Where are the songs about aging?
Thursday night was thick with rain. Everyone was having a rough week at the end of a string of other rough weeks. I headed to Pioneer Square for the First Thursday art walk for the first time in years because a couple of photographers I work with at Sound magazine were showing their work. Before long, I found myself seated at a table in a dive bar with my hip-hop friend, her friend, Sound‘s editor Mark Baumgarten, and a local singer-songwriter whose band is called the Ghost of Kyle Bradford (worth looking up). As is customary when some variation of this group of people gathers, conversation quickly turned to death.
We argued for a while about what happens when you die, whether life and death are just two sides of the same coin, whether there’s an afterlife, and whether all people are, in their own way, completely obsessed with dying. Being a bunch of music people, it was only a matter of time before the death talk turned to talk about death songs, which led to Mark asking: Where are the songs about staring down death?
Sure, we have murder ballads. Songs about all the downtrodden joys of adulthood: loneliness, infidelity, fear, sadness, regret. Sure, these are all emotions and experiences that could be loosely interpreted as things that go through one’s mind as one nears the age where one’s body gives out. But, there are no songs about the shame that comes when, to borrow Mark’s point, you’re sitting on the bus and your bowels decide not to work. There are no songs that any of us could name about being young in mind and spirit as one’s body starts to fail. Nothing of the heavy feet and blurred vision, the need to ask people to repeat themselves because your hearing went out for a second.
We’ve had plenty of old and aging songwriters whose work has been lauded for its earnest lyricism, so where are their songs about getting ready to die? Johnny Cash, we all agreed, may have come the closest with his American Recordings. Rather than explicitly write about maintaining a youthful spirit in the middle of his body’s slow decline, he gathered up other people’s songs that he could perform in such a way as to reinterpret their meanings to fit that theme.
Someone suggested the writing of a song presupposes some sense of immortality, that putting those ideas and feelings into the world is a luxury of the young and well. This assertion was followed by the supposition that, perhaps once your body starts to fail, you have other things to worry about besides artistic expression. Maybe that’s why our older artists eventually just stop making new songs. Of course, there’s also the physical realities of aging that keep us from being so dexterous on our instruments as time goes on.
My sense was that the emotions that show up in songs aren’t anything that goes away with age. Love, hope, wonder, regret, loneliness, fear…these are universal emotions we all have at every stage of life. Who’s to say that, when an older artist sings a song about feeling alone, they’re not talking about the loneliness of facing the inevitable, irreversible solitude of aging? I suggested that those songs may not be so present in rock and pop music (what are the Stones writing about these days?), but roots music – the category wherein age is a virtue rather than an obstacle to the sexiness of mainstream appeal – must be rife with songs about dying. Of course, being a young lass in my early 30s, I’ve yet to seek out those tunes. They must be there somewhere, right?