A few years ago I was commissioned to write a short piece for a catalogue for a planned Scott Walker exhibition in Detroit. The exhibition didn’t happen and the catalogue was never published. This is the text I wrote. I might have changed my opinion slightly since it was written (and I probably wouldn’t be referencing Morrissey these days) but although I didn’t listen to Scott very often I was always happy knowing he was around pushing and pulling words and sounds in and out of the darkness. I’m sad he’s gone. There are very few true mavericks in the world.
First things first. I had an ambivalent relationship with the later music of Scott Walker. Not long after Tilt was released I had shared a car journey, that turned into an interminable traffic jam, with a serious Scott fan and his recently purchased CD of the album. We listened to it twice or maybe three or four times. It was hard to tell. I was waiting for tunes but when they came they were invariably snatched away before I could hold on to them like one of those practical jokes with a £5 note on a zip cord. I didn’t feel the need to ever hear the album again. Not least because it could have triggered a flashback to the fumes and frustration of a motorway lined with stationary cars and my sad eyed stare at the horizon blocking back of a van with its half-erased grime graffiti of a stick man with an implausibly large cock.
A few years later, my friend, the Scott fan, told me how good The Drift was. I didn’t doubt his word and I was glad it existed. But like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or the star-nosed mole I was happy for it to be out there in the world, glad that there is a place for those sorts of things, but felt no personal compulsion to engage with it in any way.
It wasn’t that I had found Tilt to be too difficult. By the second play through I already knew that the idea of a prime Scott pop-song had been buried like shrapnel in a long healed wound. It was still interesting but was it any good? And what was good anyway? In modern culture with its layered irony, its assimilation, its reclamation, everything could be seemingly good and bad at the same time. Everyone’s a critic yet nobody knows what’s good any more. I certainly couldn’t tell.
I was browsing in a record shop and The Drift was playing loud from the speakers. The sound filled the place like the black smoke of a burning tyre. I’d read a review of the album in the art-comic Frieze. The music writer Bob Stanley questioned whether The Drift was built on “an illusion of quality”. Was Mr Walker the emperor parading around in his new clothes? It didn’t seem that way to me. There was something there in those shifting tectonic plates of sound and obscurant lyrical proclamations but what it was exactly I wasn’t sure I really wanted to find out. It was like being in a strange room when the lights go out and choosing not to fumble around looking for the switch but instead just choosing to sit and enjoy the darkness. Somebody else might turn on the light. Or the sun will come up eventually anyway. I bought some records but I didn’t buy The Drift.
A few years later I was at my Scott fan friend’s place (I have other self-proclaimed Scott fan friends but this particularly persistent fan is the only one who seemed to actually evangelise the later albums) and he had a copy of Bish Bosch. “You’ve got to hear this track” he said, “it’s funny. You’ll like it.”
He played me SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) and when Scott got to the line “If shit were music...” he laughed. And by the time he’d sung “you’d be a brass band” I was laughing too. It was funny. The song played out and it was funny. Like Ubu Roi is funny. Like Waiting For Godot is funny. It was like something out of Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour. A mix of scatology and arcane mythology as if Walker had kept Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable on the bedside table next to a copy of The Book of Insults. Finding the humour, realising it was okay to laugh, unlocked the album for me. I suddenly got it. I still couldn’t decide if Scott was wearing any clothes but if he wasn’t I was happy for him to be there mooning at me. As another misunderstood pop eccentric once sang “I’d like to drop my trousers to the world.” And really, these days, who wouldn’t given half the chance.
Kirk Lake – April 2017
Kirk Lake is a novelist and screenwriter. He lives in London.
the first journalism Lake ever had published was a history of Johnny Thunders for Record Collector magazine, since then he has written for publications including the Guardian, Dazed and Confused, the Idler and more recently, outsideleft.com as you have just seen.