The Washington Post

February 28, 1993, Sunday


LENGTH: 1265 words

HEADLINE: Rock of Ages (Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton - Aging Rock Stars)

If You Can't Trust Anyone Over 30, Should You Listen to Anyone Over 50?

BYLINE: Mitchell Stephens, Special to The Washington Post

Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have all released new albums within the past half-year. That is hardly the big news it might once have been. All these artists have turned, or will soon turn, 50 -- old, very old, in the context of rock-and-roll. And the ability to create rock music -- party-animating, sex-saturated rock music -- is not often included on that short but precious list of skills that improve with age.

Old rockers too often leave us with Robert Frost's sad question: "What to make of a diminished thing?" Most have drifted off into nostalgic anonymity or become mere "entertainers," working nightclubs, supper clubs or, recently, inaugural balls -- reprising the old hits once again, reduced to singing songs written when they were still battling acne. The creative juices -- or the yearnings that set them flowing -- have dried up. (Little Richard, for example, recorded his last major hits when he was 25.) Now they are the ones who are stuck on what Dylan, then 22, called that "old road" that's "rapidly aging."

But let's not be too quick to dismiss or pity Dylan, McCartney, Jagger, Richards and Clapton. Once upon a time, these men reinvented what it meant to play rock-and-roll. Is it not possible that they might also be capable of reinventing what it means to be "old" and still playing rock-and-roll?

Age has, after all, done them a few favors. To begin with, it has given these fellows, none of whom has ever been saddled with a day job, years of practice. They're better musicians than they were at 25, and better singers too. Jagger does as much with his limited but commanding voice on his third solo album, "Wandering Spirit," as he ever has. On McCartney's 20th post-Beatles album, "Off the Ground," his less limited if also less commanding voice croons, soars, ooohs and, yes, yeah, yeahs with as much grace and control as it seems possible for a rock singer, of any age, to display.

Clapton, the most accomplished musician in this group, switched to acoustic guitars for his hugely successful album, "Unplugged," and his playing has never sounded warmer or more buoyant. Even Clapton's nondescript voice shows signs of progress: He can now emit a decent guttural shout and even a convincing "whoo-hoo Lord." Still, that voice will have to do some more aging if it is to become a first-rate blues instrument.

The quality of Bob Dylan's voice has always been a matter of dispute. Those of us who reject the hoarse-toad or mumbling-sea-lion analogies will find much to delight in on his latest album, "Good as I've Been to You." Dylan sang like an old man when he was 20. Now, at 51, his voice sounds like something from beyond the grave: craggy, wind-blown, spectral. In picking and finger-picking his way through this collection of traditional songs -- unaccompanied -- Dylan also reveals himself to be an occasionally inspired acoustic guitarist.

Age also lends a certain credibility to the hard-traveled, wordly-wise folk songs Dylan is resuscitating -- "Hard Times," for example, or "Frankie and Johnnie" (which Dylan, ever unpredictable, renames "Frankie and Albert"). These songs sound considerably more convincing coming from the mouth of a 51-year-old than they did passing through the smooth lips of the young folkies (including Dylan himself) who used to emote them. The narrators here seem, for once, to have earned their omniscience.

Another benefit of age is its tendency to bestow a kind of wisdom -- even upon rock stars. McCartney, unfortunately, is still prattling on about fish in sunbeams and the need to be "cosmically conscious," and Clapton, by far the least accomplished songwriter in this group, pours an even older brand of syrup in his hit song "Tears in Heaven." But the rest of these veterans seem unusually clear-eyed in their recent recordings, singing songs that seem on intimate terms with life: not, "I was born in a cross-fire hurricane," but, as in the title of one of Keith Richards's recent songs, "Hate It When You Leave."

Richards has spoken in recent years of a desire to "grow up" the music. That seems -- despite the misuse of an intransitive verb -- a worthy goal for a middle-aged rock star. And on his second solo album, "Main Offender," Richards makes some progress toward realizing it.

The album, like Richards's voice, is so spare and unpolished that it seems almost unfinished. It sneaks up on you. And at their best the lyrics, which are equally rough-hewn, unleash an unvarnished realism not often permitted in pop: "As wicked as it seems, why don't you get, get on over me."

Jagger and Richards together have been the most prominent exceptions to the rule that rock-and-roll songwriting talent declines with age. "Steel Wheels," the most recent Rolling Stones album, included material as compelling as any the group has recorded. Their solo efforts are not quite on that level, but they do have the virtue of displaying this new realism, which threatens to replace macho posturing as the Jagger-Richards trademark.

It is a realism that, while it borders on cynicism, has little in common with the angry nihilism so often expressed by younger rockers. "You're not the only one with mixed emotions," an unromantic, but accepting, Jagger sang on "Steel Wheels." On his solo album, Jagger, sounding for a moment like many another successful but worn-out 50-year-old, worries that he is "running a race" without "getting any place." That's adult, not teenage, angst.


Adult, too, is the preoccupation with decline and diminution that pervades Jagger's album. He can, he boasts, "still paint the town" (as he demonstrates on a couple of fine up-tempo numbers), but only while "waiting for your blond hair to turn gray." The sexual bravado is still there -- but often in the past tense: "In the beginning ... we were at each other night and day." No longer, apparently.

Dylan has been moving in similar directions for some time now, as can be seen in the progression in the titles of his songs about love: from "Love Minus Zero -- No Limit" to "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" to "What Was It You Wanted?" Dylan's last successful collection of original songs, "Oh Mercy," released in 1989, was an adult album too -- wistful, cynical and perceptive.

McCartney, in contrast, exhibits a similar maturity on his new album in only one song, co-written with Elvis Costello: "Lovers That Never Were." Otherwise his still formidable craftsmanship and inventiveness seem devoted to the goal of making that missing next Beatles album -- a thankless task in a world that has outgrown cheery, cheeky, clever Beatles albums.

It's too bad. For Jagger, Richards, Dylan and Clapton -- together with such contemporaries as Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and Lou Reed -- are demonstrating that there is a meaningful life available in the 1990s for the middle-aged rocker. They may no longer occupy the cutting edge, but these aging stars are still exploring unfamiliar territories. Their music has gained an intelligence, and it has retained a richness -- perhaps diminished, perhaps not.

The not-yet-middle-aged can be forgiven if they choose to forgo these pleasures in favor of those provided by musicians their own age. But those who grew up listening to the music of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton (and maybe even Paul McCartney) need not be embarrassed by a desire to keep up with their further adventures.

Mitchell Stephens is the chairman of the department of journalism at New York University and the author of "A History of News."