Paean for Piano and Two Guitars

This is to offer a contrary opinion on Phil’s thoughtful and thought-provoking blog yesterday on late styles, rock stars and so on. I do think it has a lot to do with reception; we associate artists with something or other they did when they were young, and then we resent it when they do something different. A truly bizarre and unfair case is the critical response to the band Procol Harum, the governing trope of which was “all they can do is re-make ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale.’” That was so glibly, smarmily unfair, given their history and personnel change, that it always seemed as if the critics were vying for high marks in triviality and ignorance. I believe it was Sibelius who supposedly said to a young composer, “Never fear, my boy, no one ever built a statue to a critic” (there was an even nastier one from Beethoven). Another point about pop musicians is that successful ones amass so much money that they aren’t, for the most part, as psychologically driven as when they were young–touring is a brutal business, and while many of them like performing, touring takes years off one’s life. Still, think about Paul Simon; he would have been among the pop immortals for his work in the Simon and Garfunkel era. But there was some terrific work afterward; think of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, from 1974 or so. Would anyone dare to suggest that *Graceland* is below the earlier work in quality? That was 1986. He was 45. For my own taste, I would even put the following album, Rhythm of the Saints, above it, and that was 1990. He was almost 50 then. When do we get to invoke the “late style” rubric?

Here are the words I took as a challenge: “Name any rock musician whose recorded work maintained an equal level of relevance and impact throughout his/her career — let alone became deeper or richer.”

Here, not counting Paul Simon are three, though I’m using “rock” in a very broad way:

1. The aforementioned Randy Newman. The NPR/PBS set (yep; shooting inside my own tent) gleefully sings along to the 1972 songs “Sail Away,” “Political Science,” and “It’s Lonely at the Top”—superb songs, all of them—but better stuff came after (and no, I don’t mean “Short People”). I mentioned the 1995 Land of Dreams album before, and would argue that Bad Love (1999; he was 55) rates with anything he did before. The characterizations are deeper, the songs more subtle and complex, and without a doubt there’s less of the more obvious, Tom Lehrer-kind of satire you get on the Sail Away album. I’m not even getting into his soundtracks. His work has deepened and improved considerably, in other words, though audiences still want the old, familiar tunes. Nothing wrong with a comfort zone, but we make a real mistake if we evaluate his music on the basis of the popular reception of it.

2. Guitarist/Singer/Musicologist Ry Cooder. Aside from a lifetime—stretching back to his teens—of superb solo guitar work, there are such killer albums as Bop Till You Drop (1979), an impressive array of soundtracks, and collaborations with the likes of Ali Farka Toure. The last decade alone has seen two of his crowning glories, The Buena Vista Social Club (1997), a collaboration with legendary Cuban Jazz artists, and Chavez Ravine (2005), a memoir-fantasy about the Los Angeles neighborhood plowed under to make Dodger Stadium. I wonder if many Cooder fans think those albums are flaccid products of his dotage? Not so’s you’d notice, friends; I put them with his best, and what’s more they continue in his tradition of staking out new ground.

3. Guitarist and Songwriter Mark Knopfler. Everyone knows his early work as frontman for Dire Straits—no criticism there!—and like Newman and Cooder he is an established and accomplished soundtrack composer. Still, for my money—even considering epic Dire Straits songs like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Telegraph Road,” his solo albums of the last decade are easily his best work, especially Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) and Shangri-La (2004). Trumping them both is All the Roadrunning, an album he made with country singer Emmylou Harris, which I consider to be a crowning achievement, beginning to end, song for song, performance for performance. He’s 57.

Now whether this is all merely my personal taste or not will have to be in the eye of the beholder. It is my sense, though, that the artists who continue to grow and take risks continue to get better, regardless of their commercial reception. Speaking of which, wasn’t Beethoven mocked in his own time for the late style, and Bach treated with condescension for his contrapuntal pedantry? That’s not how we read their creative trajectories now, but I don’t think that their late work was, originally, considered to be anywhere near their best.
In other news: I’ll be gone for two weeks, so I leave the Dial M readership in the capable hands of Phil. I’ll be hearing “Mele Kalikima’a” a lot where I’m going—where my mother-in-law lives—and despite my usual answer of “ha’api ha’anuka’a” no one seems to get it. Happy Holidays to all!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Paean for Piano and Two Guitars

  1. Nathan Bibb says:

    I would certainly add Tom Waits to the list of non-classical artists who have continued to create better work in their late period.
    Conversely, I think there is a lot of argument being made (not that I agree with it) that Philip Glass has “rested on his laurels” if you will, and failed to continue the same level of quality in his later period. I would also argue personally that Erik Satie’s early piano works are far more subtle and beautiful than his later work. But that is just a personal opinion.
    This brings to mind an article by Kyle Gann:
    This article describes the “Young Genius / Old Master” thesis of economist David Galenson. Basically, this makes the case that some artists peak early and break conventions, while others continue to hone their craft and develop the “late style”. I think this makes sense, and that this issue doesn’t break cleanly in a “pop vs. classical” comparison.

  2. Scraps says:

    Scott Walker has been making music since the late sixties; his most recent two albums are amazing.
    The best of late Pere Ubu measures up to early Pere Ubu, in my opinion.
    Steely Dan’s reunion albums are excellent. They’ve never made a bad album.

  3. For me, Paul Weller deserves a place on that list. He has delivered quality for more than 30 years.

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