Somehow, it seems like culture is moving away a bit from the notion that old men can't rock. A decade or two ago, the Rolling Stones were the butt of many a joke about Mick dancing about with a cane and Keith's arthritis. But it seems to me that in the past few years, we've come to grips with the notion that older rock stars still have a lot to offer.
I'm not saying Rod Stewart in hot pants at age 70 is something I want to see -- but take the surprisingly good Rolling Stones concert film "Shine A Light," which manages to give the Stones a sense of grace and dignity kind of lacking in the '90s. Hell, we've come this far, it seems to say, we've gone beyond being just old and on to being legends. Jagger's sheer showmanship puts stars a third his age to shame. The vitality of "Shine A Light" is a nice kick in the head to the idea that all rock stars should hang it up by 40.
It says something that two of the more interesting albums I've heard lately are the latest by Bob Dylan, nearly 68, and Neil Young, age 63. Both stars were big in their twenties, icons in their thirties, then kind of has-beens in their forties for a spell. Now they've wizened enough and have such a soaring body of work behind 'em that every release, even if it's lesser work, is usually worth a listen. There is a precedence for age being a fierce invigorator - think of Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. In the blues, age ain't no problem. It shouldn't be for rock 'n' roll either, really. Hell, seeing Neil Young and Bob Dylan both live in the last couple of years, their skills remain strong as ever to be, tempered by their vast experience.
Dylan's "Together Through Life" (his 46th album!) isn't the big artistic statement that recent works like "Time Out of Mind" were. It's a bit of a jaunty reverie, laced through with accordion by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, that gives it a kind of Tex-Mex feel. The bluesier tempo of Dylan's "Modern Times" is tamed a bit here, for lyrics full of a vaguely sinister, beaten-down love. Dylan's songwriting hasn't quite been as full of allusion and illusion as it once was in his last few discs, but he's made up for it with a deeper, fuller band sound that really carries his broken prophet's croak of a voice along. Mystery and mirth intertwine, and in his sixties, he's turned into the modern heir to the dead bluesmen of the past. "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" sets the scene with a terrific accordion-powered stomp, while "My Wife's Home Town" has the venom of "Ballad of a Thin Man" filtered through a lifetime's worth of disappointments. Dylan snarls and wheezes through lines like "I just want to say that hell's my wife's hometown." The growl that opens "Forgetful Heart" is a snarl from the abyss that could've been sung by Howlin' Wolf ("the door has closed forever more / if indeed there ever was a door"). A few of the songs meander ("If You Ever Go To Houston" sounds too much like Los Lobos and not enough like Dylan), but the album ends with the wonderfully cranky "It's All Good," which takes an annoying hipster cliche and turns it back on itself. "Together Through Life" doesn't reinvent the wheel Dylan's been rolling (like a stone, you know) for his last few albums, but it is a mighty pleasurable new chapter in the bard's book. And as always, with Dylan there are layers a-plenty to explore in subsequent listens.
Young's "Fork In the Road" is less polished than Dylan's latest; it's mangy garage rock in its bones, another willfully rickety collection by an artist who loves throwing curveballs. His last few albums have run from wistful reverie ("Prairie Wind") to angry protest singer reborn ("Living With War"). Now, he's an aging hippie singing about his car. "Fork In the Road" is a concept album about energy-efficient auto technology of all things, but Neil brings his ode to proud highways a kind of ranting sincerity even when the lyrics veer into cliches. If Neil had a blog, it would be like this album (or "Keep on blogging / till the power goes out," as he puts it.) The songwriting is extremely basic -- consecutive songs are rather banally titled "Get Behind The Wheel," "Off The Road" and "Hit The Road," for instance -- but Neil still has an eye for a hook and a killer riff. It may be a bit tossed off even by Neil's standards, but "Fork In The Road" has an open-hearted charm to most of the tunes. My favorites include the power-chord crunch and heavenly choirs of "Just Singing A Song" (which I got to hear Neil sing back in Auckland in January) or the curmudgeonly grit of the title tune, with old man Neil ranting about "got a pot belly / it's not too big / gets in my way / when I'm driving my rig." I'll take Neil singing about his belly and his cars over a dozen bland young bands any day.