Thursday, May 25, 2006

They can still rock -- but not write

By DAVID LISTER

I keep having this strange dream. The arts world has regressed to 1968.
There are releases of albums by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. A rock musical, "Hair," is about to be staged in London. There are articles about the points it has to make about the United States engaging in a conflict abroad. I wake up and it's all true.

Fair enough. I am certainly not one of those who says that '60s icons should retire to a home for rock gentlefolk. There's nothing more boring and fatuous than adding up the ages of the Rolling Stones. If they can attract hundreds of thousands to rock concerts and give exhilarating shows then let them keep going. McCartney and Dylan also continue to give memorable concerts. It is not the live performance aspect that is a problem.

The curiosity is that the '60s icons have lost some of their gift for
songwriting. As The Independent's rock critic pointed out in his review,
McCartney's album has hardly any tunes and forgettable lyrics. The Stones' album is cheered, only because it is of a reasonable standard, but no one can name a single song from it. Dylan's gets raves, but then it is an album of bootleg recordings from the '60s.

The truth is that the aging process in rock stars does not particularly
affect live performance, even though that is what is always wrongly seized upon. But, more than in any other art form, it does seem to affect the writing and composition. Dylan's recent albums have been worthy with the very occasional standout track. But how amazed would the world be if "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Like a Rolling Stone" were released now. They are from a different planet. McCartney has written nothing remotely comparable to "Penny Lane" or "Eleanor Rigby" for decades.

But why can't it happen? These are the same people with the same talent.

I put the point to Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who when I met them awhile back. Daltrey seemed to agree, saying Townshend could yet be the great chronicler of middle-age angst. We shall see if that is the case when their new album is released shortly. Townshend told me the great pop songs of the '60s relied a lot on "youthful energy." Somehow, that's not quite good enough as an explanation. Verdi retained his talent for composition long after the youthful energy had worn off; Arthur Miller's later plays never quite matched his great early period, but always repaid study;
choreographers and film directors as often as not improve with age.

It is in pop and rock that things seem to take a wrong turn with the onset of middle age. Elton John's last album was something of a return to form. He said he had had a long think and admitted to himself that nothing he had done in the past 30 years or so had matched the songs of his vintage period of 1970-76. It was a painful admission to have to make to himself, but it meant that he made an extra effort with the new one.

Perhaps, before their next albums, McCartney, Jagger and Dylan should listen to one of their vintage works and not only try to match it but also try to work out why rock composers lose their way. I don't know the answer either.
But this slightly eerie echo of the '60s provides evidence that rock
composers lose it at far too young an age.

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David Lister writes for The Independent in Britain.

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