Some good friends, all met through blogging, are filling in for me while I take a two-week sabbatical from Time Goes By. Today’s guest blogger is Paul Goode who blogs as Citizen K and lives in the Pacific Northwest.
After a career in the high-tech business, he enjoys writing about such lifelong obsessions as politics, music, movies, books, travel and the Boston Red Sox. Getting older doesn’t stop him from having a good time even if getting out of bed isn’t as easy as it used to be.
A sure sign of pending dotage came when I idly flipped through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 50 CDs of the year and realized that of the two I owned, one of them was by 67-year-old Bob Dylan. And not only that, I hadn’t even heard of the other 48.
A deep fear set in, forcing me to confront the question I had been evading for years. Does aging mean the end of being cool? Does it imply a cultural hip replacement that relegates our CD player to endless repeats of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Greatest Hits?
It is true that the best work of many of the singers and bands we came of age with is long behind them. When I saw CSN last summer, it was to hear Teach Your Children and Almost Cut My Hair, to hear the old songs and reconnect with my youth. That’s fine: our kids might make fun of it now, but they will do it too.
I'm not getting any younger and much new rock and rap music doesn't speak to me by virtue of differences in life experience. That hardly disqualifies it from excellence, but it does disqualify me from grasping it well enough to comment on it intelligently.
That being said, I'm nonetheless struck by the exceptionally high quality of music released in 2008 by older artists, even if I am predisposed to appreciate it. In particular, I mean those musicians who find inspiration in aging, using perspective and hard-won wisdom to expand and deepen their artistic vision.
The best album I heard in 2008 was, hands down, Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 (1989-2006). This collection of demos, alternate versions, old folk songs, live cuts and previously unreleased songs coheres unexpectedly into a sweeping dystopian vision of a major artist approaching old age.
This world is no great shakes, Dylan says, but music is at least a way of getting to the truth of it while celebrating the ability of humans to create and communicate through song.
On About Time, the trailblazing avant-garde pianist Paul Bley (75) improvises for 33 minutes about the nature of time and memory. Tempi shift suddenly, dynamics change, phrases linger nostalgically and then give way to something more pressing.
Largely contemplative, Bley explores the elusive nature of his subjects with insight and nuance. While his introspective style recalls Bill Evans, to these ears Bley plays with greater complexity and muscularity. Like time, About Time passes all too quickly while seeming to stand still, so for fun he includes an interpretation of Sonny Rollin's Pent-Up House. Beautiful, wise and compelling.
Joan Baez’ (67) pristine soprano is now more of a weathered contralto. No matter: On Day After Tomorrow, the voice of experience buttressed by a deeply held faith and Steve Earle's sympathetic production betters the easy certainties of her youth.
Singing ten songs by the likes of Earle, Patty Griffin, Elyza Gilkyson, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits (!), Baez makes them all indelibly hers. She looks back with few regrets, looks ahead with hope and still believes.
The Cuban songstress Omara Portuondo (78) may not be well known in this country, but that’s a function of misguided politics and not talent: Omara has the pipes of 25-year-old but sings with the wisdom of age.
Gracias consists mostly of ballads and lullabies supported by spare arrangements featuring fingerpicked seven-string guitar and various Cuban percussion instruments. The occasional guest enhances the proceedings, but they are hardly necessary.
The accompanying booklet is a gem: there's a photograph for every song of Omara at different stages of her life starting with childhood. The pictures range from candid family photos to glam shots from her days at the Havana Tropicana. The name of the CD may be Gracias, but it's we who should thank her for recording this gem.
Other older artists who released notable CDs in 2008 include Jackson Browne (60), Dr. John (68), Dick Gaughan (60), Emmylou Harris (61), Richie Havens (67), Charles Lloyd (70), Otis Taylor (60), and Andre Williams (72).
Last year, I saw outstanding performances from Baez, Kevin Burke (58), Gaughan (60), Lloyd, Robert Plant (60) with Alison Krauss, Bruce Springsteen (59), James Blood Ulmer (66), and Johnny Winter (64). 74-year old Leonard Cohen toured Europe and received scintillating reviews.
If I had to pick, the best performance I saw last year was by the 70-year old saxophonist Lloyd. It's enough to make me believe that my most creative days lie ahead.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Morgana King reflects on a most remarkable life in Second Saturn Cycle Retrospective.]