This weekend was an embarrassment of live music riches for us. We probably saw more live performances than we do in three months. Maybe I’m just in a post-concert euphoria, but all weekend, it’s been buzzing around in my brain that there is a cosmic connectedness, a deep inner meaning, if you will, between the two particular concerts that we attended. Let’s see if I can connect the dots.
If you don’t want to read further, I’ll just give you the take-away: Old Happens. But you can hold it at bay by staying true to yourself. And, kids, don’t do drugs. Now hear me out.
First up Friday night were Crosby Stills and Nash, headliners of the Sonoma Jazz+ Fest. I know it’s always dangerous to see a group you remember from your youth. Just like you, they’ve aged and it’s not always pretty. It wasn’t that pretty Friday night. While Graham Nash is as lanky as ever, and in surprisingly good voice, David Crosby and Stephen Stills were looking like 100 miles of bad road each. Worse yet, those sweet high harmonies seem to be fading, if not gone forever. About halfway into the concert, there were flashes where they got their mojo back. However, they are now allowing Stephen Stills’ admittedly virtuoso guitar work to overpower their harmonies. So it’s a bit hard to tell what’s there and what’s not there. But even with the guitar work, I winced every time the big screen showed Stills’ knotted, gnarled, arthritic hands. Scary. At 65, he’s much too young to be this old.
It was enough to make me get depressed about the toll that age takes. Lucky for me, I had the San Francisco Symphony’s Black & White Ball on Saturday, with headliner Tony Bennett. Bennett has certainly lost none of his mojo — has probably gained some. Or a lot. At several decades older than the obese David Crosby, who moved barely an inch during his concert, a spry and dapper tuxedoed Bennett played the whole room, roaming the stage, breaking into tap dance steps and never letting the grin drop from his face. This is a man who’s at the top of his game, doing what he does best on his terms and loving every minute of it.
It wasn’t always this way. Apparently the late Sixties to the late Seventies were the wilderness years for Tony. He was increasingly marginalized and his record company repeatedly pressured him to record contemporary Pop songs. He’s said that the thought of abandoning his beloved standards made him physically ill. Finally, in 1979 he knew he’d hit rock bottom after a near fatal cocaine overdose. His son, using his music industry connections and management ability, took over. He booked his father in small clubs and college campuses, started a record label and crafted what must be one of the best taglines ever: “Some people never stopped being cool.” Tony just stayed Tony, singing his standards his way. Unplugged and musically perfect.
The audience responded as his frequent stints on MTV, David Letterman and Conan O’Brian exposed a younger generation to standards. I think we can look to Tony Bennett’s influence in the rush by many contemporary artists to record Gershwin, Porter and other masters. (Although I’d hate to saddle him with the blame for Rod Stewart’s foray into the standards. Believe me, don’t go there.)
And lest you think Tony’s ossified by sticking to what he’s always done, he’s giving it a modern twist by pairing with K.D. Lang, who was the other headliner of the evening. How many octogenarian old school guys do you know who would embrace (musically and literally, especially in their foxtrots on the stage) an out Lesbian? In fact, Tony championed K.D. back when she was on the fringes of Alt Country, to the point where she now calls him “my great mentor.”
To paraphrase what the movie executive once said about Fred and Ginger: “He gives her class, she gives him modern cred.”
The lessons, the parallels? Well, first off, despite Tony’s rough years in the Seventies, he’s been clean for decades. And before that there’s no way he could have consumed the massive quantities of hard drugs Stills and Crosby put away. Crosby’s on a second liver and was still sighted at the Sonoma Farmer’s Market on Friday morning buying wine. At least he wasn’t scoring heroin in the Haight. Tony Bennett? Well, I can easily see him doing this until at least age 99.
So, kids, I’ll say it again: stay true to what you do best. And don’t do drugs.
Don’t believe me? Catch CSN on their summer tour. Then see Tony Bennett. I think it’s an easy choice which old age you’ll want to slip into.
Bonus weekend revelation: Neil Young songs are even better when NOT done by Neil Young. One of the highlights of the CSN show was when they did a group of songs they didn’t write or record but always wanted to, including a great version of Long May You Run. K.D. Lang walked out on the stage to start her show and launched, without introduction, into Helpless. Hundreds of people sat in stunned, awed silence.