the drinking age is 40 ...
must be the fountain of youth
As adages go, age before beauty is one of the
Is it a patronizing putdown? (Young person holds door for old-timer.)
Or sage anticipation? (A requisite amount of living is required
before beauty can be truly appreciated.) Its meaning is as murky
as Westernized culture, which seems to lurch ever closer to some
unreachable youth-obsessed ideal.
Far side of 40: Joe Henry's Scar is full of poignant
poetry and timeless melodies.
Meanwhile, an abundance of corollaries exist: Youre as
young as you feel ... Only the good die young ... You
cant trust anyone over 30 ... May you stay forever
young ... Hope I die before I get old ... Who needs
money when youve got youth?
Somewhat relatedly, my occasional, recurring debate with a thoughtful
but not-yet-30-year-old musician friend goes something like this:
He: "Musicians lose their fire when they get past a certain
age. Most of these has-beens really oughta just give up, because
they only continue to embarrass themselves."
Me: "But music is unlike basketball, where top-notch skills
inevitably erode with time. Within reason and given a certain level
of dedication, musical skills are enhanced with every year spent
on the planet."
He: "Musicianship, songwriting and passion are distinctly
different things. And passion burns out in most people beyond some
Me: "But that presupposes that musicians artists in
general, for that matter are incapable of reinvention. And
that passion can't be subject to subtlety and nuance."
At this point, my youngish friend acknowledges a few passionate
age-challenged aberrations: Paul Simon (born 1941) is cool. As is
Neil Young (1945). His list is painfully short.
But my main contention is this: It's tougher for a long-established
artist to come up with fresh idea #500 than for a newer, younger
artist to come up with #25 or #50.
Doesn't it make sense that there would be fine-tuning involved
in the music-making process? That the law of averages prescribes
an increasing number of misses relative to the ability to make the
so-called hits? That a given amount of sameness is dictated by the
voice with which an artist is born? That an aging artist's nuance
and subtlety might be easier for an aging audience to appreciate
And that only rarely do the planets align such that an entire album
whether it's the artist's first or fiftieth is anywhere
near to flawless?
As if any self-respecting artist would embark on a new project
by saying, "Hmmm, what can I do this time that will
be a pale replica of my previous best?" As if top-notch artists
aren't as hard-pressed to push beyond their limitations as are us
70: Leonard Cohen seems to somehow still have a way with the
Then there's the nasty double-edged bind: their old stuff
is better ... versus that sounds too much like
their old stuff ...
Let's not forget: Old people need to pay the bills, too. And for
some, making music is quite simply what they do. A middle-age career
change is not the easiest of prospects.
That said, many artists beyond the 40-year-old barrier produced
albums in 2001 with varying critical, commercial and artistic
Leonard Cohen (1934), Bob Dylan (1941) and Joe Henry (1960) all
released works that not only rival their own impressive high-water
marks, but also stand among the finest of this or any year.
Cohen's Ten New Songs oozes vitality as the mystical old
goat heads for 70. That he began as a beatnik poet and novelist
in the 1950s is only the story's beginning. He also reportedly emerged
recently from a five-year sabbatical of cooking, cleaning and meditating
in the hills above Los Angeles with his 90-something teacher. And
he's clearly done a lot of living in between. The album, Cohen's
first collection of new material in nine years, shows no drop-off
in his penchant for finding optimism by combining ethereal lyrics,
regal anthems and exquisite female harmonies with which to frame
his wizened voice.
Bob at 60: Dylan appears far from done.
Dylan's Love and Theft takes its place among the strata
at the apex of a career that spans 40-plus years and continues to
define the poet laureate of our time. Somewhat surprisingly, Dylan
has never sounded more playful.
Henry's largely overlooked Scar combines timelessly literate
compositions with an exceptional ensemble that includes a trio of
30-somethings drummer Brian Blade, pianist Brad Mehldau and
bassist Me'Shell NdegéOcello in addition to exalted
guitarist Marc Ribot (1954) and the incomparable saxophone of Ornette
Here's a partial list of others on the far side of 40 who've put
out product in 2001 that is, at least to some significant degree,
artistically challenging: Suzanne Vega (1959), Prince (1958), Loudon
Wainwright III (1947), Laurie Anderson (1947), Iggy Pop (1947),
Ian Hunter (1946), Boz Scaggs (1944), Jeff Beck (1944), Mick Jagger
(1943), Herbie Hancock (1940), McCoy Tyner (1938), Shirley Horn
(1934), R.L. Burnside (1926) and Tony Bennett (1926).
Sting (1951) planned an elaborate Web-cast to celebrate his 50th
birthday until the events of September 11 nixed the plan. Instead,
he played an intimate show that night for a 200-member audience
and released All This Time, a live recording with horns,
strings, female singers and reworked versions of a career-spanning
selection of songs.
The Material Woman at 43: Well aware of what it feels like for
Madonna (1958) released a second greatest hits package many
of her best-ever songs have come in the last few years.
Paul McCartney (1942), Elton John (1947) and Michael Jackson (1958)
released what might be considered duds at least to these
ears and certainly compared to their respective heydays. But why
not remain open to the chance that they may again find the muse?
All of which is not to mention road-tested veterans like B.B. King
(1925), Chuck Berry (1926), Bo Diddley (1928), James Brown (1933)
and countless others all of whom are still some degree of
crazy after all these years.
Hey, nobody has to listen to these virtual dinosaurs. There
are lots of newer, younger artists with interesting things to say
and passionate ways of saying them. The death of pop music
widely reported on many occasions over the past 25 years
has thus far been greatly exaggerated.
But should the long-established artists fold up the tent? Move
to Florida and play shuffleboard? Place a desperate call to Dr.
Why not celebrate the fact that the rules have changed in the last
40-some years to the point where there really are no rules? Why
not evaluate the likely suspects on a song-by-song basis, instead
of turning quick once-overs into sweeping generalizations?
Not surprisingly, the debate with my youthful friend always ends
much the same way. "I hope I'm still around in 10 or 20 years,"
I surmise, "to see if you're still thinking the same way."
At that point my friend just smiles. Then we change the subject
before I get around to the notion that there are, after all, at
least two more age-related adages (no need to hit people upside
the head with what they'll soon find out for themselves):
Youth is wasted on the young, and Music is the fountain