Commentary & Music 20 Sep 2012 10:23 pm

Ageism is blowin’ in the wind

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.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

Originally published Sept. 20, 2012 in The Alliance Review.

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