Saturday, 25 February 2012

Walter Skin: Forgotten Marvel or Elaborate Hoax?

Once in a while a song will catch my attention for being in equal parts puzzling and beautiful. ‘Jenny Cohn’ by Walter Skin & the Motorboat Sunshine Orchestra is exactly that. The version of the song that has surfaced online is purportedly a live recording from 1974. In this recording, Skin’s vocal delivery is pitched somewhere between Daniel Johnston and a Woody Allen soliloquy in the way that he mumbles and trembles as he tells of both his woes (“I was a wreck... I was in a bad dark place”) and his love for who you’d assume to be Jenny Cohn. The music itself provides the beauty, but what is puzzling is the back story. A biography accompanying the song claims that Walter “disappeared for several years” and was later (1976, to be exact) found dead in a New York hotel room aged just thirty two. It goes on to claim that most of his recordings were either “lost or corroded due to cheap manufacture”. This is, however, where the story ends. Untraceable online and with only three songs available for listening, my speculation over the history and legitimacy of Walter Skin was only furthered. How can there be no traces – but for three songs - of a musician who only stopped playing thirty six years ago?

The other two songs that appeared online, ‘That Porch’ and ‘King of Everything’, feature Skin singing as opposed to rambling ambiguously. Whilst they lack the fragile beauty of ‘Jenny Cohn’, they remain fascinating and well composed, yet there are clear implications in the songs (all three of them) that argue against them being legitimate 1974 live recordings. For a start, they come across as over-produced. The track levels are close to perfect and the crackles and hiss seem synthetic. The end of ‘Jenny Cohn’ is inevitably ushered in by (sparse) claps, however, these inhabit a totally different ambience to the vocals; if the recording were live, there would be a very atypical acoustic in the room. This is also noticeable in the final track, ‘King of Everything’. In this song, the expected background noise of a bar and audience is present, however it is unsuited to the recording.

These arguments lead to the real question; if the songs were in fact not by Walter Skin, then who did record them? The obvious answer is a small – and damn clever – artist looking for publicity. If so, the story is very well conceived, but the recordings flawed, however, no matter who, or when, they were recorded, they still remain a great work. For now it is unclear whether the person behind the recordings is a contemporary artist, or Walter Skin himself, but what is clear is that the songs produced are some of the most interesting of the year, be it the year of 2012, or the year of 1974.

William Hall

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