By Karl Byrn
One advantage of being a pop music icon is that even though your best work is behind you, the test of time demands that critics and fans give your current release a serious nod. In a pop music landscape that's alive with hip-hop, Kid Rock, and Dixie Chicks, what do '70s folk and punk icons like Neil Young, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Joni Mitchell have to offer? Where are they at, and what are they telling their middle-age audiences?
The current discs from these four legends offer the expected maturity--nostalgia for romance and revolution, a search for simplicity, admonitions to young idealists, music that isn't risky, less confessional upheaval and more personal reflection (except for Smith, they all avoid topical issues). But it's not as simple as autumnal artists making September-of-my-years statements; they've already examined death--Young as early as 1975's Tonight's the Night (about band member Danny Whitten) and as recently as 1994's Sleeps With Angels (Kurt Cobain), Reed on 1992's Magic and Loss (various friends), Smith on 1996's Gone Again (brother Todd and husband Fred), Mitchellincidentally on 1979's Mingus (a tribute to then-dying jazz great Charles Mingus).
Having already faced mortality, they're now pursuing post-tragic normalcy.
Not surprisingly, they find this in their own well-known devices. After 1995's grunge-rocking Mirror Ball, Young again flips his style coin and becomes Acoustic Neil on Silver & Gold (Reprise). Reed hates his lover and is thrilled by sex-and-drugs street life on Ecstasy (Reprise). Smith issues a mystical call to arms on Gung Ho (Arista), while Mitchell delivers a misty set of jazz standards on Both Sides Now (Warner).
Mitchell is the least relevant. Both Sides Now teams her with the London Symphony Orchestra for a soggy "exploration" of romantic love that unwisely includes two of her own classics paired with such standards as "At Last" and "Stormy Weather." The rhythms of her own material are misplaced, but it's not just the unbalanced arrangements or her grasp for credible vocal color that defeats the project; it's the fact that the trend of pop-rockers covering war-era torch songs passed a half dozen years ago. This is a vile idea of what a middle-age audience needs, and given Mitchell's contemptuous attacks on current pop, it's further proof that she's out of touch.
While Mitchell asks her audience to conceptually dumb themselves down, Smith isn't afraid to seem silly while warning her audience "We got to get off/Our ass or get burned." Gung Ho's expansive rock (delivered with sturdiness by her original band) doesn't make clear what future she envisions or how she plans to get there, partly because her poetic visions aren't nearly as provocative as they once were. But it's telling that in the above lyric (from the not-so-unclear "New Party") she refers to "our ass" as a singular thing. Her insistence on a universal spirit is the disc's strength, from the opening Asian-flavored power-pop of "One Voice" to the closing title cut, a bizarre tribute to the late North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the idea of revolution for it's own sake.
Gung Ho needs clarity, but after the dark solemnity of Gone Again and 1997's Peace and Noise, it's inspiring that Smith feels her listeners need social change more than reflection.
Reed feels his audience just need good old ironically-distanced Lou. Ecstasy gives plenty, as the disc's title is at odds with its theme of failed marraiges. Too many cuts don't follow this theme, but such unedited indiscretion is vintage Reed as well. Despite the irony and excess, his acceptance of inadequacy is amusing. On "Baton Rouge", Reed casts himself as a regular guy with a regular tale of divorce, while "Modern Dance" finds the regular guy fantasizing about bohemianism. But finally, his mature, straight-forward musings on couples are too much pressure, so he returns to the filthy streets for the 18-minute two-chord crawl of "Like A Possum", where images of condoms, crack, and masochism make him feel alive. Swept over by the impulse to be wild again, Reed shakes out of his usual montone to whimper that he's finally "Calm! Calm!".
Young has a genuine calmness that, unlike Reed's focus on failed couples, is based on faith in true love. While Mirror Ball was lengthy and thematically complex, the sentimental Silver & Gold, with its short, simple folk tunes, is Young's easiest, least challenging work ever. But there's always more to Young than meets the eye. Though the disc starts with the plain-spoken, happy-go-lucky comforts of middle-age--the warmth of homecoming, admiration for aging parents, fondness for youth's pals--by the end he's wrestling with incompleteness and finality, "trying to find something I can't find yet."
On Mirror Ball, Young remarked that "People my age/They don't do the things I do." He wasn't just noting his work with hip acts like Pearl Jam, but was summoning the self-awareness that Smith, Reed, and Mitchell miss--a yin/yang tug of sadness and satisfaction that on Silver & Gold replaces the mere need to accept (or resist) growing old gracefully.
For middle-age music fans, that's a comforting notion.
From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.