by Chris Estey
It’s an exciting week here at the pop culture press media compound, hiding behind stacks of dying music magazines before the zeitgeist helicopters swoop in with batches of overheated Kindles to start a blaze. Before our demise, what we’re amped about is a couple of books and a couple of matching DVDs that deferentially examine the lives and works of artists with sinuous careers, made up of artistic highs and commercials lows, commercial compromises and inviolate achievements.
DJ El Toro already adeptly expostulated with his own immediate feelings about Scott Walker’s arcane-sounding new work since crooning like a new Sinatra with the Walker Brothers in the mid-70s. I’ve shared those reservations-cum-revelations (though the title track to Walker’s 1995 Tilt may have been my own instant favorite song of that decade). I too loved the crooning aspects of Brothers (not) Walker (neither), in almost-overbearing big pop anthems like “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Going To Shine Anymore.”
El Toro recommended the recently released 30th Century Man DVD as an excellent way to attempt to understand Walker’s stubborn avant tendencies. After all, this is an American who confounds the most progressive art-punk Brits, who can make Brian Eno, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, and Alison Goldfrapp blush with awkward, envious adoration as he screeches and moans about the darkest sides to life. It is an awesome introduction, but if you find yourself drawn to the original story of how teenage Scotty Engel grew up to join a UK Top 40-dominating boy band from heaven, we finally have an excellent biography of that period, in Anthony Reynolds’ Impossible Dream: The Story Of Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers (Jawbone).
Reynolds has released eight of his own albums and penned a bio on Jeff Buckley, so he scribes with ease on the astonishing accomplishments of the melodramatic-sounding trio. For the casual fan, he helps the documentary make the case that the four solo Scott Walker LPs from the 60s are utterly indispensable. However, the boss, subversively easy-listening “No Regrets” was the reunited Walker Bros. last hit here in the 70s, and when their final record label asked them to fill out one more record with “pretty much anything we wanted,” Walker made good on his four highly lauded art-pop solo masterpieces of the 60s with a return to experimentation. Nite Flights (GTO, 1978) had punks listening (Eno: “We haven’t gotten any further than this, it’s a disgrace”), with Scott supporters like Julian Cope spreading the music with personal bootlegs for the batcave, psyche crowds and others.
Impossible Dream is an essential purchase for Walker and Walker Brothers’ fans too, not just because of the excellent narrative about their tours and recordings, and full discography, and descriptions of the now-lost-forever SW TV show and other appearances, but also because for the first time Gary Leeds and John Maus get their story told as well, including their own noteworthy music (Gary with The Rain, and individual releases by both) away from the WBs. The men’s responses to the boom and bust years are described in a handsome time loaded with interviews, and hale with honesty.
Less objectively, but sure to inspire similar fannish glee, we have the pairing of The Smiths’ Under Review from MVD with Morrissey: The Pagaent of His Bleeding Heart by Gavin Hopps. A greedy handful of the Under Review series has been crucial to the rock documentary canon — the Velvet Underground, the Captain Beefheart, and this one (to choose some right off the top of my head). Interviews with Stephen Street, Saint Morrissey author Mark Simpson, journalist Paul Morley, and Manchester mogul Tony Wilson (Factory Records). This “independent critical analysis” is rewatchable many times just for the generous sampling of clips of The Smiths playing songs like “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” “Panic,” and “Girlfriend In A Coma,” but the tragic vermiculation of the bands’ career isn’t avoided as the great music made in personal conflict and trauma is brightly lauded. Gantries are made between Morrissey’s personal, literary and pop culture based aspirations, and the brilliant music the whole of The Smiths made.
But… back to Morrissey for a moment. (He wouldn’t mind, I gather.) Hopps gives him plenty of passionate, well-informed attention in The Pagaent of His Bleeding Heart, a stylish and seductive hardcover from Continuum that reflects the love and devotion of its author to the subject’s worldview and musical expression. This is not a rote biography or analysis of the shebeens and spielers with collaborators, but an ideal inquiry into the aesthetic and forces which shape Morrissey’s lyrics, persona, and own influence on worldwide music culture.
With astonishing knowledge and vim, Hopps, this Research Council’s UK Academic Fellow in the School of Divinity at St. Mary’s College (?!) critically connects how the romantic works of Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron may have been channeled into the religious adoration by Catholic Latins and others whose orthodox culture otherwise may seem to be at odds with a homoerotic Brit who belted “This Charming Man” and “There’s A Place In Hell For Me And My Friends.” This dialectical hero-worship has been a profound mystery to many Smiths and Morrissey fans, and while Hopps may be creatively extrpolating in his lit-crit comparisons, he wonderfully explores the seeming conurbations of faith and failure, sex and death, belief and blasphemy in Morrissey’s City underground. Hopps doesn’t stop at Nietzsche though — the Warhol-lust and other Moz-obsessions are also delightfully mined for meaning.