Pavel Klusák, Czech Republic
Scott Walker: The Electrician
Whenever Pavel Klusák hears the song "The Electrician", he wanders in a space between two borders. At this place he finds dark secrets but also clear messages: And these are the ones he longs for most.
Dark songs often come from the space between scepticism and the storyteller’s ability to reflect on their doubt. I believe that the space between two worlds, like a doorway between two rooms, is a good place to search for a “song for Europe”.
Scott Walker was one of the most enigmatic of pop musicians. I have been returning to his recordings for years, in part because it is impossible to grasp them fully. And also because his world of sound and his concept of beauty are difficult to find elsewhere. I was honoured when I was asked to introduce the documentary film 30 Century Man about Scott Walker at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. I wanted to talk to him, but Walker did not want to be in the public eye. And then in March 2019, two weeks before I wrote this article, Walker died.
His destiny took him to several disparate worlds. Tellingly, the song The Electrician seems to stand in the middle of interconnected borders, in the in-between spaces touched by several “cultural Europes”, ones that can only rarely be experienced in the same moment.
Walker was an American, but from 1965 he lived in London where he enjoyed the adoration of crazed teenage girls. I imagine his pop career of the 1960s: from love songs with his distinct baritone resonating on weekly charts, to his own TV show with a supporting orchestra. It was a bright career, especially when it bonded young listeners with older fans of the French chanson songwriter Jacques Brel, whose songs Walker interpreted in English. I also try to imagine what led him to bring this radiant career to a complete stop.
“Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,” wrote The Guardian later when Walker returned, after years of silence, with songs born from very different places. Unrest and sonic experimentation re-introduced Walker as an avant-garde artist with no pop ambitions. His was now a singular interest: to find his own music, to combine inspirations and techniques in a way that would give voice to what he heard or felt deep inside.
Once in a recording studio Walker punched raw meat with boxing gloves, an indication of how uncompromising he had become with the vision of his later, darker music. I loved hearing once that this “David Bowie of art music” was commissioned to write a song for a Bond film, but the producers did not dare use what he wrote. The Electrician represents the exact moment when the pop part of Scott Walker dissipated and a new world emerged. Although you can hear a song format and a string orchestra, what is there to imagine when listening to the words “drilling through the Spiritus Sanctus tonight”? The dark hum of the melody aligns with the lyrics, which are difficult to decipher: they tell of torture carried out in the official interests of the state, just as was done in the day by the American CIA. But the song is not about the US: it is about a close personal relationship between a torturer and their victim.
At one point in the song something quite unexpected happens. A dark, menacing sound gives way to light, a string orchestra glowing with an enchanting melody. It is as though pain and darkness have receded – they’re not here to stay. But the song ends with another serving of gloom, taking over light as if in a relay. It speaks of the undulating contrast between darkness and light and reminds us that even in a tale about a dark long night, there is a place for a blinding ray of hope.
This is why I keep returning to The Electrician, a song on the border, just like Scott Walker himself. The border between darkness and light, between art and pop, between straight commentary and unbounded poetry. The defining line between an incomprehensible mystery and the clear message we have been longing for.