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"The Long Distance Walker" by Alan Jackson

© The Times - April 22, 1995, Saturday

THESE SIXTIES POP STARS. So many who never went away; some who did, but who have since effected a return, reactivating the potency of that decade's cheap music. Not Scott Walker, though. His cool, mellifluous voice was one of the best of its generation, whether juxtaposed with the overheated lyrics and wall-of-sound production that characterised the Walker Brothers (their trio of million-sellers: Make It Easy on Yourself, My Ship Is Coming In, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore) or applied to the uneasy mix of material (a little Tony Hatch, all that Jacques Brel) recorded during a short-lived career as a solo star. And since then, almost nothing.

True, there was the 1974 album We Had It All, a last, reluctant shot at being a one-man Mr Mainstream. Then, shortly afterwards, a Walker Brothers reformation produced a trio of LPs, but each less convincing and less successful than the one before. Finally the growing army of Scott completists will need no reminding 1984's startling and ambitious Climate of Hunter, beloved of boys in the music press, but rumoured to be one of the lowest-selling releases in the Virgin label's entire back-catalogue. Since then, just an 11-year silence, only now about to be broken.

I feel inclined to comment on this flagrant waste until I meet Walker, now 52, in the toy-cluttered lounge of his manager's home in Holland Park, west London. ''A lot of people wanted to sign me up just as a singer, as a commercial item,'' he says, and with such distaste that I am warned off. ''They'd call, wanting to have lunch, but in a way that made it clear that I had become the Orson Welles of the music industry so I leaned to decline.'' Er, I'm sorry? ''Even Spielberg did it to him, which I think was very bad,'' he offers by way of illumination and, then, ''They all wanted to meet him, but didn't want to finance the picture.''

Perhaps because I am so fascinated by his little-changed appearance, by his denim and large, aviator-style sunglasses, I am slow on the uptake. ''I'm sorry, I didn't explain properly,'' he apologises in his measured, mid-Atlantic tones. ''I mean they were hoping to get from me a mainstream record, something they could sell easily: 'If you'd just do this, you're back in the old nightmare groove. If it turned out to work, you'd be in it still deeper. And before you knew it, it would all be happening again.'' He groans softly to make clear his horror at such a prospect.

Which is a reminder that few who have gone looking for it have found fame so burdensome as has Walker. Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1944, he was the only child of Noel Engel Snr, a vice-president with the Superior Oil Company, and his wife, Betty. Materially, his upbringing was a comfortable one, although his father's work entailed frequent moves for the family. His parents divorced when he was six, and with his mother he moved again, first to Denver, then to New York and finally to Los Angeles. Aged 16, he completed his education at Hollywood High School, then at the California School of Art.

Already he was performing: at talent shows and at recordings for small, independent labels. These early Scott Engel performances treasured by Walker collectors are earnest affairs, closer in tone to such grown-up crooners as Tony Bennett than to such pop idols of the day as Paul Anka or Fabian.

However it was not until he teamed up with John Maus and Gary Leeds as the Walker Brothers that he found success. For a brief while in the mid-Sixties, they rivalled the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for popularity, but their newly renamed lead singer proved ill-fitted to be a heart-throb.

A 1994 biography, Scott Walker: A Deep Shade Of Blue, by Mike Watkinson and Pete Anderson, speaks of alcoholism and of suicide attempts. Yellowed newsprint cuttings show such headlines as ''Reluctant Hero of the Hit'' and record the times he stormed off-stage after audience members coughed or became restless during one of his more ''difficult'' numbers. ''I had too many bad experiences in the Sixties; they just left this sort of scar,'' he says now of a fear of live performance that has kept him off a public stage for the past 20 years. ''I was drinking and all that stuff. To me, it was a living nightmare.''

And so the silence. Walker shrugs in response to the inevitable inquiry as to what he has done in the interim. ''I've just existed, like everybody else,'' he says. ''I do the day-to-day. It's not that interesting.'' His home is in west London. He appreciates the fact that he can travel about the city on public transport these days without attracting attention, usually without being recognised. He has reactivated his teenage interest in art, taking ILEA courses. And there have been a couple of relationships. ''One very long-term. Now I'm in another one. But I live alone and it's important that I do. I need my own space, as I think everybody does ultimately. It's the only way through a lot of this.''

He has a 21-year-old daughter from a brief marriage to a Danish woman, Mette Teglbjaerg, and sees her occasionally. He is no longer in touch with Gary Leeds (when tracked down by the People three years ago, he was living on an east London estate and working as a motorcycle courier), but speaks regularly to John Maus at his home in California. ''He's very high up in some kind of trucking ompany. He has an enormous home; he's doing very well. He's doing much, much better financially than I am, I guarantee you.''

It appears that his own disinclination to exploit his past for profit no reunion tours or comeback concerts, no hyped-up memoirs of adventures amid the glitterati of swinging London has left Walker in a situation far less luxurious than might be expected. ''It's been ducking and diving, always,'' he says. ''But I've had a couple of good friends and I've borrowed money. And whenever I'd get cheques in, I'd try to clear the debts. What I made from the Sixties is enough for me just to keep popping up every now and then.

IT IS LESS with amusement than with a kind of sociological interest that he notes the semi-legendary status he has acquired within the music industry as a result of his near-invisibility: ''Very strange, for example, that you should be thought of as reclusive just because you don't want to be a celebrity.'' A collection of the Brothers' hits reached the British Top 10 as recently as 1992 though, and his name continues to crop up when today's pop stars are asked about influences or idols. When the British rock artist Julian Cope compiled a solo Best Of... recently, it went under the title Fire Escape in the Sky: the God-Like Genius of Scott Walker.

When it became known that the singer has signed an album deal with Mercury Records then, interest was high. Climate of Hunter may have sold poorly, but it certainly helped to polarise critical opinion. ''It's the classic under-achiever's tale,'' wrote Steve Sutherland in Melody Maker. ''Our moody hero is so hung up on what he perceives as his plight that, like so many self-obsessives, he misses the point entirely... that when he thought he was crap, he was very, very great and when he thought he was expounding profundities, he sounded daft as a brush.'' Stuart Maconie responded thus in New Musical Express: ''Yes, there are people in the world who do not love Scott Walker. But what must their hearts be like?''

A new album, Tilt, released on Monday, should prolong the debate. The voice maintains a new, quasi-operatic stance throughout. Hummable tunes? No. And it can be guaranteed that none of the songs, all self-written and with such titles as Farmer In The City (Remembering Pasolini), Bolivia '95 and The Cockfighter, will find their way on to Radio 2 playlist, where the Walker Brothers remain a staple. Perhaps suitably, given its ambitions, the record was previewed for selected journalists recently in a library at the Royal College of Art. Unable to make this august occasion, I played my copy of the CD to a friend instead. She listened carefully, then was emphatic. ''He's barmy.''

THE SINGER REMAINS patient when I suggest that fans of old might prefer to hear him singing in more conventional manner, then makes the point that he has no interest in seeking mainstream success or celebrity again. ''And my biggest thing here was to avoid any kind of crooning. I wanted neutrality, a kind of floating quality. What bothers me about so many other singers is that they're either cliche-ridden, or you can hear their egos working in what they do.'' I mention some obvious names and he nods: ''That kind of thing is fine if it's meant as pastiche, or is gargantua for its own sake. But usually it's not.''

A few concessions though, and you could be King of Las Vegas, I try. ''Precisely,'' he notes. ''You said it.'' So, unlike almost every other singer with a contract, Walker achieved the freedom simply to make the best album he could, without constraint. He signed with Mercury because it did not require him to submit demos of the material in advance of recording, and says he could not allow himself to be influenced either by outside expectations or by thoughts of what would or wouldn't sell. ''Compared to Michael Stipe, I'm lucidity itself. But if I'm contracted for one record, I'm going to make the record I want, without consideration of those other things.''

He hopes Tilt will be sufficiently successful for Mercury to take up its option to release a further two of his albums, but makes it clear that being true to himself will always be the bottom line. ''You can be sincere only if you are recording the material you want to. There were times in the Sixties when I was doing songs I liked; many other times I wasn't, but I was legally bound to finish a contract. And when you lose sincerity is when you start to go off the rails. It caused a lot of problems for me, so you have to stop.'' He reminds John Maus of this when, from time to time, he jokes about reforming. ''And he goes, 'Yeah, you're right. It'd be crazy.''

Operating in this instinctive way has preserved his sanity, he says. ''Getting older has been easier for me, because I've lived such a solitary existence that I confronted all the big things at a relative young age. Turning 40 seems to be the one thing that hits us all, and if you can get through that... But even then, I moved through it in a different way than, say, a couple of my friends, one of whom locked himself in his bedroom for about a month. The death thing has been with me for a long time too, so I'm ready for it I realise its implications. It's just another part of life, and I took that knowledge on at an early age. I have no illusions about anything.''

Has living within such self-imposed and constantly patrolled limits made Scott Walker a happy man (the word seems inappropriate, fatuous even, in reference to him) or, at least, happier than he was at the height of his fame? ''Oh yes, I'm more levelled out,'' he says from behind his dark glasses. ''I don't know if that's happy. I'd say I'm just sneaking by.'' Which, all things considered, means he is not so barmy after all.

 

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