Rock ‘n’ Roll Does Middle-age Awfully Well

by Andrew Gilstrap

29 November 2009

Bruce Springsteen, among others, is not above hammering nails into the coffin of the open-road mythology that he’s built for himself.

Modern music might have a way to go, but it’s getting comfortable dealing with the realities of life.
Someday baby, when I am a man, and others have taught me the best that they can,
They’ll sell me a suit, cut off my hair, and send me to work in tall buildings.
It’s goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew
Goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you
  — John Hartford, “In Tall Buildings”

“I traded all the innocence I ever had for hesitation.”
—  Josh Ritter, “Right Moves”

It’s not like I suddenly woke up one day on the wrong side of the 40. Well, come to think of it, I guess I kinda did, when I woke up on my 40th birthday. And even though the dawn didn’t bring all kinds of symbolic harbingers, like clouds of carrion birds filling the skies, I couldn’t deny the reality. But it’s not like the warning signs weren’t there: a fondness for naps evolving into a need for naps, a fear of anyone even remotely younger than me, a newfound ability to pull muscles in my sleep, and a “so-and-so band in such-and-such-decade did it better” attitude about nearly every indie darling that came around.

But thankfully I’m not bitten by the mid-life crisis bug that seems to afflict so many my age. I married late and had kids late, so my wild oats were well-sown by the time I settled down. Sure, some might look at some of those oats – all-night Dungeons and Dragons games, truly clueless things said to women, a ridiculous amount of satisfaction when I finally beat the original Super Mario Brothers game—and look at me with pity. But I’m very happy with the way things turned out (and I always have that year or two of beer-fueled academic probation to hang my hat on if someone gives me too hard of a time).  Besides, it’s only the accumulated indignities of age that stand before me – nothing that diet, exercise, plenty of sleep, and a carefully worded deal with the Devil can’t stave off.

Even so, I found myself turning to the music geek’s version of quiet reflection: the mix CD. A double-CD documenting man’s journey from birth to death, I said! It’ll be epic! Like the Riddle of the Sphinx!  And I’ll update it as time goes on into this multi-volume summation of my life that can be played at my wake. Thankfully, I awoke from the madness of that last part, but the mix turned out pretty well. I also tried looking at it from the other side, with a mix from the female perspective, but it was far less successful, if only because it was turning into a Patty Griffin best-of. Goodness, but that lady can write a song about the burdens of life.

In the course of putting it together, I couldn’t help but think of Graeme Thomson’s book I Shot a Man in Reno, which I’d written about for this column some time back (see “Art Imitates Death”). Thomson contends that popular music – rock ‘n’ roll in particular – exists in a state of arrested development where frozen-in-amber sentiments like the Rolling Stones singing “What a drag it is getting old” or the Who proclaiming “I hope I die before I get old” passes for wisdom. Mortality, it seems, doesn’t get the kids dancing. It would be nice to think that someone like David Bowie is holed away in his home studio, secretly recording an aging rocker’s reflections on life, but he’s probably too busy with his duties as Sovereign of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.

Sure enough, the end of my mix was populated by folky songs like Townes Van Zandt’s bleak “Waitin’ Around to Die”, Johnny Cash’s haunted take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, and Griffin’s mournful “Top of the World”. Stately tearjerkers all of them. Not a rock song in the bunch. Thomson, it seems, is (pardon the pun) dead on the money when it comes to rock’s fear of death. 

But rock ‘n’ roll, it seems, does middle-age awfully well. And not just from the gray-haired set who have been there, and who now look back upon it fondly. A number of younger songwriters obviously find themselves intrigued by the prospects of ex-wives, resentful children, and accumulated regrets, for songs about middle-age are rarely joyous. They can be surprisingly wistful, though.

Deer Tick’s John Joseph McCauley III offers the excellent “Song About a Man”, in which the narrator reflects on his long-suffering wife and his grandson whose prayers fall on deaf ears. Early in his career, James McMurtry’s “Angeline” chronicled a couple’s progression from lovers who “took what life offered when the folks were distracted or too tired to care” to a married couple (via an unintended pregnancy) who don’t even have enough of a spark left to bother fighting. 

On a more contented note, a post-Replacements Paul Westerberg once offered up “Once Around the Weekend”, which gave us the image of Westerberg puttering around, breathing in the spring air, and watching rabbits in his yard. Fans naturally rebelled against this image of the man who wrote “Here Comes a Regular”, “Unsatisfied”, and “Bastards of Young” turning into a less-than-crotchety old man.

For his part, the Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett (aka E) gives us “Things the Grandchildren Should Know”, in which he portrays himself as a gentle misanthrope who just goes about his days doing the best he can. Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” wryly notes that “I ache in the places where I used to play”.

And in some cases, a man’s decisions are simply what they are: what he had to do at the time. Jason Isbell’s “Outfit” is notable not only for the quality of advice a man gives his son, but also for the matter-of-fact way that he tells his son how he sold his Mustang to buy a wedding ring, went to trade school, and settled down. There’s no overt sense of regret, although when he tells his son not to follow in his footsteps , to not “let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy man’s paint”, it’s obvious that the warning stems from experience.

Some songs, though, are far more desperate than others. Steve Earle’s “The Week of Living Dangerously” portrays a man driving home from work who suddenly tosses the car seat into a dumpster and heads across the border into Mexico, with disastrous results. Todd Snider’s rocking “Stuck on the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack)” is nearly four minutes of a cubicle dweller raging and suffocating under the weight of his thankless job, image-conscious wife, ungrateful daughter, and rebellious son.

The Police’s “Synchronicity II” compares a man’s meeting with his bosses to “a humiliating kick in the crotch” and mirrors his desperation with images of a shadowy creature emerging from a Loch and shambling towards an unsuspecting household. Los Lobos’ “Just a Man” laments having “no little boy to watch grow old” before unleashing a keening, emotional guitar solo.

Some artists loom larger than others, though, in documenting the slide into middle age. If Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven found him burying the western in a pine box under the hot desert sun, then Bruce Springsteen’s not above hammering nails into the coffin of the open-road mythology that he’s built for himself. “The River” looks back on a life derailed by a shotgun marriage, where “I act like I don’t remember and Mary acts like she don’t care”, before asking, “Is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse?” 

And even when the road does offer escape, it’s with the sense that there’s a darkness waiting to swallow you if you sit still for too long. The narrator of “Lucky Town” claims the “house got too crowded, clothes got too tight / And I don’t know just where I’m going tonight / Out where the sky’s been cleared by a good hard rain / There’s somebody callin’ my secret name”. More famously, “Hungry Heart” confesses, “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back”.  “Racing in the Street” paints a picture of a man who goes out at night to escape troubles at home, even though it’s quite possible that those racing excursions – and the narrator’s stubborn insistence on clinging to the ghosts of dreams—are the source of his problems.

For his part, Tom Waits loosely based three albums around the character of Frank, a veteran who “came home from the war with a party in his head”. Over the course of Frank’s Wild Years, Rain Dogs, and Swordfishtrombone. While the three albums didn’t always concern themselves with Frank, their tales of temptation and sadness make moments like “Frank’s Wild Years” – in which Frank “hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead” while having a go at the American dream, only to set the whole house on fire as he “parked across the street, laughing, watching it burn, all Halloween orange and chimney red” – make perfect sense. As Waits has gotten older, he’s given us albums like 1992’s Bone Machine, in which the dimming light informs songs like “Dirt in the Ground”, “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”, and culminates in the last-ditch rebellion of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (“I don’t want to put no money down / I don’t want to get me a big ol’ loan / Work them fingers to the bone“).

It’s startling to see just how many songs focus on this stage of life, and I wonder if it’s a fairly new thing. Were there midlife crises back in my great-grandfather’s day? Surely there were, as there were plenty of bad decisions, shotgun marriages, and the like even back then. Maybe they were just too busy working the fields or keeping the textile mill running back then to have any time to feel dissatisfied with the hand they’d been dealt. And our modern consumer culture, which seems hell-bent on surviving by compelling us to shovel possessions into a bottomless hole of want – doesn’t help.

But then again, there are old, old traditionals like “Moonshiner” and “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” to show that some of these things are probably as old as time. And to be sure, the female side of the equation is equally well-represented. John Prine may have written “Angel from Montgomery” (“I am an old woman / Named after my mother / My old man is another child who’s grown old”), but it’s Bonnie Raitt’s delivery that seals the deal. And in truth, songs about the female experience such as Mary Guathier’s “Snakebit”, Syd Straw’s “Love and the Lack of It”, the Cowboy Junkies’ “He Will Call You Baby”, or Kathleen Edwards’ “Run” – songs populated by oppressive husbands, mothers or grandmothers who didn’t have the same variety of options as their descendents, and genuine concern over the welfare of any children involved – are often far more devastating. 

In light of a song like Patty Griffin’s “Mary”, in which a woman’s life is partly tallied by the number of loved ones she’s buried, a man’s concerns about having to change a diaper every now and again can feel pretty ridiculous. And maybe, if anything in modern music works to disprove Thomson’s belief that modern music is incapable of growing up, it might just be the women’s tales. Even though they don’t always deal with death, they seem just a bit more grown up than a song about how the open road makes you forget that mean ol’ life railroaded you into some important promises back on the homefront. 

For example, as much as a song like “The River” generally shakes me to my core, I have to admit that I always want to tell the narrator of “Hungry Heart” to shut the hell up, get back home, and take care of business. Or, in the words of my favorite rest room graffiti ever, titled “Mary’s Reply to Bruce”, a woman with no time for such foolishness dismisses her “Thunder Road” suitor: “You’re no hero, that’s understood. Now get the f*** out of my driveway

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