Aging Artfully

I have seen a lot of sixty-plus-year-olds put on concerts. Not painful orchestral affairs at senior centers, either. From my early teenage years, all of my musical heroes were the great rockers who invented the genre and recorded albums that will never be topped. The only problem was, I was born some twenty years after most of my favorite solos were recorded in the perma-haze hanging over London and San Francisco.

Thankfully, by the time I was a teenager experiencing generational diaspora, most of my guitar heroes were sober, broke, and back on the road. Of course, this meant that I was always in crowds surrounded by people old enough to be my grandparents who were neither sober nor broke. While the sense of novelty was mutual, I was hardly concretizing my place in musical history by being there for seminal shows or breakthrough tours.

What’s worse, I felt the need to lie to my dad when I’d get home and he asked, “Can he even really sing anymore? They had a lot of high notes…” I thought that maybe if I said it sounded the same as it did on the album, it’d be a little more true, make me a little closer to an era that wasn’t mine at all. Plus, the cavalcade of backup singers and auxiliary musicians on stage masked most of the old frontmen’s shortcomings. I’d leave the shows certain that The Who never had seven members, or that Paul McCartney didn’t used to tour with two drummers. But to admit these inconsistencies is to admit that I was disappointed, that I didn’t belong to the generation these jovial grandads came from.


Of course, in the intervening years I fell for the bands more of my era, though I caught them one album cycle past their perceived peaks. I touted the 2004 album as my favorite, though it was their 2007 effort that served as my gateway drug. The 1996 stuff was more raw, more in-tune with my emotions and sensibilities and less in-tune with my temporal reality.  At least the people at their shows looked and acted a little more like me and cheered the most loudly for the same songs as I did. I wasn’t there for a greatest hits parade with a sprinkling of painful new stuff, as I’d grown so accustomed to. I was there for a catalogue-spanning show that pulled from whimsical deep tracks and still-good new stuff alike, and so was everyone else. My disappointment in not hearing that one song from my favorite early album was more realistic, somehow more probable because it’s only twenty years old instead of fifty.

So the situation I found myself in recently was familiar in a same-but-different kind of way. I walked into the Austin City Limits Moody Theatre fifteen minutes after Jerry Jeff Walker took the stage. I felt unhurried, unconcerned, and totally excited. There’s no sense in clinging too tightly and missing the life that’s in front of you. So my lovely date and I savored the 45 minute wait for our pasta (carb loading for a road bike race the next day) and only checked the clock once the whole time we were eating. I digress. There he was, sitting down at center stage, with a cowboy hat sitting so low I wondered if he could even see. I knew he was hiding something. Sharing the stage with him was a simple three piece band—lead guitar, bass, and drums. Nobody to hide behind, in fact, fewer instruments than he had with him on my favorite Live from Luckenbach album. I admired his honesty but had to laugh at the contradiction that was his wrinkle-hiding hat. Ten minutes later, after laying on the hysterical anecdotes and playing sentimental retrospectives, he burst into Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother. The crowd rose to its feet. He opted to skip strumming essential guitar parts so he could lift his hat high and bare his balding head and hard-worn face to the crowd. He grinned an enormous grin when he showed his hand—er, face—to his fans, many of whom were his age or close to it, and everyone cheered raucously. Jerry Jeff was not hiding behind Just for Men and backup singers.

He told stories about how his rambling ways had been halted dead in their tracks by love, shared lessons learned the hard way, and played sentimental songs that were neither new nor old. Without a new album to sell, nor a desire to play a Greatest Hits World Tour, he was free to call audibles and play whatever his free-form ramblings best segued into. I realized that I was being treated to something quite special. I forgot I was in an audience of a few thousand and felt more like I was sitting across the table from a wizened old man who had been tasked with sharing his life’s wisdom and reaffirming my decisions to-date.


Just yesterday I conducted a telephone interview with legendary Texas artist Bob Wade, best known for his highly imaginative found object sculptures. Now 72 years old, Wade quipped that the giant cowboy boots he built 36 years ago were half his age and now pushing forty themselves.  Officially, I was conducting an interview for a story on one of his newest public art projects, but I was also having a one-on-one conversation with an accomplished artist who has the gifts of hindsight and experience to share.

“If you shoot me an email, we’ll get you on the e-vite list for my next gallery opening. Of course, it won’t be me, I don’t really do the whole email thing. My wife takes care of me like that.” This was a common refrain from Bob and Jerry Jeff, that they had surrendered the stubborn insistence on independence that all people, especially all men, possess. That is, before they recognize that suppressing it leads to something greater than the sum of its parts by way of subtraction. Whether it’s sparing yourself bona fide brain damage by handing over email correspondence duties or it’s letting someone else do things you could easily do yourself, like tie your tie before a black tie event, that willing humility is a recurring theme in the longest-tenured unions.

As we wonder how to age well, how to make it to our seventh generation and sit on the stage with our hats pulled low not as a display of hubris but for dramatic effect, it’s easy to wonder if we can learn from the mistakes our predecessors have made, or if we can only learn from them that mistakes will be made. In either case, it seems that what matters most is not what we do but what we do with it. How we figure that out is an entirely different question.


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