Listen to this track by venerable country-folk patriarch and one-time Man In Black Johnny Cash. It’s “Hurt”, a song as taken from his 2002 album American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, Cash’s 87th (!) studio album, and last to be released in his lifetime. As may be ascertained, that album was one in a series starting from the 1990s that had Johnny Cash working with producer Rick Rubin, showcasing material that on the surface seemed to be unlikely candidates for songs for Johnny Cash to cover.
This is certainly one of those songs, written by Trent Reznor the creative fulcum behind industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails. Upon hearing that Cash would cover his song, Reznor was flattered. But even he thought it might be an awkward fit for the guy who once had a hit with “A Boy Named Sue”. And yet, even Reznor would discover that through this new version of the track from an unlikely, and some might say mismatched, connection between artist and material, that there were hidden layers of meaning that could be brought out in his own song. Cash’s take on the song was a hit, as was the album off of which it had come; his best selling, non-compilation album in decades. But by the time this song was recorded, Johnny Cash was not a well man, suffering from neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome. It shows on this performance. It certainly was demonstrably true as evidenced by the gut-wrenching video that accompanied it.
This goes well beyond the realm of commercial success of course. This remains to be one of those songs that goes beyond its writer, and in many ways also beyond Johnny Cash. And maybe that’s why it had such impact. Read more
Listen to this track by self-confessed creekdipper and superbly gifted singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. It’s “Century Plant”, the opening track to her 1994 album Loose, on which she is joined by a bevy of talented friends including Van Dyke Parks, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, REM’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and Jayhawks songwriter Gary Louris along with another member of that band, Mark Olson, who Williams would later marry. This record was something of a comeback album for her after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Williams found support for her situation in the Sweet Relief campaign and related compilation album around this time that featured many of her peers and elders alike who admired her work and were quick to come to her aid. At the time, Williams was one of many musicians in the United States without health insurance. In the middle of that harrowing situation, her illness did nothing to reduce her capacity for powerful songwriting in a folk storytelling influenced version of country rock with her unique voice in the center of it. Most importantly, it did not diminish her life-affirming attitude to be found in her songs. To me, this is the active ingredient to her work; a sort of defiant optimism and positivity.
“Century Plant” embodies this attitude, a song that is concerned with shifts in perspective. This is particularly when it comes to the nature of human potential and the mysteries that often surround it. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time werewolf spotter and L.A based singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. It’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up”, a straight to the point track as taken from his 2000 album, the also straight-forwardly titled Life’ll Kill Ya. The song is one of many that takes on the themes of age, illness, and working things out in the midst of all of that.
Perhaps those themes had particular significance for Zevon, who would come face to face with some intimidating odds healthwise not too long after this record was released. Given its title, it’s almost like he expected it to be his last, even if 2003’s The Wind would cover that nicely, and manages to be pretty poignant rather than bitter. But, that was just the thing with Zevon, who can be counted in a school of L.A based songwriters springing from Randy Newman and later to E from Eels that deals in gallows humour, irony, self-deprecation, and a sort of rumpled vulnerability. Bitterness and anger were not to be separated from the poignancy or the chuckles to be had from this approach to songwriting.
Even if this song does get pretty in your face about the dark side of what it’s like to get older, when you really break it down, it’s this very connection between humour and fear that makes this song work so well. And I think it provides some pretty valuable perspective on something that popular music has always dealt with to varying degrees of success; mortality. Read more
Listen to this track by Teutonic singer, actor, and model Nico. It’s “These Days”, a song as taken from her 1967 record Chelsea Girl, her solo debut. That album is noted by the extremely high quality of songwriting and instrumental talent behind it, including contributions from Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Tim Hardin.
This particular tune was penned by Jackson Browne, who was a teenager when he wrote the initial iteration of this song. It would evolve later on, and be recorded by several artists including Browne himself later on when he made a name for himself as one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter boom in the early to mid-seventies. Nico was the first to record it in a finished studio version. Browne plays the distinctive electric guitar picking part, accompanying Nico’s distinctively austere and icily distant vocal performance, delivered in her signature lower-register range. All of this is contrasted by a bittersweet wash of strings, added in post-sessions by producer Tom Wilson.
By now, this song has been covered by many, and is perhaps best associated by modern audiences with its use in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Nico’s recording of this song seems to connect with its active ingredients better than most versions do. And what are those ingredients, exactly? And what does Nico bring to it to make it what it is? Read more
Here’s a clip featuring Ontario singer-songwriter Matthew de Zoete (that’s pronounced duh-ZOO-tuh, kids). It’s the video for his song “Colour Film”, the title track of his newest record Colour Film released at the beginning of this month, and his third.
The record follows up 2008’s Bottom of the World, and 2006’s Across The Sea, as well as multiple tours of Canada, the United States, and Europe to support them. By now, de Zoete has shared stages with Great Lake Swimmers, Luke Doucet, and Justin Rutledge among others. All the while, he’s made his home in rural Ontario, on a farm with his wife and daughter.
His approach to this new project was to write a series of songs that could be a soundtrack to a film, suggesting characters, tone, and the shape of a story. This cinematic approach certainly carries over to this song, inspired as it was by seeing Super 8 film footage of his grandparents in the early 1960s, as later to be seen in the video.
In “Colour Film” we find the theme of connectedness, of tying the past together with the present, and realizing that the span of years that separate the eras between us, our parents, and our grandparents isn’t indicative of how differently the people in each era saw the world or interacted with it. With this song, we realize that it’s only the cosmetics of each era that change. Love, fun, sadness, joy, and the whole contradictory package that is the human experience was just as real then as it is now. The black & white world of the past was just as present and in colour for those who lived in it.
It’s a powerful idea. It certainly takes a level of maturity in a songwriter to pull this idea off without ponderous, over-earnest results. Yet, here it is as light as air, letting the listener fill in some of the spaces as the best pop songs must.
The song reminds us that the world as we know it is still in motion. Even in that, any division between the past and present is just another illusion. Sooner than we think, our own the world as we know it today may be looked at as something of an abstract by younger generations, a misty era to be thought of through a dusty lens, and in a grainy film stock in the minds of our children. In this, the world hasn’t really changed at all. It’s always been that way.
For more information about Matthew de Zoete, check out the Matthew de Zoete official site, where you can discover social media links, as well as links to other material featured on the new album.
However young and agile we are, there will come a time when both youth and vitality will fade. There’s no way around it, people. We’re getting older.
There is a process of coming to terms with one’s own sense of mortality which hits everyone sooner or later. Usually, this comes out in the form of shifting perspectives on the nature of life and might also have an element of reflecting over times past in ones’ own life to discover what remains to be truly valuable, and what doesn’t. Often too there are feelings of regret, maybe because of the fact that the marrow of life could have been more enthusiastically relished during one’s youth. Sometimes people make embarrassing attempts to compensate for burgeoning age with sports cars and affairs with younger partners. Sometimes, we end up feeling that we’re just doing time.
Even when we’re young, we think about what it will be like to be grown up, and free of the shackles of school and home life with our parents. And there are moments even in childhood, where it suddenly feels silly to still be thinking about ‘kid stuff’, realizing that our interests suddenly and mysteriously lie elsewhere.
Everyone is aging, even now, no matter how old they happen to be. And once again, popular song steps in as vehicle for these kinds of thoughts common to all, young and old. Here are 10 songs about growing up, getting on, growing old.
This is a classic children’s song about childhood and the nature of growing up. The song is a folk favourite, a story of a boy and his dragon, which is really a metaphor for childhood itself. There is a certain melancholy here, a sadness that when a child gets to be of a certain age where the once cherished silliness and imagination of childhood become sources of embarrassment, or simply get pushed aside due to developing interests in other areas of life, something about that child which had been so intrinsic to their personalities becomes less easily seen. In some cases, it disappears entirely. This to me is what this song is about; that as we grow, we add to our own experiences and pick up treasures along the way. But, much which is just as valuable is often lost too.
Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version is probably the most famous. I wonder if in this context, that the song couldn’t be applied to the changing times of the 1960s, the era in which it was first recorded by the group. Even if times were getting better in many ways with civil rights and the women’s movement, there must have also been an aspect that a nation was losing its innocence too, with the Norman Rockwell world of America slowing slipping into the aspect of a myth, even to those who held it up as fact. Maybe in this context, this version of the song was meant to soothe the thought that change was a threat, and not just a part of a nation’s maturity.
I remember being very young and wondering what it would be like to be a grown-up. One of the key thoughts I had was fairly common, I guess; that grown-ups are free to do whatever they want. I think Brian Wilson was hinting at this with his paean to teenage love, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” from the landmark Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The idealized vision of adulthood here is about romance, a time when goodnight kisses on the porch wouldn’t be the end, but would rather be a start to life together. In this song, age is hoped for because it allows the narrator to believe that there will be a time when one is free of obligation, and is also free to live the way one feels life should be lived with the ideal partner.
This song could well have gone on my 10 Songs of Optimism list, of course. Love and marriage are not that simple, and with some freedoms won, there are many more obligations and responsibilities which come with those freedoms. Yet, this song even when it was written was not about that perspective; it is about capturing the essence of how it feels to be young, hopeful, and hungry for the future in the same way many yearn for the past. Being together in a partnership with someone you love and who loves you is what defines freedom in this song. If only we could retain this child-like wisdom, when our connections with those we love are often taken for granted.
Sometimes, the young are very much aware of the passage of time, just because such awareness is made pretty evident by what was once called the “generation gap“. This was a phenomenon mostly centered around the 60s and early 70s, when the social norms of parents and those of their children were so disparate that it made it seem like one generation thought the other had gone “a bit mental”, to use the psychological term. So, it wasn’t just that people were getting older, the whole world was, culturally speaking. Morality, gender roles and identities, sexuality, and many other areas of life were all being revised and experimented with by the baby boomers. And like a lot of times of growth, or in times of such experimentation which leads to it, it was a painful period for many.
David Bowie’s 1971 song “Changes” from his superlative Hunky Dory album touches on this phenomenon, among others. If anyone could talk about change, it was Bowie, who experimented with personas, and cast them aside just as easily as they suited his purposes. Another thing he touches on of course is that “time may change me, but I can trace time”. Once again, personal history here is a powerful force, even if the past is pushed aside to make way for a self-determined future. And he leaves us with a musical warning to those who think that things will last forever – “Look out you rock n’ rollers/pretty soon now, you’re gonna get older…”.
There is an odd paradox which often happens as one gets to the point where they reckon their lives are half over. There is a drive to recapture youth by embracing it in the form of a younger lover. Yet, when the pursuit of this bears fruit, it’s often realized that the attempt to recapture youth by entering into a tryst with someone half of one’s age actually makes one feel even older. That’s what’s happening here in Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, the biggest hit off of their 1980 Gaucho album.
In this song, all of the cultural reference points the narrator holds dear is completely lost on his 19 year old lover. And there is subtle sadness here, a kind of tragedy maybe either that he is very lonely in not being able to share what is important to her, or that there is a shade of a hint that the person who might have shared his love for “the Queen of Soul“back in the days when he was “the dandy of gamma chi” is long gone, maybe because he never took the time to foster a lasting relationship. Of course, this being Steely Dan, we’re not shown the whole story. This is just a snapshot of an aging philanderer, and his brief flirtation with the idea that his once-charming womanizing is turning him into a cartoon of himself as he gets older. This is one of the many effects the passage of time has on us; it often gives us a kind of clarity which is often not welcome, causing some to retreat even further into self-delusion, and self-parody.
They say that parenthood changes everything, and it does. This is often meant as a condemnation, that the wild impetuous things which concerned you when young are instantly swept aside, and middle age and middle class sets in. But in this song by Joni Mitchell originally recorded for her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, these kinds of things are only part of the story, with the narrator musing on how everything changes in any case, that it’s difficult to make connections when things shift so quickly, and more difficult still as one gets older. In the song, her ‘child’s a stranger’ to her, the children of her former partner-in-crime are ‘growing up straight’, and both ‘look like their mothers did now, when we were those kids age’.
The world which is shifting into the future is becoming more and more alien here. This leads the narrator to think about how it was when she was younger, when songs on the jukebox meant the world, and thoughts of age were as just as alien as the unfolding world will become to her in the present. This song is about how disorienting the passage of time can be, that the wildness and cocksure attitudes one had when young are so easily lost before one knows they’re gone. This is a darker side to the idea that one gains wisdom as one ages. This is more about being tamed than it is by becoming wise. As such, there is an element of tragedy in this song, that somewhere along the line, elements of the narrator’s personality have been misplaced.
This song was re-recorded for Mitchell’s 2002 album Travelogue, with a 70-piece orchestra backing her. So, the song itself has aged, ironically like a fine wine, much like Mitchell’s beautifully coarsened voice.
Much like Mitchell’s tune, this is a song about becoming a new person simply by getting older and gaining some new perspectives. Perhaps this is the lighter side to Mitchell’s musings on middle-age, when “17 has turned 35”. You get the impression that in this song, taken from Mellencamp’s 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, the narrator is shaking his head in awe at how far he’s come, amazed the “we’re still livin'”. There is a declaration of nostalgia for times past, when “sports were sports” and “groovin’ was groovin'”, a time to be treasured no matter how old one gets, with memories of friends making the best of life by getting into trouble framed here like memories of the garden of Eden. The conflicts of the past are things which can be laughed about as the years roll forward, making light of old rivalries, and also of foolhardy choices.
The last verse of course reveals that the narrator is now a dad himself, still finding that on some days he still has to muddle through his new role, with his children amused at the thought that he was once their age, doing the things which they may well be doing themselves. Because of this, this song is about the irony that the rambling troublemaker now has the responsibilities of an adult, of a father. Sometimes the most important jobs go to some of the most unqualified (on paper at least…) candidates. Yet, perhaps here, the clarity of times past and lessons learned cast a light on the path forward.
Life is busy for the involved; work to do, people to meet, places to see, causes to defend. Bruce Cockburn is one such individual, diversifying his career as a singer-songwriter-guitarist by traveling the globe and investigating socio-political events and the people who are directly affected by them. For all of the activity though, there still appears to be a sense of waiting as described in an earlier song from his 1979 Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws album called ‘Hills of Morning’; “underneath the mask of the sulphur sky/a bunch of us were busy waiting.” Yet in this song from 1997’s Charity of Night the waiting is something he does alone; “Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long/days drip slowly on the page/and you catch yourself pacing the cage”.
In this song, it becomes evident that in the flurry of activity which can dominate our lives, it’s easy to find oneself trapped in moments when it feels like those activities become blotted out by an overwhelming sense that one is just running to stand still (as another group of songwriters once put it, although in another sense…). The passage of time only adds to the yearning one feels for knowing the reasons for living, the old-fashioned hunger for the meaning of life. This is prime Cockburn introspection, an attempt to navigate the murkier waters of human experience which only seem to get murkier as time passes. Yet, by the end of the song, he discovers that “sometimes the darkness is your friend”, that mystery and yearning are an intrinsic part of the package.
In many of the songs so far, age is a thing which sneaks up on you; suddenly, you’re older and the world ceases to make sense in the same way that it once did. But in Pulp’s 1998 song from their album This is Hardcore, the realization that the light of youth is constantly dimming is played out by the portrait of someone still relatively young recognizing that the elderly once got up to the things which he and his contemporaries get up to – “drinking, smoking cigs, and sniffing glue”. The song starts out by the the titular request, which seems banal and trite until you realize that the request to help the aged is ultimately about the fear of age, that one day the narrator will need the compassion and sense of dignity which is often lost when one reaches their “sunset years”.
It’s when the song starts talking about this fear of age, that ‘nothing last forever’, that things really take flight. The terror of a young person looking “behind those lines upon their face/you may see where you are headed/and it’s such a lonely place” is palpable, even if the song has a certain levity to it as well. It certainly frames the excesses of youth in a certain light, the embrace of those things which make us forget that we’re not going to stay young forever.
The song’s title is actually a reference to a charitable organization. Help the Aged is a British charity, with chapters all over the world including here in Canada.
As a companion piece to the Pulp song, this tune by John Mayer is a less subtle, less satirical take on the fear of aging. Yet in some ways, it’s a more respectful view of age and the aged in a misplaced sort of way. This is the point of view of one who realises that getting old isn’t for wimps, that it takes guts which he’s not sure he has. Taken from his 2006 album Continuum, the terror of age is not so much about the vanity of youth, but is rather about feeling overwhelmed by the pace of the world, which burns youthful energies at a faster rate than the narrator is prepared for.
When musing on the lyrics of this song, I can’t help but think that the sentiments can be applied to our culture as a whole, that we are plagued by a fear of the future, no longer knowing whether we’ll gain the wisdom to be able to deliver ourselves from the foolishness of history – wars, greed, religious tension, and environmental degradation. In some ways, we have a basis to fear growing older as a species, and it seems that we have a tendency to retreat to mythologised ideas of home to be found somewhere in what we think is the past, while neglecting the work to be done by building the real thing in the present.
A song by Ron Sexsmith, this one from the 2007 release Time Being, is the perfect way to conclude this list, being as it is (like most, if not all, of Sexsmith’s work) rooted in intelligent and respectful optimism. In this song, the reality of age, and of change is not something to be feared, just something to be accepted as it is. The fear of aging, and ultimately of death too, is all-too present in this song as it is in real life. But, here that fear is eradicated by love which is rooted in the here-and-now. The song acknowledges the mercurial nature of time, that “it’s a fool who reaches out to the hands of time”, that the mysteries to be found in the true nature of time are ultimately unreachable. But, that’s not the end of the tale.
What is the emphasis here is what does remain within our grasp; the love of another, the celebration of friendship as we move through the years together, and the liberation from grief by allowing ourselves to say goodbye to those we lose as we get older, finding acceptance in the loss all of those things which pass away as a matter of course. In Sexsmith’s song, it’s the present that counts – the movement of a “snow white hand in mine”, the palpable substance of inhabiting the moment as opposed to worrying about the future.
Time, as the poet Alan Parsons once said, keeps flowing like a river, and we’re left to make of it what we will. This elicits all kinds of human emotions and expressions of character – fear, acceptance, humility, and sometimes even wisdom. All of these states of mind can be found in popular song, each musical example itself often resting in an eddy of time, coated in memories of times past. Yet the kernel of truth can be found in the simple expression that unpredictability and change are the only things we can really count on until we board the Mystery Train, sixteen coaches long. Until then if we’re smart, we hold the hands of those we love, we spend time with our kids and enjoy every stage of their lives, and we keep a sense of perspective that if life is short and youth passes away, then our currency of years is best spent on that which gives us the most joy in the present.