Over time, art loses its relevance. Today, people think of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a nice romance. When it was published, everyone understood that it was a critique of inheritance laws and the status of women. Additionally, its razor-sharp satire of Romantic affectation has lost its edge to the point where few notice it as anything but a comment of the follies of youth.
The same is true of Scott Walker’s song “The Old Man’s Back Again.” I recently heard the song used in the first episode of the second season of Ash vs Evil Dead. There is nothing clever about its use. Ash goes back home to Elk Grove and we get, “The old man’s back again.” (In it’s defense, the scene is really well directed with the song playing on the car radio, then switching outside showing the city sign as the car passes by and music at full volume.)
The song is off Scott 4 and is “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime.” It is a reference to the Prague Spring where the newly elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak communist party, Alexander Dubček, began to reform the country. He and others in the government made a lot of progress in this effort even while maintaining what they thought were good relations with the other Warsaw Pact countries.
But they were wrong and on 20 August 1968, seven and a half months after it began, the Prague Spring ended. The old policies were gradually put back in place and Dubček was forced to resign a few months later. The “old man” Walker refers to is Stalin — or at least his authoritarian policies.
It’s a very sad song. Each of the verses (except the last) is about the hope of the reformers for “socialism with a human face.” Dubček and his policies were hugely popular. And then it all came crashing down:
I seen a hand
I seen a vision
It was reaching through the clouds
To risk a dream
A shadow cross the sky
And it crushed into the ground
Just like a beast
The old man’s back again.
The last verse is told from the perspective of one of the invading soldiers, which I assume is meant to be Russian because the song specifically says he is “Ivan.” (There may be some other significance of this; if so, please let me know!)
But Walker still paints a sympathetic portrait of a young man who is confused and longing:
Devoured by his pain
Bewildered by the faces
Who pass him by.
Scott Walker’s gorgeous voice and the lush production hide just how painful a song this is. But I think that understanding the song in context makes it all the more beautiful.
Sadly, Walker died just over a year ago of cancer at the age of 76.