The elusive but ever-fascinating Scott Walker, whose story I was asked to write for GQ magazine, July 2000.
There are medieval hermits whose lives are better documented than Scott Walker’s. But once upon a time he led Britain’s biggest boy band, was the sexiest, most charismatic star of his generation, and arguably the greatest white vocalist in pop history. Not only that, he was so moody and strange a whole mythology grew up around him. He walked away from fame when he could have become the new Sinatra. He was weirder than David Bowie, and too avant garde for Brian Eno. He’s still alive today, but that’s as much as anyone knows for sure. It’s rumoured he likes to ride a bicycle to his local pub and play a game of darts. He’s so mysterious that he makes Greta Garbo look like Denise Van Outen.
All musicians like to think they’re misfits, but Scott Walker really is. There was a deep divide in pop music in the 1960s, and Scott fell right down the middle of it. Where did he belong, exactly? Was it on TV, with all those squires of squaredom like Lovelace Watkins and Peter Gordeno? Should he wear a frilly shirt and a velvet bow tie and serenade the straights? Or was he a rock’n’roll renegade, whose music prowled the darkest reaches of the psyche and scared the crap out of people? Nobody was sure. You’d have to imagine Dean Martin singing Joy Division. And you’d still be baffled.
For a while though it all worked perfectly, and in 1965 Scott Walker was simply magnificent. Here’s how Nik Cohn described him in his prime: “He was a light golden colour and he had all the equipment, the tragic mouth and misted eyes and fluttery lashes, the thin hands and soft hair, and he never managed more than a small sad smile. When he sang, his hands went up in front of his grieving face and, delicately, his body curled up like a lettuce leaf.”
This was brilliant pop theatre and a million women longed to mother him. You really have to wonder where it all went wrong.
That’s hard to say. But it certainly began with a pop group called The Walker Brothers.
The Walker Brothers weren’t brothers and they weren’t named Walker. The one we know as Scott Walker was actually Noel Scott Engel, a tall, good-looking boy from Ohio; he was a trained musician and nearly became a teenybop singing star called Scotty Engel. But he wound up in a trio with singer John Maus and drummer Gary Leeds, and in 1964 they became The Walker Brothers. They played the beatnik clubs on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, where they were daringly shaggy when the white boy look was still clean-cut like The Beach Boys. The hottest producer in LA was Phil Spector, and the Walkers got his arranger Jack Nitzsche to record them in the maestro’s resounding style. Drums, guitars, pianos: there were three of everything, overdubbed and echoed, with a 38-piece orchestra on top. Officially John was the lead singer, but Nitzsche realised that Scott’s rich baritone was the stronger instrument, and put him at the front. The result was a huge, trembling ballad called Love Her, and Scott sang it in the manner of a man with a very deep voice on his way to the scaffold. It was like this: another man has won your girl’s heart; “Love her,” you tell him, noble and brave in the depths of your desolation. “Love her for me.” And it went out to radio stations and it died a lousy death.
But who cared? The Brothers were already packing their suitcases for another place. Gary was full of talk about England, the home of The Beatles. He’d toured there as the drummer in P.J. Proby’s band and suggested the Walkers should grab a piece of the action. It was a truly inspired idea. Not only was Swinging London the world’s most happening town, it was far away from the Vietnam conscription board. So the boys left golden California for a dingy flat in Kensington in the middle of a British winter.
Though miserable at first, they quickly clicked with Harold Wilson’s Britain. Supposedly sporting the longest hair in London, they were the first American group to look right, which in 1965 meant looking British. That first single Love Her became a spring hit over here. They met a gifted English producer called Johnny Franz, who had made great, heart-stopping epics with Dusty Springfield. Now he’d do the same for them.
Next thing you knew The Walker Brothers were at Number 1, with a song called Make It Easy On Yourself, and after that the hits just kept on coming. Minor-key, symphonic melodramas were their thing; Scott’s voice was a marvel of haunted gothic grandeur. Franz had copped the format of Spector’s work for The Righteous Brothers, especially You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, and he employed a brilliant British arranger Ivor Raymonde and class songwriters like Burt Bacharach.
Scott would stand by John, his skinny arms outstretched like Jesus. The light brown tousled hair enlarged his head and made his body look all the more frail. He wore beatnik casual clothes that seemed half careless and half exquisitely chosen: Wrangler jackets and needlecords, open collared shirts and dangling medallions, suede shoes. Usually some sunglass action. And his pretty boy face was marked by a frown that claimed a private universe of melancholy.
Next there was another humdinger, My Ship Is Coming In, and then the biggest biggie of them all, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More. This song was the definitive tragic masterpiece of its era: “Loneliness,” it rumbled, “is the cloak you wear…” It was on the jukebox of the Blind Beggar pub when Reggie Kray shot one of his enemies dead. “The sun wasn’t gonna shine for him any more,” joked Reg afterwards.
And Scott realised he had escaped the VietCong for something almost as terrifying: an army of young females who wanted him very, very badly. All over Britain there was Walkermania, and scenes of real hysteria. At the provincial Gaumonts they were bombarded with teddy bears, because one Brother was said to like them. Burly men with peaked caps and moustaches joined battle with palpitating, lust-maddened teenagers – and lost.
There is the touching story of a 14-year-old girl in Portsmouth who was knocked down by the group’s getaway car. Regaining consciousness she asked the ambulance men, anxiously, if Scott was OK. In northern Odeons schoolgirls fainted. In West Country ballrooms the chicks were possessed. Apparently John and Gary revelled in the whole Bacchanalian orgy.
But as for Scott – well, there were already signs that Scott was going off-message. He just wasn’t acting like a 1965 pop star. For a start his vocal heroes were of the Sinatra generation, and he was suss enough to understand that cabaret had truly heavy origins in European culture. Whatever world Freddie & The Dreamers inhabited, he was strictly elsewhere.
Nor was he in sync with his brother Walkers: when John got a Lamborghini, Scott acquired a cheap army surplus jeep. Now there were whispered tales of chronic stage fright, of missed gigs and whole long days of brooding silence. He favoured gloomy films like The Seventh Seal, and weird European authors like Jean Genet. He shunned the groupies for brainier broads with paperbacks of Sartre. He kept his curtains drawn and was rumoured to play Mozart on the stereogram. He liked a Scotch-and-Coke, but loved a dozen of them even more, and he went on lonely pub crawls down the Kings Road. He got locked up one night for drunkenness.
Basically Scott was adrift, and often wore disguise. Every few weeks he’d move flats to escape the fans.
The fans were not only screamers, though. There was another streak to Scott’s appeal: a kind of student chic that was big among sensitive sixth-formers. They’d read his Record Mirror interviews and rush to look up “existentialist”. The writer Peter York has dubbed Scott the ultimate Neurotic Boy Outsider. He was, said York, “someone who got the style exactly right… He wore his shades perpetually and he was very thin. It goes without saying that he was often found in extremely low moods wandering around and worrying about something too big to explain.” Suburban girls found this to be irresistible. Suburban boys made lame attempts to copy it, with horrible results.
By the end of 1965 Scott Walker was looking exhausted. He’d done it all. In only six months he’d become a household name. For better or worse, the experience would shape the rest of his life. He seemed weighed down by the sorrows of a hundred lifetimes. And he was just 22 years old.
In August 1966 came news of a suicide attempt: dragged from a gas-filled flat near Regents Park, Scott was rushed to hospital. Soon afterwards he was safely recovered and paid a visit to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Soho. A member of The Hollies leaned over and – just for a laugh – offered him a shilling for the meter.
The saddest thing is that he probably needed it.
Scott Walker recoiled from stardom like a vampire in the sunlight. He felt surrounded by bad men who stole his money and silly girls who stole his soul. In late ’66 he went to stay in a monastery in the Isle of Wight, but he had to bale out when the teenyboppers turned up outside. Yet a kindly monk gave him a key to the monastery, and in old pin-up shots you can see him wearing it around his neck. The music biz, he announced, “is a big, phoney mess.” It was the point when everyone else was turning psychedelic, but Scott despised that trip as well. Used to peering into the soul’s black abyss, he had no time for blissed-out hippy gigglers. (Even today, it’s reported, he still “sees red” when you mention Glastonbury.)
The Walkers’ time was almost over. When they toured with Jimi Hendrix they watched him from the wings and knew that their style was already obsolete. Scott and John were getting on each other’s nerves as well. The hits got smaller until you could hardly see them and, in May 1967 at the Tooting Granada, the group announced they were splitting up. In Baker Street some girls staged a “protest march”, which was a very 1967 thing to do, but the world was already forgetting The Walker Brothers.
And the money? Well, said Scott, “there were the bills for suits that got torn every night we played, hotel bills, big drinks bills and entertainment bills. We came out with no money.”
When they went their solo ways Scott’s career was the only one worth watching. He thought of dropping the Walker tag and becoming Scott Engel again, but the name was just too close to Engelbert for comfort. His live debut was typically odd. Out there was a new Love Generation that was about to swell into the Woodstock Nation and turn its heroes into demigods. But Scott in his stubbornness, or fear, opted instead to play the Stockton Fiesta Club. And then? Well, perverse to the end, he now made a suite of profoundly gorgeous albums that were like nothing else on earth.
The fame of his name ensured the solo records sold well at first. He also agreed to make some hit singles in the classic Walker style – Joanna and Lights Of Cincinnatti – which he scorned as sell-outs, although they kept him above the breadline. But in the end, the sheer strangeness of these albums would turn the public off. On the plus side he still surrounded himself with old school craftsmen such as Johnny Franz and the arranger Wally Stott, who gave Scott’s voice the sumptuous settings it deserved. Unsung heroes of British pop, these characters. Even at the height of hippy they’d turn up for work in white shirts with dark ties, wear horn-rimmed spectacles, chain-smoke Kensitas and drink PG Tips. But they could spot a duff note from the oboe without looking up from their copy of Practical Electronics.
Scott was at least in safe hands. The trouble was that Scott lived in a world of his own. He was impossible to market. The rock crowd had its hairy-faced heroes and the last thing it wanted was a crooner who modelled himself on Tony Bennett and Jack Jones. But the easy-listening audience, the mums and dads, were simply repelled and confused by Scott’s songs. It’s a poignant symbol of his predicament that he’d appear on cheesy TV variety shows to sing grim stuff like Jacques Brel’s My Death.
Incidentally it’s worth remembering the name of Jacques Brel, if only because he comes in useful when you play that game about counting famous Belgians. Like all famous Belgians, Brel was often thought to be French and did indeed work the Paris jazz caves of the Left Bank, where his tormented warbles came to epitomise our image of stripey-jerseyed Gallic angst. Like Bowie later, Walker was infatuated by Brel, and covered the mordant songs Jackie, My Death, Amsterdam and Next. A critic wrote of these versions: “When Scott discovered Jacques Brel the effect was devastating…. Nobody in pop music has ever made more nihilistic, grandiose, debauched, schizophrenic, souls-in-torment, night-riding, heart-rending music…”
And Walker ploughed his lonely furrow. There were songs of night and rain, of plagues and wars, of playing chess with Death, of whores and sad transvestites. By the time of Scott 4, the 1969 LP that serious Scottologists consider his masterpiece, the sales had tailed off disastrously. Scott’s managers wondered if they should launch him as a rival to Tom Jones. It wasn’t such a daft idea: a James Bond theme song or a Vegas residency and he could have been made for life. Scott himself had thought about joining Eric Clapton’s new supergroup Blind Faith – which might have won him the other half of the entertainment audience.
But in the end he went for neither, and the truth was that nobody knew what to do with Scott Walker. He was a lost boy once again. There were the usual rumours: he’s become a cab-driver; he’s gone to work in a beer factory in Copenhagen. In fact he had gone to Amsterdam with his girlfriend Mette Teglbjaerg. But he might as well have gone to the moon.
He came back and tried to compromise by making less forbidding albums: movie themes, country songs, prettier ballads. Now married to Mette, they had a baby daughter to support. But his heart wasn’t in the new music and the public was indifferent. He played northern cabaret clubs and drank bourbon. It was all a bit of a mess. Even so, The Walker Brothers’ reunion of 1975 was a big surprise. Even more surprisingly they had a big hit, No Regrets, and made three new albums. These were mostly rather ropey, but the final one, Nite Flights, was really impressive in a chilled, alienated kind of way, and one of its biggest admirers was David Bowie.
Soon the reunion petered out, however, in a string of dead-end gigs where Scott would sullenly ignore the requests for old favourites: “Ey up our Scott, sing us The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More!” His poet’s soul shrivelled in despair. Meanwhile his brief marriage to Mette had ended in divorce; she left for Denmark with their child.
Where was he now? In a London restaurant washing dishes, said someone. Actually, he’s become a Tibetan monk, said another. Was he ever on drugs? His only known habit has been a prodigious intake of vitamin pills. What’s certain is that by 1980, penniless again, Scott Walker was pretty well off the radar. He took a short course at art college. A golden moment of opportunity arrived when David Bowie asked to produce him. Typically, Scott wasn’t interested. He was offered new songs by Squeeze, Boy George and others but turned them down. One record company put him in a studio with Brian Eno, but Scott walked out of the sessions.
In the meantime his legend was taking shape. The cult of Scott was confirmed in 1981 when Julian Cope, another great rock eccentric, released a compilation of Walker’s early solo works, Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius Of Scott Walker. His old record company followed up with a collection of those Jacques Brel cover versions. A new generation, including Marc Almond, started falling for Scott’s mystique. In this world he was no longer a loser, a wayward, awkward sod. He was a glorious enigma, a human question mark with secret music that only the deeply hip could ever understand.
The great comeback occurred in 1984, with a new solo album called Climate Of Hunter. Scott emerged from seclusion for a rare interview: “Well, time flies when you’re not working…” he shrugged. “I’ve been sitting in pubs watching people throw darts. I only make records when I’m ready. Unless I’m ready it would take a bear to drag me out.” Naturally the music was strange, and reviewers fell back on the shiftiest word in their vocabulary, namely “interesting”. The album sold to fewer people than you’d see in a Second Division football ground. Scott disappeared from sight again, with the bizarre exception of a fleeting, overdraft-paying appearance in a Britvic orange juice ad. He looked a little older, and just a fraction thinner on top. But his mystique remained impregnable.
More years dawdled by. Scott’s manager once asked him what he was up to. “Painting,” he replied. “Oh really? Oils or watercolours?” Scott frowned in puzzlement. “No. Painting and decorating.”
Eleven years after Climate Of Hunter came its follow-up, Tilt. It’s an austere, echoing mausoleum of a record. Its roots are in the Gregorian chants he learned at that Isle of Wight monastery and in black-and-white art movies with subtitles. “I would like you to feel like you’re in the middle of a heavy flu when you put it on,” he explained, helpfully. Again the reviewers found it “interesting” and again the sales were microscopic. And Scott Walker was once more off the radar. The Sunday People even offered a reward for any sightings.
By the way, whatever happened to The Walker Brothers? John Maus/Walker went back to America and got a job in computers. After some ducking and diving, Gary Leeds/Walker became a motorcycle courier in Essex. And today Scott Engel/Walker lives alone in West London. He listens to some modern music including PJ Harvey and Portishead. It’s said that he keeps his phone on for only one hour a day. Occasionally his bank balance gets a boost through some CD reissue or other, but according to one ex-manager he has “the least interest in money of anyone I have ever met on this earth.” In his last known public utterance he said, “It’s true that I live by myself and spend most of my time painting, reading or biking around to my favourite pub for a game of darts. But I also have a lot of friends and do not see myself as particularly weird.”
What’s more he is absolutely right. He is not “particularly weird” at all. There’s really nothing wrong with doing nothing. Scott Walker should be sanctified as The Idler’s Icon. He’s “more driven by curiosity than achievement,” says one old friend. Too proud to produce anything second-rate, he shows a rare and welcome self-restraint. It’s better to spend your life reading good books, watching good movies, listening to good music, than burdening the world with yet more bad art in the name of “expressing” yourself. Walker’s withdrawal from the celebrity circus may be the sanest and most dignified act of any major figure from his era.
He’s the ultimate in anti-celebrity. Many famous people don’t do anything in particular, except go about behaving in a generally famous way, while their work is secondary or even non-existent. But Scott is the opposite: outside of his work, the boy from Ohio is scarcely with us at all.
So, if you’re ever in a pub in West London and you meet a quiet, handsome man wearing bicycle clips… buy him a drink on us.