Tuesday, July 26, 2005


I'm not that old (53). My wife tells me "50 is the new 40" — whatever that means. And I don't feel old (when there are no mirrors around). I can still dunk shoot a basketball, I still watch VH1, read Uncut, keep up with the latest pop culture crapola. I still have my hair (that's not a receding hairline, I just have a big forehead, OK?).

But there are things going on. Shaving seems increasingly complicated for some reason. I'm sore after a long walk. An afternoon nap gets me through the day. I see strangers my age at the grocery store and I feel like hailing them as long-lost friends, as if we are both members of a minority group. And the kid bagging the groceries looks right through me like I'm not there. It all adds up to one thing: winter is coming; it ain't here yet, but it will be before you know it.

So naturally I want to know how the musical artists who have gotten me through my life so far are doing with the same experience. Poor Pete Townshend. I bet he can't go to the pub or the corner store without someone asking, "Hey Pete! I thought you said you hoped you'd die before you got old! Well, now you're old! Huh? Huh?" But I don't know, because I haven't listened to his stuff for years. Is he even writing new stuff?

There's Paul Simon, who wrote a song not too long ago called "Old":

Down the decades every year
Summer leaves and my birthday’s here
And all my friends stand up and cheer
And say man you’re old
Getting old

Now there's a guy who's always got aging on his mind. About 40 years ago he said in a song, "I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I'm 22 now but I won't be for long." And in "Old Friends" he said, "How terribly strange to be 70." Well, Paul, pretty soon you'll be 70 and you can tell us if it's strange or not. My guess is it will seem pretty normal.

What about Dylan? It struck me last year when I saw him in Columbus, in fact, while he was in the middle of singing it, that "Mr. Tambourine Man" is an old man's song:

My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step ...
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

But he didn't sing it like he was still connected to it. There was a lot more fire in his more recent material, like "Floater":

The old men 'round here, sometimes they get
On bad terms with the younger men
But old, young, age don't carry weight
It doesn't matter in the end

Then there's Neil Young. I love the Neilster, but I haven't gotten his last few albums, so I don't know how he's doing with the aging thing. Could he still sing "Old Man"?

Old man take a look at my life
I'm a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through

There's the wonderful and underrated Jonathan Richman, who's just about exactly my age. Is he still singing "Dignified and Old"?

Someday we'll be dignified (Hey kids, Hey kids)
Someday we will be dignified and old

Actually, I don't think pop artists, when they get old, write songs about it. It's the young men who do that. The old guys just don't feel like they are old. (Exhibit 1: The Rolling Stones.) It reminds me of a discussion I had years ago at Hebrew Union College with a really old professor (now deceased). I mentioned to him the hoary idea the Solomon had written the Song of Solomon when he was young and Koheleth when he was old. He said, "It's exactly the opposite. He wrote Koheleth when he was young, because it's typical of the young to put on an image of self-conscious world-weary disillusionment. And he wrote the Song when he was old and could think of nothing but sex."

Maybe that is the way of the world. The young write songs about being old, because they fear it. The old don't write about it, because they don't feel like they are old. It seems to be true of my generation anyway. In a few years, you can walk down the hallway of a nursing home — past the bedpans, the walkers, and the wheelchairs — and hear the stereos playing "Blitzkrieg Bop" or "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" or "Walk on the Wild Side," and there will be black light posters hanging on the walls, and peace signs next to the trays of pills.

Getting old? Not for a while yet. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my nap.

UPDATE (7/28): Follow-up posts from Tim Bulkeley and Gordon Govier. BTW, Gordon is the host of the excellent radio program The Book & The Spade.


Jim said...

I like your Prof at Hebrew Union's comment very much. And, as a person nearing 45 (in slightly over a month) I empathize and sympathize. 'cept when people walk by my nursing home room it won't be pop music they hear blaring out of the cd player....


Anyway, a very cool post, Ed. And for what it's worth, I always pictured you, mentally, as about 35.

John W Leys said...

I recall an interview with Pete from several years ago and the interviewer mentioned the infamous line from My Generation & how he felt about it now that he was pushing 60 and Pete said something to the effect of "Yeah, I still hope I die before I get old"

Anonymous said...

Men get sexier the older they get. I think of Neil Young singing "Old Man, take a look at my life..."

Anonymous said...

I'm the same age as you, Ed, and richly enjoyed reading your reflections as I nursed my sprained thumb which I received when I sort of fell off my bicycle last Saturday morning. Maybe it's time to switch back to a tricycle.

EMC said...

Many thanks to all of you for your appreciative comments. I particularly congratulate "steph" on a remarkably astute observation.

Anonymous said...

thanks, the truth is good isn't it! you lucky lucky boy - happy birthday!

melinama said...

I think the old musicians (being one myself - 51) don't write songs about being old because it strikes too close to home and also impairs their livelihood. Being old is a huge disadvantage in the music biz (as in many other businesses - the Wall Street Journal has run frequent articles about how to combat agism when it works against managers etc in the system). They can be snide about it when they're young. When they're older they have to worry if their bald spots are covered well enough when they go on stage...

It's great that more of us, er, older folks are blogging so we don't have to go through this alone!

My take on it:
"Here's a line I love from another ancient song, When You and I Were Young, Maggie: "My face is a well written page, Maggie, but time alone was the pen." People used to say: "I earned these wrinkles." Why isn't that ok any more?

I'm tired of the quest for eternal youth. It starts so early, isn't it weird to see actresses in their 30s with botoxed foreheads?"