, Simon Cowell. Cowell listens only for what he needs to hear. Winston has long since forgotten how to fashion what Cowell needs. The rats break the impasse. Killing time, they have a nibble at Winston’s boyish, matinee-idol looks. Nero doesn’t fiddle ‘cause he can’t get studio time. The celebrity template is a fog-horn not an aria. The one insistent note? “Feed me.”

Harold Pinter addressed the two silences. Juxtaposed, they make for awkward conversation across the garden wall. 

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(The interview starts at 2:49), the interviewer’s lingo is standard, ditzy pop-star fare: come-back, single, video-track. Hey, Walker is in a pop-shop. What did he expect? The interview is ill-considered and a contextual non sequitur. For that, you have to blame Walker, not the ‘inane’ interviewer as various Youtube detractors insist. If Hindemith wanders into Top of the Pops, they’ll skirt over his non-diatonic system and get to the danceable part. That’s just the nature of the red shoes. Once again Scott’s chronic tendency of doing himself no favors is on abundant display. Night of Hunter (1984) is a brilliant album. (If you find a better song that Sleepwalkers Woman, have it bathed and brought to my tent.) Answering Pinter’s dictum, Beckett (whom Walker likens himself to more than once) doesn’t traffic idle chatter. So why offend the bubbly moments with pregnant silence? These are the sort of public train-wrecks that drive a man to open a fish and chips shop.

The second interview, circa 2005, is an apparent promotional turn for The Drift and 30 Century Man.

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First, the credentials are established, i.e. all the reasons we on Main Street should rightfully be copping a feel: no less than Brian Eno, David Bowie, Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker have approved this message. His pedigree beyond reproach, Walker is straightaway cast into the Stubborn and Enduring Mystery that follows him like a plague. The prison bars of this template never fail in their melodramatic insistency: “determined recluse”, “enigmatic”, “at the height of his fame when he had it all, the looks, the voice, the stardom, he walked away.” And so what is he now, a fume-meister, a nebbish? Frankly would we give two shits for his current music had he not been who he isn’t now? Poor Scott. I’ll have lots of vinegar on me chips, mate.

Admirably, Walker punctures the mythos every time he encounters it. He is his own patient giant-killer: “Generally if I’ve got nothing to say or do, you know, it’s pointless to be around I think.”An admirable credo to be sure, but if widely adopted by the famous, a death-knell for gratuitous self-advertisement and farewell tours; more hyperventilation: “Did you really have a mental breakdown and run away to a monastery?” “Nah, I went to learn Gregorian chant.” Gregorian chant!? Velvety baritone notwithstanding, this guy has a death-wish for all that compels young girls to rub their legs together. Finally Walker, the consummate gentleman, addresses the charge that he willfully courts obscurity on Tilt, [Rattle ‘n] Drift: “There are a lot of people writing songs that are accessible.” He could just as easily have said shitty. But he doesn’t. Scott is an unfailingly nice guy, one more clue to his hapless series of bad turns with industry suits.

Walker’s jaw-dropping exit from all things deemed most sought invites the famous to their own version of a sickening, slow-motion accident. They can’t take their eyes off him. Mainly because he’s as serious as a heart attack.  Walker himself comes across as the least portentous figure in 30 Century Man. He is devoid of affectations, almost eerily disarming, without guile or calculation, a true celebrity-foil. Despite no shortage of help from his friends, he doesn’t buy in. Scott has a Keatsian penchant for negative capabilities, the indelible mark of the poet. Music arrives. It cannot be forced. This innate shyness of the soul falls deaf on famous ears. Throughout 30 Century Man the celebrity-project is to imbue Walker with all the poignancy of a Garbo-esque exile, the celebrity’s last stand. Petulant absence has a certain cache. Walker politely resists. He’s just ‘low-key’.

Indeed Walker’s years in the wilderness would surely lend themselves to a Bowie-in-Berlin fry-up. Where’s the canny publicist? “Escaping the gilded cage of teeny-bopper asphyxiation and pop-star hedonism, Walker experimented with serial killing before opting instead to frequent London BDSM clubs where he could be seen hanging from Gothic chandeliers yelping about all manner of predations perpetrated on his Yank-bred, Spanish bum…” Nobody did the listen-to-me-don’t-listen-to-me two-step better than Bowie. In the hands of the right Svengali, Scott could have managed his twisted cake and eaten with Lady Gaga too. Yet there it lies, whole unused spools of inert narrative. Walker could afford to run a better music hall, or perhaps there is a profound pathology infusing his reticence, even a subtle masochism; the hopelessly asynchronous power equations are there in abundance: Cossacks, emblematic agents of ‘medieval savagery’ and ‘calculated cruelty’, dragging Ukrainian maidens across ‘pale monkey nails’, hypnotic dictators leading innocent young mistresses to grotesque ends, ardent torturers who bleed victims into lovers and back again. Perhaps on some level, Walker takes perverse pleasure from the harsh deprivations his self-exile inflicts.

Too honest even to ply the defiant-artist-cursed-with-a-musical-vision malarkey (picture mad Ahab, a windswept Gregory Peck, on the brow of the Pequod staring down the angry seas of musical mediocrity), he muses aloud at how the Scott 4 album disappeared into an abyss. Fame went right with it as did record company phone calls. Walker appears genuinely injured by the uncaring gestures. Everyone wants to be liked, even Scott Walker. But not enough to reprise The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore like some kind of purgatorial Groundhog Day ode.

There’s a flash of familiar, show business ambition when Walker consents to reprising The Walker Brothers in 1975, long enough to give us No Regrets, and, even more crucial to the future Scott Walker corpus, 1978’s The Electrician. The latter is a Scott Walker song in a Walker Brothers sleeve. It is also the signpost for the next thirty years of Walker output. 2005’s Jesse is the return-leg of the same imperialist boomerang. American hubris perpetrated against South America strikes back at the Great Perpetrator on 9-11. This is precisely the dark doppelganger Elvis was channeling, the goofy jailhouse-dance with its iconic riff a harbinger of today’s prison planet. An impossible innocence. (Who even looked askance at prisoners 47 and 3, the implications of their odd coupling?) Pow pow. The one-two punch followed by the dust-strewn wail of the North Tower in its plaintive role as Elvis impersonator: ‘I’m the only one left alive.’ Though 27 years separate the songs, the prolegomena and preparatory sound-scapes are thematic twins; the ominous machine-hum of cattle prod and airplane share a mission: to barbecue human flesh. Walker evokes a reckoning viewed, at least in some quarters of the globe, as karmic justice. The retributive arc happens to span decades. That’s poetic calling. What fresh and frightening chapters does this 68-year-old hold in store for us?

In the end, Walker deflates the great, dark mystery so many wish for him. He seems as bewildered by his life-journey as the rest of us are about ours. Ah but the celebrities will not allow him this fumbled denouement. This is all about self-projection, look-at-me by inference: “He is a deep, deep artist. By insinuating myself into his august company, I am deepened too.” Holding him over the abyss, they burnish their own seedy lamps by association. When he is allowed to mutter his ill-considerations, the predominant tone is one of dejected self-bemusement, even an overpowering sense of regret, at the loss of twenty years of his life due, in large part it seems, to record company politics, the onset of the punk movement, his personal frame of mind, in short, life in general. He’s just a guy saddled with a sixty-year nightmare that pokes in and out of the public consciousness. Walker knows well the ebbs and flows of public fascination. Refreshingly, he neither bemoans the ebbs nor courts the flows. He seeks the perfect drift.

Scott Walker offers a vague ambivalence, dis-chords neither right-on nor right-off, the bifurcated agony of twins parted at birth, real-life veered away from bright expectancy. Because life, for most of us, is everything that happens; or if you prefer, all that prevented us from being where we most wanted to be. Even if that favored place is a silly mirage. How could the unflaggingly famous ever understand this slow, desperate slip between pedestrian cracks? Scott is for us and not for them.  30 Century Man would have done well to enlist an everyman voice or two. No doubt a bevy of marquee names secures plum financing. We may fill seats better than we sell them. But we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the drift goes. 

Two a.m. concludes all wakefulness. The next phase is a tossing-about in full recline. Nite Flights. Moth-wings batter their black powder against the canopy of repose. This intrepid correspondent lies at the ready–a dutiful Sleep Walker, should the midnight need arise.

“The year was 1982. I was rehearsing matchstick crypts at my kitchen table when Beckett, my kindred dismantler and Ohio, my open-faced home, conspired with happenstance to deliver Ohio Impromptu. I couldn’t ignore the implied invitation and began at once to carve the next notch in my own evaporating odyssey, Climate of Hunter. Like you, I have my Listener. He fills my excavations, tapping out the hidden tempos, halting my ceaseless attempts at orchestration. I am a Reader who struggles with the usual stratagems. If I foster the proper climate, the hunted will find the clearing. We are the bickering twins, Listener and I. Present at the paradox of my inception, he is the enfant terrible of my night-form imaginings. How his gurgled moan of death echoed through the stricken damp canal, convicting me forever–a bundle of joy lashed to stillborn loss. My destiny? To endure for him our solitude, our ash, our towering famine.”—notes from an Unsung Stranger

Norman Ball is a Virginia-based writer and musician. His two latest books, ‘How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable?’ (Del Sol Press, 2010) and ‘The Frantic Force’ (Petroglyph Books, 2011) are purchasable on the web. The author neither assumes nor implies any authenticity to the automatic writings that appear sporadically throughout this article. More than likely it’s just a nocturne cat. Listen to the author’s own live version of the Jacques Brel song ‘My Death’ (covered in 1967 by Scott Walker) here.

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By: Norman Ball – norman@normanball.comhttp://normanball.com

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One Response to ON THE SOUND PRACTICE OF ACHIEVING A MORE CONVINCING SILENCE: SCOTT WALKER’S ‘THE DRIFT’ AND ‘30 CENTURY MAN’

  1. ian on May 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Going to take me a while to absorb writing of this depth!! But I look forward to it as a huge SW fan ever since I heard his first compositions

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