Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Old Man, Clara, The Conducator

Last May my son studied the beginnings of the Holocaust in one of his high school classes. They were covering the ghettos when we talked about it. He said a few very interesting things.

First he said he was concerned that he wasn't more affected by it. He could understand it intellectually but he found it difficult to have an emotional response. As we talked about it it became clear that the reason his emotional response wasn't apparent was because the subject is so intense that there is no possible response that is large enough to be appropriate.

Second he said that he understood "deniers" because your mind cannot take it all in. The temptation is to dismiss the possibility.

Third he said that the only reason he felt like he could tolerate the discussion of the ghettos was because things were as good as they were ever going to be. What follows is unimaginable.

Fourth (and this is a film tangent) he referenced the Kubrick exhibit that we saw a while ago which chronicles a project Kubrick worked on and eventually abandoned that focused on the Holocaust. He said he was glad that Kubrick hadn't made the film because an artist as powerful as Kubrick doing a Holocaust film would be terrifying to behold.

I consider Scott Walker to be the Stanley Kubrick of song. He has written again and again about the brutality of various regimes. In fact, as he has increasingly distanced himself from the usual concerns of romantic pop, his work has turned ever darker and looked unsparingly at the depths that human beings will go to in order to maintain control over one another.

And just as that unfinished Kubrick project would have been almost unbearable to ingest, so do Walker's genocidal compositions defy any comfortable access to the listener.

On 1969's Scott 4, Walker had taken back his birth name to credit his songs. Noel Scott Engel wrote his first full length original album. It contained a song called "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" which was about what had occurred in Prague the year before and the Russian backed government that had taken charge.

Somehow Walker turned this into some kind of cool funk rock lounge dance track with a killer bassline...take a listen.

36 years later, he would write and record "Clara" for 2006's "The Drift". This song makes "The Old Man's Back Again" look like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in comparison.

The title refers to Clara Petacci, Mussolini's lover who was executed along with the Italian dictator. Their corpses were strung up and desecrated by angry Italians. Walker recalls seeing a snapshot of this in a newsreel before a movie as a kid. It haunted him so completely that he made an almost unbearable work of art out of it.

Listen to "Clara". You won't be singing along too much. It is almost thirteen minutes long.

Just as disturbing is the track from Bish Bosch called "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)". "The Conducator" is the Romanian word for "leader" and is what Ceaucescu called himself.

This tune is almost eight minutes long and is no walk in the park either. The lilting little Christmas coda is about as creepy as music gets and I am not even sure why. Check out "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)".

Back to my son and his response to studying the Holocaust in school. And this is appropriate right now seeing as the new leader of Iran stood before the UN and said, "Yeah, we admit it HAPPENED in spite of what the last loser leader of our country hinted at over and over again."

See, we don't want to acknowledge our faults. Think about how truly difficult that is to do on a personal level. To say, "I did THAT. THAT wrong thing. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway."

For the human race to do that on a global scale??? It is almost unthinkable. It seems impossible. But that is where ART comes in. Art doesn't have to be elected. It doesn't have to please constituents. It doesn't have to deliver food to the hungry or protect the weak from those who would oppress them.

But it can take the human race by the scruff of the neck and force it's stupid head in front of a mirror and hold it there until it cries and says, "I am sorry I have done such things."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dr. Mars: Glamour, Clamor, And The End Of Time

For many of us, Dr. Mars represents everything good we used to count on. I say "us" and "we" as if there is some kind of organization but that really isn't the case. A few groups of threes and fours roam around, rarely sixes or sevens, mostly ones and twos. Nothing is constant these days but if you can locate a radio in an abandoned storefront it's a pretty good bet you'll hear Dr. Mars coming from it.

I remember tracking a group (not nice people from what I could tell) who were collecting guns from various abandoned armories. I thought maybe I could find a way to sabotage their progress, to do something that might convince them to change their ways. Then I saw them kill an old man for a rusty pistol and knew I'd better just let 'em go.

That afternoon I heard "Are You There" coming from a novelty radio from a toy store. The sound mimics what it feels like to be alive these days. It's so familiar, it feels like it was made long ago, but it has the urgency of an immediate performance. It also brings the hair up on your neck the way you get when you sense something important ABOUT to happen. If you're clocking tenses, that's past/present/future all in one.

When Dr. Mars says, "I've been searching so long/Are you there?" you know it could be about a certain girl but you also can't shake the suspicion that there is more information woven in that is not so easily identifiable.

Indeed, in the very next song "Personally", Dr. Mars talks about "encounters of the fourth kind" and says we should "take it personally" but also talks about taking Manhattan and outer space. The desire to boil everything down to the love of one girl being enough to make it on this crazy planet gains a massive layer of melancholy when you take into consideration how few of us there are left and how impossible that kind of dream can feel in the face of obvious mass extinction.

Later in a dusty old roadhouse bar with a flashing jukebox powered by some solar cell, Dr. Mars gives me "The Ashtar Command". If I had enough time with a pencil and paper and a few cold leisurely beers, I KNOW I could decipher it, but trouble has been in the air today and I only get one quick listen. Tension seems to be running high for whatever reason and I decide to skirt the city, nestling my nocturnal journey between the abandoned high-rises and the scorched forest.

I don't know where they broadcast from. Sometimes the sound comes from up in the hills, they must have a generator up there because I can hear the amplifiers. I've been skulking, hoping for some kind of signal that something might have changed somewhere important, that they have news I need from a place I can never access again.

Along the way, I meet a wayward damsel. We hole up in the Presidential Suite of some swanky relic. Sure enough, the bedside radio brings more Dr. Mars to light, "I'll Have You Anyway", which serves as a dirty backdrop to our furtive embrace. She's on her own path, headed in the opposite direction and the temptation to alter mine to match hers is strong. But I have my own unfinished business that somehow still feels important in spite of everything I've lost.

Somehow there is glamour woven in among the gloom and doom. All kinds of treasures are just lying around waiting to be picked up and used. I rounded a corner on Highway 54 and found a cabin tucked behind a row of forsythia bushes. Whoever built it must have seen the writing on the wall because they put a solar powered gennie in the garage. There was a tricked out '32 Ford Hot-Rod sitting there, gleaming under a layer of dust, dying to be aired out and let loose on an open highway. As I gunned it up to 120 MPH the radio static transformed into another transmission from Dr. Mars, "The Last Ride". Those falsetto background vocals hang over the driving rhythm section like thunderclouds over a plain.

You drive a rig like that around and you're bound to attract company. Especially of the femme fatale variety. Sure enough she stuck her thumb out and I dropped from 120 to 0 and watched her fold her long legs into the passenger seat. Sure her hair against the sunset streaming behind us made a pretty picture but her idea of fun was shooting windows out of abandoned cars as we zoomed past. Having spent many months living inside a car like that, I had to put my foot down. The silence was punctuated by the strains of "Whatever I Say Goes" drifting up from a shopping cart piled high with anything and everything, a detritus sundae topped with a transistor radio of a cherry.

The confrontation left her shaken. She wasn't used to people sticking by her AFTER a fight like that. We camped out next to the '32 and I stroked her hair as she cried. I remembered the Dr. Mars "Neptune's Daughter" song and thought about telling her about it but she was so muddled up it might just have made things worse. I settled on helping her focus on the crickets. She drifted off to sleep. But I told her the refrain..."You don't have to keep it all to yourself."

In the morning she was gone.

So was the '32.

Easy come easy go.

I backtracked and found that shopping cart. It made for slow going but whoever had put it together knew what they were doing. Water purification, dehydrated foodstuff, military rations, basic toiletries, a few simple tools, and best of all, five pairs of brand new boots, just my size.

And that transistor on the top. Remember, it's all static now except the few pockets of pirate radio. All they have is Dr. Mars last offering, "Stars In Our Favour". As I pushed my cart in my new boots, "The Golden Age" didn't even sound ironic. Sad, yes, but still somehow hopeful.

Are you getting the picture now? As I trudge I hear "You Had The Same Dream Too", some sort of elegy bound up with a tragic romance. Then "The Capsule" blasts off out of that emotional wreckage, giving me the impression that I'm not trapped here, that I can leave any time I want, that I'm not pushing a wire cage on wheels.

Where would I go in that little ship?

What coordinates would I punch into the interstellar destination locator?

Rumors from hobos hiding underneath every dusty junkyard mattress to machine-gun-toting guards at impenetrable compounds hint of colonies on some moon somewhere. Just when I scoff at the thought, Dr. Mars comes crackling out waltzing me out into that deep beyond with the desperate longing of "Europa". How could that song exist if we couldn't get there? When the horns come in I can't help but imagine Dr. Mars stepping out of a hatch onto a welcome platform, thronging masses of well-adjusted peace-loving human Europans cheering as one.

Just when that vision becomes too much for my poor little abandoned heart to take, "The Sweetheart Deal, Part Two" slides out of my radio and I think, maybe Jupiter is out of the question, but isn't it possible I could track Dr. Mars down and join? Like that old spiritual says, "He don't say nothin' but he must know somethin'".

But that's where the fear comes in because all I know about them is the way they sound. If I can believe what I hear, there must be something good happening in some secret locale. Some Hobbit hole with books and records and good wine and long stupid conversations punctuated by deliberate hilarity. I mean, somewhere you can really relax and feel like everything will be okay.

That's a big if.

Because everything is most definitely NOT okay. Whatever will be has not come to pass yet, if it ever will. You think "Europa" is hard to get to, what about the FUTURE? Only way to get there is one slow second at a time. So I push my cart and wear out my five pair of boots and wait for another cypher from Dr. Mars to tell me where I ought to be going.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Scott Walker and Catherine Deneuve

In 1964 a film was released that catapulted Catherine Deneuve to international stardom. If you haven't seen "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" I urge you to make it a priority. But don't watch it on a tiny laptop with interruptions. If you must watch it at home make sure it is on a big screen and commit to the whole kit and kaboodle.

It is a musical unlike any other. Every line of the film is sung. Small talk, conversations between incidental characters, shopkeepers and customers, how-do-you-do's and pardon-me-ma'am's are scored as lushly as the songs that erupt from the existing musical landscape.

On top of this layer of unreality, director Jacques Demy manages to create a palette consisting entirely of primary colors, every blue the same blue, every red the same red, green to green, until this impossible scheme forces you into a world as idealized and imaginary as any Disney cartoon. The double whammy of these two unreal elements (music and color) juxtaposed with the melodrama of a young shop girl pregnant by her young lover sent off to fulfill his duty to his country - well, you wind up with just about the saddest most romantic movie ever made.

I won't give much more away than that. I only explain that much to put this next link into the proper context. The Walker Brothers were on fire. They'd had two number one hits in England, both of which had also done quite well in the United States, and they had come to be seen as their own unique brand of brooding doomed romantics. The pairing of their Gothic sensuality with the European lilt of the signature "song" from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is, in a word, transcendent.

Now, Scott Walker was already chafing at this kind of cover song. More and more he was writing compositions that rival this one in scope and beauty and melodic power. Regardless of how he views the songs that he was "forced" to interpret during this period, I (heavy stress on that I) feel that his vocal work on these covers places him in very rare company, company you can count on both hands. Frank, Judy, Dean, Tony, Ray, Nina, Ella...I'm sure you could argue any number of folks in that pantheon but if Scott Walker had never written a song he would still be one of the greatest singers of all time.

Listen to The Walker Brothers soar to impossibly sad romantic heights in their cover of the theme song to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" in the song "I Will Wait For You". I picture thousands of English high school girls (and boys) closed up in their rooms, tears streaming down their cheeks, wishing and dreaming of the eternal devotion promised in this gorgeous song.

Next up, Scott Walker solo sings more Michel LeGrand...

Friday, May 3, 2013

Scott Walker "Miniatures"

In audio taken from one of his BBC TV show broadcasts, Scott Walker introduces the song "Winter Night" from Scott 3 as a "miniature". The late '60's rock scene was all about excess. Everyone was trying to out-epic everyone else. The two minute thirty second hit single was seen as teeny-bopper fodder and artists were looking to move rock into uncharted territory, both in subject matter and length.

Scott Walker, as usual, was operating in another sphere altogether. Some of the song lengths on Scott 3 (of his own composition, not the Brel songs that close the album out) are as follows:

We Came Through 1:59
Butterfly 1:42
30 Century Man 1:29
Winter Night 1:45

Then on Scott 4 there is On Your Own Again which clocks in at 1:48 and 'Til The Band Comes in has Jean The Machine at 2:10 and Cowbell Shakin' at 1:06, barely a snippet.

This seems to be a trend in his work of the period. When compared with the work he's been doing over the past two decades they seem like thoughts that flicker across his mind. Song lengths from his past three albums routinely start at seven minutes at least and stretch to over twenty on Bish Bosch.

But these miniatures as he calls them are not underdone. They are fully realized. They are exactly as long as they need to be. Nothing superfluous, nothing redundant, no need to reiterate.

In fact, if I didn't point out how short We Came Through is you would undoubtedly classify it as an epic. I am linking to a video that pairs the song with a car driving up a parking garage ramp. Ground floor to roof and the song is over. The lyrics posted on the video are incorrect in one crucial spot so I'm going to post them here.

Watch Scott Walker's miniature epic "We Came Through" from Scott 3.

We Came Through

We came through
We came riding through like warriors from afar
Our black horses danced upon the graves
Of yesterday's desires
Haunted by our visions framed in fire

I greet you
For you still believe in what's behind the door
You see children freeze upon their knees
And praying to the wind
To send their grey Madonnas back again

Fire the guns
And salute the men who died for freedom's sake
And we'll weep tonight but we won't lie awake
Gazing up at statues dressed in stars

We won't dream
For they don't come true for us, not anymore
They've run far away to hide in caves
With haggard burning eyes
Their icy voices tear our hearts like knives

We came through
Like the Gothic monsters perched on Notre Dame
We observed the naked souls of gutters
Pouring forth mankind
Smothered in an avalanche of time

And we're giants
As we watch our kings and countries raise their shields
And Guevera dies encased in his ideals
And as Luther King's predictions fade from view

We came through
We came through
We came riding through

All that in under two minutes.

Miniature? Hardly.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Scott Walker Scares An Empty Studio: Rosary

After 1984's "Climate Of Hunter", Scott Walker seemingly disappeared again. "Climate Of Hunter" was a challenging work laced with a strange funkiness. The advent of English New Wave seemed to put Walker's style in a position to possibly connect with a wider audience again. But again, this didn't happen. He did a few awkward TV and radio interviews in support of "Climate" but the slick shallow newly formed MTV aesthetic was a terrible fit for him.

Eleven years pass. 1995's "Tilt" makes "Climate Of Hunter" sound like Lionel Richie in comparison. Walker clearly had decided that any kind of clinging to traditional song structure or attempt at pop melody was no longer part of his palette. He'd been there, done that.

"Tilt" is, in a word, intense. Dense jarring drum noises, gorgeous string orchestral sections laid over horribly violent imagery, a vocal approach that dispenses with verse/chorus/verse/bridge predictability and a headlong rush into a new kind of song where comforting structure simply no longer exists. I don't make distinctions between the "Old Scott Walker" and the "New Scott Walker". It all seems consistent to me. The staggering thing about it is the wide disparity between works of art that come from the same mind. It is as if Samuel Beckett spent years writing popular television, backslid to empty formulaic made for TV movies and spent the last third of his life writing his avant-garde plays.

The commercial landscape had changed so drastically between 1984 and 1995 that "Tilt" actually performed quite well, reaching #27 on the UK Album Chart. Noisy music was finally in the mainstream. Somehow Scott Walker had finally arrived at what he probably should have been all along. An idiosyncratic avant-garde boundary dissolver with a cult following. The massive success of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" had finally settled to an appropriate level.

This "arrival" wasn't heralded by any kind of shift in how Walker did things, however. He didn't embark on a world tour performing all his old hits in a tux and an orchestra while performing his new material with a crack punk band. He merely began the process of waiting for his next album to come to him. Which wouldn't happen until 2006.

He did, however, agree to one momentous occasion. He agreed to perform live on a television program called "Later...with Jools Holland". Jools Holland was a founding member of Squeeze, has a very successful post-Squeeze solo career, and has been hosting a music show for almost twenty years featuring interviews, live performances and impromptu collaboration.

Walker agreed but only if they allowed him to tape his performance without an audience. The clip shows how "Later" handled this, making it appear as if Walker was in a packed studio.

"Tilt" is filled with noise as I said before. The one exception is the song that closes the album, "Rosary". It is also the only track on the album where Walker plays an instrument as well as sings. It is this stark confrontational difficult song that Walker chose to perform. He COULD have chosen anything from the album, brought an impressive bizarre orchestra to showcase the ambitious sonic scope of the album.

Instead Walker chose a song that is so bare, so stripped of recognizable traditional song structure that the result is almost embarrassing, like watching someone in a private moment that they would never want you to see.

I almost never read comment threads but I perused these just to see what people thought. Old fans were dismayed that he was abandoning melody and beauty, those unfamiliar with him wondered how a man who couldn't sing or play guitar got on a TV show and even new fans wondered why he would choose THIS song to sing.

But again, Walker wasn't interested in presenting some IDEA of himself. He'd lost the ability to do that years ago. He was only capable of the performance that was as close to authenticity as he could possibly muster. It is a very disorienting performance. The music seems to be barely written, as if some kind of savant had discovered an electric guitar sitting next to him at a moment of great crisis.

I am not sure of the origin of the following quote but I recently became aware of it through Ricky Gervais' twitter account, which I highly recommend. The quote I refer to is, "If you want to lead the orchestra, you must turn your back on the audience."

Scott Walker took it a step further. He made them leave the room.

Watch Scott Walker perform "Rosary" live from 1995.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

One Minute Forty One Seconds Of Infinity

The documentary that kicked my Scott Walker obsession into being is called Scott Walker: 30 Century Man which is the title of a song off of 1969's "Scott 3".

The song is an anomaly in the Walker catalog. The first side on the vinyl Scott 3 LP consists of seven lush orchestral impossibilities. Each seems to be more beautiful and sad than the last. Each is dense to an almost pathological level. They are hothouse rainforests of melody. They envelop you in such a complete sonic landscape that you almost feel as if you are suspended within them.

Now flip the LP over.

30 Century Man cuts everything away. A simple acoustic guitar strum. A song that is as basic as they come. When I learned it on acoustic guitar I was shocked at how basic it was. The chords in it could be learned in 20 minutes by someone who had never played guitar. Compared with the strings and horns and complexity of the first side, this song is like a flat rock on top of a flat rock.

The lyrics are equally gigantic and immutable. There is a philosophy at work here that cannot be denied. Walker deliberately strips all distraction away from the words. He sings them without inflection, without emotional resonance, another flat rock on top of the slab. Posting lyrics as a way to explain the ideas contained in a song usually seems like a perfectly acceptable way to convey an opinion but in this case there just is no way to approach the MEANING of this song without the whole package working together.

Here's what happened to me while listening to it.

I'd heard the song dozens of times and didn't pause to consider it much. It works on such an obvious level that it is easy to underestimate it. But after a while, it slowly turned in my heart like a key inside of a secret lock. It spun in my orbit like a satellite, catching varied imagery from some distant unimaginable place and filtering them so I could understand.

In short, I got religious about it.

To put this into context and perspective, I am not really religious about anything. Except my own pursuit of art. But this song pierced my atheism and brought me to my knees. Not in despair but in supplication.

Why? Who knows. I could try to describe my conversion to you. But I know how I respond to like descriptions from others. I respect that they experienced something but I cannot begin to climb inside of their response. When I hear this song I feel comforted in a way I imagine a parish to feel while fire and brimstone rains down on them from the pulpit. The content is terrifying to behold but the faith you contain is strengthened through the fear.

My father used to wonder whether Vincent Van Gogh actually saw the world the way his paintings look. A friend of an ex scoffed openly at this notion, claiming that it robbed Van Gogh of the credit he rightly deserved for his genius. I thought she missed the point which was that everyone has a specific vision of the world. But not everyone can articulate it so perfectly.

This song is Starry Starry Night or The Potato Eaters. It synthesizes the human experience into a microcosm. I don't mean to go even further out on a limb but 30 Century Man, to me, makes the most sense when you imagine that God is singing it to you. The trick that Walker somehow manages to pull off is to leave the song so open-ended that it can hold whatever that brings to mind. God will sound differently when speaking to different people.


But somehow, through this song, I achieve a kind of faith, I travel forward to the time Walker evokes so effortlessly with the simplest three chords in any writer's arsenal. If this song were an invention it would be the wheel. Just think what we could do with a wheel.

Listen to 30 Century Man and inch us towards infinity.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scott Walker Sings A Show Tune

Scott Walker's parents divorced when he was quite young. His father worked in the oil industry as some sort of geological engineer which led to a vagabond youth. One of the stops was New York. Here Walker made his first foray into professional entertainment. Between the ages of 11 and 13, Walker (then named Noel Scott Engel) acted in two Broadway musicals, neither of which lasted very long or are remembered at all.

Pipe Dream ran from November 30, 1955 to June 30, 1956. Plain and Fancy ran from January 27, 1955 to March 3, 1956.

This is a footnote at best in his career, something that is barely remarked upon. But as a professional actor I know how hard it is to book even ONE part, let alone several in succession, especially in the almost hermetically sealed world of Broadway theater.

Within a year of these appearances, Walker had recorded almost an entire album worth of teeny-bopper rock and roll, clearly influenced by the swagger and croon of Elvis Presley.

But what was that year of professional acting like? A typical Broadway show rehearses for a couple of months, then goes through an out of town run to gauge audience reaction, followed by a short preview period and finally opening night. Then the play runs as long as it is financially viable.

Pipe Dream ran from November 30, 1955 to June 30, 1956. Plain and Fancy ran from January 27, 1955 to March 3, 1956.

Obviously Walker couldn't have originated whatever role he played in both shows as the runs parallel each other. But IBDB (the Broadway version of IMDB) lists him as acting in both.

To double back to my earlier point, the fact that Walker managed to audition for and execute actual performances of these plays is a testament to his musical gifts. This is no talent show where any sort of effort is rewarded. Marks must be hit, blocking executed, musical scores to fulfill and whatever story element he was involved in done properly. This was Broadway, after all, and you simply do not roll out of bed and wind up there. You pursue it wholeheartedly and once you get there you must deliver. The fact that Walker did that for two different productions within the same year is actually quite an accomplishment. I've been an Equity actor for almost twenty years now and it still hasn't happened for me!!!

I can't help wonder what that must have been like for a young boy on the verge of puberty. The backstage world, for the uninitiated, is unrelentingly ribald, filled with open emotional display and intensity. I recently did a play with a ten year old and no matter how hard the cast tried to censor themselves the boy was still witness to many adult interactions that he never would have been without being in a play.

The psychological effect notwithstanding, he certainly grew up to record many songs that could be considered "show tunes". Where most of his contemporary pop competitors were discovering scratchy old blues LP's, Scott Walker was going back to that other great American song book...the show tune.

Here are a few great examples from the album he released containing songs he'd sung on the BBC on his own show:

You're Gonna Hear From Me
The Impossible Dream
Lost In The Stars

In just a few numbers, he established himself as one of the finest interpreters of this sort of highbrow material. But rock and roll was storming the world, leaving all other forms in the dust. Thankfully Scott Walker left a few breadcrumbs on the trail back to Broadway.