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When the drinking age is 40 ...
Music must be the fountain of youth
by Mark Anderson

As adages go, “age before beauty” is one of the more obtuse.

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: You’re as young as you feel ... Only the good die young ... You can’t trust anyone over 30 ... May you stay forever young ... Hope I die before I get old ... Who needs money when you’ve 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 certain age."

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 comprehend?

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 ordinary folk.

Pushing 70: Leonard Cohen seems to somehow still have a way with the ladies.

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 success.

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 Coleman (1930).

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 a girl.

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. Kevorkian?

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 of youth.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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