Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fugitive Kinds: Scott Walker, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams

Scott Walker reclaimed authorship of his career after 1978's Walker Brothers swan song "Nite Flights". But what kind of career did he have? The Walker Brothers, after an improbable comeback, had finally ceased to be viable. Any remnant of his solo cultural impact had long since dissipated and the insider appreciation for his work didn't have any commercial manifestation.

In short, he was at very loose ends.

His next album wouldn't come out for six years. Between 1965 and 1978, Walker, either solo or with the band, had released fourteen full-length albums and countless stray singles and b-sides. Thirteen years of churning out product.

Then six years of complete silence.

Rumor has it that during this time he turned down the opportunity to have David Bowie produce an album for him. That sessions with Brian Eno did not satisfy him. So he hadn't entirely disappeared, but he was certainly unwilling to put something out that he wasn't completely happy with.

1984's "Climate of Hunter" ended the self-imposed exile. The first seven songs on the album are Scott Walker originals and if you can imagine Simple Minds being forced at gunpoint to play Nine Inch Nails songs you can get a vague idea of the direction he was headed in. Gone are the '70's string-drenched country covers, schmaltzy balladry and gauzy anthems.

But there is one song on the album that Scott Walker didn't write. And it was written by, surprise surprise, Tennessee Williams.

In 1959, Williams wrote the screenplay for the film based on his stage play of 1937. Brando stars as a drifter named "Snakeskin" who flees New Orleans and gets into trouble in a small town. Williams collaborated with Kenyon Hopkins to write a song that Brando sings, the character accompanying himself on guitar.

Watch Brando sing Kenyon Hopkins and Tennessee Williams' "Blanket Roll Blues".

Scott Walker must have seen the film at some point. He enlisted Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, at the time one of the biggest stars on earth, to play spectacular lone acoustic guitar to accompany his incredible voice, which would never be so straightforward again.

Listen to Scott Walker and Mark Knopfler go about as deep into a blues song as you can possibly go. Walker lets Knopfler ruminate on the melodic figure of the song, creating a sparse landscape that seems lifted out of a John Steinbeck novel. Almost a full minute and a half go by before Walker begins singing, and while it is subtle and understated, Knopfler's guitar work here is as amazing as the most soaring of Hendrixian or Van Halen solos.

"Blanket Roll Blues" from 1984's Climate of Hunter is just one more remarkable achievement from this staggeringly under-appreciated career.

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