Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'll Be Home, Cowboy: Nilsson, Walker, Newman

After years and years of dwindling interest in music, 2011/2012 brought a double whammy of melodic obsession. First I discovered Harry Nilsson through the documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson?" which is still on Netflix and you should see if at all possible.

I spent the next few months buying used cheap versions of his albums, reading all about him, and generally freaking out that I hadn't really even known who he WAS before. His career seems unthinkable when you examine it for even a split second and if you listed everything he did and everything that happened to him, you would think he lived to be 150 years old.

Nilsson inadvertently led me to Scott Walker. Here's how that happened.

I was having trouble watching narrative film. I had been spending most of my time either listening to or reading about Harry Nilsson. But I was too tired to read and it was too late to play my guitar. I had a mini realization. Hey, I liked that documentary about Nilsson. Maybe there's another cool music doc about someone I don't know much about.

The Walker doc had been on Netflix for a short while and I'd noted it in passing without giving it too much thought. The name rang zero bells. At least with Nilsson I knew the NAME even if I had no idea what songs he'd sung or written. With Walker it was a complete blank.

I watched it and obviously it had a large effect on me or you wouldn't be reading this.

However, it took me several months before I realized there was more of a connection between Nilsson and Walker than just ME watching the documentaries in quick succession.

While delving into everything Nilsson, I bought his landmark 1969 album "Nilsson Sings Newman". Nilsson had shot to prominence a short time earlier when The Beatles had named him their "favorite American band", which is hilarious when you think of it. So what does Nilsson do with this megaphone he's got pointed at a giant audience? He decides to sing an entire album worth of Randy Newman songs.

To put this into some kind of perspective, this would be like Adele deciding right now to record an album of MY songs.

The resulting album was not a giant success. It seemed out of step with the times which were getting louder and more rock and roll than ever before. This album was as far from that as you can get. Newman plays the piano, Nilsson sings. That's it. No jams, no psychedelica, no extended drum solos, nothing trippy. Were you to sit a family around the piano in 1903 (like the song on the album imagines), and have them sing all these tunes, they would hardly seem out of place.

What's all this got to do with Scott Walker, you ask? Well, after his career had been torpedoed and he was coerced into abandoning his songwriting, occasionally Walker seemed to put his foot down and demand a level of quality in the song choices. Granted, he sang some terrible songs. But mixed in with the dreck are some gems.

Two of these gems are songs taken from the Nilsson/Newman collaboration.

Clearly Scott Walker had heard it. So forty years before I would become obsessed with these two artists almost simultaneously, they were already connected.

The two Randy Newman songs that the Nilsson and Walker catalogs share are "I'll Be Home" and "Cowboy".

I love both versions and am including all four here for you to enjoy.

Nilsson "I'll Be Home"
Nilsson "Cowboy"
Scott Walker "I'll Be Home" (Skip to 11:25 of this link)
Scott Walker "Cowboy"

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Scott Walker: The Next Great Crooner, The Last Great Crooner

By the time Scott Walker left The Walker Brothers to go solo, the tradition of the tuxedo clad handsome man standing in front of a similarly clad orchestra singing "standards" was so all-pervasive that YOUTH REBELLED AGAINST THE VERY IDEA OF IT. It had somehow come to represent the status quo, it had taken on a political meaning, and that meaning wasn't of the forward thinking radical, it's meaning was more the cop showing up to bust the party than the party itself.

Make no mistake, Scott Walker was being groomed to follow in the footsteps of those men, of Sinatra, of Dean Martin. The success of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" catalyzed a vast swath of teenage girls who were now as open to Walker singing softly as they were to the hip-shaking beautiful vulgarity of Mick Jagger. Whatever Walker had tapped into went very deep and the people in charge of his career smelled the proverbial blood in the water. Here was a mystery man, here was a person with the rare combination of sheer physical talent and impossible-to-quantify charisma. Add that to the strange songs of his own writing and you can see why they thought they had a gold mine on their hands.

When you say the word Sinatra, a certain style is automatically evoked in your mind. It involves red velvet walls, light glinting off ice cubes perspiring with brown liquor, evening gowns held lightly by gloved fingers to ensure that high heels don't snag, all class, all sophistication. Now, you can puncture that vision with any kind of deep gaze but Michael Buble is proof that the pudding still exists. Scott Walker's record company saw gold in them thar hills and Walker was their claim to it.

Thus, his first three solo albums are peppered with standards, with songs that wouldn't be out of place in a set by Judy Garland at The Rainbow Room, or from Sammy Davis, Jr. in the desert of Las Vegas. As that style of music must be, these recordings are immaculate. They are intricately staged set pieces of romantic imagination. Taken on their own they are some kind of pinnacle, but when paired with the OTHER work Walker was doing and would do, they become almost talismanic, they ARE the fantasy and they EVOKE the fantasy at the same time.

Watch him sing "When Joanna Loved Me" on the Dusty Springfield show. The song is from Walker's debut solo album "Scott".

The sound of this falls into some vague adult contemporary category, the world where Mel Torme and Englebert Humperdink live, the world where Steve and Edie sing the classics side by side and everyone's fears about the future are assuaged. There is no room for the radical there, the edges, the underbelly. The audience who was clinging to this type of music was desperately AFRAID of rock and roll, found it to be threatening in a fundamental way.

But Walker was a hybrid, the ultimate beatnik, a crooner who could pull off the formal emotional sweep of a show-tune like "When Joanna Loved Me" but who could also write his own material stranger than any experimental rock and roll anthem.

For a few short years, Walker seemed on the cusp of becoming a superstar combination of the two mutually exclusive genres. But the culture was rocketing away from the croon faster than Walker could work. By 1970 and the two albums that I consider to be masterpieces, he was seen as outdated, square, for parents. In a terrible perverse irony, he then spent eight years making music that was just that.

For a brief moment he'd been Sinatra in front of the orchestra. He paid for it by having to remain there as Mel Torme.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Murder In Ostia

In Ostia, Italy on November 2, 1975, a seventeen year old hustler named Giuseppe Pelosi climbed into a car owned by Pier Paolo Pasolini. At the time, Pasolini was one of the most celebrated radical filmmakers in the world, certainly the premier director in Italy. Pelosi ran over Pasolini. Then he ran over him again. Then he ran over him again.

Roughly twenty years later, Scott Walker released the harrowing album "Tilt". It was his first album in eleven years. His last had been "Climate of Hunter", released in 1984, a slick strange pop collection of macabre funk laid over sensuous bass lines and even stranger melody.

"Tilt" would make "Climate of Hunter" seem like a Hall & Oates record.

The first song on "Tilt" is called "Farmer In The City (Remembering Pasolini)". Walker takes a translation of a poem by Pasolini and modifies it, layering it over an orchestral composition that can only be described as bleak. I don't know what he was trying to say about Pasolini, I don't know what the hell he is talking about in this song. At several points he seems to be an auctioneer and a bidder at the same time..."I'll give you 21/21/21/Do I hear 21/21/21". A further couplet states that he "can't go buy a man in this shirt", either referring to actual slavery or to purchasing the services of a male prostitute.

Again, I have no idea what Walker is talking about here. All I know is that by including Pasolini in the title, by referencing the name of the town where he was brutally murdered, and by invoking the specter of human trafficking of one degree or another, you are placed in the uncomfortable position of being a denyer, of having a truth-teller grab you by the back of your neck, forcibly keep you from turning away from what you most desperately wish to avoid, and having them snarl at you, "Look. Do not turn away."

But all the while, their voice is hypnotic. The bed of music that cradles it is epic and lush. No matter how many times I hear it, I am unprepared. I cannot take it in.

Nothing is mentioned in the song of what the young hustler felt as the wheels crushed the life out of the body of a great artist. No attempt is made to link the lyrical content of the song to the occurrences that led up to such a horrific end. Walker doesn't try to feel the pounding in the chest of the murderer shifting the car into reverse to increase the damage to the corpse. Shifting it back into forward, heart pounding with what? Exhilaration? Regret? Triumph? Relief?

The song might not even be about that occurrence. Walker isn't saying. He makes a bunch of sounds in a recording studio and forces us to say it for him.

Watch "Farmer In The City" off of Scott Walker's 1995 masterpiece "Tilt".