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Rock of Ages: Older Artists Offer Fresh Perspective

Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger and other aging musicians find appreciative new audiences

Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead

Bob Weir (L) and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead perform at Alpine Valley Amphitheatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. on June 26th, 1987

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

“The Truth is, Time Pays off,” Jerry Garcia said earlier this year. “Longevity is real special when it comes to playing music.” In 1987, he was proved right in spades. Not only did Garcia’s band, the Grateful Dead, score the most successful album of its twenty-two-year career with In the Dark, but other rock veterans, such as George Harrison, Mick Jagger and Robbie Robertson, also weighed in with records that restored their artistic standing — and, in some instances, their commercial credibility as well.

A number of factors have combined in recent years to make older artists a more commanding force on the music scene. The release of the Beatles CDs this year and the twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love sparked interest in Sixties artists and values. Oldies radio formats, the emphasis in CD marketing on catalog material and video broadcasts and rentals of vintage rock performance footage have exposed the Old Guard to a new generation of rock fans. The political activism of the music community in the Eighties inevitably turned people’s thoughts to the righteous times of two decades ago, and the establishment of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame declared that the music industry has finally made a firm commitment to honoring its past. Suddenly, it seemed, both older rock fans who had been out of touch for a while and younger listeners more concerned with the music of their contemporaries were poised to hear what older artists had to say this year.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, was the personal and creative maturity of the artists themselves. Around 1967 it became clear that many rock & roll artists were not going to disappear after a year or two of hits. On the contrary, their careers began to take on complexity and shape — characterized by the kinds of distinct periods, influences and arcs of development long associated with artists in other fields. This past year presented encouraging examples of how rock musicians in their forties could make the concerns of adulthood a vital element in their music — and how they could make those issues resonate not only for their generational peers but for younger audiences as well.

In 1986, Paul Simon set the pace for older artists who were seeking to reestablish their artistic standing; he released Graceland, his most commercially successful album since Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water. Graceland‘s impact was felt well into this year, when Simon launched a hugely successful international tour accompanied by many of the South African artists whose music made the album so distinctive — and, for Simon, such a dramatic stylistic departure.

But as recently as 1983, when his deeply personal album Hearts and Bones failed commercially, Simon seemed unable to find a contemporary audience. He had also reached a creative dead end. “I had no ideas at all,” he said last year about the period following Hearts and Bones. “I didn’t know what to write.”

Simon resolved his crisis by opening himself up and not being afraid to look to the examples of younger artists and to the music of other cultures. Both Talking Heads and Sting had taken their music in wholly new directions by incorporating, respectively, Afro-funk rhythms and jazz into their sounds. Simon did likewise, allowing an infectious tape called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II to lead him to South Africa and one of the most fertile musical collaborations of the decade.

Long perceived as an artist who was claustrophobically self-involved, Simon traveled to South Africa and gave himself over to music that reached him viscerally. He became more willing to let himself go. Simon described how, in recording Graceland, he decided that “rather than bending that music to what I wanted to do … I said, ‘I’ll just bend to what it does.’ ” Simon also worked with Los Lobos and the Louisiana zydeco masters Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters on Graceland, stretching his musical boundaries and opening up his sound even further.

By trusting his instincts, maintaining artistic flexibility and reaching out to the world beyond himself, Simon regained followers of old and won new adherents. Even the storm that erupted over the political correctness of his going to South Africa identified him as an artist caught up in one of the major issues of his time. And, in turn, people around the world responded to him.

Like Simon, who had won a massive following in the Sixties in a duo with Art Garfunkel but had difficulty sustaining that popularity as a solo artist, George Harrison was haunted in the Seventies and Eighties by his stratospheric success with the Beatles. When his 1982 solo album, Gone Troppo, was panned by the critics and roundly ignored by the public, Harrison grew completely disillusioned with the business of making records. Earlier this year he discussed the frustration he felt with an industry that, because of the financial slump it was suffering in the early Eighties, had lost confidence in the compelling power of the music itself and, instead, “had people out on street corners polling and asking people what was a hit.” Harrison complained that Warner Bros. placed too much stock in such polls. “I was told by one of the promotion staff at Warner Bros. — you’d never believe it — that according to these polls, a hit song is ‘love gained or love lost between fifteen and twenty-year-olds,’ ” he recalled with a mixture of bitterness and amusement. “I thought, ‘Well, what chance does that give me?’ “

Significantly, when Harrison, who is forty-four, decided to make a new album, he blew off the clichés of teenage love that were more suited to pretty-boy popsters and wrote songs that reflected his own experience and interests. And like Paul Simon, he opened himself to outside creative stimulation, bringing in Jeff Lynne to coproduce. Lynne’s own band, the Electric Light Orchestra, had been deeply influenced by the Beatles, and Lynne returned the favor on Cloud Nine, Harrison’s strongest LP since All Things Must Pass, in 1970. Rather than avoid his past, Harrison affectionately celebrates the Beatles on the trippy “When We Was Fab”; on “Wreck of the Hesperus” he humorously subverts the notion that a man his age can’t rock. “Ain’t no more no spring chicken,” he drawls on that tune. “Been plucked, but I’m still kickin’.”

Though their music could not be more different from Simon’s and Harrison’s, the Grateful Dead had also reached a creative impasse in the late Seventies and early Eighties. After a series of studio albums failed to provide either aesthetic or commercial satisfaction, the band retreated into the predictable success of its live shows, where an adoring audience guaranteed a response of unqualified — and uncritical — approval. Members of the band claim that their record company, Arista, had pushed them in inappropriate directions and damaged their motivation in an effort to sell more records. “All that pressure to make commercial records more or less drew a backlash from us,” said guitarist Bob Weir. “I wouldn’t say we were disheartened during that time so much as we just lost interest I guess we land of lost sight of the fact that we were really engaged in something more than a job.”

Worse yet, the Dead’s leader and spiritual inspiration, guitarist Jerry Garcia, reached his own personal dead end. “Drug use is kind of a cul-de-sac,” he said. “It’s one of those places you turn with your problems, and pretty soon all your problems have simply become that one problem. Then it’s just you and drugs.” While Garcia sank into dependency on cocaine and heroin, his isolation threatened the band’s unity and weakened its stage shows. Eventually he destroyed his health and fell into a diabetic coma that nearly killed him. That brush with death gave him the will to turn his life around.

Garcia credits the outpouring of love from the band’s faithful following with restoring his life, and his survival pumped new life into the Dead. In the Dark is not only the Dead’s finest studio album since their 1970 classics Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty; it also honestly addresses the problems the band has endured. Describing the song “Black Muddy River,” Robert Hunter, the band’s lyricist, said, “‘Black Muddy River’ is about the perspective of age and making a decision about the necessity of living in spite of a rough time …. When I wrote it, I was writing about how I felt about being forty-five years old, and what I’ve been through.” And of course, the lovely single “Touch of Grey” — as catchy a song as the Dead have ever recorded — articulates the credo of a band that is determined to stay gratefully alive well into the future: “We will get by/We will survive.”

On his recent solo album, Primitive Cool, Mick Jagger boldly attempts to escape his comfortable identity as lead singer of the Rolling Stones and grapple with more personal issues. Earlier this year he said, “I love the Rolling Stones…. But, you know, it cannot be, at my age and after spending all these years, the only thing in my life. If I want to record different kinds of songs or albums — whatever I want to do — I feel I have the right to be able to do that.”

While Paul Simon looked outward, Jagger turned inward to strike a spark. On the title track of Primitive Cool, Jagger dramatizes a conversation in which his children ask him troubling questions, like “Did you walk cool in the Sixties daddy?/Did you fight in the war?/Or did you chase all the whores on the rock & roll rumble?” On the album’s opening song, the leering singer who “used to play the Casanova” tells his current partner that “a love like this is much too good to ever throw away.” And the record closes with a moving ballad called “War Baby,” in which Jagger attributes his desire for peace to his being born in England when the country was being torn by the Second World War.

The apparent commercial failure of Primitive Cool is less important than its definition of Jagger as an artist willing to take chances and explore issues relevant to his life as a father and as part of a committed relationship. His inability to establish himself independently of the Stones may be one manifestation of a problem he spoke about earlier this year, a problem that haunts artists who have been celebrated — and trapped — as symbols of a generation. “I mean, people have this obsession: they want you to be like you were in 1969. They want you to because otherwise their youth goes with you, you know? It’s very selfish, but it’s understandable.”

“I’m kind of a sucker for that timeless element,” Robbie Robertson said at one point this year, and he achieves just that on his first solo album, Robbie Robertson, as surely as he did in 1968 with the Band’s Music from Big Pink. For Robertson the late Seventies and early Eighties were a confused time darkened at points by drugs, alcohol, marital difficulties and the unbearable weight of his own artistic demands. “I just had nothing left to say,” he said of his state of mind after me Band broke up. “I would look around and I would see all these other people who had nothing to say, either, but they insisted on making records. I drought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ “

Robertson separated from his wife and lived the life of a “wild dog” in the Hollywood Hills before coming to his senses. “These rock & roll ways were getting old,” he said. “I smartened up a little bit, maybe. I just felt like I wasn’t satisfied living that way anymore. I just wanted to be with my family, so I did everything I could to work it out.”

As with Garcia, organizing his personal life seemed to allow Robertson a fresh perspective on his creative life. He hadn’t made a new album for a decade, and like Simon and Harrison, he saw the wisdom of aligning himself with other artists who could help get his juices flowing. Robertson worked with producer Daniel Lanois, and Peter Gabriel, U2 and the BoDeans helped out on the sessions, with enormously satisfying results. “Didn’t we break the silence?” Robertson wails with Bono on “Sweet Fire of Love,” “… I’m not afraid anymore.” And on the album’s first song, “Fallen Angel,” Robertson confronts the pain of his own past by writing about Richard Manuel, the Band’s pianist, who committed suicide in 1986. In fashioning his tribute to Manuel, Robertson affirms life and the enduring power of art: “I don’t believe it’s all for nothing/It’s not just written in the sand.”

Simon, the Grateful Dead, Harrison, Jagger and Robertson are not the only artists who made their presence felt this past year after a difficult absence. Warren Zevon delivered Sentimental Hygiene, his first album in five years, on which he confronts his personal demons and reasserts his claim as one of rock music’s finest songwriters. Tom Verlaine’s Flash Light, his first record since 1984, forged another of his searing blends of surrealistic lyrics, blazing guitar playing and otherworldly vocals. And on the propulsive Get Rhythm, Ry Cooder’s first non-soundtrack album in five years, the roots-rock pioneer demonstrates his seminal influence on a multitude of younger bands who have explored the wealth of musical sources in America’s past.

But no formulas are available for carrying musical success into middle age. In fact, 1987 presented plenty of evidence that not all established artists are guaranteed an audience. David Bowie, the Cars, Donna Summer and Jethro Tull all released records this year that failed to reach audiences on the scale of their previous successes. In Bowie’s case, in particular, classic-rock radio revealed how it ultimately may sow the seeds of its own destruction. After hearing Bowie’s past hits on the radio, younger fans were perfectly willing to turn out in droves to hear him perform those songs in concert. But they showed relatively little interest in his new album, Never Let Me Down.

Regardless of age, very few artists make great records every time out, and not all good records find an audience. Many elements established a potential audience for successful outings by Simon, Harrison and the Dead, but those artists also delivered songs that can stand solidly alongside the best work of their past. Someone like Jagger, who is defying audience expectations, can expect to have a harder time of it commercially, however artistically worthy his album may be. And the jury is still out on whether Robertson can translate the undeniable artistic power of his record into a sizable following. What is clear, however, is that the lives and work of these artists embody in their diversity much of the best that rock & roll has to offer. New talent is certainly the lifeblood of any art form, but established artists provide the body — the tradition, the legacy — through which that blood must flow. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything else,” Robbie Robertson said about me first time he heard rock & roll. “It was the only thing.” Young artists who have a similar experience can take heart from Robertson and his fellow veterans. Their renewed vitality suggests that rock & roll can do more than change lives — it can last a lifetime.

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