Prologue: Eat This, Crows!
Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.
In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game…
“Nite Flights”, November 2012.
He usually isn’t stuck for words. Well, he’s stuck for words these days. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. It’s odd, he was always around, there was always something cooking. I wish he’d make a record.
Scott Walker, on David Bowie, Mojo, December 2012.
He opened his laptop and read the morning’s collection of news about himself. Once he’d had an assistant sift through the papers and magazines and stuff thick packets of clippings into manila envelopes, delivered via courier. Now some custom-rigged alliance of Google News and other secretive algorithms did it all. It made for duller reading, he’d found. Drinking a cup of coffee, he read of a Tyrolean fashion show with an Aladdin Sane theme; of a boy, born in Elkhart, Indiana, whose parents had named him Thin White Duke (they were Dukes, her mother’s maiden name was White, but the child was ten pounds, six ounces). Another entry from the ridiculous blog. A long one this time: well, they tended towards the gaseous, didn’t they?
He finished reading, lingering over the last paragraphs, and let out a laugh with some violence in it. He fished into the pocket of a jacket draped over a nearby chair and found the flash drive. He danced it between his fingers. Another laugh, more ruminative, carrying a trace of his old smoker’s cough. “Oh, if only,” he said lightly. He thought of typing “No, Where Are We Now?” into the comment box.
Instead he dressed, put on his cap and coat, went outside, had a cab hailed. He was murmuring. Lifeless planet…Out of the game. Like you’re in the game. Looks like it’s going to be one of Mr. B’s odd days, the doorman considered.
I: This Is How You Disappear
I took what I was given
And I took what I had stole
But I took nobody with me,
Not a soul, not a soul.
Tennessee Williams, draft of “Blanket Roll Blues.”
The last time Bowie and Brian Eno had been in a studio together was in 1979, when they were listening to the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights. Fifteen years later, Bowie and Eno finally made another record: in part a Scott Walker record, as it turned out.
The album, Leon, which would become Outside, had begun with paints and role-playing, with Eno assigning Bowie the part of a village storyteller. But as the sessions in Montreux went on, Bowie considered another role. He would create a Scott Walker album, an album that Walker, apparently lost to silence, would never make. The challenge was: where would Walker have gone after his then-last record, Climate of Hunter? Where would he be in 1994, after he’d been reduced to a set of speculations? He’s ill. All he does is sit in a pub in Vauxhall and watch ’em play darts. He’s done with music, he’s washed up. The Sunday People had even offered a reward for Walker sightings, as if he was a Yeti.
I just decided to stop for a while and concentrate on art, painting and drawing and things like that.
Walker, interview, 1995.
Both Bowie and Eno had wanted to produce Climate of Hunter; much to his label’s irritation, Walker had declined them both. Eno had tried again a few years later, offering his and Daniel Lanois’ services. There were a few preliminary sessions, but it didn’t work out—Walker allegedly later said of Lanois, “I didn’t get on with that guy,” and Walker collaborator Brian Gascoigne said “Eno hadn’t the faintest idea of what Scott was up to…[Scott] is happy to listen to suggestions…as long as nobody tries to insist on one that’s been sidestepped. And they, as hired producers, never understood that.” Now with Bowie’s scheme, Eno could produce a Walker record at last, and free of the burden of dealing with Walker.
Lodger had answered Nite Flights, as the latter had answered “Heroes,” but it had been a superficial response: a name-check, a song or two where Bowie had dug out his old “Scott” voice. Bowie and Eno didn’t take on “The Electrician,” which had stunned them: Eno once described the track as a future of music not taken. Bowie seemed obsessed with the song. Tackling “Nite Flights,” as he did in 1992, had been easy. “The Electrician” was more formidable. In the fifteen years since its release, he’d barely gotten its measure.
What was it about “The Electrician”? The only other song to rival it for Bowie was “I’m Waiting For the Man.” I once described “Man” as a song Bowie felt that he ought to have written; his recycling of its riff and rhythm in his own songs (everything from “Laughing Gnome” to “Heroes”) and his endless covering of “Waiting For the Man” on stage suggested that he was possessive of the song, that he had as much a claim to it as Lou Reed had.
“The Electrician” opens with massed atonal strings, a bass note tolling the downbeat and Walker’s groaning baritone; it shifts to a section where Walker and John Maus harmonize twistedly; it suddenly becomes a gorgeous flight of strings and Spanish guitar. Strings, bass and baritone return. There’s no help, no. A last shift of the strings and it ends. What’s striking about “The Electrician” is that these shifts have no dramatic impetus; they don’t feel scripted, they aren’t leading to or following each other. The song just resets itself each time it changes. A song about torture is now a love song is both is neither. The perspectives are fluid. The opening lines are set in the torture room, and on paper, they read like an Ink Spots song: Baby, it’s slow/when lights go low. The torture itself is erotic: the torturer jerks the handle, the victim’s body writhes.
In 1994, Bowie was writing about ritual murder and art crimes, mapping killers and lovers (were his Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone the torture/tortured pair, now stranded in some cybernetic gumshoe fantasy?). “The Electrician,” with its tropical extremes of mood, its indecipherable strains of romance and brutality, its sense of violation (the torturer is drilling through the spiritus sanctus, violating the spirit as much as the body) and resistance (whose dream is the strings and guitar idyll? the torturer or the person on the rack?), was at the root of the project. Bowie couldn’t claim “Electrician” as he’d tried with “Waiting for the Man”: he could only try to channel the song’s uncanny power into his own creations.
II: Rawhide and Bloody Bones
They do not know her here. That is,
I am free to invent her! sweet
Anne Carson, “Canicula di Anna.”
So if he was to make a ghost Scott Walker album, Bowie’s other reference besides “The Electrician” was Climate of Hunter. Outside was in part a corrective swerve away from Hunter. The latter, released soon before Bowie’s Tonight in 1984, is an odd duck: it sounds, as @discographies said, as if Walker hadn’t heard any contemporary music since the late Seventies. It’s cold and glossy, a “commercial” record by Walker’s standards, especially when compared to “The Electrician,” and it’s also a funeral for his past selves, an oblique way to prepare his audience for what would come next.
As Damon Krukowski and Lewis Williams noted, Hunter was rigidly sequenced. There are four songs on each side, mirrors of each other—each side was a move from “difficulty” to reassurance and goodbyes. So the openers, “Rawhide” and “Track Five,” begin with an isolated, odd sound (a panned, erratic cowbell and bass guitar harmonics, respectively) and remain bewildering—“Rawhide” is a Western “round ’em up” ballad with Cro-Magnon sheep herders. “Dealer” and “Track Six,” the knottiest tracks on the album, have Evan Parker’s saxophone (Parker recalled Walker, over a bottle of Chablis, asking for clouds of saxophones); “Track Three” and “Track Seven” were Walker’s idea of pop singles, with Peter Van Hooke’s hi-hat pushed up in the mix (just like his work on Nite Flights) and each with bloodless guitar solos by Ray Russell, who had to play “blind” in the studio, with no sense of the top melody.
And each side’s closer was a throwback: “Sleepwalkers Woman,” a gorgeous, string- somber ballad that opened like “Boy Child” and, as it went on, became a farewell, a man abandoning those who had known him in his beautiful youth. I am returned, he sang, but only to say farewell. Its Side 2 counterpart was “Blanket Roll Blues,” Walker’s last cover on record, a wisp of a song that Tennessee Williams wrote and Marlon Brando sang on The Fugitive Kind. A hobo’s song, a few lines hummed while a man breaks camp and heads off.
Hunter was a work of isolated individuals. Walker had written the songs alone, cooped up in a “workman’s cabin in Tunbridge Wells” during the summer of 1983, and he’d “kept his melodies a secret from his players,” often waiting until everyone had left the studio before cutting his vocals. There’s a cold, disjointed feel to the album: Mark Knopfler and Walker, the two performers of “Blanket Roll Blues,” are seemingly on different continents.
So Bowie would make Walker communal—he’d carve his songs out of the collisions of his players, playing live in a single room. Outside would be set in an imagined America, compared with Walker’s increasingly abstracted Europe (“I developed a European imagination, which probably doesn’t have anything to do with Europe at all,” Walker once said). And where Walker slaved over his lyrics, not recording until all of his lines were set (“I sit down and notate it all, the top line, rough idea of the bars. It’s an old fashioned way of working,” he said), Bowie had a computer program churn up a string of random text which he would pillage, calling out lines during group improvisations.
And as the Outside sessions went on, Bowie’s new “Walker” songs developed. The eerie moments of the Leon suites, like “We’ll Creep Together.” “Wishful Beginnings,” with its keening ode to murder, set over drum and synth loops. The world’s-end sad sack lament “A Small Plot of Land.” And finally, his big roll of the dice: the song where he finally met “The Electrician.”
III: From a Motel 6
He arose laden with doubt as to how he should begin. He looked back at the bed where the grindstone lay. He looked out at the world, the most famous experimental prison of its time. Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing. Yet he could see.
Anne Carson, “On the King and His Courage.”
“The Motel” opens in the lobby. Murmured conversations, barely heard over a duo playing in a corner of the room. A garrulous pianist, a secretive bassist. The latter* plays a fretless bass, another callback to Climate of Hunter. Nearly a minute in, Bowie wanders over from the bar, begins singing as if in mid-sentence. For we’re living in the safety zone…living from hour to hour down here. Everything’s provisional, wavering—chords oscillate between F and F-sharp, Bowie often shifts between singing A or B-flat notes. An interlude: synthesizer, Mike Garson’s querying piano, bass fills. Bowie continues: It’s a kind of living which recognizes…the death…of the odorless man…
Its title suited it. A motel, especially the David Lynch-esque one Bowie’s checked into here, can be a purgatorial place, a shabby limbo (or, more fitting for Bowie’s past, a bardo, a vestibule between reincarnations; see “Quicksand”). Then drums kick in, cementing the song in 4/4, and Bowie sharpens his tone: There is no hell. There is no shame. It’s a (deliberate?) mishearing, an echo, of Walker’s “there is no help,” in “Electrician.” Bowie conflates Walker’s line with something he’d recalled from his visit to Gugging Asylum: “THIS IS HELL,” scrawled on a wall in the murderer’s wing. There is no hell…like an old hell. The chorus expires with Bowie hitting his highest notes so far: “it’s LIGHTS UP BOYS.” He builds on his dual references: Lights up, boys: a body twisting in an electric chair; lights up, boys-–it’s not a bar’s closing time, but the morning, when the inmates are rousted from their beds.
(This line recalls another story, one Walker may have known, if not Bowie: that Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film was to be shot in an asylum. Inmates were brought in, Antonioni put them into formation, was surprised at how well they took his requests, then he turned on his lights for a take. The inmates recoiled and convulsed on the floor. (“I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors…they started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor….they tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster.“) Antonioni abandoned the film, but the poet Anne Carson used it as a starting point years later, her poem offering that the inmates were only feigning their reactions so that they could roll around and try to kiss each other, stealing a moment of mass intimacy.)
The entire sequence repeats. A new intro (Garson at his tackiest; he’s the hotel pianist from an old hell), a last verse where Bowie disdainfully rips up stage props, like he once did to the paper skyscrapers of his Diamond Dogs set (“we’re living in a SEA of SHAM“), another chorus. But now Bowie keeps surging, gaining strength, hitting a high E-flat as the song itself solidifies in E-flat major, while Reeves Gabrels slams in with distorted power chords. The lobby’s become a stage in an arena. We’re back at the close of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song that also had begun in obscurity and despair and which had climaxed in a Judy Garland moment. GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! RE-EXPLODING YOU!!! ‘COS YOU’RE WONDERFUL!! LIKE EVERYBODY DO!
And here “The Motel” faltered. Its lyric collapsed into gabble; its motion felt strained. It’s as if Bowie needed to have the song “pay off” in some way. This left “The Motel” in a curious state. On Outside, “The Motel” is the blank at the center of the record. Sequenced between the battering “Hallo Spaceboy” and the jaunty “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “The Motel” can seem like a seven-minute void. It seems actively hostile to the memory. I still don’t know what to make of it: sometimes I think it’s a latter-day flawed Bowie masterpiece, with a grisly beauty; other times, it can seem a failure, a self-sabotaged attempt to redo the “Electrician” that remains far in the original’s shadow.
Outside was done. And one day in early 1995, as he was mixing the record, Bowie read in a list of upcoming releases that Fontana was putting out a new Scott Walker album.
IV: Farmers in the City
Bowie: What do you think of his latest, Tilt?
The first half an hour was disappointing, because he does everything except what he’s best at…and the last 30 minutes are fabulous. It’s like Walker is saying: Okay, you’ve done your best and now you’re rewarded.
Bowie: I agree. I find it a sensational record, very brave too. I’ve got a lot of respect for his integrity. He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves. He really works without compromising and there are very few artists like that…What you said about not doing what you’re best at. Well, it may sound arrogant but I don’t feel like adapting to wishes and expectations of the big audience anymore.
Bowie, interview by Humo, 1995.
I just want to connect with as many people as I can with it. I know it’s not easy but I’m always hoping.
Walker, interview for Tilt.
It became a farce: Bowie making his secret Scott Walker sequel while, unbeknownst to him, Walker was quietly making his own. And the Walker sequel lapped Bowie’s shadow one, coming out five months earlier! This caused a spot of apprehension, especially as Bowie was in the midst of negotiating a record deal. Eno wrote in his diary that the Walker record “could occupy much of the territory of Bowie’s” and feared what effect this could have on a record Eno was already worrying Bowie was compromising. “Bowie won’t release those things and, as time passes, more will get chipped away or submerged under later additions.”
In April 1995, Bowie got an advance copy of Tilt. He phoned Eno and played him a track, said he was relieved: it sounded nothing like Outside. Crisis averted.
The best album that came out this year in terms of being an adventurous album was Scott Walker’s Tilt which of course died after about a week. It was bought by three people, me being one of them.
Bowie, Prodigy chat, 1995.
He was right: Tilt sounded nothing like Outside. What it had more affinities with was the now-buried and maimed Leon. Not musically but in both pieces’ hermeticism, their arrogant self-sufficiency, their strangeness. Hunter had been Walker’s conversation with his listeners: he’d challenged them and had dismissed them. Tilt offered no entry point: it simply begins and defies you to keep listening to it. The opener, “Farmer in the City,” allegedly had NME staff members yelling for the CD to be yanked while Marc Almond, upon hearing it, thought Scott had completely lost the plot. It was the most accessible track on the record.
If you’d made it through Walker keening, like the world’s loneliest auctioneer, “do I hear 21? 21? 21?”, then there came “The Cockfighter,” the true sequel to “The Electrician.” It was a piece of historical fascist erotica, with Walker connecting the trial of Adolf Eichmann to that of the allegedly adulterous Queen Caroline. Some of its lines could be said by a seducer, a torturer or a man conducting an autopsy: if you could turn on your side, move your touch to that hip…easy now, easy now. Walker first sings over what sounds like a rat gnawing through a wad of paper. The track is occasionally consumed in pummeling metallic sprays of noise. Later on there’s a horn that sounds like a horse being slaughtered. “Cockfighter” ends in another industrial noise-attack, dying off in a second as if someone had flipped a breaker as an act of mercy. And on the record went. The title song exhumed the Scott of Scott 3 and kicked him around a bit. “Rosary” found Scott alone on the far margins, muttering “and I gotta quit…and I gotta quit.”
Tilt was ignored. No one knew what to make of it. Tilt was irreconcilably strange, the sound of a man pursuing what’s in his head, using musicians “who are extensions of yourself,” as Walker said. It was an actual millennial doom record, bled through with history and death: Eichmann on the scaffold; Pier Paolo Pasolini crushed under the wheels of his own car on a beach in Ostia. Walker quoted “Dry Bones,” Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not, Desi Arnaz’s “Babalu.“ He sang over the sound of the organ in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, strangled guitar and shaken bells. It was Bowie’s favorite album of the year; it was the record Outside pretended to be.
V: Lights Up, Boys
What would make me happy is to be an artist living in a garret in a cold water flat somewhere, as long as I could afford art material.
Bowie, to John Dove, 1974 (as per Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust).
He concedes there was a point in the mid-’80s when he thought about giving up music altogether to retire as a “garret-type art person with a loft in Soho. I fell foul of the marketplace…I suddenly felt, for the first time, inhibited about being creative…I was quite willing to opt into a life of crime and art. Or at least a life of art.”
Bowie interview, Vox, August/September 1995.
Throughout his professional life, Bowie has occasionally said that he wished he could chuck it all away. Become a real artist, live in a loft somewhere, not bother with record labels and tours and MTV. A few times he went through with it, sort of; his years with Iggy Pop in Berlin; his flirtations with the British art scene around the time he was recording Outside.
And in the Nineties, Bowie’s public effusions about Scott Walker’s integrity suggested that he was using Walker as a symbol, an embodiment of this sort of uncompromised artistic life. Bowie seemed to consider Walker as a boundary rider, off in the wilderness somewhere, using Walker’s sporadic progress reports to chart his own movements: he’s there, here’s where I’ll set up camp. He’d be the railroad that followed the first wave of settlers (the Hearst to Walker’s Swearengen, if you’ve seen Deadwood).
Bowie had always had a taste for musical eccentrics, those who’d gone further out on the branch, those who’d be fated only to be remembered by hipsters like himself: Ken Nordine, Biff Rose, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. And Scott Walker, who he classed in this lot of Sixties oddballs, the great artist among them. Bowie treasured them, he treasured Walker, but despite whatever proclamations he made, Bowie needed a public. He worked in the public realm, he was its ambassador of the weird, and to indulge himself to make something like Tilt, to flay himself enough to really match “The Electrician,” now seemed beyond his powers, or his interests.
Sure, Bowie could have done what Eno and Reeves Gabrels had argued: put out the Leon sessions as one fearsome bundle. A CD of twenty-minute suites, full of gnomic dialogue, anxiety raps, shrieks, arcane beauties. His own Tilt. How would it have been received? With bafflement and irritation, condemned to quick obscurity, like Tilt was? Or with utter ridicule: Bowie’s folly? His own Life of Chris Gaines, to be used as a punchline by entertainment writers for their decade summaries in 1999?
This is just idle speculation, because the Outside that was released was a compromised record, in the best sense of the word. Some of its finest moments were its pop songs, its songs with catchy choruses and hooks, its songs seemingly intended for those Walker had left behind.
Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with poss. overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. A live version from Amsterdam, 10 June 1997, was included on liveandwell.com. This story will conclude (?) with “Heat.”
Sources: Again, The Wire’s essay compilation No Regrets was of great help, in particular Damon Krukowski on Climate of Hunter, Brian Morton on Tilt and the 1995 interview with Walker conducted by Richard Cook. A dissertation on Outside by Nicholas P. Greco (2000) has a detailed analysis of “The Motel” at the close of its second chapter. Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the source of the Gasciogne quotes. The Anne Carson quotes are from her marvelous Plainwater (1995). Thanks to Andy Zax for bouncing ideas (esp. on the nature of “The Electrician”), offering phrases and suggestions, and for scanning “The Electrician” sleeve.
* Very likely Yossi Fine, not Erdal Kizilcay. This decade-old post on the TW board by someone who’d met Fine claims that Fine played on some “track with a fretless bass” which he couldn’t remember, but which I’d venture is “Motel.” The bass is similar to “Small Plot of Land,” which Fine said he did play on.
Top to bottom: Walker playing “Rosary” on Later With Jools Holland, 1995; Bowie, The Walker Brothers Triptych, 1996; “The Electrician” single, 1978; “Track Three” single, 1984; lyrics (alleged) of “The Motel,” Outside; LP inner sleeve of Tilt, 1995; The Wire #135, 1995.