More people in the world have probably heard a song by The Beatles than any other artist in history. This feat of ubiquity makes it all the more remarkable that Paul McCartney eulogised Bob Dylan by saying: “He was our idol. It was a great honour to meet him, we had a crazy party that night we met. I thought I had gotten the meaning of life, that night.”
In short, the point is that even heroes have a hero, and it is a beautiful thing indeed that when it came to Scott Walker and David Bowie, the feeling ran mutually. While Bowie declared that Walker had been his “idol since [he] was a kid,” Walker also glowingly shared his adoration for Bowie throughout his career.
Since the 1960s, Bowie had not only idolised Walker, but moreover, he had continually tried to assimilate the grandiosity of his music into his own sound. With both artists sharing a love of the Belgian musician Jacques Brel, they foraged in the same sphere of influence, trying to capture a thrillingly huge (bordering on manic) sound.
Bowie first became aware of Scott Walker’s work in 1965 via a catalogue by Lesley Duncan, who had worked with Walker as a co-writer on several songs. As Bowie once said, “In the mid-1960s, I was having an on-again, off-again thing with a wonderful singer-songwriter who has previously been the girlfriend of Scott Walker. Much to my chagrin, Walker’s music played in her apartment night and day. I sadly lost contact with her, but unexpectedly kept a fond and hugely admiring love for Walker’s work.”
Later on, when helping to produce the film Scott Walker 30th Century Man, Bowie eulogised the star once more, stating: “He really didn’t want to abide by the rules of the genre. He kind of opted out of rock very early on in his career. It just seems he wanted to expand in some very unusual ways. And that was pretty much what I wanted to do. And it was always guys like that that I admired.” Both artists were clearly creatives who adhered to Bowie’s own mantra “never play to the gallery.”
It is clear from Bowie’s career development that he never lost sight of his idols blazing trail, and he continued to evolve on a personal level himself. In fact, Bowie even joked: “I reinvented my image so many times that I’m in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman.” And what’s more, both Walker and the Starman clearly shared a similar approach to their keen absorption of art, as Bowie once said: “If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose and it plays guitar upside down, I will go and look at it. You know, I love to see people being dangerous.”
Walker might not have been dangerous in the traditional sense of the word, but the seismic bravura of his style was certainly daring. Thus, when Bowie appeared on a 1997 radio interview with Mary Anne Hobbs, he was rendered speechless by a surprise birthday message from Walker. “Hi David, This is Scott Walker,” the distinctively voiced message began, “And I’m coming to you via a very crappy old hand-held tape machine so I hope that’s all right.”
Then the star fell into a swell of heartfelt praise that got David all choked up. “I’m gonna be a devil today and not ask you any questions,” he continued. “I’m certain that among the many messages, there will be loads about how you always embrace the new and freed so many artists … Like everyone else, I’d like to thank you for all the years, and especially for your generosity of spirit when it comes to other artists. I’ve been a beneficiary on more than one occasion … So have a wonderful birthday. And by the way, mine’s the day after yours, so I’ll have a drink to you on the other side of midnight. How’s that?”
Despite existing in the celestial realm of superstardom, Bowie was understandably moved by the surprise message from a hero of his. He responded, “That’s amazing… I see God in the window. That really got me there I’m afraid. I think he’s probably been my idol since I was a kid. That’s very moving. I want a copy of that. I’m absolutely… That’s really thrown me. Thank you very much.” It’s a beautiful note to a friendship that started with hero worship and ended with mutual adoration.