Friday, July 05, 2019

Go Ahead, Name a Rock Artist Whose Best Recorded Music Was Made After Age 40

Over a recent 35-day stretch, I saw concerts by three artists who would cover 3/4 of my “classic rock Mt. Rushmore”:

The Who, whom I actually saw twice in May.

Paul McCartney, representing The Beatles, being as close as I'll ever get.

And the Rolling Stones.

(hyperlinks are to my reviews of the concerts)

The fourth slot would be taken by Led Zeppelin, who I was too young to ever see. But I have seen lead singer Robert Plant several times—most recently in February 2018—including twice, in the ‘90s, with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page.

My favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, would get his own mountain carving, kind of like Crazy Horse (the Native American warrior, not the band, best known for backing Neil Young, who I’ve also seen plenty).

From the above—even without my adding that I’ve seen the Who, Stones, McCartney, Springsteen, Plant and Young a composite 100+ times—you should get the gist that I enjoy seeing legendary, and yes, old, musicians in concert. Of this bunch, only Springsteen has yet to turn 70, and he will on Sept. 23.

And even though I consider another batch of six favorites—U2, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Wilco, Bob Mouldwho I’ve also seen a combined 100 times, to be of younger generation, they’re essentially all in their 50s, if not 60. 

I myself am 50, and embrace greatness and vitality in anyone of any age.

Yet while older artists can be phenomenal concert acts well into their 70s, at some point I hit upon this realization:

There is no one I can think of in a rock vein—and largely in other musical genres and even many other artistic idioms—who has created (i.e. written & recorded) consistently better music after the age of 40 than they did before it. (In the case of bands, I’m referencing the ages of the core members, not the longevity of the group.)

Can you think of anyone who refutes this?

Again, I don’t mean 40+ artists we might call “great” simply for their live performances and legacies.

Nor am I saying that no one over 40 has put out terrific music. 

I’ve liked several albums by Springsteen, McCartney, Plant, Bob Dylan, Ray Davies (of the Kinks), David Byrne (of the Talking Heads), Paul Weller (of the Jam), Elvis Costello and many other veteran acts, in recent decades.

But there isn't any album--and very few songs--from their latter periods that prefer to their early output.

In my @@@@ (out of 5) review of Western Stars, the recently released album by Springsteen, his first of new work since 2014, I said that I've genuinely been enjoying the record, finding it to be something rather different yet excellent by my hero.

But I was also forthright in saying that it's not nearly as great as early Springsteen masterpieces, like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the USA, nor even compilations of outtakes from those albums.

Is it better than 1987's Tunnel of Love? I don't think so yet, but maybe once Western Stars truly sinks in I will.

But to be clear, that's not my thesis. Though still less than one might imagine, artists over 40 have undoubtedly made some music that's better than some they made before it.

But no one's best post-40 stuff is better than the best of their younger output.

Or almost no one's.

Though I had never really known her music, last month I was invited by a friend to a concert by Lucinda Williams.

Ostensibly splitting the difference between rock, folk and country, Williams is now 66. She released her first album in 1979, but 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road seems to widely hailed as her finest work (she performed it in full at the show I attended).

Doing the math, she would've been over 40 when writing and recording this Grammy-winning album. 

I don't know enough of her earlier oeuvre to say definitively, and she isn't really the type of "rock act" of which I'm thinking, but she could be a name cited in opposition to my hypothesis.

But I wouldn't even say that NO rock artist has made better music post-40, just that it's exceptionally rare.

So think about it; who might you name?

It might seem natural to think about acts who were in a band or duo but then went solo.

McCartney, Plant, David Byrne, Sting, Paul Simon, Paul Weller, Paul Westerberg, Phil Collins.

Make your argument if you want, but I would say that there talented folks were not only better younger, alongside others, but that even their solo material was generally better before they hit 40.

Interestingly, when discussing this topic with a friend, he said, "What about Picasso?"

Obviously, he wasn't a rock star, per sé, yet someone who remained prolifically brilliant throughout much of his 91-year-life.

But while Guernica, painted at 55, can be seen as a high water mark, and there was remarkable ingenuity and beauty long after October 1921--when Pablo turned 40--I love his impressionistic stuff from around 1901 (see nearby painting), the Blue Period, Rose Period, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and invention of cubism (circa 1910) as much as anything that came after. 

OK, you say, switching gears, what about moviemaking. That hasn't traditionally been a young person's domain.

I certainly wouldn't argue pre-/post-40 creative predominance in film as exhaustively as in rock (Hitchcock, Wilder, Hawks, Kurosawa and others would debunk my theory), but look at the birth dates & filmographies of directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Welles, Tarantino and Truffaut. Most of their best work preceded their 40th birthdays.

But while similar examples might be cited in fine art, film, literature and more, I am really only stating my theorem in the realm of rock music.
In terms of music known to me and/or a reasonable subset of "the masses" virtually nobody has created superior material after the age of 40 than before it.

As to why, that's a different blog post, but most artists spend their whole life creating their first album--i.e. the songs that get them signed to a recording contract--but perhaps 18 months, while on tour, writing the follow-up. 

Many geniuses--and I don't think that's the wrong word--have several superb albums in them, but by 40 they've either become mega-rich superstars or have had their day before fizzling out.

And while several--huge, middling and minor--will keep creating and releasing music for years, or decades, on end, only in the rarest of instances will it surpass what's already been done.

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