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The arbitrary cult status of Scott Walker

Bish Bosch - review.

Bish Bosch (4AD)
Scott Walker

It must be tough being Scott Walker. Somewhere down the line the world has decided you’re a genius, based on a handful of hits 45 years ago that were written by other people. You spend your life labouring under what Marianne Faithfull once called the “tyranny of cool”, retreating further into the avant-garde, and every album you put out is met with hope that you might some day return to the “lush Sixties balladry” you were known for. As though there’s a great bank of Bacharach-style classics shored up inside you but you’re just choosing not to let them out.

Walker is a symbol of the arbitrary way that cult status attaches to some people and grows like a creeper, strangling and obscuring its host. He was a medium-weight pop star performing cover versions in a musical setting that was relatively conservative for its time – an interpreter of songs, not a revolutionary creative force. He has released four albums in the past 30 years and is quite prepared, when he gives his rare interviews, to admit that writing has never come easily (“I don’t write songs for pleasure. I can only write when I have to – like I’m under contract,” he said in 1984).

Yet major labels put out the kind of music from him that they’d never tolerate from anyone else (The Drift, released in 2006, notoriously featured a percussionist punching a dead pig). Critics consistently meet his output with words such as “entrancing”, “intriguing” and “mystifying”. He has been described as a visionary, a “Halley’s comet”, and the man responsible for completely redefining what music is.

This month brings us Bish Bosch, a 71-minute song cycle featuring a large family of instruments that include a scraped machete and a “tubax” (a sax/tuba hybrid). In a strange castrato voice very different to his more familiar baritone, Walker sings lines such as, “If shit were music, la la la, la la la, you’d be the brass band” (from the 21-minute “SDSS1416+13B [Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter]”). In an interview with his record company 4AD, he explained that the song is set in the palace of Attila the Hun, “which he regards as an immense toilet”. Another line – “I’ve severed my reeking gonads and fed them to your shrunken face” – recalls Lou Reed’s last offering, Lulu, a rock-metal opera written with Metallica and based on a German play about a prostitute, which begins: “I’d cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff”. You’ve got to admire their cartoon images of venom and disgust. Both men are under pressure to maintain a chasm of understanding between themselves and their public, lest – God forbid – we should realise there’s a regular, 70 year-old human being behind it all.

It’s not Walker’s fault that no one will call the emperor’s new clothes. He is a vessel for Sixties nostalgia and one of the select few male singers that red-blooded men are allowed to have a crush on (well-dressed, moody, monochrome figures go a long way in a certain world – look at Serge Gainsbourg). His cultural influences were the same as Donovan’s (the films of Fellini, beat poets, good boots); and in his luxuriant delivery, knack for covers and primetime TV show, he rivalled Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. But, like Johnny Cash, Walker wore his personal discomfort openly. His refusal to return to the music of that time suggests a disdain for the whole persona and artists with an aversion to themselves become cult heroes.

After the Walker Brothers’ hits “Make It Easy on Yourself” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (Joey Brooks) and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio), Scott went solo, recording highly successful Jacques Brel covers including “Jackie”, “Mathilde”, “Amsterdam” and “If You Go Away”. The album Scott 4, released in 1969, and which was entirely self-composed, featured clunky but intriguing songs such as “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” – and failed commercially, as did subsequent solo records. The Walker Brothers’ biggest hit during their 1970s reunion was another cover, “No Regrets” by Tom Rush.

Walker threw himself into an intense study of classical music – well you would, wouldn’t you? – building on an interest in German lieder and Gregorian chant. Over the past 30 years, the intellectual paraphernalia around Walker has formed a protective wall. The 1981 compilation Fire Escape In The Sky: the Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, compiled by Julian Cope, kicked off a revival of interest, and a generation of music journalists just a little too young to understand him the first time round discovered his “underrated” solo records as if they were buried treasure. In 2000, the man who hasn’t performed live in 34 years was asked to curate the Meltdown festival at the Southbank in London (next year it’s Yoko Ono). In 2006 he got a lifetime achievement award from Mojo magazine, which cited “a spectacular career on a global scale”. Walker’s whole life must feel like those dreams where you’re about to go into your French A-Level and you’re saying, “But sir, I’ve never studied French and I’ve not been to school in 50 years! Sir!”

Four years ago, the Barbican staged a performance of Walker’s recent music with Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and other guests. A packed house watched as an opera singer re-enacted the assassination of Mussolini accompanied by a 42-piece orchestra straining like a swarm of bees (for the song “Carla”); they were hoping for a glimpse of the maestro himself but he never appeared on stage.

I’d bet many of that rather young and fashionable crowd wouldn’t go to see a John Adams opera or a work by Schoenberg or a modern ballet. Sting wrote a stage show about Robert Schumann a couple of years back and it became the latest in a long line of artistic pretentions he’ll never live down. But if Walker had written it, there’d probably have been a West End transfer. Judging by the life, and the music, it’s not been a painless ride. He could be free from it all and running a boat yard in Eastbourne by now. But it’s not that easy to let go, if people won’t let go of you.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis