Anything Bob Dylan does continues to be grist for the media machine, as if he were a slightly more hirsute Taylor Swift, and the news that he would appear on the second to last episode of the “Late Night with David Letterman” show duly got the presses rolling. I was struck by the angle taken in New York’s Daily News, where, underneath a photo of the “legendary rocker” was this bit of editorializing: “The singer has been particularly obsessed with aging as his own career winds down.” Aside from begging for the observation that we all should be glad to have as many number one albums as Dylan when our careers are winding down, it made me wonder: Is Dylan really obsessed with aging? The article also states:
Most of his recent work has been musings about old age, including “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Not Dark Yet” — fitting imagery as Letterman closes out a 33-year run as the dean of late-night comedy.
Well, true enough I guess, and then there are all those other morbid songs the wizened ol’ Zimmerman has been singing lately, like “In My Time of Dyin’,” “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” and “Fixin’ To Die”—oops, a slight error by the research intern there: it turns out those three songs were on Bob Dylan’s very first album, released in 1962 when he was 21 years-old!
Sure, those were folk songs, but the awareness of death that infuses folk music was one of the things that fascinated Dylan about it, and it was an element that would always be present in his work, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly, sometimes jokingly, and sometimes religiously.
That’s a bit much to get into right now, but you only have to pick up one of his albums and listen for a while and you’ll hear it in there if you’re paying attention. Dylan isn’t obsessed with aging: he has aged well, and his work in these latter years has reflected someone who doesn’t have to struggle to come to terms with old age, but rather someone still filled with vibrancy, trying to make the most of whatever days remain. He’s comfortable in his aged skin; in fact he looks more comfortable than he ever has before, the master of his domain (which surely contributed to the confidence he needed to pull off Shadows in the Night).
What does someone who is “obsessed with aging” actually look like, and how do they behave? Looking at the world of celebrity today, it wouldn’t be hard to pick out a few, but let’s pick on someone who won’t be offended—because he’s already dead.
Michael Jackson was obsessed with aging. He quite clearly underwent all kinds of cosmetic procedures and surgeries to make himself look artificially younger than his years, so that when he died at the age of 51 he looked superficially more like some kind of plastic or waxwork teenager. He was a 51 year-old man who seemed never to want to be seen as a man at all. That’s an obsession with aging, I’d suggest.
Still alive is Larry Page, a co-founder of Google and a 42 year-old billionaire. He is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in ventures to defeat death. You might call that being obsessed with aging, too.
Singing “Autumn Leaves” on stage when you’re 74 years-old? That’s not what I’d call an obsession with aging. That’s what I’d call wearing it well (and especially when you can sing it so well).
I don’t know if that’s the song Bob Dylan will sing on Letterman’s show this time around. I’m kind of rooting for “New York, New York,” myself.
Addendum 5/20/2015: He sang “The Night We Called It A Day,” and quite beautifully, I do think (embedded below via YouTube)