William Butler Yeats

WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.[1]

The only reason I miss school is that now I don’t have time to sit idly in classrooms while the teacher isn’t saying anything relevant to me, and properly explore the meanings of song lyrics. With enough time I used to be able to convince myself that every single song I ever listened to was about me. Isn’t it sad that in the hectic nip and tuck of adult life we don’t give ourselves the time for proper self-absorption?

And while I’m at it, isn’t it funny how most artists don’t bother following their fanbase (or leading them) into middle age? I don’t mean those songs where a 27 year old looks back on the Nineties, or when someone you always presumed had Chlamydia decides to write a song about settling down with someone. I mean songs about waking up and wondering whether this ache is the one which will finally do you in, the one you’ll be carrying around, getting progressively more debilitating, until you die. A song about making yourself a nice pork fillet for dinner when you have the house to yourself and then finishing it off an hour later because you can’t settle knowing it’s there in the kitchen, and you can. Or can one artist write a prostate song? A menopause anthem?[2]

Thomas Kinsella, third place in the 1972 Ginsberg Lookalike contest.

I don’t mean to suggest The Who need to stop singing “hope I die before I get old”; I’d just like to hear some irony. It’s not like there isn’t a poetic convention about ageing–Yeats made a living from his “sixty-year-old smiling public man”, “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”. The vast majority of lyrics about any sort of ageing are much more like the execrable Thomas Kinsella poem Mirror in February, where the act of shaving makes him ponder how much he’s wasted his life and you go “wow, poor old man” and then he’s all “For they are not made whole/that reach the age of Christ” and even sitting in a classroom at age 15 you say to yourself, “what a moany bitch, that’s not even old”. Getting all depressed about turning 33 is like comparing yourself to Jesus at any time—you’ll not get much sympathy from me.

One artist who dares to engage with this sad process of old age, “the only illness you don’t look forward to being cured of” in the words of Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941), is Leonard Cohen. In his wonderful Tower of Song, written when he was 53, Cohen puts it mildly in one of my all-time favourite lyrics of all-time, Smashy:

The Influence, or Leonard Cohen Consoles Nick Cave, by Ben Smith

Well my friends are gone, my hair is grey,
I ache in the places that I used to play,
But I’m crazy for love and I’m not going on,
I’m just paying my rent everyday in the Tower of Song.[3]

In case you weren’t aware, Cohen is a remarkable talent and one who, we can see, is not afraid to go gentle into that good night. The song was covered by Nick Cave who himself has looked into the abyss, and although he speaks more about death than ageing (and God knows how close he came to death in the 1980’s) he matches Cohen’s wry observation on this most unthinkable of futures[4]:

They will interview my teachers
Who’ll say I was one of God’s sorrier creatures
There’ll print informative six-page features
When I go.[5]

REM, a band I’ve always presumed wore a succession of masks until they got a bit shit and I stopped caring a few years ago, provide a moving image of love into old age in their song You Are The Everything from 1988’s Green:

…I’m in this kitchen
Everything is beautiful
And she is so beautiful
She is so young and old
I look at her and I see the beauty
Of the light of music
The voices talking somewhere in the house
Late spring and you’re drifting off to sleep
With your teeth in your mouth
You are here with me
You are here with me
You have been here and you are everything.

This is a wonderfully simple idea: a detail from a life spent together and settled into comfort. I love the visual of an old man carefully removing his sleeping wife’s false teeth: it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished. Maybe it’s a bit maudlin, but coming from the same album as Stand it could have been a great deal worse.

There have been other oblique references, from the resigned: “Oh well, a touch of grey/Kinda suits you anyway”[6] to the defiant: “Open up the medicine shelf/I don’t wanna grow up”[7]. They Might Be Giants even responded to Townsend and Daltrey with their bluegrass pastiche I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die[8] (ripped off without acknowledgement by Robbie Williams a few years’ back. Dylan comes closest, I think, to my song about aches and pains, with his abject 1997 song:

Dylan cartoon from the Austin Chronicle.

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there[9].

Uplifting stuff, I think you’ll agree. I’d like to suggest some titles, such as Third Glass of Wine, All Fields, Price of a Pint or my personal favourite Sundry Aches and Pains, but until someone pens a pop song based around Lear’s “confer them to younger strengths/While we, unburden’d, crawl towards death” (a proposition which clearly falls into the category of “if you want something done you’d better do it yourself”) we’ll have to make do with the worst I can find, the absurdly literal Ripples from Genesis’ 1976 album A Trick of the Tail. You’ll like this. It really sucks, and Phil Collins has never looked more like a bearded child muppet. Be careful: this is eight minutes long.

The face that launched a thousand ships
Is sinking fast, that happens you know,
The water gets below.
Seems not very long ago
Lovelier she was than any that I know.

Angels never know it’s time
To close the book and gracefully decline,
The song has found a tale.
My, what a jealous pool is she.
The face in the water looks up
She shakes her head as if to say
That the bluegirls have all gone away.

Some cursory research shows that Mike Rutherford wrote these lyrics when he was 25. What the fuck did he know about ageing? You may well ask. Stop by http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/1728/ by the way and read the comments, which are great. My favourite post is “I read that the bluegirls are girls in school uniforms. I hope this song is not perverted”. And for the record Yeats was 28 when he wrote the poem reprinted at the beginning of this interminable piece, so there’s no excuse.

Second last word goes to Mike Rutherford for his ultimate ageing song, a lament for his dead father who, it seems, died selfishly before Rutherford had the chance to tell him, you know, stuff. Here’s the video to Mike and the MechanicsThe Living Years, one of the most accidentally funny clips ever and surely a candidate for a literal remake a la Take On Me or Total Eclipse of the Heart. Stay with this video because just when you think it can’t get worse it rises to the challenge. The comments section on Youtube for this one is priceless, hijacked as it is by Godbotherers:

I’m giving the last word here, though, to a much more successful song about getting old. This is Black Muddy River, a Robert Hunter lyric which wears its Yeats influence well and could well have been written by the man himself. This was the last song Garcia sang with the Dead, the encore at their last show in July 1995. Garcia died exactly a month later. Of course he screws up the lyrics. Pretty bad video on this one but it was their last show.

When the last rose of summer pricks my fingers
And the hot sun chills me to the bone
When I can’t hear the song for the singer
And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
Sing me a song of my own

When the last bolt of sunshine hits the mountain
And the stars seem to splatter in the sky
When the moon splits the south west horizon
And scream of an eagle on the fly

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And listen to the ripples as they moan
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
Sing me a song of my own

Black muddy river
Roll on forever
I don’t care how deep and wide
If you got another side
Roll muddy river
Roll muddy river
Black muddy river, roll

When it seems like the night will last forever
And there’s nothing left to do but count the years
When the strings of my heart start to sever
And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And dream me a dream of my own
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
Sing me a song of my own
And sing me a song of my own[10].

Great stuff. Check out Norma Waterston‘s cover of this from her eponymous album from 1996. And I didn’t say anything mean about Paul McCartney’s When I’m 64, possibly the idlest piece of speculation ever entered into in musical history, save perhaps Who Put the Bop in the Bop-di-Bop-di-Bop?.

Come, my
coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;
good night, good night[11].

[1] W.B. Yeats: When You Are Old, from The Rose, 1893.

[2] I’m aware Victoria Wood may well have written something about hot flushes (I seem to remember her songs as very frequently about hot flushes) but I’m talking about the rock canon, and besides, I can’t stand her.

[3] Tower of Song, from I’m Your Man (1988).

[4] Interesting coincidence: Cohen and Cave are one day short of sharing a birthday (21/22 September), and Cave is the age now that Cohen was when he recorded Tower of Song. Dude, profound.

[5] Lay Me Low, from Let Love In (1994).

[6] Touch of Grey, from In the Dark by Grateful Dead (1987).

[7] I Don’t Wanna Grow Up from Bone Machine by Tom Waits (1991).

[8] From They Might Be Giants (1986).

[9] from Time Out of Mind.

[10] Hunter/Garcia: Black Muddy River, from In The Dark, 1987.

[11] William Shakespeare, Hamlet: IV:5, 47ff.