Musical Poetry of the Dark Unconscious: Scott Walker’s “Epizootics!”
“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
Epizootics! is the new ten-minute short film/music video recently premiered by avant-garde musical mastermind Scott Walker, a track from his forthcoming album Bish Bosch. Walker has accomplished the near impossible, showcasing an album that’s more ambitious, experimental and surreal than anything he’s created before. This first taste from his upcoming album is filled with dramatic artistry and shows promise that Bish Bosch will be considered one of the most thought-provoking albums released in years.
For those not familiar with Scott Walker’s work, Walker has been described as one of the greatest living avant-garde artists, with hardly any other American musician having had greater influence upon rock music, while at the same time remaining almost completely unknown to his countrymen. Walker grew up in Texas, New York City and Southern California, but he became a celebrity in England during the mid-1960s as part of the Walker Brothers band. The Walker Brothers was a vocal trio, which wed soaring vocal harmonies, lush soundtrack arrangements and a patently somber worldview into a uniquely theatrical package.
Scott Walker’s voice has been described as perhaps the most beautiful male non-soul voice of that era, and an increasingly free-thinking “Beat” attitude was at the core of the group’s appeal. Although the Walker Brothers became huge in Europe, Scott Walker’s eccentricity cast a dark cloud over the band’s public image. Scott began to write increasingly complicated interlaced music, and its sense of bleakness was intensified by his mix of translated Jacques Brel tunes with distinctly arty and pained original numbers. By 1969, his works were failing to appear on music charts at all.
An increasingly elusive Scott Walker slowly withdrew from public view. His voice began to lose some of its former pop-music sense of majesty, a reflection of his new interest in the experimental synth-driven avant-garde, which he helped revolutionize to major critical success, but only minor public attention. Walker seemed to vanish, while artists as diverse as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Julian Cope, Bryan Ferry, Ultravox and Marc Almond became fiercely ardent supporters of his unique body of work, citing him as a primary influence on their careers. Gale Harold (the actor in Queer as Folk) served as an Associate Producer, along with David Bowie as Executive Producer, of the acclaimed 2006 documentary about the influential artistic vision of Walker’s experimental musical work, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man.
Musical Poetry of the Dark Unconscious: Scott Walker’s “Epizootics!”
Scott Walker: 30th Century Man
Scott Walker is celebrated as an influential musical visionary by a roster of superstars, including Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, David Bowie and Brian Eno. The enigmatic and notoriously shy former pop idol is the subject of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, the revealing 2006 documentary by Stephen Kijak. Walker was born in Ohio and sang with Fabian on television as a teenager. However. after achieving immense popular fame in England as the lead singer of the boy band The Walker Brothers, he has lived mostly in seclusion, while creating avant-garde compositions and releasing critically acclaimed, idiosyncratic albums.
A Life In The Day: A First-Person Chronicle by John Mayer
A Life In The Day is a four-minute documentary short film by the musician John Mayer. Shot on May 5, 2010, the film is a first-person chronicle of the day’s events leading up to a concert performance by Mayer in Wollongong, Australia.
A Life In The Day: A First-Person Chronicle by John Mayer
People can hardly ever forget the first time they witness, or rather experience, S. K. Thoth performing in the tunnel at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, directly across from the “Angel” Fountain. Costumed like an ancient Greek superhero, complete with golden loincloth and a red feathered headdress, Thoth is truly a striking sight to behold.
Then he opens his mouth and begins to sing in his three range operatic voice, with a violin on his shoulder, dancing like a man possessed by something otherworldly, stomping rhythms with his heeled sandals and belled ankles making an indelible impression in your mind. Many of the people in his audiences have no idea what they’re watching, nor do they understand what it could possibly mean. Nevertheless, viewers are often moved to tears, with an experience that they describe as beautiful, soul-stirring and transporting. Mesmerizing in the truest sense of the term.
Thoth calls this expression his “prayformance” in which he presents his “solopera,” a multi-disciplined and multi-media performance piece, drawing on an imaginary mythological world that he created in childhood, and which he’s been writing about ever since.
The story of his life was made into an Oscar-winning documentary film, Thoth. So powerful is this street artist’s work that it captured the rapt attention of award-winning documentary film director Sarah Kernochan, and the film that emerged from her collaboration with Thoth won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film.
New Yorkers would be quite willing to pay good money to silence the daily Manhattan Symphony, which is a cacophony of sounds composed and performed by the din of garbage trucks, car speakers, bus brakes, warped manhole covers, knocking radiators, people yelping down from high windows and the racket of numerous blaring television sets.
But in a paint-peeling hangar, the old Great Hall of the 99-year-old Battery Park Maritime Building (a former ferry terminal) at the very foot of the Manhattan, David Byrne, the avant-garde artist and musician, is purposefully making such music, although many might not call it that.
David Byrne’s Playing the Building is a sound installation in which the infrastructure of The Maritime Building has been converted into a giant musical instrument. Devices are attached to the building structure, to the metal beams and pillars, the heating pipes, the water pipes, and are used to make these things produce sounds. Pressing the keys of a beat-up Weaver pump organ, its innards replaced with relays and wires and air hoses, activates three types of sounds: winds, vibrations and strikings. The devices do not produce the sounds themselves, instead they cause the building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument: a gargantuan cast-iron orchestra.
Playing the Building: A Tour
Installing “Playing the Building” at The Battery Park Maritime Building
Patti Smith: Dream of Life as An American Experience
Patti Smith: The Early Years
Patti Smith was born in Chicago in 1948 and grew up in Woodbury, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Patti did a brief stint as a factory worker, which convinced her to move to New York City to pursue a life in the arts. Soon after her arrival, she connected with the young photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met while working at a book store. This was a close friendship that she maintained until his death in 1989. In 1969 she went to Paris with her sister and started doing performance art. When Smith returned to New York City, she lived in The Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe, and they began frequenting the then fashionable Max’s Kansas City and CBGB nightclubs.
She helped put New York’s punk-rock landmark CBGB on the map, at a time when New York’s East Village was becoming a burgeoning center of experimental artistic creativity. She organized The Patti Smith Group and in 1975 released her debut album, Horses, to critical acclaim. Produced by John Cale, the album was described as an original mixture of exhortatory rock & roll, Smith’s poetry, vocal mannerisms inspired by Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison, and the band’s energetically rudimentary playing. In 1976, Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas oversaw the Patti Smith Group’s second album, Radio Ethiopia, and the result was a more bombastic guitar-heavy record, tempered by the title cut, the height of Smith’s improvised free rock.
Grief and Mourning
After an almost nine-year hiatus, Smith returned to recording with the 1988 album Dream of Life, the work of a more mellow, but still rebellious songwriter. Smith’s comeback album was co-produced by her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, with songs that included her call-to-arms, People Have the Power. In 1994, her husband died of a heart attack at age 45. A month later, her younger brother (and former road manager), Todd, also died of a heart attack. Her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe had already died of AIDS in 1989. Determined to carry on as a tribute to the encouragement her husband and brother had shown her before their passing, Smith performed a string of opening dates with Bob Dylan in late 1995 and issued the intensely personal Gone Again in 1996. The album offered a potent mix of songs about mourning and rebirth, reflecting Smith’s belief that the beauty of life survives death.
Dream of Life: A Film Finds a Rocker’s Heart
But another eight years would pass before her second artistic comeback, marked by a trio of acclaimed albums released in quick succession, which found her fighting her way out of a period of intense personal grief stemming from the loss of several of the most important people in her life. The documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What is it like to make a documentary about Patti Smith? The godmother of punk, once all spatter and spit, and the documentary were a different project: not a nostalgia act, but an exploration of real things, like art and family and loss, and not the romantic death found in a rock-and-roll lyric, but the literal kind, the kind that took Smith’s husband away.
William Booth published a very thoughtful article about Patti Smith and the making of Patti Smith: Dream of Life in yesterday’s edition of The Washington Post:
“You might have something like Steven Sebring’s “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” a collaboration between an exceptionally tenacious fashion photographer and his subject, who is now 61 years old and trying to sort it all out. “I was never interested in a rockumentary or a behind-the-scenes thing. I have no interest in that,” says Smith of the film, which premiered at Sundance in January and will be shown this Friday at Filmfest DC with guest appearances by Smith and Sebring. Next year the documentary will air on PBS.
Smith met Sebring for a photo shoot for Spin magazine in 1995, just as Smith was coming back into the public sphere after a long hiatus from performing. During the years of her retreat to the suburbs of Detroit, she saw the deaths of her close friend and muse, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; her pianist, Richard Sohl; her husband, the musician Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5; and her brother Todd. “Just year after year, month after month, of loss,” Smith says. “I was pretty shattered as a human being and I had the responsibility of two young children and I had to really start over again. The movie is really about experiencing joy in life in the saddest of times.“
Sebring, alone, without a crew, filmed Smith for 11 years, using available light, and the photography is often quite beautiful by itself, a lovely home movie. The result is a collage that is intimate, arty, pretentious, and a very respectful work by a documentarian who is open about his enthusiasms. “They call her the punk poet prophet,” Sebring says. “I feel like one of her soldiers, one of her messengers.”
Smith was never a traditional pop star. She had only one big hit, the song Because the Night, which she wrote with Bruce Springsteen. But beginning with her debut album, Horses, released in 1975, she created a raw, stripped-down garage sound that combined spoken words, screamed words and three chords per song. Her downtown music, and her style as the androgynous boho in a Bob Dylan pose, has been cited as an influence by bands such as U2 and R.E.M. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, the organization praising “the delirious release of an inspired amateur who knew her voice conveyed more honest passion than any note-perfect rock professional.” The French minister of culture named her a Commander of the Order of Arts and Literature.
When Smith was a teenager she worked in a factory and dropped out of college. She was like Juno before the movie “Juno,” a pregnant teenager who gave up her baby for adoption. She made enough money to move to New York and found her home in the Chelsea Hotel, which in 1970 housed William S. Burroughs, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe and some of the Warhol crowd.
“So many of my mentors were quite a bit older than me,” Smith says. “In my early 20s, I met Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and I was very privileged to meet these people and learn from them. You forget about age if you’re creatively engaged. A lot of it is being engaged. It can be manual labor. Charting the stars, sweeping the streets, it doesn’t have to be the arts.”
Later, Smith says, “If you live long enough, you’re a little old lady with your memories.” We mention that we like the idea of revisiting our aging pop stars, if they still have something to say. Is it possible they may even grow more interesting as they age? Smith says, “Well, I’m always looking forward. As a mother, you hope for a good future, a good future for your children. And as an artist, always looking toward the next poem, the next song, the next film, the next idea. It’s what the imagination is for. I remember talking to Gregory Corso before he died.” Corso was a founding member of the Beat generation of writers. “Because he was so fearless. I asked, ‘Gregory, aren’t you afraid?’ ‘Only one thing,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid of the collapse of the imagination.’ That’s something I think about every single day.“
Dylan Wins Pulitzer Prize: A Solitary and Beautiful Mind
I paid the price of solitude
But at least I’m out of debt.
Bob Dylan, Dirge
Bob Dylan Named a Pulitzer Prize Winner
Bob Dylan was named a Pulitzer Prize Winner on Monday, April 7, 2008. A Special Citation was awarded to Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.
Bob Dylan: i Is Another
I’m Not There is a visionary rendering of Dylan’s life and music that is as bold as possible, while never pretentious. It takes Dylan’s songs and the biographic details that we know of his life and mashes them up. Fevered interpretations resonate against one another to create an experience that is more like tumbling within the whirlpool of one of Dylan’s kaleidoscopic songs than watching anything remotely like a biographical movie. At its best, which is quite often, I’m Not There summons the sensation of what it must have been like to live in Dylan’s skin at crucial moments in his life. Simultaneously, the film makes it undeniable at every moment that you are watching a cinematic interpretation of “Dylan,” not the man himself.
At a certain point, Dylan as a solitary figure, extraordinarily beautiful and yet so alone, seems to hold the essence of I’m Not There, which takes its name from a song that is also, almost, “not there.” Toward the end of the movie we hear that song, which Dylan recorded with the Band in the summer of 1967. Its half-finished lyric is impenetrable and exquisite. Dylan’s delivery is garbled yet assertive, peppered with made-up words and seeming disconnections that ultimately shape themselves into a whole that’s both elusive and achingly complete. Regardless of how much you may already know about him, I’m Not There deepens and humanizes your understanding of Dylan.