Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seniors of sound

What is it about the sixties that's so freakin' cool? Some recent birthdays or record releases by sexagenarians bear witness to the idea that we get better with age (well, some of us, anyway).

Tomorrow -- in a world at war, a place consumed with strife and militarism and people loose with dangerous agendas and bad wiring -- is Bob Dylan's 65th birthday, and that, friends, is reason enough to celebrate, despite all the amputations of the most dangerous time in our time. He was our prophet, Woody Guthrie with an edge. With grace, wit and an unassailable belief in the power of a single steadfast voice, Bob Dylan has transformed America and, maybe more importantly, America's sense of itself.

He set the terms of engagement early, pointing out the social, sexual and racial polarities and divisions that polite America would just as soon have left alone. At the dawn of the national traumas that too much of America knows from the history books, Bob Dylan both framed the social debate and acted -- writing muscular, indelible music -- as our American seismograph, charting the rumblings of "the collective unconscious," telling us what was coming, if only we bothered to listen.

It's a sign of his continued vitality that he still works -- touring constantly, actively recording -- and still works with the mystery that animated his early career. Dylan is the host of his own radio show on the XM satellite network. His “Theme Time Radio Hour” airs at 10 a.m. ET Wednesdays on XM, with Dylan doing double duty as both curator and narrator.

"Much like his concerts, Dylan’s radio shows are a journey through 20th century musical Americana, the sort of thing he would have heard growing up in Minnesota with a transistor radio hidden under his pillow when he went to bed," reported the Associated Press.

But he's no conventional DJ operating from a specific studio every day. Ever the mystery, Dylan reportedly tapes his program from a variety of locations known only to him.

It's also a sign of how America changed that his earliest fiery protestaions -- "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A Changin,'" "Ballad of a Thin Man" -- are now part of the American songbook, fibers in the fabric of the national self-image. We can't imagine America without Bob Dylan any more than we think of this country without folk music, rock music, protest, passion and a sense of humor.

May your bootheels keep wandering, sir ... on this side of the stars, for as long as possible.

* * * * *

Neil Young, that master rock troubadour just turned 60 last November, has a new record that proves his continuing vitality on the scne, as well as a willingness not to pull punches with the power brokers of Washington. The man who immortalized in song the four students killed at Kent State in 1970 ("This summer I hear the drumming ... Four dead in Ohio") is in the lead again.

With his new album, "Living With War," Young returns to his incendiary form of his musical past. With much the same populist passion brought to 2003's "Greendale," Young proves a willingness to stay on point in the cultural/political free-fire zone that is contemporary America.

"Even if you don't agree with Neil Young's politics, you can't help but be daunted by the intersection of his genius and ire," writes Jaan Uhelski on the amazon.com Web site, adding that what animates the record is the "pure, naked, visceral reaction to the Bush administration's foreign policy."

In its 10 songs -- one of them a moving, choir-driven version of "America the Beautiful," another a song with the nerve to be titled "Let's Impeach the President" -- Young has created nothing less than a document of these times, separate and distinct from an earlier, equally bloody era.

It's been much the same with him for a number of years. During the grim time of Gulf War I, Young fought the powers that be on his Arc/Weld tour, often playing Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" onstage. And, of course, during the grim era of the Richard Nixon administration, Young's "Ohio" called the question of how a nation could persist in an unjust war with a angrily eloquent song that holds up today, more than 30 years after its release.

To his eternal credit, Neil Young's never been about just phoning it in. Peep this excerpt from a May 2003 interview with Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune:

"I don't believe in just doing my hits, because you can only do that so many times, and then you just repeat yourself. At this stage in my career, that would be the kiss of death. You might as well go to Vegas and just collect. I don't want to do that yet, and hopefully I can avoid doing that for a long time."

With the creative efforts of Dylan, Young and others, including Paul Simon (making concert appearances behind a new and much-acclaimed record), Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez, it's clear the sixties -- the age range, not the era -- are in very good hands.

Maybe the older we get, the more we have to look forward to.
Image credits: Dylan: Ketil Blom (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2). Young: Adrian M. Buss (permission to use granted under GNU Free Documentation License, v1.2)

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