Sunday, November 1, 2009

The old guys

I have been exploring Bob Dylan's later albums, one in particular, "Modern Times" which is apparently one of three recorded as a kind of trilogy. I have yet to find them in the local stores, but they'll show up sooner or later. What I love about this particular one is the looseness, the lyricality of the whole thing. He's 69 now, and still good. I listen to this and hear shades of Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, some of the much younger Dylan, but none of the anger that fueled his first albums. I guess, you get old enough, you stop being angry. It takes way way too much energy.

He also has a Christmas album out, the proceeds of which are going to charity. It's funny, a bit flaky, but the first chrismas album I have ever, ever, bought.

and that got me to thinking about performers and writers who are still producing, singing, writing, well into their 70s and 80s, and still kicking butt. All of them have one thing in common; they are not only dynamite performers, they are also flexible and creative enough to keep changing, morphing, reinventing what they do. They take chances. Every book of W.S. Merwin's is different from the last, both in style and language. The only thing that never changes is his punctuation. Paul Simon is still creating new stuff, (which bodes well for the future) Leonard Cohen, the same.

Ray Bradbury has been writing the same story for ten years, and that's sad. Billy Collins seems to be going the same way, writing "billy collins poems" which no longer invent, they recreate.
It's as if they ran out of gas somewhere along the way, or got scared to take that last step up to the next level. Maybe the rep gets bigger than the talent, and they're afraid of losing that by taking the chance that might hurt the reputation if not the writer. Dunno.


  1. Oh I hear you. I recently read a poem by somebody writing a "Billy Collins" poem. In fact it was titled something like "Here's My Billy Collins Poem," and it could easily have passed for Collins, he had it down so well.

    But the Dylan Xmas album --if the small sample I heard last week on NPR is representative-- is simply frightening.

    Viva the malleable oldies.

  2. couple years ago someone said Collins was teaching a workship course where they lived, and she went, and by the time he was done, every poem he critiqued had become a Billy Collins poem. He doesnt seem to have a style, and yet it's distinctive, and scarily easy to imitate. Ive done a few myself, inadvertently.

    As to Dylan, I think he's just havin fun wit' it, frankly. It's a bit campy, and he really does a pretty good job on "O little town of Bethlehem" although the high notes get a bit creaky. As I said to my husband, he was never noted for his fine baritone, ya know.

    And here's a scary thought; we are heading for 'malleable oldies' status too. If not fame, nor fortune, at least flexibility. I hope. Id settle for all three, if forced into it.

  3. Yes, Collins is easy to parody...which is too bad, because I really do like some of his stuff. He's pithy, but eventually one wants more than pith from poetry. What once felt distinctive became a rut. But if Dylan's album is a bit flaky, maybe he's running out of gas too.

  4. Hi, Cindy. Nice to see you here.

    Collins' earlier stuff was a wonderful blend of pith and serious, and never without a bottom to it. You may laugh, but you think, at the same time. His last few books have been a crashing disappointment, it seems as if he's gotten weary, and is content to coast on celebrity. I hope I'm wrong, but it does happen.

    As to Dylan, I think of this as taking a chance, and having fun with it. Some of the stuff doesnt work, some of it does. A lot of this has to do with being willing to take those chances, and us being willing to let him. Too many performers are afraid to do that, which is why the Everly Brothers only sing what they once sang, and why Chubby Checker is living out his tour days performing the Twist.
    If you want an example of just how good Dylan still is, one of his more recent albums, Modern Times, is marvelous. Worth just listening to a bit of on the net, to get a feel for it.

    And there are albums of his I won't even listen to, it was like a transition period for him, and to me, they're dreadful. And of course all of that is subjective, isnt it.

  5. If I criticised poetry it would be like Pee Wee Herman criticising Einstein. I'm not qualified. However I do remember Dylan singing WE ARE ON THE EVE OF DESTRUCTION that was so scary I never followed him.

  6. Well, Eve was a very long time ago, Harvey, and a lot of scary stuff has happened since then. if you go into google and type in "Dylan thunder on the mountain" (under the video tab) you can listen to one of the cuts. I'd post the URL here but it doesnt come out right.

    A far cry from his early stuff, lol

  7. Workingman's Blues is pure oldschool Dylan, though. He can still rhyme "Purple" with "Silver"

  8. anyone who can rhyme "purple' and "silver" is aces in my book, yep. Leonard Cohen is good at that stuff, too. Maybe you just have to insist that it rhymes, and by golly, it does.

  9. His follow-up, "Together Through Life", features the Restoration Hall band -- great Nawlins musicians. It's got a nice gritty feel to it, but "Modern Times", in my book, is Dylan's best album.