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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bowie, Fatima Mansions & Walker Brothers: 3 Versions of Nite Flights: Original/2 Copies

Only one way to fall.

The title track of The Walker Brothers swan song is the incredible "Nite Flights". While it doesn't open the album, the fact that Walker doubled it as the name of the album speaks volumes about the importance of this particular song.

The song on its own merits is stunning. A sleek propulsive bass line propels the rhythm, descending against a rising layer of keyboard shimmer. Cymbals hiss, the snare pops, and the overall effect is somehow like something out of a science fiction film.

Put in the context of the musical landscape of 1978 and the song takes on even greater significance. England was exploding into punk rock and new wave, both of which are left in the dust by the genre-less edifice this song effortlessly erects.

In the hands of a media juggernaut, this album could have been some kind of international blockbuster. It was obviously blazing new sonic ground and combining this with the unlikely history of The Walker Brothers seems like an alley-oop. But the company was folding and the album made a brief appearance, affected a few of the cognoscenti, and that was that for The Walker Brothers.

I can only make analogies to somehow explain what this might look like were it to happen today. Imagine that Hall & Oates released an album tomorrow that alienated all of their fans from back in the day but that in 30 years would be looked upon as the pinnacle of musical achievement of the era.

After all, in the film 30 Century Man, Brian Eno holds up a copy of "Nite Flights" and says, "We've come no further than this. It's shameful!"

Listen to the original "Nite Flights" off of 1978's "Nite Flights" by The Walker Brothers.

The album did not have the kind of commercial success to match the critical lasting effect it had on musicians.

Elsewhere on this blog you will find my 50 Greatest Albums series. One of these is "Viva Dead Ponies" by a little-known Irish band called The Fatima Mansions. They had a moment in the sun in the early '90's and "Viva Dead Ponies" is one of the great political manifestos ever put to sound. On the follow up "Lost In The Former West" is a cover of "Nite Flights". I've had the song for almost twenty years but never knew it was a cover, let alone that it was written by Scott Walker. It was my favorite song on the album.

Listen to "Nite Flights" by The Fatima Mansions off of "Lost In The Former West".

The second copy of the original comes from David Bowie who has honored Walker as one of his heroes. He executive produced the movie about Walker and it is obvious that much of his singing style was influenced by him as well.

Listen to "Nite Flights" off of David Bowie's "Black Tie, White Noise".

Again I must return to the element of fear that is somehow present in Walker's work. The imagery is so startling, so perfectly realized, and so unlike anything you are used to witnessing in pop song form that there is a kind of vertigo that ensues. This sensation when juxtaposed with the aural oddity is unsettling in a way that is impossible to quantify. Walker has said that he starts with the words and that they inform his melodic choices. Read "Nite Flights". I don't know what it means but it terrifies me.

Nite Flights

There's no hold
The moving has come through
The danger brushing you
Turns its face into the heat
And runs the tunnels

It's so cold
The dark dug up by dogs
The stitches torn and broke
The raw meat fist you choke
Has hit the bloodlite

Glass traps open and close on nite flights
Broken necks
Feather weights press the walls
Be my love
We will be gods on nite flights
Only one promise
Only one way to fall

Glass traps open and close on nite flights
Broken necks
Feather weights press the walls
Be my love
We will be gods on nite flights
Only one promise
Only one way to fall

On the nite flights
On the nite flights
On the nite flights
Only one way to fall

On the nite flights
On the nite flights
On the nite flights
Only one way to fall