Young man inside an old man

Groucho Marx once said that aging gracefully is the grandest oxymoron of all -- the big lie. After all, to age is to wrinkle, to wither, to shrink, to vanish. To do so gracefully means only to admit defeat. Grace has nothing to do with it; what's so graceful about accepting the inevitable? It's called surrendering.

And yet there is little grace to be found among those who continually fend off the irreversible process -- musicians and actors and other artists who keep pretending as though tomorrow is the day before yesterday. Fake hair, fake skin, fake clothes, fake bodies, fake moves -- the whole charade would be laughable, were it not so grim and unpleasant. What in this world is more pitiable than Mick Jagger shaking his slack ass on a stage after all these years, or more pathetic than Woody Allen casting pretty young things then tongue-kissing them on 75-foot-tall screens?

There has to be some middle ground, something between denial and defeat -- a place where age means wisdom, experience, instinct, passion, cognizance, prowess, temper. A place where adults don't have to traffic in illusions in order to survive. A place where tomorrow looks better than yesterday.

Rock and roll is full of lifers and survivors who didn't know when to call it quits. For that, they're celebrated -- even though the likes of Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, even Elvis Costello and Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen exist in the post-meaningful halves of their careers now, their best albums so far behind them, they've turned to dust in the cut-out bins. Think not? Consult the Springsteen fan who'd rather hear "Sinaloa Cowboys" instead of "Rosalita." At least the best athletes get to bow out with some dignity. If only the Stones would call a press conference, announcing their retirement from the game.

Rare is the performer who ages with dignity, who actually grows better the longer he or she sticks around -- as though, like, there's actually something to be learned and shared from a life spent on the road and in the mind. When Lou Reed started looking backward -- toward childhood, toward home -- the best he could come up with was, "I scream / You scream / We all scream for egg cream." Neil Young, of course, is the template, but he has no patience for yesterday; the man burns toward tomorrow, looking back only to make sure he doesn't commit the same mistakes twice. Then there's Bob Dylan, whose 1997 Time out of Mind offered a glimpse of a disappointed institution struggling with his own middle age and the damage wrought by a life in the music business.

Randy Newman's brand-new Bad Love is the most intimate, revelatory album of a career spent hiding behind gross, hysterical caricatures. Gone are the rednecks and fat boys and senators from Utah; gone are the hateful men who, the singer-songwriter always insisted, were not him. They've been replaced now by the man who writes love songs to his ex-wife and pens autobiographical songs about a childhood spent talking to his family through the television. It offers a distasteful portrait of a middle-aged lecher who lusts after the pretty things he cannot have -- and for that, for its honesty and vulnerability, Bad Love might be the best record of 1999. No doubt, it also will be one of the worst sellers.

Richard Thompson's Mock Tudor might qualify for both honors as well; the man never did sell, despite the howling of over-40 rock critics who can never understand why Thompson's not a revered superstar like, say, their beloved Eric Clapton. But, of course, it does not take a Billboard staff writer to explain the obvious: Thompson writes rock and roll for grown-ups, men and women who grow soft even as the music becomes harder (and Mock Tudor is the loudest Thompson record in years, covered in shards of broken chords). Those folks don't buy a lot of records -- especially ones about growing up in London, ones about women from Dorchester and lads from Toulouse, and ones about fathers who are too hard on their sons. They don't go for conceptual albums full of Cooksferry Queens and pilfered, parodied Jeff Beck melodies. No wonder a Capitol Records exec once referred to Thompson as a "marketing exercise" -- like jumping jacks, perhaps.

"You either know who he is or you don't," says Thompson's drummer Michael Jerome, who once played with locals Course of Empire and joined Thompson's band in June. "He's the extreme in artistic value. Richard's just a really exceptional human being who has gone through a process of growth and is still growing and still has a very cool edge. It doesn't seem, in the short time I've known him, that he's lost his ability to create for him. To me, it seems as though he's developed an awareness of where he is as a musician and the effect he has on people."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky