Monday, April 15, 2013

Time Operator/Answering Machine: Westerberg and Walker

There are almost no musical connections between Paul Westerberg and Scott Walker. Aesthetically they could not be further apart. Westerberg is all rawness and emotion, Walker is all finesse and intellect. Westerberg rarely does more than one take because he literally loses the meaning of the song if he has to recreate anything, Walker is so meticulous that you can listen to his entire oeuvre and not hear a single intake of breath.

There is only one moment of intersection. Each incorporated a pre-recorded message from the phone company on a song.

Fifteen years and a continent apart.

On 1970's overlooked masterpiece "Til The Band Comes In", Walker wrote a song called "Time Operator". Given the mystical nature of most of his work, the first thought the title invokes is some kind of exploration of temporal dislocation in the face of modern alienation. But, no. In England, you could call a certain number and a "time operator" would literally tell you what time it was.

The song opens with a recording of the BT Speaking Clock over a lonely late night string figure which segues into a sax trill. Walker begins his trademark croon and the song shifts into a piano bar shuffle in which he asks the time operator to meet him since they are both awake. It is a sexy lonely tune. It ends with Walker saying "I wouldn't care if you're ugly/'Coz here with the lights out I couldn't see/You just picture Paul Newman/And girl he looks a lot like me".

This might be the first reference to phone sex ever recorded. The picture Walker paints is that of a lonely brooding man unable to connect with anything concrete. He calls the anonymous speaking clock and tries to seduce the voice he hears. Buried deep here is a kind of humor, since clearly there isn't an actual woman on the line but merely a recording of one. Walker is essentially talking to himself.

In Westerberg's "Answering Machine", as might be expected, this whole situation is inverted. Westerberg is calling a specific girl, she isn't there, he gets her answering machine. He always gets her answering machine. He has so many things he wants to say. Knowing that he will merely be putting his voice on tape leaves him lost and lonely. He wails, "Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance/How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?/How do you say good night to an answering machine?/How do you say I'm lonely to an answering machine?/Message is very plain/Oh, I hate your answering machine".

As this sentiment snarls inside of the distorted guitar figure that propels the song, an impersonal female voice emerges, asking "if you need help if you need help if you'd like to make a call please hang up and try again".

The effect is devastating. It moves past the literal occurrence of trying to reach someone and gets at the panic and loss that you feel when you are isolated. The song becomes the inner monologue of someone contemplating the end of something, not the pain of trying to get in touch. The guitar sound is anthemic and soaring. The sound of it immediately cries out for drums, for a guitar solo, for the song to explode into the rock and roll triumph that is obvious in the melody and singing. But it never comes. Westerberg is alone at the heart of it.

These two writers are about as far apart stylistically as you can get. They are also my favorites.

Listen to Scott Walker's "Time Operator" off of 1970's "Til The Band Comes In" and The Replacements "Answering Machine" off of 1984's "Let It Be".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Stop by my webpage ... バーバリー 服