Previous psychobiographies of popular musicians have focused on their subjects’ self-centered (or at least un-self-aware) early behavior, which usually comes to a head once their careers start to ebb. Substance abuse is common, and a pop star rarely makes it out of this world without at least one stint in a rehabilitation clinic or under a psychoanalyst’s care. The present writing seeks to compare a musician, 1960s pop star Scott Walker (1943-2019), with an artist, the famous Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Following a brief consideration of Scott Walker’s biography, I will then outline Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s procrastinating personality as a result of the great artist’s ambivalence toward parental objects. Finally, I will number a few points of comparison between both men’s object relations as they are revealed through their artistic productions.

Noel Scott Engel was born on January 9, 1943, in Hamilton, Ohio. His mother, Betty, was said to be as blessed with good looks as was her son. However, she was also noted to have possessed “a strong personality,” which led her into conflicts with both her son and husband (Watkinson & Anderson, 1994, p. 1). Betty’s intransigence even led to her being overly strict in disciplining Scott and must have contributed to her divorce from Scott’s father, Walter Noel Engel, when the boy was six years old. Also factoring into the separation of Scott’s parents was Walter’s almost constant absence from the family, first during his stint as a Naval officer in the South Pacific, and later as a geologist who had to go wherever his work took him. A year after the divorce, an already emotionally traumatized Scott almost perished from a bout with scarlet fever.

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For the rest of his life, Scott suffered from nightmares, and his penchant for writing macabre yet humorous lyrics was a way of reworking his childhood fears into aesthetic statements.

The breakup of the family hit young Scott particularly hard, especially since the boy was made to feel that he had to choose between his parents. He chose his mother Betty and did not see his father for years. Looking back at this crucial time, a grown-up Scott admitted his bitterness toward his father, but he gave his mother trouble as well, often playing with matches and even once setting his room on fire. Alimony from Walter Engel only went so far and, after mother and son moved to New York, a 14-year-old Scott found himself in his father’s place, earning $300 a week performing in a musical.

After many twists and turns, Scott found himself the lead voice and most recognizable member of the pop music band The Walker Brothers, who had a pair of chart-topping hit records in the U.K. between 1965 and 1967; they were said in The Walker Brothers: No Regrets—Our Story autobiography to have had, at their peak in the summer of 1966, a bigger fan club than The Beatles (Walker & Walker, 2010). But by 1967, Scott had tired of the simple pop tunes and the audiences full of hysterical teenage girls. He wanted to become a serious album-oriented artist, so he released five solo albums between 1967 and 1971.

By the early half of the “me decade,” Scott had lost his audience; indeed, he had lost his way. Stage fright could no longer be dispelled with the usual cocktail of alcohol and Diazepam. Scott began to regain his aesthetic footing with a track called “The Electrician” from an album put out by a reunited Walker Brothers in 1978. Both instrumentally and lyrically, the song signaled a new Scott: Tense droning notes from a baritone guitar precede the entrance of a haunting lead voice that sings of a government-hired torturer whose ability to “thrill” his detainee is likened to the intimate ecstasies of a pair of lovers. Scott next embarked upon a second solo career that produced four more experimental albums before his death from cancer in 2019.

If we recall what is perhaps the first psychobiography ever published, Freud’s (1957/1910) Leonardo da Vinci: A Memory of His Childhood, many parallels to Scott Walker’s life come to mind. Both Leonardo and Scott lived their preoedipal years largely apart from their fathers. Both men were accused of laziness, were known

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to work slowly, and would leave projects dangling. Strangest of all, both were suspected of covert or overt homosexuality, though in Scott’s case, this was largely because of his longtime platonic friendship with music industry personality Jonathan King, a man who much later was convicted of sexual acts with a number of school-age boys.

Freud believed that Leonardo’s interest in other men originated in his passing through the oral and anal psychosexual stages without a father and with a mother who was too affectionate with him, compensating as she was for the loss of her husband, da Vinci’s father. Before Leonardo could repress his sexual expression during the phallic phase, he already had to push his erotic feelings for his mother, intact, into his unconscious during the oral and anal phases. By the time of the phallic or Oedipal phase, Leonardo had no father to help him distance himself from his mother’s tendency to envelop the entire psyche, in this case forcing Leonardo to cast himself as the mother who chooses himself as a child. In real life, this meant Leonardo-as-matron kept his feelings for his mother hidden, yet they did not diminish as he chose young men as love objects, as in so many Leonardo-proxies. Luckily, so Freud thinks, Leonardo was able to sublimate his sexual feelings into his love of knowledge so that his “ideal [sublimated] homosexuality” precluded the great artist from taking advantage of the underage boys in his charge (Freud, 1957/1910, p. 28). Instead, Leonardo became a great investigator of nature, with his sex drive invested in his artworks and in his engineering endeavors, many of which reflected, obliquely, Leonardo’s affection for his beloved (yet, at the same time, frightening) matron.

Leonardo’s Oedipal situation did not resolve optimally, according to Freud. We might think of it thusly: Leonardo’s father was absent during the years leading up to the phallic phase, so once he appeared in his son’s life (at about age five, when Leonardo was introduced into his father’s household), the paternal object was not established properly in the superego. In other words, Leonardo’s father was not established as a rival, as an off-setter of the pre-oedipal, merging-enveloping type of love associated with the mother. Neither did Leonardo possess a proper internal object-representation of the wider social-cultural world, with its indirection, its ambiguous rules, and its shifting expectations. As a result, Leonardo became a procrastinator, or, more specifically, an artist who lost interest in his art objects, not cathecting them deeply

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enough to avoid discarding them once it became apparent that their completion required a severe curtailing of his pleasure seeking. Freud does, however, portray the great artist as finding ways to modify his behavior to counter his obsessive, indecisive tendency. In fact, according to Freud (1957/1910), Leonardo became one of the great investigators of nature, and in his later works, especially Mona Lisa and St. Anne and Two Others, he was able to objectify somewhat his ambivalence toward his birth mother.

It could be argued that Scott Walker followed a path similar to Leonardo’s in that both attempted to overcome early neuroses by turning to a life in the arts, and both were at least partially successful in their attempts to undo early maladaptive life strategies. In Scott’s case, he stopped his abuse of prescription medication at the end of the 1970s and curtailed his drinking from the injudicious level it had reached during the years just before the Nite Flights album in 1978, as reported in The Walker Brothers: No Regrets—Our Story autobiography (Walker & Walker, 2010). Also, Scott made the difficult transition from singing middle-of-the-road material during the Walker Brothers’ first stint to writing and recording more personal and artistic music during his later years.

It is perhaps no coincidence that a number of Scott’s later songs have to do with a lover or associate of a dictator or king. In the case of “Clara,” it is Mussolini’s mistress; and in “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died (An Xmas Song),” we have Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s wife Elena sharing her husband’s fate via firing squad. The obscure lyric of “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” tells the story of one of Attila the Hun’s jesters, who imagines himself living up in the sky, anywhere but in the wooden palace that is his prison, and in which he earns his keep by making brutal, unsmiling masters laugh. In each of these songs, we have a dictatorial father figure paired with an accomplice whose involvement seems to fall somewhere between “willing” and “unwilling,” as in “Clara,” in which the Italian leader’s mistress chooses to give up her life to be with Mussolini, but for motives that go beyond politics, beyond anything we can puzzle-out as onlookers. Is the smile the clown Zercon brings to Attila’s lips any less “enigmatic” than that of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa? We may guess that Scott, not unlike Leonardo, mediated unconscious extremes of parentally-directed love and hate by projecting them onto so many historically-framed canvasses of song, allowing both the creators of the artworks as well as their consumers (and, perhaps, those figures

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obliquely portrayed therein) to express their disappointment toward their own fathers and mothers, all the while establishing a reparative distance.

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James L. Kelley

James L. Kelley has published three books and over a dozen peer-reviewed articles. His research interests include psychobiography, psychiatric theory, and philosophy. He has taught at East Central University and the University of Oklahoma and resides in Norman, Oklahoma. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Kelley, J. L. (2023). The compulsion to create: Scott Walker and Freud’s Leonardo compared. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 370-374.

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