Bob Dylan is still fighting for equality, but maybe senior citizens should be his new oppressed group.
In a compilation of reviews for Dylan’s newest album, “Tempest,” Randy Lewis of the L.A. Times notes the many reviewers who mention the singer’s voice, which sounds like he’s been gargling with Drano and rock salt. Lewis might just as easily have counted the critics who reference Dylan’s age — virtually all of them — and those who marvel that a 71-year-old still can make potent music in the third act of his life.
A not-so-subtle ageism is at work here. Amid all the five-star write-ups of a solid Dylan album is an undercurrent of amazement that somebody over the age of 60 can do more than sit in a corner and mumble incoherently about days gone by.
Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, in a positive review of “Tempest” for Salon, writes that he wept tears of joy that Dylan, at his age, could still pen lyrics like, “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep,/Saying things you shouldn’t say,/Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”
First of all, in the annals of Dylan lyrics, those don’t rank with anything from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks.” They’re not bad, by any means, but they certainly aren’t the second coming.
Secondly, why is it remarkable that somebody in his 70s could write this? Because Dylan dallied with drugs so much that each coherent sentence is a miracle? Or is Cole shocked that a 71-year-old still has somebody to sleep with, and, by implication, is still sexually active? I don’t know. But Cole ends his piece marveling that Dylan still loves his day job, which he again links to his age and finds “great.”
Bloomberg’s Mark Beech isn’t quite as high on the album, but notes, “Still, it’s good that, at 71 years of age, Dylan still is writing, touring, recording some fine music, growling away and probably not caring what anyone else thinks.” Guess it’s better than a nursing home. A headline in the Wall Street Journal asks, “Can Your Non-Retirement Rock Like Bob Dylan’s?”
Maybe this age shock among critics is because popular music these days — and by “these days” I mean both before and after Dylan changed the landscape of pop music forever — is primarily made by the young and for the young. In an ever-moving treadmill, callow artists glide into the limelight, crank out a few hits, then recede backstage to finish their careers in obscurity, playing state fairs and bar mitzvahs and maybe releasing an album of cover tunes every few years. Only a handful remain in the public eye for any length of time, and of those, only a small fraction remain relevant.
Nicholas Delbanco, author of “Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Old,” studied the lives of several artists whose creativity continued later in life, among them Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who was in his 80s and practically blind when he painted his masterpiece “Water Lilies”; author John Updike, who continued writing and publishing into his 70s and still found the blank page “a site of hopeful possibility”; and Giuseppe Verdi, who composed operas well into his 80s.
In a 2011 interview, Delbanco told National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel that many more masterpieces throughout history have been created by the under-40 than the over-40 set. “I mean, if you’re a baseball player or a ballerina, you kind of know that your career is over by the age of 40, and you certainly wouldn’t begin in at that point,” he said. “But in terms of subject matter … there’s no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn’t grow with age. But it’s happened so relatively rarely that I thought I would puzzle it out in this book.”
Delbanco notes that life expectancy and health issues impact the issue considerably. Now that people live longer and healthier lives than previous generations, more people accomplish major milestones at ages that would have raised eyebrows only a few decades earlier.
Witness any number of septuagenarians and octogenarians who celebrate milestone birthdays by skydiving or riding motorcycles. In April, the world’s oldest marathon runner, Fauja Singh, retired after completing the London Marathon in under eight hours. He was 101.
In a world where senior citizens regularly work years after retirement age, volunteer prodigiously, serve the public in elected positions, golf, bicycle, cartwheel and hang-glide, shouldn’t we all be offended when somebody’s accomplishment — be it album, quilt, samba or statute — is accompanied by surprise over his or her age?
I hope Dylan keeps delivering records well into his 80s and 90s, and that as he does, critics judge his singular music on its own merits, without filtering it through a calendar. The times, they are a changin’, indeed.
Originally published Sept. 20, 2012 in The Alliance Review.
Music 20 Apr 2012 06:33 am
An Open Letter to Axl Rose:
So, you didn’t come to Cleveland last Saturday to accept your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you would have preferred that the museum not honor you at all.
That’s cool. It didn’t sound like your written refusal was dissing Cleveland or the Rock Hall in particular but that the whole schtick was just part of the ongoing feud with your former bandmates. That battle’s been raging for decades, after all, maybe from the time the first chords of “Welcome to the Jungle” rang out through stereo speakers across America, heralding the arrival of Guns N’ Roses. Contention and dissent are powerful muses, and the original G N’ R — either because of or in spite of them — logged some energetic, highly influential songs before “creative differences” tore the band apart.
Back then, you were the quintessential rock and roll lead singer — pushing boundaries, raising Cain, and often opening your mouth before engaging your brain.
You were one of the first rockers I ever heard who sprinkled expletives like seasoning salt throughout your lyrics. “Out ta Get Me” was so raw it made Roger Daltry’s single, muffled f-bomb in “Who Are You” sound like a nursery rhyme by comparison. You wore your addictions and not your heart on your sleeve. Other artists had monkeys on their backs, to be sure, but you were the first one to connect the beast to a chain and play music for it like an organ grinder. (I was naïve enough back then that I thought “Mr. Brownstone” was about an old man who liked to dance and not a reference to an illegal substance. Imagine my surprise.)
Of course, like anybody whose public persona hovers perpetually too close to the line, you sometimes tripped over it. Your racist rant on “One in a Million” is shameful, and your recording of Charles Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” was ill-advised. (Even worse, it’s a bad song.)
Then came your 15-year absence from recording amid continual promises of “Chinese Democracy,” the long-gestating, often-delayed sixth studio album that finally arrived in 2008 as a Best Buy exclusive (not very dangerous, that) and sounded about as much like G N’ R as a Chipmunks Christmas album. Maybe that’s because your feet-dragging over that decade and a half drove off the other original members, making this in effect an Axl Rose solo album, which is how it should have been billed.
I’m not one of those fans who believes that creative types owe the public anything beyond the best work they can produce. As far as I’m concerned, you fulfilled all obligations to me each time you delivered a good album in exchange for my hard-earned money. So I don’t care if you ever reunite with guitarists Slash and Izzy or the rest of the classic lineup, something which, based on your rambling letter last week, will happen right after graves yawn open and give up the bodies of John and George to reunite with Paul and Ringo for a Beatles tour. But if you do, I’d buy that record. Or CD. Or digital download.
If anything, your letter proves you still have plenty of rock and roll street cred. I mean, rock is all about rebellion, and nothing is less rebellious than being inducted into a museum, right? It’s like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
Besides, refusing the Rock Hall’s induction puts you in rarefied company. The Sex Pistols refused the honor when they were inducted in 2006, referring to the Rock Hall as “urine in wine” and wondering why so many subversive artists feel the need to ask “How high?” when the museum says jump.
Hey, controversy with Pistols and now Guns. Maybe the Rock Hall should stop inducting groups with weapons in their names.
At any rate, I’m looking forward to your next album in 2021. By then, China might actually be a democracy. All the best.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on April 19, 2012.
I shocked my wife recently by performing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song from memory.
This included a passable vocal rendition of the Earl Scruggs banjo solo. Scruggs was in the public eye last week because he died, an extreme way to trend on Twitter, but effective if you’re willing to sacrifice.
Anyway, I summoned my best bass to imitate singer Jerry Scoggins and launched into “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which spent 20 weeks on the country charts in 1962, six years before I was born. “Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed,” it begins, and takes the audience (in this case, my long-suffering spouse, desperately rolling over in bed to ignore the lunatic lying next to her, who was belting out lyrics and playing the air banjo — my air guitar’s in the shop for repairs — with reckless abandon) through the rags-to-riches tale of food-shooting, oil-finding Clampett, who moves his family from the hinterlands to swank Beverly Hills. Chances are good you’re singing it now — “bubbling crude,” “black gold” “Texas tea” and all.
For a guy who just last week wrote about how his memory for names is shot, I’m happy to report my recall for ephemeral nonsense is as strong as ever. In addition to “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, I can rattle off principal actors in “Leave It To Beaver” (Barbara Billingsley, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, “and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver”); the number of consecutive issues that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated on the Fantastic Four (102), and the names of all 10 Led Zeppelin studio albums (to be fair, the first is self-titled, two and three are Roman numerals, and the fourth is runic shapes that are loosely transcribed as “ZOSO”).
Yet ask me what I had for dinner last night or how many years I’ve been married (my pat answer to the latter, “All of them,” doesn’t play well) and I’m at a complete loss.
We live in the golden age of pop culture because virtually everything is available to us — in print, on disk or online. Want to read “Gulliver of Mars,” the book that inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to create John Carter, which inspired Disney Studios to make the biggest bomb in its history? Twenty years ago, you had to haunt used-book stores or order sight unseen through the mail. Today, it’s free online.
Around 1987, I took a movie appreciation class where the biggest problem was how to watch any movies. A few students had VCRs in their dorm rooms, but almost nobody had pre-recorded videos. We begged and borrowed movies — not necessarily good movies — just to have something. I ended up working with a group to analyze special effects in “Alien,” not because we particularly liked it, but because it was the only movie we had.
Today, that’s as alien to younger film fans as the title character was to those crew members who watched it pop out of a man’s chest.
Want to relive “King Kong,” “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” or other Hollywood hits? You no longer have to stay up until 2 a.m. and receive a fuzzy signal through a rabbit-ear antenna from some station in Outer Mongolia, only to doze off five minutes before the movie starts and wake up as the final credits roll. Chances are good the movie is available for purchase, rental or loan on DVD, Blu-Ray or instant download to scratch the cinematic itch on your schedule.
The same holds true for music, poetry, drama, art — you name it, you can likely find it.
Today, the hardest part of pop culture is making time to enjoy everything that interests you. Or maybe it’s finding a way to step out of its path and connect with the real world outside your door and not the one on the omnipresent screen in front of you.
In previous generations, people like Jed Clampett knew dozens of ways to catch food, mix roots and herbs, and live off the land. Today, people like me know dozens of tunes and trivia about characters like Jed Clampett.
I guess that’s progress, as long as the banjo you’re hearing is the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies” and not “Deliverance.”
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally printed in The Alliance Review on April 5, 2012.
My column from today’s Alliance Review:
I have no idea how Whitney Houston’s album sales are this week, but it wouldn’t surprise me if her music shot straight to number one.
The best thing any artist can do to revive a flagging career is to die. Musician after musician proves it. Kurt Cobain. Tupac Shakur. Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson. And now Houston.
Yet our ghoulish fascination with celebrity demise extends beyond singers. Would “The Dark Knight” have been as big a phenomenon if Heath Ledger hadn’t died shortly before the movie’s release? Might Marilyn Monroe’s mystique have been less magnetic if she had lived to, say, Betty White’s age? Is the memory of James Dean — leaning rakishly against a wall, one thumb hitched through a belt loop, red leather jacket identifying him as a rebel without a cause — indelibly burned into our collective subconsciousness precisely because he left us so young?
Or take John F. Kennedy, in the news again recently as more allegations of extramarital shenanigans come to light. Despite the profusion of stories indicating he was as morally bankrupt as any number of contemporary politicians whose dalliances have destroyed their careers, JFK remains our golden boy, leader of a mythical Camelot. Why? Because he had the misfortune of dying young, in office and by violence, a trifecta for immortality of the reputation. His death may have been bad for his person, but it was great for his persona.
In Jackson’s case, a surcease of heart beats is all it took to erase the lingering stigma of child molestation. To mention it now is to earn the wrath of people who believe, mistakenly, that we should not speak ill of the dead. But if the dead did ill when they were alive, why should we stop speaking of it now? Death, it seems, provides the ultimate do-over.
Our fascination with whatever resides beyond that final curtain through which we must all pass before making our final bow extends into every facet of our culture. The English language is awash in it. “You’re killing me,” we say when we laugh; “I could have just died,” when we are embarrassed; and “I could blow my brains out,” when we’re upset.
We dress up death the same way we would a poor relative of whom we are secretly embarrassed but who must come with us to dinner, nevertheless. Our loved ones seldom simply “die.” Instead, they pass away or pass on to their eternal reward. They meet their maker, succumb, go the way of all flesh, depart or go home. (For what it’s worth, I’m OK with “died.” Call it what it is.)
Then there are the humorous descriptions: Sleep with the fishes, dirt nap, kick the bucket, buy the farm, cash in their chips, croak. Feet are an important descriptor: Extremely sick people have one foot in the grave, where it presumably waits for its companion before the entire body goes 6 feet under, and to die with one’s boots on is considered a compliment. (Since I haven’t owned a pair of boots until recently, I’ve been effectively immortal.)
In one of our strangest customs, we gather around a dead person’s body and offer compliments, saying all the words that might have meant something to the person had we bothered to share them while he or she was still around to hear.
(Mark Twain nailed it perfectly 136 years ago when he had Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn eavesdrop on their own funerals. They are so complimented that they almost regret letting loved ones know they’re alive.)
So it should surprise nobody if Houston’s record sales spike this week, as people who haven’t listened or cared about her in years suddenly decide she’s the greatest thing since … the last celebrity who died.
Death is merely a final marketing technique, a relaunching of one’s career. In the case of Whitney: Houston, we have liftoff.
I had my junior Advanced Placement students write analyses of books, movies or songs for their final exam. They did a great job. Because I believe in recycling everything, below is my sample analysis of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which seemed appropriate given the time of year.
What do you get when you mix four guys who can barely play their instruments, a raspy-voiced singer with a penchant for subversive lyrics, and a producer who knows how to wring the best performance possible from a young band?
In the case of “School’s Out,” the title track on the Alice Cooper album of the same name, you get a classic.
The song opens with a simple three-chord riff that has, since the time of its original release in 1972, become instantly recognizable to generations of listeners, an anthemic announcement of the end of another school year. When front man Cooper begins to sing, his is the voice of youthful anarchy, speaking out against drudgery imposed by parents, teachers, principals, and school boards:
Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
‘Cause they found new toys.
The lyrics are childlike, the rhymes and near-rhymes simple and predictable. In the next verse, which also starts with a repetitive “well,” he sings,
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flag
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag
By combining “salute,” “flag” and “drag” with the idea of rude kids who don’t respect their elders’ authority, Cooper taps into the gooey center of the generation gap, both in his time and ours. Adults almost always see kids as lazy and disrespectful, but framed in the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the early ‘70s, this verse implies that kids are unpatriotic, as well. “Drag” creates a negative connotation with cigarettes and illegal substances, further winning over kids while alienating all the right adults, the ones who think that school should be year ’round and that kids should be nothing more than tiny adults.
For the band, it’s not enough that school is out for summer. It has to be out “forever” and “blow to pieces,” a vicious little sentiment that has taken on a more sinister meaning in this post-Columbine era. In contrast, the group next offers a kiddie choir intoning the classic schoolyard ditty: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.
Punning always plays a part in Cooper’s lyrics, and in “School’s Out,” he offers great examples, trading on dual meanings in the lines, “Well, we got no class/And we got no principles” before delivering the perfect follow-up, “and we got no innocence/We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Producer Bob Ezrin, who would go on to work with Pink Floyd on Another Brick in the Wall, keeps Glen Buxton’s guitar solo short and fuzz-ugly and adds a distinctive distortion effect to the climactic ringing bell before allowing it to wind down like a record on the wrong speed. At three-and-a-half minutes, the song is a polished little rock-and-roll gem that grows more lustrous with each passing school year.
Ultimately, Cooper and his original fans have grown older than the adults who were originally outraged by the group and its onstage antics. Instead of a source of outrage, “School’s Out” is now a piece of Americana, a throwback to the “good old days” of the ’70s.
There is irony in watching Cooper, now 60-plus years old, perform a song about reckless, youthful abandon, but he can still sell it. Maybe that’s because no matter how old and jaded we become, inside each of us is still that little kid sitting on the edge of his seat some fine, final school day in late May or early June, waiting on a bell that signals the start of grand summer adventures.
Courtesy of a big bin of $5 CDs at Wal-Mart, I picked up two releases from the original Alice Cooper band: Love It to Death and School’s Out. I’ve had the first one on vinyl for years (and maybe on cassette, too). I’ve never had School’s Out in any format, although I certainly have the title track on any number of greatest hits compilations.
Of the two, 1971’s Love It to Death has the stronger material and rocks much harder, with two of my favorite songs, “I’m Eighteen” and “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” The latter is a homage to creepy character actor Dwight Frye (the band intentionally misspelled his name to avoid legal hassles), who appeared in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Dracula in the 1930s.
School’s Out, which came out just one year later, already shows the group (or at least lead singer AC) veering sharply toward a more Broadway, almost self-parodying sound. The title track is a thunderous anthem that holds up even after decades of heavy rotation (especially this time of year), threatening to eclipse the rest of the album. I also like “Luney Tune,” “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets,” and “Public Animal #9.”
The smallish dimensions of the CDs makes me nostalgic for the days of vinyl, especially in the case of School’s Out, with a carved-desk cover that has to look incredibly cool at full size.
I did some more bin diving at Wal-Mart, hoping to scare up copies of Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, and any other 70s-era Cooper material, but no such luck. Get ‘em while they’re cheap.
… I hear “Father Christmas” by the Kinks ….
… read the classic Carl Barks’ comic-book story “Christmas for Shacktown” …
… hear Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore in their rendition of A Christmas Carol from the golden age of radio …
… read, see, or listen to some version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with the exception of the rotten live-action movie from a few years back) …
… listen to one (or all) of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas CDs (but the original, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is still the best) …
… and of course watch movies It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn, but I’m too tired to dig up images to go along with them.
Anybody else have any favorites?
Music 03 Nov 2010 11:14 pm
Given all the gloating on this day after Election Day, the above video fits like a politician’s glove.
I had planned to pass on the latest Alice Cooper DVD/CD combo, Theatre of Death: Live at Hammersmith 2009. After all, how many versions of “School’s Out” and “18″ does a guy need?
At least one more, as it turns out. Despite having two or three other video versions of Cooper shows in my home library, I added this latest set to my collection today, and I’m glad I did. Beautifully filmed, the recording captures a set list and theatrical show virtually identical to the one my wife and I saw just a few weeks back in Cleveland. Apparently, the Cooper tradition of only changing shows every other year still holds true.
Basically, this is Cooper doing what he does best: Serving as ringleader for a group of talented younger musicians and ripping through as many classic tunes from his repertoire as possible. Only a few songs from the last decade make the cut (”Dirty Diamonds,” “Wicked Young Man” and “Vengeance Is Mine”), with a few more obscure hits (”Guilty” and “Nurse Rosetta,” the last one of my favorite Cooper tracks from the criminally under-appreciated 1979 album, From the Inside) inserted for good measure.
This DVD is better than 2005’s Live at Montreux, largely because the theatrics are much stronger. The Hammersmith show offers super-sized syringes, a hanging, a guillotining, and a disturbing belt-sander-to-the-crotch sequence. Cooper’s is in fine voice here, and damn if it doesn’t get stronger past the halfway point when he serves up two ballads in a row — “Only Women Bleed” and “I Never Cry.”
Band members Damon Johnson and Keri Kelli (guitars), Chuck Garric (bass) and Jimmy DeGrasso (drums) offer a tight set. Garric is especially effective when he takes over lead vocal duties on “I Love the Dead,” giving Cooper a chance to prep for the one-two-three punch of the finale, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Under My Wheels” and “School’s Out.”
Weak points? Well, opening and closing with “School’s Out” is overkill, even for such a seminal anthem, and I would love to hear Cooper give some of the newer songs from his oeuvre a chance live. With so many classics to choose from, it’s a tough decision to scratch an old standby in favor of something newer, but I wish the ratio of old to new wasn’t so skewed.
I’m glad I dropped sixteen dollars on this DVD. Doubtless, I’ll give it at least one more play before Halloween. If you’re into vintage hard rock with a theatrical flair, this one is practically nirvana.
Music 06 Sep 2010 08:17 am
The above photo, from Alice Cooper’s Friday night performance at Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio, is the best I could do with my iPhone. If I had known that I would be so close to the stage, I might have smuggled in a nicer camera.
The performance itself was vintage Cooper, a mixture of old and new but definitely skewed toward his ’70s heyday. He opened with arguably his biggest hit, “School’s Out,” which seemed like a gutsy move until he closed with the same song. (Some traditions you just can’t shake.) In between that dual performance, he and his band ripped through all the standards — “18,” “Under My Wheels,” “Is It My Body,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” “Cold Ethyl,” and “Go to Hell” among them. A nice surprise was the inclusion of two songs from one of my favorite solo albums, From the Inside; the band served up the title track and “Nurse Rosetta,” a song I’ve never heard performed live.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Cooper perform (my wife and I are pretty sure this was show number eight for both of us), and this show demonstrated a welcome return for many theatrical props — a giant, dancing cyclops, large hypodermic needles, the guillotine and the gallows. Instead of dying once in performance, Alice was snuffed out at least three times, which adds to the horror-movie aura of the proceedings even as it muddies the moral message that the artist’s shows convey. The Alice character usually commits horrific crimes in the first half of the set, only to be punished midway and return dressed in white, symbolically cleansed. This time, Cooper strangled a number of women (a nurse, a stripper, both played by the same actress), but his comeuppance felt a little problematic, not that this bothered the audience too much. The misogynistic streak in the show was bothersome; even though it speaks to the character’s villainy, maybe there is a way to do this that is less directed toward victimizing women.
Newer material was scanty: the title track from Dirty Diamonds (punctuated with Cooper tossing necklaces into the crowd), ”Vengeance Is Mine” from his latest, Along Came a Spider, and nothing from The Eyes of Alice Cooper. “Vengeance” was performed from atop a large scaffolding that put Cooper about three stories above the audience, just as a cold rain fell from the skies above Classic Park.
Opening act Classic Rock All-Stars galloped through hits from the members’ original bands - Blind Faith, Sugarloaf, and Iron Butterfly. “In A Gadda Da Vida” was a highlight, I suppose, but hearing it live only cements my belief that the song is wildly overrated. Local band Suede Brothers opened the night with an energetic set.
Overall, a great night of music and one that has me seriously considering another visit to Cooperstown when Alice and Rob Zombie come to Youngstown in October.