Age shouldn't be a brake on creativity

Is it ageist to be impressed by something an ‘older' person has done?

I'm not really sure. (Apologies up front to anyone who was hoping for a definitive answer.)

A few weeks ago I mentioned it was bugging me when people show surprise at how good a local band/singer/songwriter/album/whatever is. Because why shouldn't it be?

The surprise always strikes me as a sort of caveat, a way of saying: ‘We're all kinda average here so how did we produce something so good?'

And I wonder if I'm doing the same when I'm blown away by a guy in his mid-70s producing music as strong as any young whipper-snapper.

Regular readers will notice the re-emergence of a favourite theme: what happens to rock 'n' rollers when they get old? The answer, still, is that we don't really know. I say this because it's happening right now.

There was a distinct new generation of music that began roughly in the mid-60s – singers and bands who were also songwriters. Most 50s pop stars were pretty people with great voices but essentially just performers.

With the 60s came the Stones and the Beatles, Dylan and Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed, creative artists on the same level as authors or poets.

But is it possible to grow old in what is and was – back then in particular – regarded as a young person's business? Well Mick and Keith are still out there finding out and despite Lou and Lenny leaving us it was reassuring that their later work was every bit as insightful as their most famous moments.

Randy Newman  

However, the guy who often gets left out of that array of songwriters, who perhaps seemed like a journeyman alongside the iridescent arc of the others, is 73-year-old Randy Newman, who has stayed the course and can now look back on an astounding 50 years of music-making. After a pause of eight years he's produced a new album ‘Dark Matter' that is as powerful, playful and thought-provoking as any in his long career.

Let's review a little: Mr Newman has three Emmys, six Grammys and two Oscars (he has been nominated for 20 Oscars). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. A lot of people have sung his songs.

You may know some: ‘I Think It's Going To Rain Today', ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come', ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On', ‘Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear', ‘Short People', there are many...

These days he's better known for his film music, hence those 20 Oscar nods.

Which seems fitting as it appears a popular pastime in the Newman family: three uncles were noted Hollywood film-score composers, Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman, a profession continued by his cousins Thomas, Maria, David, and Joey.

It's easy to think of Newman as the sweet guy who wrote ‘You've Got a Friend in Me' and other Toy Story songs (and those for Monsters Inc and other Pixar films), and it's easy to forget what a confrontational figure he once was.

Controversial songs

His 1974 album ‘Good Old Boys' set off something of a firestorm, its opening song ‘Rednecks' containing the refrain “We're rednecks, rednecks, we can't tell our ass from a hole in the ground.”

It also uses the ‘N' word several times. One imagines that, despite being born in New Orleans, touring the American south became a nervous venture for a while.

The new one, ‘Dark Matter', is stunning stuff. It has long funny philosophical pieces (‘The Great Debate' pitches scientists against Christians), pokes the borax at current affairs (‘Putin'), and reinvents the life of a murdered bluesman (‘Sonny Boy'). Yet in its quieter moments Newman can still rip your heart out. ‘Lost Without You' puts you in the position of an elderly man, listening secretly to his dying wife tell their kids how to look after him when she's gone. Even writing about it brings tears to my eyes.

Thank heavens we still have Randy Newman and, however old or young he may be, damn, he's good.


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