Let’s face it. Rock and roll has always been youth-oriented. Since its birth in the mid-1950’s, the biggest rock hits have generally been by young people for young people. Other genres can be a little more forgiving. Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong is the oldest performer to ever have a #1 single, with “Hello Dolly” in 1964, at the ripe age of 62. The oldest pop singer to have a #1 hit was Cher, with “Believe” in 1999, when she was 52. The closest thing to a rock artist reaching #1 at such an age was 50-year-old Elton John’s rewrite of “Candle in the Wind” in 1997, which went to #1 in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, and it is a stretch to call either the artist or the song “rock”.
Albums? Sure, some old-timers manage to find modest sales among their lifelong fans, enough to pay the bills if no longer rent private jets. Most are sad shadows of former glories, however. When someone wants to play the Rolling Stones, how often is Shine A Light (2008) the album they reach for? Does anybody play Paul McCartney’s records except the most Beatarded of Beatles fans? Bet last year’s Pink Floyd album is already gathering dust in most buyers’ homes. Look at what happened when Lou Reed recorded Lulu with Metallica. As senior citizen rock critic Robert Christgau once put it 40 years ago, paraphrasing Mott the Hoople, “It’s a mighty long way down rock n’roll, as your name gets hot so your heart grows cold. Then your name grows cold”
40 seems to be the age where rock musicians start learning that their stars have stopped ascending. What happens next is largely dependent on how good the musician really is. The starmaker machinery can keep the platinum spinning for only so long, and when it finally breaks down, many rock musicians are revealed to be mediocre talents at best, unable to make compelling music once their images no longer match their faces.
So is this the great rock and roll swindle? Did rock promise a lifestyle that becomes sheer fantasy after the age of 40, or can rock music survive into senior citizenship and still say something, mean something? The answer so far does not seem to be in rock’s favor. However, despite the odds, there have been some grizzled veterans who have managed to make some of the best albums of their lives after the age of 65. DNN Tribune takes a look at some of the best albums by musicians over 65 years of age. Perhaps they don’t sell like they used to, but all of these have at least something to offer the listener beyond nostalgia.
Seven great rock albums by senior citizens:
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016) Turns out David Bowie had one last trick up his sleeve, and what a trick it is. Blackstar was written with Bowie aware of his terminal cancer diagnosis, a secret he kept from his fellow musicians and the public. The result? The first concept album about an artist’s own impending death, released two days before his departure. That would make it interesting enough to make this list, but it also happens to be in the running for the best album of Bowie’s long and storied career. Combining elements of post-rock, jazz, classical, electronica, and genres that have not even been named yet, it is a tour de force from start to finish. Lyrically it is somber and mysterious, but not without a sense of humor about it all. It has probably raised the bar so high for senior citizen rock albums that it will never be matched. Age: 69
Neil Young – Americana (2012) In 2012, Neil Young and Crazy Horse released two excellent albums, Americana and Psychedelic Pill (a double album). Of the two, Americana is perhaps the more interesting, and one of the better entries in his career discography. It is a collection of old traditional American songs, to which Young restored the original (and often long-forgotten lyrics), while Crazy Horse fuzzes things up with its lumpen hard rock (those are compliments; that’s what they’ve done ever since “Down by the River”). Who knew that “My Darling Clementine” was about a guy who watches his girlfriend drown and then starts banging her sister? I didn’t. Or that “This Land is Your Land” explicitly advocates trespassing on private property? Age: 66
Bob Dylan – Tempest (2012) Sure his voice, always an acquired taste, is completely shot. Dylan has learned to use what is left of his shredded pipes to accentuate the subject manner of his songs in such a way that you wouldn’t want anyone with a pretty voice to sing them. Dylan had almost been given up on in the 1980’s, when his career seemed particularly adrift, unsuited to the candy-coated MTV environment. However, since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, he has been on a winning streak. Listen to the rocking “Narrow Way” from Tempest and see if it doesn’t remind you of his Highway 61 days, only now the voice is at the other end of life’s journey, grizzled but wizened. Age: 71
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (2012) Canadian-born Cohen sounded like an old man even in the 1960’s. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1968 when Cohen was already 35. His deep baritone didn’t so much sing as recite verse to instrumental backing, and his subject matter has always been world-weary. Therefore, a Leonard Cohen album from Cohen pushing 80 doesn’t sound a whole lot different from a Cohen album from when he was pushing 40. However, he isn’t oblivious to the sand in the hourglass running out; his usual ruminations on mortality, sex, and depression in a world gone amok gain from the wisdom of his years. The album peaked at #3 on Billboard, the highest charting album of his career. Age: 77
Ian Hunter – When I’m President (2012) In some ways, Hunter is the least likely name on this list. Not especially well-known in America, Hunter once fronted the seminal Mott The Hoople (“All the Young Dudes”), a glam-rock-meets-the-Stones outfit that released a string of acclaimed and influential albums in the early 1970’s. Hunter embarked on a somewhat spotty solo career, but never had the commercial clout of other names on this list, and his career seemed to dry up in the mid-1980’s. When I’m President was a surprising return to form, a convincing album that stays true to his past while taking a few thematic risks. Not all of it works, but nobody would have ever predicted we’d even be talking about Hunter in 2016. Age: 73
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What (2011) The once-prolific Simon has slowed down his output considerably as the years roll by, but he is still out there making music. So Beautiful or So What is from the classic Simon mold. It borrows liberally from a variety of musical sources, in this case West African blues, string sections from Old Hollywood, and bluegrass harmonies. The subject matter is love, mortality, and faith, themes Simon has explored before, but never quite with the palpable sense that he is making a statement for his legacy. Here, he looks at death with a sense of wonder and humor, generously supplying the melody and rhythms that had been absent from much of his post-1980’s work. Age: 70
The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012) Admittedly, this is not exactly a “great” album. But the sheer fact it even exists is nothing short of a miracle. Brian Wilson had once been one of the greatest songwriters of his generation before he went batshit crazy. Even when he was at his craziest, he never quite lost the knack for turning his weird obsessions into peculiar and impressive little pop songs that few people outside of Beach Boys devotees have even heard. With time running out for one last great Beach Boys album, the feuding clan regrouped for this one-shot and accompanying tour. The bad vibrations between band members quickly returned, and the band splintered again. However, the album was certainly the best they have released under their name since the 1970’s. Elegiac, nostalgic, wistful, but also sunny (as one would expect), it is a far better swan song than the band’s pathetic country music duets album from 1996, Stars and Stripes. Wilson’s age: 70