Today’s pairing: strange crooners.
Scott Walker – Farmer in the City
Scott Walker became famous in the 1960s as the front man of the English pop band The Walker Brothers (biggest hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,”) none of whom were English, brothers, or named Walker. So it’s fitting that, long after the band’s demise, this relatively vanilla baritone crooner should reemerge as something more enigmatic, dark, and disturbing. As one critic said it was like “Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.” Reinvention didn’t come easy, though. After a few hit solo albums, a Jacques Brel phase, some “dark years,” and some memorable solo albums that didn’t sell at all, he totally unleashed his avant-garde self with the album Tilt in 1995. The opening track, “Farmer in the City,” has a mysterious opening, a low drone, a bell, a mournful voice crooning “Do I hear 21…21…21?” What is this? It’s a chilling vision of the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was killed by a 17 year old male prostitute on the beach at Ostia in 1975. Some of the lyrics are taken from a poem Pasolini wrote to his young lover Ninetto Davoli. Whether or not it’s a pop song, it’s one of the most haunted things I’ve ever heard.
Pere Ubu: Humor Me (live)
OK maybe crooner isn’t the right word for David Thomas of Pere Ubu, but strange in the very best sense is. I discovered Pere Ubu as a student at Berkeley while randomly searching the cd bins at Tower on Telegraph Ave. I liked the name of the band so I bought it (I must have just read Ubu Roi or something). The album, Terminal Tower, didn’t disappoint, and in fact I became a bit obsessed and bought all the other Pere Ubu records i could find. Pere Ubu was from Cleveland and fronted by David Thomas, a larger than life (in every way) presence who prattled on in what seemed like nonsense when in fact it made great sense. You had to listen closely and roll with the absurdity. Greil Marcus wrote, “Mr Thomas’s voice is that of a man muttering in a crowd. You think he’s talking to himself until you realize he’s talking to you.” The first time I saw Pere Ubu live, I found it supremely entertaining and even moving to watch this huge round man with the flask in hand, stumbling around the stage while singing in this high voice that sounded like he was losing it, all while catching pieces of imaginary dust. The theremin and synthesizers added to the insanity. But throughout it all was a sweetness emanating from David Thomas, like a little boy trying to make sense of the world. From the song Humor Me: “It was the world / A big world / Oh, what a world to be drowned in” and then the chorus on repeat: “It’s just a joke, man! Ha Ha Ha!”