[A version of this text appeared in No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker, edited by Rob Young, London: The Wire, 2012]
Black Sheep Boy
Scott 2 (1968)
What is the opposite of love? Cowardice? Loneliness? Hate? Should music ‘about’ love and its opposite (whatever that is) be lush, excessive, all-consuming, or should it be restrained, hurt, withdrawn? The romantic fascination, or rather the fascination with romance, that reached its zenith in the 1960s with pop’s fixation on the boy band, was effervescent, uncontrollable. Female fandom, although not exactly without historical precursors, revealed the short circuit that exists between culture and desire, visual pleasure and ecstatic forms of identification. The boy band became the focus of myriad modes of projection, bolstered by the groups’ identikit outfits and assumed unities. The Walker Brothers were comprised neither of anyone originally named Walker, nor were they related to one another, but these facts are not important: what mattered was whether the assumed unity could hold, whether there was enough at stake in the game to want to continue playing it.
By the end of 1967, there no longer was. Scott Walker was a free, if far from untroubled, man, even as his name continued to bear the trace of a fraternity he would again return to before leaving once more. The frown he wears on the cover of Scott – his first attempt to be a boy without a band, a ‘brother’ without a family – says everything: I don’t want you to look at me, I just want you to listen. But the hair, of course, is the same, and the shades and rakish scarf indicate a host of dark, or at least moderately dark, desires. But who is the Scott of the immediate post-boy band era? What did he have to say about love (and its opposite)?
Scott was released in September 1967 and reached number three in the UK charts, hanging around for seventeen weeks. It was released in the US in the following year under the strange title of Aloner. Was Scott more alone than before? Was this title a fusion of two words that indicated Scott’s life post-Walker Brothers? Scott’s trajectory following the end of the first phase of The Walker Brothers (they were to reform in 1975 with the album No Regrets) is indicative of the thoughtful, occasionally menacing and introverted path that he would continue to take overall, albeit with long, unproductive intervals and returns to less experimental waters along the way. Scott was also the beginning of a period of prolonged creative output, with five albums (Scott 1–4, plus the Sings Songs From His TV Series LP) appearing in the space of two years, followed by exhaustion and withdrawal.
The album itself came hot on the heels of his work with The Walker Brothers, appearing only half a year after the last collective effort, Images. It comprises a mixture of obsessions, borrowings, original tracks and extraordinary arrangements by Wally Stott, Reg Guest and Peter Knight. Although much of the record is clearly an attempt to introduce a version of English-language chanson with three Jacques Brel covers (‘Mathilde’, ‘My Death’ and ‘Amsterdam’), it is also Walker’s first real chance to break out of the group formation and write material for himself alone (‘Montague Terrace (In Blue)’, ‘Such A Small Love’ and ‘Always Coming Back to You’). Other tracks on the record (‘The Lady Came From Baltimore’, ‘Angelica’, ‘You’re Gonna Hear From Me’, ‘Through A Long And Sleepless Night’) were contemporary songs transmuted by Walker into heartbreakers without kitsch, a not inconsiderable achievement.
Walker was just twenty-three when he made Scott, a fact that seems scarcely believable. His voice somehow manages to be more magnificent than all the string arrangements, would have buried any other singer in their furious bid for attention. But in a way, Walker’s voice would always be too old for its human frame, cracking and straining on later records like the split-notes of a brass instrument played too hard, revealing the fragility of the whole. But here it is, confident, masterful even, despite or perhaps because of the content of the songs, which are all about love lost and regained, reciting female name after female name: Mathilde, Angelica, Joanna, a lady from Baltimore named Susan Moore, whose Daddy read the law. A wry exuberance and a series of what-ifs (‘There’s so much you never knew’, he wistfully remarks on ‘Angelica’) make Walker a desperately attractive lover, though one gets the feeling that no single woman could compete with the attraction of his own finitude: ‘a patient girl who knows the score’, he sings lustfully on the cover of Brel’s ‘My Death’. ‘The Big Hurt’ (‘Each time you go/I try to pretend/It’s over at last/And this time the big hurt will end’) mirrors ‘Such A Small Love’ in both size and sound, making the latter in fact sound like the largest thing in the world (‘Such a small love/Such a little tear/Is this all that’s left/On your cheek so pale’). That only serves to enhance the ironic framework of the song, which Walker asserted was written about a young man attending the funeral of a close friend, observing the disproportionate tears of a woman who only knew him for one night.
The strings that he would twist into experimental horror soundtracks in his later work are only saved from soupiness on ‘You’re Gonna Hear From Me’ and ‘Through A Long And Sleepless Night’ by the hints of trouble in Walker’s delivery and the uncanny vibrato of his voice. The fine line that separates schmaltz from shiver is barely breached before the triumphant finale of ‘Amsterdam’. The covers that were later covered by others – particularly Marc Almond in his own Brel period – are somehow already encapsulated, hinted at, in Walker’s roguish effusions.
The drunken, back-alley humour of numerous forgotten sexual encounters and debased poses flows seamlessly from ‘Amsterdam’, the final track of Scott, to the opening of Scott 2 with another Brel cover, ‘Jackie’, which rushes in with such verve, humour and energy, albeit wistful, that you’re inexorably swept up with the force of it all. The sleeve, too, hints at a kind of glorious expansiveness compared to the troubled loner of the first solo record: his mouth open in a roar, his hands raised as if conducting an orchestra at the back of a bar. Scott is at his sexiest here, his most aggressively humorous. His mention of ‘authentic queers’ in the first track earned him a BBC ban in 1967, though you wonder if it wasn’t the mischievous ‘Spanish bum’ line that really upset them (Scott 2 is really a record of asses, and ass-slapping). Beginning a long series of oblique reflections on fame and an ironic reflection on Scott’s own practice, ‘Jackie’ talks of a time when ‘My record would be number one/And I’d sell records by the ton/All sung by many other fellows.’ Walker’s Brel obsession would filter down to many other contemporaries over the years, not only Almond, and provide his record company with at least one way of dividing up his opus into a more packageable entity, though it should be remembered that Scott 2 was a number one album in 1968 and stayed on the charts for eighteen weeks, hardly an insignificant achievement.
On ‘Next’, another Brel cover, translated by Mort Shuman, Walker loses his innocence in a ‘mobile army whorehouse’ where the hasty, affectionless serial sex causes the ‘kid’ of the song to suffer a trauma for ever after:
And since each woman
I have taken to bed
Seems to laugh in my arms
To whisper through my head
Next, next! […]
One day I’ll cut my legs off
Or burn myself alive
Anything, I’ll do anything
To get out of line just to survive
Never to be next
Never to be next
As much a reflection on the incidental brutalities of war as it is of the gonorrhoea contracted by the narrator, the processional horrors of ‘the following and the followed’ could equally be seen as Walker’s horrified recoil from the treadmill of fame and fandom. Commercially, and despite the sales of the early solo efforts, Walker was indeed to ‘burn himself alive’ in his inability to conform to the constraints of genre or faddishness, turning into the very antithesis of the boy band pin-up, namely the cult outsider (though Scott was never as clean-cut as that demanded even in Walker Brothers days, with his slightly too long feathery hair and distant demeanour). But Walker’s image from this point on is far less cynical than the dualism of boy band/moody loner would indicate, because really Scott’s dialectic plays out, not at the level of modes of publicness, but in the gap between overwhelming presence and total absence: the bigger the songs get, the louder he roars, the more he disappears as any recognisable kind of pop icon, the ‘alienated’ type or otherwise.
The work always dominates, and yet the work will never be enough… The gaps and the periods of silence, the air between walls of sound, will of course only increase in decades to come. Perhaps the hardest thing in the world is to sound convincing and at ease without betraying all the work that lies behind this impression. Scott confessed to the writer of Scott 2’s sleevenotes at the time of finishing the record, ‘I’m afraid it’s work of a lazy, self-indulgent man. Now the nonsense must stop, and the serious business must begin.’ Despite his talk of girls from the streets (with their lips, thighs and ‘sad and devouring eyes’), or the ones that you eventually boot canine companions out for, despite their loyalty (‘And yet it’s because of the girls/When they’ve knocked us about/And our tears want to shout/That we kick the dogs out’ on ‘The Girls And The Dogs’), or even Madeleine (‘White doves turned grey and flew away/And so did Madeleine’ on ‘The Bridge’), Scott 2, for all its ribald sexiness, is not a romantic record. There is something post-romantic about Walker, which is perhaps why those of his fans who just wanted him to croon started to stay away in droves. The immanent demolition of schmaltz that Walker began on the first record continues here apace, the strings warping and lilting on ‘Plastic Palace People’, like a soundtrack to a sci-fi film. Composed by Walker himself, this is as psych-rock as he was ever likely to get. Of course it sounds nothing like the psychedelia that was actually around at the time, but it nevertheless owes something to the trippiness of the age, with gently surreal lyrics (‘Over the rooftops burns Billy/Balloon sadly the string descends/Searching its way down through blue submarine air/The polka dot underwear’). ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, another Walker-penned track, is similarly minimal, in part a reflective account of a mundane day (‘Leave it all behind me/Screaming kids on my knee/And the telly swallowing me/And the neighbour shouting next door/And the subway trembling the rollerskate floor’), but because this is Scott Walker, after all, this is followed by the most extraordinarily Baudelairean phrasing: ‘Oh to die of kisses/Ecstasies and charms/Pavements of poets will write that I died/In nine angels’ arms’.
To return to the question of Walker’s presence and absence, both musically and personally, it is here that Walker opens up an interpretation that further breaks down classical pop oppositions. Queer film maker Stephen Kijak, who directed Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2007), said the following in an interview around the time of the film: ‘I read an article once that said Scott Walker is Judy Garland for the gays who grew up writing poetry and wearing black turtlenecks,’ which might confirm his status as an existentialist pin-up boy of sorts, but it is another statement by Kijak from the same interview which really touches on what Walker’s work and periods of withdrawal might mean: ‘That gap in our culture, the one that exists outside the mainstream – that’s where you find artists, gay people, all the outsiders. “Queer culture” is bigger than most people think… I feel like the alternative I belong to isn’t a sexuality thing; it’s your artistic pursuit, your point of view, your political, social and cultural beliefs, that set you apart.’[i] ‘That gap in our culture’: a perfect way to describe the uncomfortable space where Walker placed himself, impossibly, in this period withdrawing from what would otherwise have been all of the things we and he are supposed to want – money, sex, fame – in the name of what, exactly? A gap: a place to experiment, a place to be nobody, a place to work, or to not work. In the lyrics of Tim Hardin’s ‘Black Sheep Boy’, covered on Scott 2: ‘If you love me, let me live in peace, please understand/That the black sheep can wear the golden fleece’. If Scott became the insider looking out, it may have been because he was never able to accept that there was an inside that was ‘full’ in the first place. The sweeping plenitude of his voice, the blossoming strings, are the antithesis of the hollow promise of ‘success’. Walker’s lack of interest in money has been well documented – possibly the most ‘queer’ position anyone can take and still remain alive under capitalism (although he might have done well to have had someone to manage what little he had rather than agree to participate in a Britvic advert in 1987, where he sits enigmatically for a few seconds wearing shades by a cafe window). There are many, fans and onlookers alike, who’ll simply never understand why Walker turned his back on it all in the name of what his work could become, what it was to become.
But perhaps there are some who get it, even as they disagree with the ability of anyone to be able to bear it. His orchestrator Brian Gascoigne once said: ‘He believes, and I take issue with this, that to convey a very strong emotion in the music, you have to be feeling it when you’re making it. That couldn’t be true, because the people who are playing Bruckner and Mahler every night would be basket cases… after three of four hours in the studio, [Walker] is a basket case because he lives the thing with such emotion.’[ii] If Gascoigne is right, then Walker cannot but preserve himself in a certain kind of withdrawal whenever he isn’t living through his music.
Walker himself, in the same article, states that, ‘Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of.’ Now this is, in many ways, the problem of modernism, one of the major questions of philosophy, poetry, the novel. And the response to this desire results in positions to which we have perhaps become accustomed: quietism (Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’), the explosion of language (Joyce), ever-increasing minimalism (Beckett). But what of Walker’s contribution to this need to say the unsayable? If you were going to outline a possible methodology, it’s very unlikely to involve massive fame, art house cinema references, the adoration of a Belgian singer, blocks of filmic strings, and a voice that moves over the years from dispossessed velvet to something that sounds like my grandmother in her final few months of confusion. Walker’s trajectory is as improbable as the music he makes because of this trajectory, though this is not to say that it is easy to trace one from the other, either. Scott is a queer hero because he opens up this gap in culture and stays there, his magnificent voice at once familiar and strange. The first two records hint at what is to come in ways that make them both endlessly listenable on their own terms, but also crucial foundation blocks for a house that perhaps, ultimately, only one person could ever live in.
[i] Stephen Kijak quoted in Kregloe, Karman, ‘Documenting A Musical Outsider’ in After Elton (www.afterelton.com/movies/2007/3/30thcenturyman).
[ii] O’Hagan, Sean, ‘Interview: Scott Walker’ in The Observer (9 November 2008).