Groovy Old Men

July 28, 2010

In 1982, I stood with my older brother in our nosebleed seats at the Cleveland Coliseum, immersed in the Rolling Stones Tattoo You tour. We were 14 and 17 respectively, and I watched in awe as real “grown-ups,” some still in their work clothes, just plain rocked out. I marveled at some “old dude,” who was probably no more than 35, not yet dreaming this future would be mine, a man in his 40s with fandom’s blood blazing through my veins, still catching shows like I did as a teenager.

Remember how all that nonsensical neophyte fatalism about staying young forever finally died young? You know, the slippery slogans about not trusting one’s elders, about hopefully dying before we get old? Aren’t you grateful all that jibberish died? I’m grateful for folks like Petty and Panic, for groovy old men teaching the hipsters a thing or two about how to hit it and rip it in the evolving world of rock and roll. I’m grateful that the Grateful Dead in another guise called Furthur are still jamming with Phil Lesh now in his 70s. I’m grateful that the diverse flower of the Dead’s jam-band descendents blooms widely and wildly enough to grasp both futurist techno and the blues from which we all come.  I’m grateful I finally got to see Kris Kristofferson — twice this year; the man can’t really sing, but his presence alone breathes a soul poetics the better kids ought to be learning about.

When Bono turned 50 this year, he probably reckoned with mortality as he marked the occasion by suffering a massive injury. Despite the best care and an apparent speedy recovery, the incident surely inspired some introspection inside the frontman. Bandmates that always said they didn’t want to flame out too fast, can now be counted among the elders in the business. In the book U2 by U2, Bono speaks about using his fame to really learn from the elders of the profession.

He explains, “Being famous, if you’re smart, gives you a route to more knowledge, as opposed to stopping there. You have the opportunity to meet people whom you’re interested in, to explore ideas that you might not have been able to explore otherwise, to go to the source. So you leave your privacy behind but the life of the imagination becomes the real mansion. There are more rooms you can go into. Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, I went after all these people to see what I could learn. In the UK and Ireland, these people are treated like old ghosts but in rock music, you’re supposed to be dead after twenty-seven years.”

Forty-three summers since I swam in my mama’s womb, Bono’s words ring true. Summer’s here, and of all the soundtracks to choose from among new releases, I’m listening to lots by people my age or older, suddenly not turning to the vast catalog of hip new releases by the hipster elite. It’s not like I’ve become a fogey or that I’ll swear off the best of new music by new artists for very long. But for most of July, I kept coming back to the same artists with either new releases or epic retrospectives.

Only about five years ago, I was finally introduced to the un-Googlable 90s band Live, being told by my cousin that they were “the poor man’s U2.” I devoured the records he let me borrow, quickly becoming a huge fan of several tracks like “I Alone,” “Run To the Water,” “Dance With You,” and “Overcome.” This summer, 39-year-old singer Ed Kowalczyk returns with his first solo album Alive.

Still nurturing his post-grunge prophetic purrs and growls, Kowalczyk comes hungry for and offering spiritual food. In the opening track “Drive,” narrator admits he’s “thirsty for something more than the whiskey that had become my water” and needs God to take the wheel of his life and drive. The entire record explores that “something more” that the mature and middle-aged seeker requires to further his spiritual evolution. Kowalczyk glows with gratitude for his children on “In Your Light,” grows past shattered delusions on “Soul Whispers” and generally gives us a daily devotional disc clothed in radio rock riffs.

For years, based on an anti-jam-fan bias, I resisted seeing the Sunday-night Widespread Panic show at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. In 2008, my heart- change regarding Panic occurred at the Rothbury Festival in Michigan when their shimmering sounds lured me from a peaceful repose in the woods to go dance by the stage. Frankly, I’m no longer put off my the “jam band stereotype” and have grown into a much deeper appreciation of the musical innovation and escalation this genre brings the world.

Since then, I’ve met more Panic fans and have been sampling Panic tracks to play on Teacher On The Radio. With their latest release Dirty Side Down, Widespread Panic and 48-year-old singer John Bell defy my dying anti-jam assumptions with a solid 12-song-set (with the longest less than seven minutes) of southern boogie and blues rock. From the contemplative title track to the sweet mellow message of “Clinic Cynic” to the regional rocker “Cotton Was King,” Panic pounds it pretty for the duration.

Thanks to MTV and rock radio in the early 1980s, 58-year-old John Mellencamp’s gripping voice is forever etched into the vinyl of my brain. Earlier this summer, he released the sweeping retrospective  called On The Rural Route 7609 and is once again touring with Bob Dylan. Later this summer, he’ll release a T-Bone Burnett-produced folk-roots record called No Better Than This.

While Rural Route is filled with moving demos and outtakes and obscure versions of his greatest hits, the thing that strikes the soul about these songs is the overall spiritual depth of his American vision, a pragmatic peacemaker’s anti-racist populism expressed in songs like “Jim Crow” (there’s a spoken-word companion piece read by Cornel West), “Freedom’s Road,” “Peaceful World,” “Rodeo Clown,” “Love and Happiness,” and “Forgiveness.” As daily news cranks out more partisan bile reflecting a widening rift in the guts of our great land, Mellencamp’s box set brings a welcome balm of believing in a better way.

If the magical monster of a new record Mojo is any indication, age hasn’t hurt Tom Petty who’ll turn 60 this October. Slinking through the laid-back sexy island rock of “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove,”eating and drinking his way to a tasty paradise on “Candy,” or skanking to the reggae-infused legalization hymn “Don’t Pull Me Over,” Petty surely owns the bill of a groovy old man. But it’s not just a party on this packed and primal set as “High In The Morning” faces the dark side when too much of a good time turns everything bad. And with the erotic pinch of the  “Lover’s Touch,” Petty and the Heartbreakers sound a lot like The Black Keys (both artists will be filling houses in Nashville on the same night this August 12th).

Middle-age feels better by the day when the peers of my generation and of my parents’ generation refuse to stop rocking. While I’m far from done following blogs and tuning into the best new songs by artists now young enough to be my own kids (heck, my daughter’s 16 and will be kicking it hard at the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp this weekend), I sure like what’s getting laid down by some groovy old men. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

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