Karl Wallinger Was One of the Good Ones

I should be used to it by now. I’ve lost dozens of musicians and artists that I’ve adored over the years. Never mind the insane group of people we lost at the tender age of 27 (Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse, Joplin, that asshole from the Doors). It was never some triumphant act that I outlived them. What’s weirder to me is I’ve now outlived Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Robert Palmer, Adam Schlesinger (I may never get over his death), and legendary film critic Gene Siskel. And I’m only a couple of years away from catching up to Prince and Pete Burns.

Karl Wallinger was not supposed to be someone I could outlive in 10 years. Every album he released under the name World Party was a turbo boost of good karma. His songs were about spreading love wherever and whenever you can. There were some cautionary tales here and there, but his aim was true: leave the world a better place than it was when you entered it. It’s 2024, of course, and everything is on fire, but that isn’t Wallinger’s fault. Goodness knows, he tried to steer us down the right path.

Indeed, on 2012’s Arkeology, a five-disc set of rare and unreleased World Party tracks, one of the standouts is the scathing “Break Me Again,” arguably the most visceral song Wallinger ever put to tape (it is also the shortest nine-minute song you will ever hear). I had the good fortune of interviewing Wallinger back when Arkeology was released (more on that later), so I asked him about the track. It’s so good! Why didn’t it find its way onto a World Party album?

He recorded the song between his debut album, 1986’s Private Revolution, and 1990’s Goodbye Jumbo. Anyone who’s heard Goodbye Jumbo knows that that album has no skips, as my kids like to say, so maybe he held onto it as a backup plan for the band’s 1993 album Bang! But nope, that wasn’t why “Break Me Again” remained unreleased until 2012.

The real reason? The song was too angry, and he had no interest in going back to that dark place, which means that he didn’t want to subject us to what he was feeling when he wrote that song (he wouldn’t go into detail, and I didn’t prod him).

This is why I love Karl Wallinger so much. He basically did the ‘write down your feelings in a letter, then throw away the letter’ trick, but with a song. He was proud of the track, but he had no intention of sending that poisonous thing out into the world – there’s enough of that already. He wanted his songbook to be a force for good, even though that meant ruffling feathers from time to time. Case in point: “God on My Side”.

But positivity was always paramount when it came to Wallinger. He was the Beatles track “All You Need is Love” in human form. And speaking of the Beatles, I have a story to share, something I will never forget as long as I live.

When I interviewed Wallinger to discuss Arkeology, we did the chat using Skype. Those in the biz will remember that Skype didn’t automatically come with a feature to record calls, so many of us used third-party programs to record our chats. My chat with Wallinger started without video, but Karl wanted to see me while we were talking, so I switched the feed so that we could see each other.

Then disaster struck, because in doing so, the audio stopped recording. We chatted for almost an hour, and I got two minutes of the call on tape.

However, I got to see something incredible. We were talking about CDs, something Wallinger never cared for because he loved getting lost in album cover artwork. But then he said that albums had another value, at which point he leaves the room and returns with an album in his hands, and he starts pushing the sides of the album sleeve in and out like an accordion. While he’s doing this, he starts singing.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river…

And then:

I, I love the colorful clothes she wears…

Wallinger is singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Good Vibrations” to me, while trying to replicate the wave-y effect they placed on John Lennon and Brian Wilson’s vocals in the studio. In hindsight, it was totally worth losing the audio recording to see him do this.

He also waved at my son, who was five years old at the time (“Oh hey, there’s Junior!”), when he popped up behind me on screen. My son didn’t really know who Karl or World Party were at the time, but he loved the fact that a rock star stopped in mid-conversation to say hi to him. He felt seen, you could say.

I think of World Party’s discography along the lines of the efforts many of us make with our social media profiles, finely manicured to convince the world that we’re living our best lives all the time, but with one crucial difference. Wallinger couldn’t have cared less about appearances; what mattered to him was being the change he wanted to see in the world. His songs were never meant to be reflections of him, but rather as vessels for us to use to spread joy everywhere we go. That’s a good of a legacy as one could ask for.

He may not have sold a boatload of records – though Robbie Williams’ cover of his song “She’s the One” kept him flush with cash at a time when he needed it the most, as he suffered an aneurysm in 2001 and basically had to relearn how to do everything down to walking and talking all over again – but if my Facebook feed is any indication, Karl Wallinger touched the lives of a lot of people. Some of them were also lucky enough to meet and chat with him, while many others just had the tunes. All of them, though, felt like they just lost a family member. Kindness casts a large shadow, and few exemplified that better than Wallinger did.

Thank you, Karl. Your impact was greater than you will ever know.

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