Featured Column:We Used To Play For Silver, Now We Play For Life
Back around 1981, I was reading a column in a national music publication which will remain nameless, and included in this column was a blurb on a recent show by the Rolling Stones. The columnist described the Stones as “Muhammad Ali near the end.”
Almost a quarter-century later, those Stones are in the middle of their latest world tour as you read this. Gone are the days of classic albums like Aftermath, Beggar’s Banquet, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Some Girls and Tattoo You, but Mick Jagger and company have made a very steady (and lucrative) living touring every two to three years. Of course, the bills you have to shell out for a ticket is for another pending column, but the bottom line is that they are still a vital touring artist where its members are in their early sixties; and who still command worldwide attention.
Through the years of music history throughout Planet Earth, there are those musicians who wind up living the prophecy of Jack Straw: “We used to play for silver, now we play for life.”
It is human nature to associate artists and their works along with age, in similar ways a sports fan looks at a professional athlete. In the mid-80s, as a college kid, I became locked in with John Lee Hooker, particularly the album, No One Gets Out Of These Blues Alive (the title track a duet with Van Morrison) and working my way through Boogie Chillum. In my college years, I had the jokingly morbid thought of, “I got to see him before he croaks!” The majority of the show I saw at the Red Creek Inn (Rochester, NY) in 1985 was a case where Mr. Hooker was seated, and it felt like an old local pub legend with the miles traveled and endless stories to tell. Arguably, very few blues artists could get deep like John Lee Hooker, as the father of boogie created a musical source that music lovers could tap into again and again, with many thanks given.
One of the finest lessons I ever learned was in November 1995, as I had the privilege to see the now-immortal jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli at the acoustically and visually underrated Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. In his early nineties and confined to a wheelchair, Mr. Grapelli was brought out to the stage. My first reaction was of sorrow, my thoughts among the lines of, “Why isn’t he relaxing and enjoying life with his family? Why does he need to be onstage?”
I should have known better, as the man started playing richly and beautifully. Oh, sure, he could have played a given lick faster, et al, but Mr. Grapelli still had the ability to connect and move an audience! Whether it was playing one of his many million lilting melodies on violin, or playing some swinging interludes on grand piano, time and age may had physically withered Mr. Grapelli, but the mind, heart and hands still spoke an eloquent language several thousand patrons were privileged to experience. Most of all, Mr. Grapelli kept a warm, delicate smile on his face throughout; it was clear he was doing what he loved. Part of this concert was clearly tribute, as a group of students from Boston’s Berklee School of Music played some jazz swing in a 15-minute loving tribute. I left Mechanics Hall far richer from that experience.
“Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold,
I hope I die before I get old” Pete Townshend, The Who, “My Generation”
A more ironic lyric may not have been written by anyone in music history, especially given that Pete Townshend will turn 61 on May 19th (and Roger Daltrey recently turned 62). Yet, Mr. Townshend is now working on material for what would be the first Who studio album in 24 years (save for a couple of tracks recorded for a Who compilation last year, “Blood Red Wine” and “Real Good Looking Boy”). Of course, the fact that half of “the bloody Who” has perished per those lyrics serves an irony of its own that reminds us all of our mortality.
However, as we all age and progress in our lives, we can also learn about how an artist handles adversity, especially related to one’s health. Back in 1990, B.B. King suffered a diabetic attack that forced him to play his shows seated a la John Lee Hooker. I had seen BB a handful of times prior to his attack, and he held a commanding presence on stage (no pun intended) and always played crisp, lively shows. While the crispness remained in B.B.’s signature single-note leads, it took me awhile to adjust to him playing his shows seated; simply because I was so used to seeing him standing onstage and dancing, and being a figure that genuinely appeared larger than life. The fact that Mr. King still plays concerts to this day is a testament to whom he is and the tradition that he has carried from blues immortals from Sonny Boy Williamson to Lightnin’ Hopkins to Muddy Waters to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
“Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy” - Paul Simon, “Old Friends”
As I embrace my new fortysomething status, I have found it more than coincidence that some of the shows I have enjoyed the most were by artists of advanced age. In my past decade, several senior citizens who have enthralled me live repeatedly include Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Dr. Ralph Stanley, John Mayall, Vassar Clements and Phil Lesh. Not to mention Johnny Cash writing one more musical chapter of his chronicled career with the help of producer Rick Rubin by producing a series of high quality albums, many anchored by a timeless, well-worn voice and a simple acoustic guitar. The great Loretta Lynn has now enjoyed a new musical chapter of life, partially in thanks to the inspiration provided by White Stripes guitarist and producer Jack White in producing another career highlight, Van Lear Rose. Of the aforementioned artists, the youngest of that list is Dylan, who has been practicing his live craft in various incarnations and phases non-stop now for the last two decades, and whom will hit the milestone of 65 this May 24th.
John Prine survived an episode with throat cancer that forever affected his vocal cords and then dealt with a hip replacement, but Mr. Prine reinvented himself, performing his standards at concerts in lower octaves and also having his guitar tuned with piano strings. Charlie Watts, the human time clock of the Stones, is also a recent throat cancer survivor. Willie Nelson suffered from carpel tunnel syndrome and had to have surgery, but he still troops on playing live shows and continuing to record. Neil Young recently survived a brain aneurysm, which he used his near-death experience to create his latest album, Prairie Wind, the third of his Harvest trilogy.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention one seminal figure in the jam band world, Mr. Phil Lesh. Having survived Hepatitis C and a liver transplant, Phil Lesh would go on to reinterpret the music of the Grateful Dead with his Phil Lesh & Friends constellations, and also with his surviving band mates as “The Dead.” Another Hepatitis C survivor, David Crosby, would go on to form CPR with his long-lost son James Raymond and guitarist Jeff Pevar and produce some lovely, beautiful music along with tours with CSN (and sometimes Y). Both sixtysomethings not only remain musically active, but have been promoting health issues including becoming organ donors. In an interview several years back, Bob Weir noted how he was inspired by a performance he saw by Count Basie, noting how he and blues musicians play their craft deep into their lives. Thankfully, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead understand and have practiced just that in the form of Ratdog, Phil Lesh & Friends, etc.
I’ve been blessed to have some great memories of recent shows by “Old Musicians.”
On January 25, 2002, then-68-year-old Willie Nelson and his well-oiled band enthralled me and 2,399 others by playing a crisp, driving show overflowing with energy, airtight ensemble interplay, those unique Willie guitar leads and a boatload of non-stop songs, all served in a span of two hours, thirty-eight minutes! That night, Willie owned the Orpheum, but more so, he showed me what you can still do at an almost advanced age.
When Vassar Clements left us last year, my final memory of him on a live stage could not have been brighter. It’s Sunday and the final night of Rockygrass 2003, and the reformed Old & In The Gray returns onstage for one last encore: A sixteen-minute “Midnight Moonlight” that contained such power that it appeared to be the encore of the festival itself. Midway through those sixteen minutes, Vassar, 75 at the time, is deep into his solo, when suddenly he plays these phrases that take the ensemble “out” in a deep sphere, with Vassar’s fiddle soaring like fallen meteors that add both a special color and energy. Further and further Vassar ventured until he nailed a kaleidoscopic peak that concluded his solo, resulting in 3500 Festavarians giving resounding applause!
Last year, Doc Watson enthralled another group of Festavarians, playing tasty sets on Saturday with his grandson Richard and prot Jack Lawrence; but then leading a memorable “Doc Watson & Friends” set where the friends included Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas. For the very occasional “senior moment”, that was always offset by the rich playing and singing of the 83-year-old Flatpicking Father. For me, seeing Doc Watson is like hanging with your grandfather on a back porch on a steamy, lazy Summer evening; with Grandpa pulling out his guitar and casually memorizing you with his rich playing and soulfully warm baritone.
What these experiences showed me is that in many aspects of life, age is indeed relative! If Roger Daltrey may not hit those “high notes” like days gone past, he can sing in lower octaves to provide a new, fresh interpretation (as he did so well on The Who’s 1996-97 Quadrophenia tour). Willie Nelson can play his signature ragged-but-right guitar tones to this very day. Doc Watson can still sing and play richly and masterfully, even with the occasional senior moment et al. Mick Jagger can rile up an audience while Charlie Watts slams away on his infamously small drum kit. You can add to the list from here.
While we all eventually face the tribulations of growing old, what I have learned from artists like Staphane Grapelli, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson is that you can still do what you do in life and move people at a very high level, and live a high quality of life. I am forever thankful for those who used to play for silver and now play for life: A tradition I hope is carried on to many generations of artists and fans to come.