Dear Readers: You may have noticed that my pal and I are very supportive of eachother. Perhaps too much so? Perhaps it is time for the gloves to come off in a good old fashioned head-to-head debate on an issue? Well, we agree (and that’s the last time you’re going to see that word in this post). So here we go, with a back and forth, in-the-same-post discussion about a little subject we have kicked around in person from time to time:
Well, Pal. You’ve heard me say it, now see me write it – the blunt fact of the matter is that rock stars should not record music after they turn 40. This is not ageism. I myself am over 40. It’s just the hard-core truth. You take all the classics, all the masterpieces, in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, not one came from an artist over 40. Hell, most were in their 20s. No doubt plumbers and salesmen and authors all get better with age, but making rock music is a young man’s (and woman’s) game. This is not to say they shouldn’t tour; it’s still great to see the veterans in the (wrinkled) flesh, but they should do us a favour and stick to the classics. No one cares about their latest experiment in the studio. Take the Stones, for example. It’s pretty cool that they’re still on the road, but all us fans would be much obliged if their concerts focused exclusively on material up to and including 1981’s Tattoo You. In 1983, Mick turned 40 and they made Undercover. And five other albums that don’t matter since. What do you think?
I think you are a hard and unforgiving Pal. I shouldn’t say that. You have the listener in mind. You care about them. I understand. This is my response to that. Many older musicians have less to prove and might be more about the fun of it than having something innovative to say (like the 20 and 30 somethings). The music might suffer because of that. But, who are you to decide what is good? Are you the judge, jury and executioner? I can’t argue that “Undercover” sucks and “Start Me Up” doesn’t, but, that is also a function of era. What are the mitigating factors my man! Broad sweeping the 40s crew as awful would be risky and unfair. It would be a shame to miss out on the gems. It is like the hazards of the death penalty. Most of them are guilty but it’s a shame when an innocent man (or woman) goes down.
Yes, Pal, I am thinking of the listener. But I am also thinking of the artist. And the artist’s legacy. They hurt themselves when they carry on too long. Do you know why the Beatles are the greatest band of all time? Because they stopped! Like the Velvet Underground. Like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Whether death or choice (or death by choice) ended their musical output, these folks are like athletes who hang it up while they’re still at the top of their game: we never have to witness their decline. They leave near-perfect cannons of music. No waste. No clutter. Conversely, the Stones (or U2, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, The Who etc.) dilute the potency of their collection every time they add new, inferior material to it. And who am I to decide what’s good? I’m just one man. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I doubt anyone’s aching to put on Bridges to Babylon over Beggars Banquet. The sad thing is, I think they’re slightly less likely to put on Beggars Banquet because of Bridges to Baylon.
Alright man you got some fastball arguments there. But I got the heat man. I am the pitcher on the mound. Shaking off the signals. Now I have the one I want. I stand straight up, put my fingers over the laces of the ball, wind up and let it go. It rips through the air, screaming to the plate. . . WHAT ABOUT BOB DYLAN!!!!!! Strike one. Some of his most relevant stuff was his more recent work. No doubt he had a dip in music quality, but, again that could be the eighties vortex. There are others. What about Bruce Sprinsteen? Prince is still making a splash these days too. I don’t have one album of his, but whenever I see him live on T.V. I am blown away. How about Raphael Saadiq. “Who the F- is he”, you mights say. Well, did you ever hear of a little group called Tony! Toni! Tone! He is one of those Ton(y)(i)(e)s. He came out with an album a few years ago (and another last year). He is over forty. The album is awesome. A song on it features Jay Z, and I bet he’s over forty too.
Good pitch, Pal, but I’m going to foul it off. Sure, Bob has had a decent late career resurgence. The Boss might be your even better example. He’s never really sucked, and last year’s Wrecking Ball was pretty impressive. I said the same thing about The Rising, and I said the same thing about Bob’s Love and Theft and Modern Times. Then you know what? I ignore them. I listen for a few weeks, and then abandon these late career goodies. I will never put on The Rising when I have Darkness on the Edge of Town. And I will never put on Love and Theft when I have Highway 61 Revisited. The new ones are good, but not essential, and time is too precious to spend on music that doesn’t knock your socks off. (Incidentally, if these two masters followed my not-after-40 rule, Dylan’s last album would be 1981’s Shot of Love, and Bruce’s last album would be 1989’s Tunnel Love.)
You got me on that one. Shot of Love. My achilles heel. I love that album, but it was downhill after that. Let’s talk personal realtionships with the artists we love. The artists age, but you know who also ages. We do. In my twenties I was into loud agressive, dissonant, noisy stuff. In all genres from Jazz to Funk to Hip Hop to Rock my sensibilities have all calmed down. When I was a kid, I never understood why my parents, who grew up on the Rock and Roll era and through to the 60s, were listening to Easy Listening Radio stations. As I get older I am realizing why. We change, so why can’t our favorite artists? Wouldn’t it be nice to have your favorite band age with you. Taking risky chances in their twenties, easing off with just good musicianship in their thirties, and relaxing and reflecting in their forties. Listen to what Nick Lowe is putting out these days. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be the soundtrack to your life? Wouldn’t you want that?
No, Pal, I would not want that. The soundtrack of my life keeps changing. When he was young and I was even younger Steve Earle was my soundtrack (Copperhead Road tour, Concert Hall, Toronto, Feb. 18, 1989 — Dear Steve, thank you so much). I still buy his new stuff out of respect but who’s kidding who, it ain’t the same. But, Pal, think about the artists you and I have discovered in recent years: Wilco, Avett Brothers, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, Tallest Man on Earth. Of their time and in their prime. Vital and fresh, and serving up our current soundtrack. Sorry to be bleak, but eventually they will all settle into a predictable groove (related, perhaps, to the fact that they are becoming millionaires). I may become, as you say, reflective and relaxed as I age, but I don’t want my music to. The good news is that right now, somewhere, a 19-year-old genius is plucking a cheap, battered guitar and honing his/her craft. And I can’t wait to find out who.
Me too Pal. So, maybe it’s not the old artist but rather the old system. Top 40 is becoming less relevant over time. All the old bands that you listed were all Top 40 in their height. These new guys you list are not Top 40. Lets go back to the Stones for a quick second. In the sixties and seventies the music was relatively the same, or at least you could see the logical progression from sixties to seventies Rock. The masters in the sixties were the masters in the seventies. Then Punk. Then New Wave. Then the eighties. Seventies rock gods like the Rolling Stones tried to be relevant but couldn’t. They knew not of these synthesizers. This open space of music. The rythm changed. Top 40 was filled with Howard Jones, ABC, and the Thompson Twins. Then BAM! Hair Bands. Bye Bye Mister Jones. BAM! Grundge Rock. Bye bye Axel. BAM! then what? Not sure. Boy Bands maybe. Yuck. Thanks Top 40. There are great musicians with longevity, but many can’t stay relevant because they are all trying to be Top 40. Nowadays music is all over the map and often the most influential stuff is never recognized on any single Billboard. All bets are off now. So many genres and so many ways to access music. I am optimistic that this will give us our great music to age with. So let’s not do away with the people in their 40s. Let’s do away with that one list that goes to 40. And maybe that 19-year-old genius you mentioned can have a long and fruitful career of making good music.
Well, Readers: There you have it. A debate for the ages. Or, at least a debate of the ages. What’s the truth? Should older rockers steer clear of the studio, or is it just that the system is broken? You decide. Let us know. Leave a comment.