In 1968, the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, played to a bunch of convicts in San Quentin Prison. His singing for the common criminal set a trend and highlighted a cultural change in his native USA. Cash’s career continued in a similar vein, as he became the archetypical ‘outlaw’ in touch with the rough side of life. Funnily enough, he was never incarcerated himself at San Quentin, but the legend developed s if he had been. As he got older, Cash won respect amongst younger music fans for his legendary status, his three chord songbook and his apparent authenticity. His final set of albums, known as the ‘American Recordings’, were produced by a producer respected by the younger generation and included some songs written by more modern artists. In 2002 Cash recorded the track ‘Hurt‘, a melancholy acoustic haunting requiem for both himself and for country music of the old school. Heard in the context of how close he was to the end, it carries a poignancy and a starkness that made people sit up and think. Facing the final curtain is tough enough anyway, let alone wearing the sentiment on your sleeve for the world to devour.
When Cash died in 2003, many more people mourned him, his music having touched generations and generations, and his dignity having been restored somewhat through his brave coda provided in his final albums. One irony was that Cash had been playing the ‘older statesman’ of country blues for a couple of decades, yet had not reached is 73rd year when he passed on. The persona he played as the man in black had presented him as a long running, long surviving outlaw who had certainly lived his life to the full. He’d known pain and sorrow, but also identified with other’s feelings as well, even those on the wrong side of the law.
However, passing on at that age seems a little premature these days doesn’t it? There are plenty of similarly aged artists who are still going, still touring and still active – some with an extraordinary following of people from several generations. Many of them can rely on their earlier work to keep them the right side of the tax man (unless they are Willie Nelson), but Neil Diamond, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett are all still rolling along nicely. The British contingent is there as well, with Tom Jones, Cliff Richard, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney selling out sizeable venues and enjoying favour with grandparents, children and even grandchildren. Groups such as the Hollies and Age, it seems, is not the problem it once was, as these artists are revered for their experience and legacy, and the fact they are still alive and literally kicking is to be celebrated.
Of course, we hear ageist jokes about the Rolling Stones whenever they regroup, but we don’t hear the same ones about David Bowie, who enjoys some kind of deification status. This may have more to do with the likes of Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood living tabloid lives over the years and thus being seen as easy fodder for mockery – yet the Stones were possibly as important to British music as the Beatles were. Overall though, as a society, we are slowly though managing to come to terms with ageing pop stars and this is bringing with it a tendency for us to respect age a little bit more.
Relying on your greatest ‘oeuvre’ to see you through your career is nothing new, really. No one can stay consistently creative throughout their life, not at the same level. This is why so many long running artists eventually try a ‘covers’ album or two (Rod Stewart is a prime example) just to keep the fans happy. The output of young precocious adulthood though has become prized, with further work respected because of the legacy it reflects.
Sometimes there is reinvention that is successful. David Hockney has done a wonderful job of keeping himself interesting for the modern generation by taking on the iPad as a creative tool. But generally, longevity in the public arena relies upon having a solid back catalogue to please the nostalgic audience, and their children and children’s children.
So, if nostalgia is the key, maybe we should be wary when we consider reinventing ourselves later in life. Is success guaranteed if we are older?
The answer to this lies in a fundamental change of attitude that is needed. This will involved forgetting about the past legacy and a hope in the value of a ‘back catalogue’ and looking on what new can be offered. Trouble is, we have to persuade people to accept the new stuff as well as the old stuff.
Had Johnny Cash lived to be 82, his late 90s/early naughties renaissance would now be vintage by now anyway.