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The experimental singer and composer pushed the limits of what was possible for a single musician to do given time and fortitude
“Who knows anything about Scott Walker?” David Bowie quipped in the 2007 documentary 30 Century Man. Waking up to the news of Walker’s passing on March 22 at age 76, it was hard not to hear that question in all its now-present layers. This sudden departure seemed of a piece with Walker’s career, key moments of which often came without warning and gestated in long public silence. But it also felt messy in its suddenness, particularly in this late period that was still blossoming.
Perhaps there’s no contradiction, though: Walker’s career radiated an irreducible, and baffling, verfremdung effect that pushed at the limits of what it was possible for a single musician to do given time and fortitude. And so here may be the best place to begin to any fitting hindsight for the man who once proclaimed: “I feel I’m writing for everyone they just haven’t discovered it yet.”
Noel Scott Engel came of age in Southern California in the early 60s. He began as a singer and child actor, but as a teenager showed keen interest in being a session bassist. He could sing, however, and this natural gift appeared to pull him in an entirely different direction, one that he often seemed most surprised by.
As later interviews confirm, Walker’s outré qualities were evident even in this early pre-stardom period. He voiced an early dislike for American mainstream culture he had fond memories of watching dramatizations of Lola Montez and the fantastical film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking Horse Winner. While America was America to most, it seemed to Walker, Europe was a kind of America.
It would be hard, though, to understate the level of success Walker found once he’d joined the Walker Brothers in the UK, a group whose star seemed to rise in lockstep with the Beatles. But Britain was a point of departure, not arrival, for Walker who moved further toward his continental inclinations, connecting with the lush, flâneur aesthetic of Michel Legrand and Jacques Brel. Acquiring some English translations of Brel’s work through Andrew Oldham (then manager of the Rolling Stones), Walker found the key to unlock the imaginative space of his solo career.
Those solo albums (Scott 1-4) were startling in their ability to traverse an unexplored territory between familiar crooner-fare and somewhat risky lyrical and compositional gambits. They also eventually served as Walker’s swan song to stardom. Jarvis Cocker once said the music therein was as if “Dessie O’Connor did an album of Brecht songs.”
Increasingly, Walker’s imagination became grounded in the outsider, the vagabond and the drifter – those whose existences had roughed them up but bestowed on them a significance in the cosmic order, one that didn’t assert itself but simply, and melancholically, existed. Here is a line from the song “Big Louise” on Scott 3: “Didn’t time sound sweet yesterday? In a world full of friends, you lose your way.” Walker had a gift for reigning in the sentimental overtones of his music with deft non sequiturs. But in doing so, he made the sentimental artful.
Walker’s late-career oeuvre began glacially in the late 70s and 80s and culminated in the release of his 1995 album Tilt. Paring away the aesthetic excesses of the 60s sound, Walker seemed to reach, on his own time, something new entirely. He transformed into a toiler and tinkerer of the avant-garde.
Walker didn’t want people to see this new pivot as simply a group of iconoclasts twiddling knobs in black suits. Though he once commented that he could have run a herd of cattle through the studio without any of his musicians batting an eye, he still had in mind a sense that he could connect with his audience in this alchemical space. This inner resolve paid off in that many contemporary artists cite this period in Walker’s career (and its resulting trilogy – 1995’s Tilt, 2006’s The Drift, and 2012’s Bish Bosch) as remarkably influential. Walker underwent his phase shift in a transformed landscape, one where record executives and bankability mattered less. You couldn’t, and could, find your audience. And Walker did.
Walker’s catalogue attests to two key insights, one of the personal and the other of the collective. The first is of the uncertainty of the self, the sense in which paring away the inessential aspects of individuality leads one to realize the mystery that they still are. Walker demonstrated this paradox through music, stripping more and more away to build something alien. The second insight is about the enigmatic container of pop music. At once cynically profitable and yet also bracingly possible, Walker’s long career showed how the genre itself seems to hold within it the creative paradoxes of larger culture: protean, flexible, less a category than an activity of realizing amongst far-out beacons what was challengingly there, and thrillingly alive, to begin with.