Chapter 48: Geezer Music
The surprising Endurance of older pop idols.
In 1992, while I was still running that pioneering youth-oriented music-video channel, MuchMusic, we began to play a certain 58-year-old Singer’s song called “Closing Time,” which he’d released in support of his then-new album, The Future. Up to that point, this Singer’s albums had usually posted modest Canadian sales in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 records. The Future ended up selling double platinum (200,000-300,000) and relaunched the Singer’s then languishing career. I remember record retailers calling and saying, “What’s going on? I’ve got teenage girls coming in and asking for … Leonard Cohen?!?”
That video, that album, helped mark the beginning of Leonard Cohen 2.0. Now 80, Cohen has just released his 13th album, Popular Problems, which, together with his 12th, Old Ideas, may constitute, in my humble opinion, his best work yet. Here are the opening lines from the first cut on Popular Problems. It’s called “Slow.”
I’m slowing down the tune,
I never liked it fast;
You want to get there soon, I want to get there last;
It’s not because I’m old, it’s not the life I led,
I always liked it slow; that’s what my momma said.
Pure Cohen: deft, funny, profound and a little bad all at once. Add in those subtle and sophisticated musical arrangements that have never really gotten the attention or credit that they deserve, a European-Yiddish-bluesy mix that includes exotic instruments like the oud and the balalaika, and you see why Cohen has managed not just to survive as an artist into his ninth decade but to do it on a creative rise. I get a kick out of my little contribution to his late resurgence to stardom, but Leonard has persisted in the classy end of the popular music business by hanging in and by staying true to himself. In fact, of all the notable Canadian artists who’ve distinguished themselves over the past 50 years, I firmly believe, in fact I boldly predict, Leonard Cohen is the one who will last.
In my last two chapters on the recent return of the older hero, I examined the growing phenomenon of the older protagonist in movies and literary fiction. In music, that most skittish of all pop cultures, surprisingly, it may even be more so. If you look at the Best Albums of 1964 on the website besteveralbums.com, which calculates overall yearly rankings by collating 16,000 charts, you’ll see the following names: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon and The Beach Boys. All have released albums in the past two years, a full half-century later. At one time, pop culture was overwhelmingly invested in the young; but in music today, you can see that the most enduring stars are the ones who got established in the ’60s and even earlier. Tony Bennett is a case in point. In 1964, an already established 38-year-old Bennett had an album out called I Left my Heart in San Francisco after his signature song. Now 88, Bennett is promoting a duet album with Lady Gaga that he released last year to rave reviews. (It’s delicious to note that the actual recording of the album had to wait for Gaga, 28, to recover from hip surgery.) Meanwhile, Bennett himself will perform solo concerts in three Canadian cities this fall.
All of which makes me wonder: why are these older musicians still so popular? Why is their celebrity so long-lived compared to the typically fleeting fame of most pop stars, who are hot one day, gone the next. In 50 years, who will the Bennetts and the Cohens be? Will any exist at all?
My theory can be summed up in one word: speed. The law of the celebrity cycle is that it’s always faster and more intense than it used to be. For one thing, technology intrudes. To use a TV metaphor, we no longer live in a five-channel world; we live in a 500-channel world; indeed, a 5,000,000-channel one given the unlimited capacity of the Internet. With so much competition and attention so fickle, few artists can actually gain a permanent foothold on the public imagination. It takes a while to institutionalize as an icon, yet the time available is ever-shrinking. Just when you figure out who Bruno Mars is, he’s apparently gone. Instead, the guy with the funny hat appears singing “Happy.” In a year or so, Pharrell Williams will likely be gone, too. No one’s safe, including Tony Bennett’s latest partner, Lady Gaga. What are the chances that when she’s 88, 20-something pop stars will be clamouring to sing duets with her?
But Tony’s fame is secure for now (he was featured on the cover of this magazine in December 2011), as is that of The Rolling Stones (average age 71) and The Beatles, (average age 73). It’s no accident that on our ZoomerRadio station AM 740 (am740.ca), only two artists have weekly shows devoted entirely to them – Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley (I’ve started another, The Leonard Show, which airs Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. EST). The reason is that these artists rose to prominence when distribution was more limited, and media attention was more focused; which meant they had more time to incubate as Stars. For instance, from 1963 to 1973, The Beatles had a top-five song on the charts for every one of those years, and The Rolling Stones did it six times over that period. By the end of their 10-year runs, both groups had essentially become institutions, “famous for being famous” to use British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s phrase. By contrast, from 2003 to 2013, the artist with the most top five hits was Beyoncé, and she only did it three times. Long-time music critic Peter Goddard thinks she may be one of the few contemporary artists who will resonate in 50 years the way that Bennett and Cohen do today: “Beyoncé is going to be around because she’s going to fill the Grande Dame niche and be the next Diana Ross. And maybe somebody like Madonna, who is culturally important because of what she said about the female approach to sex. The day of the ’60s and ’70s musicians who became enshrined as huge icons can never happen again. We had a limited crowd of potential stars, and the hit parades and Top 10s told us who was important. Nowadays, you have 45 different top 10s and an outrageous amount of democratic interaction. I lament that that simpler time is gone.”
But even as he said this, Beyoncé’s supremacy was being challenged by Taylor Swift.
If some of the boomer-era pop stars have stuck around to fill the idol role into their (and our) older age, not all of them have done it with the same grace. The best of the older musicians are the ones who’ve resisted the urge to youth-ify themselves, to indulge in plastic surgery and torn jeans; the ones who’ve acknowledged and embraced the passing years in their writing and performance. By this yardstick, The Rolling Stones, in their 70s but stuck in a ’60s time warp, do not score well. Likewise Bruce Springsteen, 65. Louden Wainwright III, 68, (most famous now for being the father of Rufus Wainwright) does better. Wainwright finishes his song “Meds,” from his 2012 album Older Than My Old Man Now, with this piece of advice from his doctor: “You’ll need something stronger than your Advil and Aleve/If you want to eat and sleep and shtup and breathe.” Bonnie Raitt, 65, has also aged gracefully in her music, as has Sting, the “baby” of the new older set at 63.
But when it comes to getting old and staying cool, nobody does it like Leonard. Leonard was 50 when he sang “Hallelujah,” which would go on to become the most covered song of the modern era. And he was 54 when he released “I’m Your Man,” which includes the lines: “My friends are gone and my hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play.” For me, Leonard is unique because people like Sinatra and Elvis, even Dylan, seemingly blasted onto the scene full-grown; Leonard ripened. If you listen to his early albums, his voice was very different; high-register, reedy, almost whiny. His great accomplishment was that he kept at it, got control of his voice, acquiring a later-life lower register that’s authentic, commanding and different. He remained true to himself, and eventually the world swung back to the beauty and profundity of his work.
Growing up, my heroes were Poets, Novelists and Revolutionaries who engaged actively in history. But Leonard understood the deep impact of the apparently simple, short song written from a distance. He took the time, sometimes years, to find just the right words. He writes elegant, smart, meaningful lyrics and marries them to deceptively haunting music that lingers in the mind and in the ear, especially about that human condition none of us can escape. Here’s the chorus from “Going Home” from his 2012 album, Old Ideas:
Going home without my sorrow
Going home sometime tomorrow
Going home to where it’s better than before
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without this costume that I wore
So, if you haven’t yet heard Leonard Cohen’s great poetry and music and soul, do yourself a favour and go out and get some. Say Moses sent you.
Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website. Click here for more information.