Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
. . . .
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
From “To an Athlete Dying Young,” A.E. Housman, 1896
When we think of musicians who died young, they are musicians who ever stay fresh and vibrant. Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Moon, Cobain. These are people who had their time, whose luster is as bright now in our minds when we listen to them as it was when they had their brief—all too brief—time upon the stage.
But what becomes a performer as he or she ages? After all, there is that inevitability. Given the choice between buying it early or continuing on, most of us, I think, would certainly opt for the latter. And musicians are no different. They wish to continue. But continue doing what?
All too often, the performer goes on, either playing what they’ve always done or by trying to stay “relevant” in some way. Few are able to pull it off. In the case of the former, it is one of those embarrassing “greatest-hits” type arrangements, which is perhaps best exemplified by those gawd-awful agglomerations of musicians that Ringo pulls together so that he can have an excuse to sing his hoary-old soured chestnuts while the others, too, are forced to endure what must be a root canal-like exercise in order to pay their health insurance premiums. Or it is a flat-out reunion type tour. This happens in all genres; no one seems to be immune from the lure of the cash registers at the venues, which are more often than not county fairs or VFW-esque type halls. (There are the exceptions, of course, like, say, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that are able to pull the premium stadia and megarooms.)
Then there are the performers who somehow think that they’ll simply morph into a style that may be more suitable for the times. Which is typically an abomination. This came to mind when listening not to his latest release, but to a collection: Reason To Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings by Rod Stewart. This is a three-disc set containing The Rod Stewart Album and Gasoline Alley (disc 1); Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment (disc 2); Smiler and miscellaneous works (disc 3). Listening to those discs anew, particularly the first one, I began to think about Stewart’s present state of affairs, and began to wonder what Roy Horn’s tiger is doing nowadays: I think I can come up with a place where it might be able to perform its act.
Listening to tunes like “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down” and “Cindy’s Lament”—with, incidentally, Ron Wood on bass (yes, bass)—I came to the realization of just what an absolute horror it is to hear Stewart’s performance in a car commercial. Not for Lexus. Not for BMW or Mercedes. Not even for Cadillac. His voice backs a Suzuki commercial. Shilling for a shitbox. Way to go, Rod. It make Sting’s Jag commercial comparatively palatable. Perhaps he has too much alimony to pay. What other excuse is there for It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook, which is about to be followed by a second volume? The Stewart of Gasoline Alley would kick this guy’s ass up and down the paving stones. Yes, Tony Bennett is getting up there in years. No, Rod, you are not the heir apparent. Spend some time, feeling inferior.
We hear music serially. I don’t mean this just in the straightforward sense that a piece of music is linear (it starts at one point and ends at another). Rather, we listen to things in the context of that which has gone before. What we have heard at the start tends to have a significant effect on how we hear what follows. So if, for example, someone hears the Stewart of the current second-rate Jerry Vale lounge act, it is, I submit, much more difficult to actually listen to the early performances: there is a chasm vis-à-vis trying to reconcile that which has served as the basis with that which actually has some value. There is a saliva-like-induced reaction: “What I heard sucked; I have a difficult time believing that what I’m hearing now doesn’t suck.” So we hear what we want to hear based on what we have heard.
There is a notion in Zen—well, at least in the Westernized texts that I’ve read on the subject—of “beginner’s mind.” It fundamentally says that too often we think too much, or think too much in regard to the things we think we know. By coming at something as though we don’t know it, as though we are a beginner, we can actually learn things that we don’t know. So in the context of music, the issue could be described as having “fresh ears”: We hear things without preconceived notions of whomever it is that we are listening to. I’ll admit that I can’t do it. Still, it would be a laudable exercise, particularly for those who are truly interested in hearing things that they might otherwise tune out.
So they keep going out there. They keep playing. Trying. Scraping together what they can while they can. But maybe Housman’s fallen athlete had it right.