Pundits sometimes argue that blogging becomes a kind of race to the bottom, because blogging creates an environment that encourages anonymous sniping, foments mindless controversy, discourages nuanced thought, and consequently turns normal people into blowhards and jerks. I like my blog; I like reading blogs; I hate the covert appeal to authority hidden in a lot of whingeing about blogs (free speech is scary! can’t someone stop it?). So I usually hate the race-to-the-bottom argument, but I have to admit I can see the point. A couple of days ago I wrote a post that ended with the assertion that “there is simply no equivalent of a “late style” in popular music.” Which I realized was bullshit five minutes after I posted it. “Name any jazz musician whose performances became more vital, innovative, and influential after age forty,” I asked. Two words: Miles Davis. Davis was 40 in 1966, the year he made Miles Smiles. In the following years, he made Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner, etc. etc. And then there’s Duke Ellington, who was 40 in 1939, the year Jimmy Blanton joined his orchestra. And there’s Art Pepper, whose comeback albums on Galaxy in the late 1970s and early 1980s are the best examples of late-style jazz I can think of. Pepper recorded Goin’ Home, a duet album with George Cables, a couple of months before he died; it’s one of my very favorite records.
So what I wrote was nonsense. But here’s the thing: I’ve been totally rewarded for writing nonsense. I check my visitor stats constantly, and since I wrote the “late style” post the site has enjoyed a spike in traffic and, what’s more, a couple of links. (Not to mention Jonathan’s rejoinder.) At last I understand Ann Coulter. Her act is basically cable-news geek show: bite the head off a chicken (or a 9/11 widow) and everyone comes to gawk. Does she believe what she’s saying? I dunno — that question is probably beside the point, because her act is not about truth, it’s about getting an audience.
So. Coltrane, Mozart, and the Beatles all suck.*
Anyway, here are some of the musicians who, according to the bloggers and commenters who have weighed in on the matter, are aging like fine wine:
The Blind Boys of Alabama
John Paul Jones
. . . and Bob Dylan, dammit
The author of Waste (apparently a philosophy blog, and a good one) noticed a vagueness in my question about “late style” in popular music. Was I talking about “relevance”?** Was I talking about artistic quality? In truth I was conflating the two, which is something I hate in a lot of writing about pop music. But let me try again. Granted, lots of rock and jazz musicians continue to make great music into old age. But: is there a rock/jazz/whatever equivalent to “late style”? By which I mean, late style in the sense that people like Edward Said use it when they talk about Beethoven or Thomas Mann or whatever.
I mean, OK, take Robert Fripp. I’ve always loved Robert Fripp’s guitar playing, and his playing on his recent album with Brian Eno, The Equatorial Stars, is beautiful. But it’s beautiful in pretty much the same way as the first Eno/Fripp collaboration, No Pussyfooting, which came out more than 30 years ago. Which is fine. I don’t buy into the notion that an artist always has to “progress.” If It’s beautiful in 1973, it’s beautiful now. But my point is that while Robert Fripp is still keepin’ it real at age 60, this isn’t the same thing as saying that he’s developed a “late style.” When people talk about Beethoven’s “late style,” they’re talking about the sense that Beethoven has reached a certain point where the mighty personal struggles of his earlier music are not so much left behind as they are contemplated from some impossibly high vantage point and abstracted into some mysterious new language. Late style has something to do with things recollected in tranquility, but that’s not quite it. It also has something to do with paring things down to essentials: Art Pepper’s late playing is a true late style, I’d argue, because while Pepper’s still playing some of the whipcrack bop licks of his earlier days, it’s like they’re now almost symbols of that style, reductive traces of something done long ago — the old gestures worn down and smoothed like driftwood. Late Liszt is sort of like this: his earlier music is full of diminished and augmented chords stuffed with fistfulls of notes; a piece like Nuages Gris gives us the augmented chords shorn of their filigree and standing forth naked and harsh. Late Beethoven isn’t reductive in the same way, but there is some similar sense that the old elements of style have become more abstract, that they mean something different, that something of the old urgency and brilliance has been replaced by . . . what? Something a little mysterious. I guess that’s what I mean by late style.
**And wtf does “relevance” mean anyway? A topic for another day . . .