LET’S DRINK TO THAT /
AND THE PASSING TIME…
As 2019 draws to a close, someone, somewhere in a print or TV newsroom will be compiling an end of year obituary list, looking back over the notable people who have passed away in the past twelve months. Though potentially morbid, the benefit of time and distance from the initial shock of the death gives these lists a more reflective feel. Months later, it feels easier to celebrate the things they did in life; to celebrate their celebrity.
And on that note…
On Monday 25 March 2019, I awoke to the news, delivered via BBC Radio 6, that the musician Scott Walker had passed away.
In a career that stretched over 50 years, Walker underwent a creative metamorphosis: going from the clean-cut pop crooner behind 60’s hits such as The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore) with the Walker Brothers (a trio comprised of three men, none of whom were related or even actually named Walker) to one of the most influential figures in the world of avant-garde music.
Tributes poured in on Twitter throughout the morning, at a scale which stands as testament to the depth of his influence. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Brian Eno, Boy George, Blur’s Damon Albarn, Sleaford Mods, and Sky Ferreira were just a few who took to social media to pay their respects. Walker’s music, it seems, has influenced virtually everyone involved in making pop or alternative music today.
But it wasn’t his unmistakable baritone or one of his sweeping instrumental flourishes that immediately sprang to my mind upon hearing the news.
Perhaps it was because it came via the radio that triggered the memory, or perhaps my brain just latched on to the relatively recent passing of another alternative music icon, but my first thought was of a short clip played to David Bowie by Maryanne Hobbs, as part of a show celebrating the starman’s 50th birthday.
Thankfully, if inevitably, the clip has been recorded for posterity for all to find on YouTube and it truly is worth a listen. As Walker’s pre-recorded message fades out, Bowie is audibly moved to tears. It’s a touching moment between two members of rock’n’roll royalty — enough to make the clip notable in and of itself. Yet to me, the exchange also reveals something about the way these men approached their work, and how Walker influenced David Bowie’s writing.
After wishing Bowie a happy birthday, Walker reveals that his own birthday happens to be the next day, and promises to drink to their health “on the other side of midnight.” It’s a throwaway line, but it’s full of the musicality of his lyrics. Part of what makes his music so special is that it is at once grandiose and grounded — beautiful orchestral arrangements accompany poetic lines that are firmly rooted in everyday interactions between people. Part of the appeal of Walker’s music is that it heaps significance onto ordinary little details. Strands of hair, a laugh, the rain: in Scott Walker’s hands, otherwise unremarkable moments become sublime. With his laser-sharp focus, the start of a new day, something so ordinary that it happens every time the calendar ticks over, becomes something more — it becomes a gesture of friendship and respect between the two of them.
Tearfully, Bowie struggles to talk about how long he has admired Scott Walker as one of his heroes and how the message has affected him. After a long pause, he says “Oh, I see God in the window.” Based on Bowie’s public comments on religion, it’s fair to assume that he doesn’t mean God in the Christian sense (or any other organised religion) — but rather that this small moment has taken on a spectacular quality: that a little bit of magic has just been performed before his ears.
Again, it’s an off-the-cuff line, but one that, to me, reveals something about his music. Like Walker, Bowie explores the everyday details of our lives in his lyrics, but he infuses these details with fantastical elements. He allows us to look through our ordinary windows and step out into outer space, like a kind of musical magical realism. Where Walker’s forensic eye shed light on the magic in the mundane, Bowie takes us on magical mystery tours, but stops in on dance halls and ice cream parlours — his space odysseys shed light on the mundane in the magic.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a short clip from an almost 20-year old radio show, but these two gentle little phrases — alongside the incredible humility and respect shown by two of music’s most influential figures — makes this moment a fitting tribute to the recently departed stars.
Music to make Bowie cry.