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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2009/08/26
by Mike Gruenberg

Like Fine Wine, Sometimes Aged To Perfection

In My Life

One of my dear friends, who has long since passed away, always regarded himself as a connoisseur of fine wines. At fancy restaurants or any restaurant for that matter, wherever we would go, he would carefully inspect the wine list. He would pause and tell me about how certain wines will improve with age while some won’t. Then it was back to the list to pick the wine, relate some more facts about the vineyard and underscore the importance of the year of the vintage. “’86 was a good year for Chardonnay at the Rollicking Buffalo Vineyard in Sonoma” he would say. “Give us two bottles of that Cabernet Sauvignon!” he would empathically state to the waiter. “Mike, I could have bought that vineyard three years ago if I was able to raise a little more cash” he might have said.

The glasses and bottles would arrive, the waiter would pop the cork, and my friend would always be the one to do the obligatory taste test with much drama and verve. He gave me books to read about the making of wine. I visited the Napa Valley toured the vineyards, tasted the grapes and even met a number of vintners. But in the end, the one fact that I know today as a result of all that study and experience is that in order for certain fine wines to reach their peak of flavor, they must be aged. Only the Beaujolais Nouveau wines need not be aged and actually should be consumed as soon as they are bottled since you will not have a pleasant taste experience if they are allowed to be aged for too long.

I thought about the concept of improving with age this summer after seeing two concerts performed by two musical heroes of mine. In May, I saw Leonard Cohen, who at the age of 74 gave a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion. In July, I saw a 68 year old Bob Dylan perform a concert in Aberdeen, Maryland at Cal Ripken Stadium.

Dylan was always a semi-favorite of mine. It was not so much for his performing style, but for his lyrics and the message of his songs that caught my attention in the early 60’s. No one wrote songs with more impact than Bob. My wife, on the other hand, has always been a devoted Bob Dylan fan, far more than me.

My first experience in seeing Dylan live was in 2002. We read in the newspaper that he would be appearing at a charity concert at Southampton College on Long Island. The “All for the Sea Presents Bob Dylan: Master Musician and Songwriter to Perform with his Band at Southampton College” was the title of the article.

This seemed like a most fortuitous moment for me to finally see Dylan since six months earlier he received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album for Love and Theft. Since I had recently bought that album and liked it, we decided to attend. After all, how often to you get to see a legend in concert on a beautiful night on Long Island?

The concert was staged on the lawn of the college. The night air was comfortable. We had an excellent location sitting on our lawn chairs and eating the boxed meal that was provided as part of the charity event. The band and Dylan came out to enthusiastic applause. The band played flawlessly as Dylan sung his songs. After the third or fourth song, I turned to my wife and said, “Have you been able to understand ONE word that this guy has been singing for the last ½ hour?”

She looked at me with an almost quizzical look on her face and replied, “Not really.”

And so the evening went on and on, with the band doing its thing and Dylan mumbling his way to the final song. Even his famous songs were unintelligible. For all I could decipher, for “Like A Rolling Stone” he could have been singing “Bite My Dog In A Bone” and no one would have known any better. My only explanation was that he must have had a disagreement with Mrs. Dylan on his way to the concert or that he had a head cold or he burnt his tongue on some hot soup at last nights meal at the diner. Whatever it was, it made for a most unappealing evening. I chalked it up to just a bad night on the road for Bob.

In the August 24th 2009 edition of the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones writes a brilliant article, titled “State of Grace” in which she describes the life and times of Leonard Cohen. Ms. Frere-Jones saw Cohen perform at Radio City Hall in May which was in the same month I saw him at Merriweather Post. Her review was much like mine (see Jambands 5/26 – In My Life column) in that we were both amazed at the quality and clarity of his low voice. She writes “…..and his craggy voice fills a room completely. I have seen very few shows where a single voice dominated so clearly.”

This summer, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan are touring together. They are performing at 30 minor league baseball stadiums throughout the country. My wife and I attended the concert at Cal Ripken Stadium in July. It was a rainy night which delayed our arrival and as such, we missed Willie who packed up and left early after the skies resounded with thunder and the lightening lit up the night bringing rain down on the stadium. It’s tough to play an electric guitar in the rain, so Willie went home. We arrived when John Mellencamp began his show and he was brilliant. Great band, great selection of music and John engaged the crowd and put on a hell of a show.

Dylan was next and everyone in the stadium became very excited to see him. While we remained in our comfortable seats, many people gathered in front of the stage. What differentiated this concert from the one we saw seven years prior was that the band was lethargic. It seemed as though the musical arrangements had no life to them. And once again, we found Dylan to be singing in a foreign language because we surely could not understand the lyrics.

After about an hour of this, we decided to leave. Since we came there late, our car was parked quite a distance away. As we walked away from the stadium, we could hear Dylan in the background. Sadly, we were not the only ones to leave. Except for his die-hard fans, people were leaving the parking lots en masse. It was a sad sight for us since Dylan has always been such an icon in the music world and quite frankly a hero to us all. To see all these people including us, leaving early was a surreal sight.

In the Frere-Jones article, the author gets a quote from Roscoe Beck who has been a musician with Leonard Cohen since 1979 and is the musical director on the current tour. “If you can’t hear the lyrics, then the point of doing it at all has been missed. We’re there to support Leonard” he said.

The ability of a wine to age gracefully is dependent on many factors including the grape, the vintner and the region. The ability of a performer to improve with age is also dependent on many factors including health, resolve and an understanding that with age your voice changes and you need to adapt your style to accommodate your age so that your audience can understand and appreciate you.

For me, the lessons learned in determining which wine I choose to accompany dinner can probably be applied to deciding which artists I listen to on my iPod or go to see in concert. I enjoy drinking the Beaujolais Nouveaue when it first gets delivered fresh from the vineyards. Yet I know that if I wait too long to open it, the result will be something close to vinegar. On the other hand, I know that if I have a bottle of Pinot Noir that has been properly aged, my dining experience will be greatly enhanced with the addition of this red wine to my meal.

So too, with Mr. Dylan and Mr. Cohen, I will always respect their work and play their albums repeatedly. It’s just clear to me that in concert, one has aged more gracefully than the other.

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