I had a disturbing realization last month. Disturbing, at least, from the point of view of a guy whose entire adolescent self-identity was wrapped up in the idea that he was ahead of the curve in all things pop music, that he could tell you with metronomic precision the Top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at any given moment (at a time when the Top 10 actually changed from week to week – and not just due to the latest event single). At the end of the summer, I’m looking back on the music I’ve purchased and listened to this year, and I’m finding that a disproportionate number of my favorite records of 2008 are by old farts.
Now, I realize that as most people settle into their adulthoods and are faced with the imminent onset of middle age – dear god, I can already smell the despair-laced liquor and cigarette smoke at the hall of my 20 year high school reunion – with growing debt loads, and growing children with growing attitude problems, it’s perfectly natural for a guy to reassess his priorities away from discovering the hottest new pop thing. No offense, Katy Perry, but it’s perfectly natural, and even admirable, for a guy like me to spend his Sunday night watching an inspirational Disney movie on DVD with his kids and dogs rather than sequestering himself in his basement tracking the hit parade according to Seacrest. And as we settle into our cosy adulthoods, it’s perfectly natural to fall back on the favorites and golden oldies (like “Rock the Casbah”!) we grew up with.
But, even acknowledging the fact that this appears to be the year that the 80s turned 50 – not just Madonna, Michael, and Prince, but also Grandmaster Flash, Joan Jett, Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Neil Finn, Kate Bush, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Anita Baker, Alannah Myles (holy cow, remember her?), Stacey Q (holy cow, remember her?) Babyface, Michael Penn, Nik Kershaw, Paul Weller, both Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos, one of the Bangles (Vickie Peterson… Susanna Hoffs turns 50 in January), the lead singers of Kajagoogoo and Big Country (well, Stuart Adamson is dead, but he’d be 50 this year if he weren’t), members of Bananarama, Public Image Limited, and Echo & the Bunnymen, and on and on; and even given great new studio albums by ABC (Happy 50th, Martin!) and a-ha’s Morten Harket (Happy 49th, Morten!), both strong enough to warrant the import prices you’ll have to pay to own them, my favorite albums this year weren’t even by the aging new wavers that I grew up with. They’re by artists whose careers sometimes go back to the pre-school days of my parents. Willie Nelson, for instance.
Let’s just pause for a moment to contemplate the awesomeness of Willie Nelson. And I use awesomeness not in the valley girl 80s sense, but in the epic, Biblical, Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea sense of the word. I defy anyone to come up with any other artist, in any genre of music, whose career began before Elvis was drafted into the army, who is not only still alive today, but still creating music as relevant and alive and varied as Willie’s. And not just a little bit of it. In the last couple years, the sheer quantity of Willie Nelson’s output has easily surpassed any other major label artist’s. Consider that in the time since U2 released their most recent studio album in 2004 (okay, so I’m stacking the deck a little – but just a little), Willie Nelson has released no fewer than 4 solo studio albums and at least 3 album-length (in one case, double-album length) collaborations. This in addition to all the little side projects, guest spots and benefits.
Consider also that the quality of Nelson’s work almost always legitimizes the quantity, and that, while Nelson is typically identified with the outlaw branch of country music (a label lent some credence by Willie’s convictions for drug possession and tax evasion), Willie’s music defies any simple narrow categorization. A walking demonstration of Depression-era radio star Will Rogers’s maxim “I never yet met a man I didn’t like”, there appears to be no artist that Willie Nelson won’t collaborate with, no song that Willie won’t approach on its own merits, no matter its origins, and no genre of music that he doesn’t have a working knowlege of and a genuine affection for.
This is a guy who can duet with Toby “boot up Osama’s ass” Keith and turn around and not only record a high profile (and gorgeous) contribution to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack (a heartbroken cover the Byrds’ “He Was a Friend of Mine”), but follow it up with an unrelated, even gratuitous, revival of an obscure, nearly 30-year-old novelty song about cowboys being “frequently, secretly fond of each other”, which makes him, perhaps, the only man in recent history to land heavy-rotation on both the CMT and Logo networks simultaneously. At 75 years old, Willie Nelson is the shortest distance between the artsy New York alt-country of Ryan Adams (who, along with his band the Cardinals, backed Nelson on his 2006 album Songbird) and the artless tropicality of Kenny Chesney, who worked with Willie on his most recent studio album Moment of Forever, released earlier this year.
With his sincere, less is more singing style (which would, at times, seem to owe as much to Perry Como as it does to Hank Williams), Willie Nelson has also established himself as one of the great interpreters of pop standards, managing to cover contemporary and classic songwriters without ever sounding either stale or desperately ironic (Pat Boone). And, though they were originally country hits, many of his own songs, like “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”, have become pop standards in their own right.
This summer, Willie Nelson released Two Men With the Blues; a live album recorded with an a-list jazz ensemble led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis for Jazz at the Lincoln Center (where Marsalis is currently musical director). In any other hands, this would probably have been a recipe for disaster, but where other artists (Elvis Costello, anyone?) traveling outside of their “comfort zone” genre might turn in an earnest, academic, effortful performance in such a rarified setting, Willie Nelson, taking on a set of jazz and pop standards, many of which (“Georgia On My Mind”, “Stardust”) already hold prominent places in Willie’s body of work, sounds like he just walked into a boisterous family gathering: the world; is Willie Nelson’s comfort zone.
He is immediately at home, demonstrating an immediate and spontaneous rapport not just with the band – here, his guitar solos feel like conversations with Wynton’s squalling N’Awlins trumpet and the swingin’ rhythm section – but also with the audience as he turns in exuberant, conversational readings of songs like “Basin Street Blues” and the hilarious bubble-popping put-down “That’s All”, which, here, is transformed into the kind of raucous jump swing revival that Brian Setzer would wet himself envying.
How amazing is it that a septuagenarian like Willie Nelson is still an artist to watch, a man who continues to command our attention with each new release?
But Willie’s not the only guy commanding both critical attention and a senior discount this year. Here are some other old fogeys who’ve released new and noteworthy music in 2008:
John Hiatt (Age 56)
The name of his new record tells you just about everything you need to know about it: Same Old Man. Don’t expect anything new or fancy from this singer-songwriter who scored his first big break when Three Dog Night had a hit with his song “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here” the year before I was born. In “Old Days”, the opening track of his latest record, Hiatt recounts the rowdy nights and bleary-eyed mornings-after of his career as a touring musician with a typically self-effacing sense of humor and a dog-eared voice that just gets more homely and endearing with each passing year.
Brian Wilson (Age 66)
Having apparently purged his demons in the revival/realization of his long-aborted SMiLE project, and with the devoted support of an almost cult-like backing ensemble led by arranger Darian Sahanaja, producer Scott Bennett, and longtime associate (and falsetto stunt double) Jeffrey Foskett, Brian Wilson returns with That Lucky Old Sun, which may be his most start-to-finish coherent album to date, even if it often resorts to easy pastiche and only pretends to the artistic heights SMiLE ascended. Originally rumored to be more of a reunion with SMiLE lyricist Van Dyke Parks (who, in actuality, only contributes a handful of evocative, spoken word, tour-guide vignettes), That Lucky Old Sun is a summery, colorful and at times, touching-in-spite-of-itself concept record about the day-to-day life of Los Angeles, the day-to-day life of a singer-songwriter, and a portrait of the artist as an old man and as his brothers’ emotionally battered but defiantly unbeaten survivor.
Lee “Scratch” Perry (Age 72)
The diminutive mad chemist and founding papa of dub music hooked up with, of all people, the monomaniacal party person Andrew W.K. for his latest album Repentance, resulting in a sound that, without resorting to the full frontal guitar tsunamis of W.K.’s records, still manages to convey all of their recklessness and wanton joy in equal measure. On their own, neither Perry nor Andrew W.K. seemed capable of surprising us – Perry, by virtue of a long and perhaps over-prolific career, and Andrew, due to a simple vision expressed wholly and completely in his first two albums. But Perry seems revitalized by Andrew’s energy, and Andrew proves an eager and willing enabler in Perry’s psychedelic mayhem.
Rick Springfield (Age 59)
One of the best kept secrets of this decade has been Rick Springfield’s under-the-radar re-emergence as a power pop elder statesman following a decade-plus-long hiatus after his 1988 album Rock of Life. Like Karma (2000) and Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance (2004) before it, Venus In Overdrive shatters any notion about old guys not being able to rawk. Even in his heyday, Rick Springfield was always just a little too old for his teen idol status. Nevertheless, his music always seemed to be propelled by the contents-under-pressure sexual tension of a teenager, while, when he wasn’t bemoaning his inability to communicate with his crush or trying to convince his girlfriend’s dad to let him take her out, his lyrics often drifted unpretentiously into dorm room “Deep Thoughts” territory. Preceded by the single “What’s Victoria’s Secret?”, and bolstered by appearances on Oprah and the morning talk show circuit, Venus In Overdrive is the most buzzed-about Rick Springfield record since Reagan’s first term in office… and worth every bit of that airtime.
Randy Newman (Age 64)
With his latest record Harps and Angels, Randy Newman’s also getting more press these days than he’s gotten since he sold his soul- err, song to a major television broadcast network in the 80s – as much for the sincerely skewered patriotism of a song called “In Defense of Our Country” as for the race humor of an infomercial-in-song hawking “Korean Parents” for sale as a remedy for today’s overstimulated, underacheiving, white suburban teens. The living embodiment of “crotchety” contemplates not only his own mortality, but also the fading of the Pax Americana with the merciless, rapier wit (eat your heart out, Simon Cowell) of a guy who (as Simon might say), if he’s being completely honest, couldn’t really give a damn. Suggestion to “AI” producers, if you’re really serious about this whole revamp thing: Randy Newman week! It’ll be a bloodbath!
Neil Diamond (Age 67)
Someone’s been getting lucky lately, and I’m not just talking about a high-profile guest appearance on American Idol, folks. Neil Diamond’s second collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, Home Before Dark, is a candle-lit come-on of an album, and combined with his impassioned performance of the album’s Latin-flavored lead single “Pretty Amazing Grace” on “American Idol” this spring, Neil Diamond stakes his claim as a world class hottie, just as most folks his age are staking their claims on retirement benefits. His appearance on “AI” no doubt fueled the album’s spectacular debut at the top of Billboard‘s album charts in May – in his 40+ year career, it’s Neil Diamond’s first number one album. Credit Rick Rubin, of course, for bringing Diamond back to relevance a couple years ago, but credit Diamond’s thirty-something girlfriend for putting an unexpected and somehow-totally-not-gross zing of sex back into Diamond’s music.
B.B. King (Age 83)
The One Kind Favor bluesman B.B. King refers to in the title of his latest record is enumerated in its opening track: “All I ask is that you keep my grave clean.” Mr. King may, indeed, have an eye on the grave, but he certainly doesn’t intend to go quietly. A fogey among fogeys, he wears his years with a battered majesty and a visceral, shiver-inducing howl. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, this is an album that lumbers and lurches with the gravity and grit of a granite quarry, and a thunderous bass sound to suggest the slow, steady stomp of a giant in a steamy southern swamp.
Other old fogeys in record stores this summer: After touring together for most of the last two years, the reunited original line-up of Asia released Phoenix, their first studio album of new material since 1983, while Chicago released Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus, the band’s “lost” album, recorded and shelved in the early 90s. The B-52’s came back with a zippy sci-fi update on their classic quirky b-movie party sound, while two of the disco era’s greatest divas – 59-year-old Donna Summer and 63-year-old Debbie Harry – both returned with new, but, y’know, sorta crappy, albums.