New Nation column: Why Do Political Reporters Refuse to Show Us the Money?
So I was in the bar during Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday show at the Garden during the warm-up act Sunday night and I thought of a new list. It has to do with aging. It’s inspired by my own life, that of some of my friends and that of some of the people I read, see perform and about whom I think. It’s not meant to be complete by any means. In fact, it could hardly be more casual. But I think it works. To be considered you have to have reached your creative peak during my lifetime, or near it, and also have turned 70 (or died before you had a chance to, but still left a considerable body of work over a period of decades).
Category 1: Artists and writers whose talents never deserted them, no matter what age they might be, and whose final works bear comparison to their earliest (and vice-versa):
Robert Caro (though Volume 4 has significant problems and Volume 2 is just wrong)
Gabriel García Márquez
Category 2: Artists whose talents came and went over time, but who exhibited second and third winds when people were ready to give up on them and who get points for growth, experimentation and artistic bravery:
Philip Roth (But for his final “short” novels, he would have been in Category 1.)
Miles Davis (Though I’m thinking I’m perhaps being a bit too indulgent about the later work.)
Norman Mailer (As with Miles…)
Ray Davies/The Kinks
Saul Bellow (Also, next to no experimentation, just inconsistent greatness…)
Category 3: These are people who had moments—sometimes more than a decade—of genius and then followed them with decades of living on the capital of their respective youths.
The Beatles as solo artists
The Allman Brothers Band (Though I think the playing was best at the time of their dissolution, it was certainly not clear of their creativity, which peaked in the beginning.)
The Grateful Dead (Creatively, I’d say they went downhill after Keith and Donna, but then again, everybody loves the period that he or she discovered the band.)
The Rolling Stones (Okay, it was a really long period of genius, but it’s been an even longer period of only okay-ness.)
Category 4: These are people who, like physicists, peaked at the beginning of their careers and never again came close to the levels of creativity demonstrated as late or post-adolescents:
Category 5: To be determined/too early to tell:
Eric Rohmer, Comedies and Proverbs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
In a weird coincidence, I saw Éric Rohmer’s fourth “Comedy and Proverb,” 1984’s Full Moon in Paris at the Film Society of Lincoln Center the same day I began to listen to the audio version of John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. Not so weird a coincidence, you say. Well, how about this? Both the film and the novel begin with the same proverb, “The one who has two wives loses his soul, the one who has two houses loses his mind.” The proverb was invented by Rohmer himself—what a guy. It’s been a great year for Rohmer lovers at FSLC. We got A Tale of Winter and A Tale of Summer (my favorite) and now the just marvelous Full Moon. It’s a gorgeous film powered by the luminosity of its star, who sadly died of a drug overdose and never had the career her talent and charisma warranted. FSLC had a mini-Rohmer festival to accompany the rerelease of the film, and while they are almost all great, The Aviator’s Wife was the one I enjoyed second best of those I was able to see. (I am renting the DVDs of Boyfriends and Girlfriends and the perennial Pauline at the Beach from Netflix since I couldn’t make those showings. Sadly The Green Ray does not appear to be available at all. “Comedies and Proverbs” is only one of Rohmer’s great series and guess what? I’d put it at number three. So if you don’t know his work, get going.
Speaking of le Carré, lifter of Rohmerian proverbs, Philip Roth called 1986’s A Perfect Spy “the best English novel since the war.” That’s crazy. David Denby agrees. So perhaps I’m wrong. I think it’s excellent. But I don’t think it’s even close to being le Carré’s best book, and I don’t think le Carré’s best work matches that of Graham Greene’s best work, even though I love and admire the work of both authors. But if you want to take Philip’s advice read it right away. (It is self-contained, unlike the brilliant Smiley trilogy which I much prefer). The audio version is also wonderfully read and is available from Penguin Audio
Steve Winwood at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester
And speaking of Eric Clapton, one of the disappointments of a pretty good (but incredibly expensive) Clapton concert was the fact that he forewent the honors of the vocals on “Can’t Find My Way Home.” (The others were: acoustic versions of “Nobody Loves You,” and “Layla.”) The fact that he played both of those horribly sappy hits he’s written and left out “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad,” entirely, Stevie Winwood, playing two sold out nights at the Capitol in Port Chester, stuck much closer to what you expected from him. He sang “Can’t Find My Way Home” as he did a bunch of other Traffic songs, a Spencer Davis Group song or two, and maybe three solo hits, including “Higher Love.” Of the Traffic songs, I regretted not hearing “John Barleycorn” but otherwise could not argue with the choices, which included “Glad” “Low Spark” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” The band was pretty tight and Stevie’s voice is down an octave or so, but as ethereal as ever. He’s also a much better guitarist than most people have any idea, as he demonstrated when he toured with Clapton a few years ago, in one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. This show was pretty decent and nobody went home angry, but he waited quite a while to come on and that was annoying, since you know, you’ve got to get home from Port Chester.
Odds and Ends
Finally I want to recommend a few CDs: Joe Alterman, the young (handsome) pianist, and I are not related, so you might believe me when I say I’m proud to pretend that we are when I listen to his terrific new CD, George Sunset. Read all about it here. Readers might also remember me raving about the soundtrack to the off-Broadway production of Fortress of Solitude, based on the brilliant Jonathan Lethem novel. That’s on CD now and boiled down. There’s a great little soul album inside it, even if you’ve not seen the show. (Though if you’ve read the novel, it will work for you in a different way I imagine.) I can’t imagine anyone not really loving Van Morrison’s Duets album, which is much cleverer, and more fun than most old farts’ duets albums. And Boz Scaggs is having a third creative wind, first with Memphis, and now with the equally excellent, A Fool to Care. Finally, Nellie McKay’s new CD of sixties pop is cute and clever, but also hit and miss. It’s called My Weekly Reader and you can maybe see her on tour if you check here. I unfortunately missed her show at 54 Below but the Times review is on her page and it sure sounds like fun.