This is how you disappear – Scott Walker

The first time Scott Walker disappeared, it was when he adopted the name by which he became known.

Truth be told, it probably wasn’t his first disappearing act.

But it is a notable one.

By this time, Noel Scott Engel had moved around the United States with his family several times, had taken one or two shots at being a teen idol, and had gigged as a session musician in LA.

A drummer, Gary Leeds, had come back from a European tour and Walker, now part of a trio named the Walker Brothers with Leeds and John Maus, was convinced that the band should try its fortunes in England.

So Walker disappeared again, in part because of hours he spent watching European fare in cinemas, but also because Leeds’ dad was willing to bankroll the band’s trip, and maybe even to escape the draft.

Not long after, Walker and his ‘brothers’ had reverse engineered a British Invasion of their own, under assumed names long before the Ramones, and for a brief shining moment, they were purportedly bigger than the Beatles in the UK.

Over lush nocturnal backdrops, he began articulating loneliness in a plush voice that made every moment of every song seem particularly urgent, dramatic, and somehow personal, even though the songs were not about him.

When he sang ‘lonely,’ he made you feel it.

Ill-equipped to navigate the kind of fame he found in England, Walker attempted to disappear again.

There were reports of suicide attempts.

And time spent among monks learning Gregorian chant.

The Scott Walker who made his solo debut with Scott was now leaning deeper in to the deep shades of blue that had made him famous, but in a darker, more ethereal way.

Inspired in part by Jacques Brel and by his own first attempts at writing b-sides for the Walkers, which culminated in gothic fare like Archangel and the eerie kitchen-sink drama of Orpheus, Scott began interpreting and crafting songs that had a cinematic scope, a keen eye for observation, a proclivity for transgression, a sense of dream logic, an otherworldliness.

One moment, he was narrating the nearly suffocating urban closeness of Montague Terrace in Blue and the next he was delving into the nightmarish world of Plastic Palace People, only to apply that richly textured voice of loss and longing to something as opaquely romantic exquisite as Duchess or to an ode as empathetic as Big Louise.

It was music that was out of its time, tapping into the easy comforts provided by classic crooners but with subject matter and avant-garde arrangements that unsettled.

For a brief while, it worked, garnering him a few hit singles, a couple of Top 10 UK albums, and his own variety TV show.

But when Scott 4, released under his real name, did not sell, Walker disappeared again, this time behind a veil of odd and uncharacteristic cover songs and an alcoholic haze.

Denied the opportunity to continue writing and developing his art, Walker thought that if he just did what the labels wanted, if he played their game, he might earn back enough of an audience to get back to what he was striving for on his first solo albums.

In the midst of his crumbling career and state, he disappeared again, this time into the Walker Brothers, shielding his face on their first comeback album as if he didn’t want you to know it was him.

But that distinct voice, which at times still hinted at his greatness, helped lift the band briefly back into the UK Top 10 with a cover of Tom Rush’s No Regrets.

It seemed he would just play things out with diminishing returns until his record label began experiencing financial difficulties, and he heard what his former acolyte David Bowie was doing in Berlin.

Now, Walker had an opportunity to do what he wanted.

On the first three tracks of Nite Flights, you can hear him catching up to Bowie and the zeitgeist with songs that, much like his solo work, sound a bit out of time.

They are weird, mutant creations of skronk and shock, but this time Walker’s voice isn’t there to make it easy on you.

He’s starting to use it to further unsettle you, with lyrics that have fully embraced the realm of nightmares and uncertainty.

By the time you reach the fourth track, The Electrician, you realize that he’s waving goodbye.

He’s taking music beyond what was going on into a new landscape, where it plays more like an art installation or an aural movie than mere songs.

In the years that followed, Walker would disappear again.

Long, long periods of silence passed as he waited for the words to come, at which point he would sculpt blocks of sound to undergird them.

Climate of Hunter was the start point, as he denied his many collaborators any sense as to what the melody would be.

But The Drift is probably most emblematic of what he was questing for.

It is an often disorienting, harrowing journey into the brutality and strangeness of life, spanning everything from the spread of a plague to the violent fate of Mussolini and his partner Clara.

This week, Scott Walker disappeared again.

For the last time.

The silence that has ensued is a permanent one.

There will be no more dispatches.

No more new releases to work through like a koan, unless new songs hinted at inĀ  Sundog were close enough to completion that they are shared with the world.

All that is left is the work he crafted as he sought to rediscover, as Camus put it, the ‘two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’

And while I have disappeared for years into his work when the world was disappointing or hard to parse or even when I wanted joy, it is in his presence that my heart always opens.

Ultimately, his quest is a reminder to all of us to continue our own.

With no regrets.

And no tears goodbye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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