Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LEGENDS THAT DIE (FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING)

Last week I had a conversation with a fellow obsessive music nut about classic artists from the '60s and '70s who've lost their mojo. You know the type. Once upon a time they churned out brilliant albums year after year, but they've basically spent the last decade or two or three coasting or floundering. We came up with quite a list: Stevie Wonder (number one with a bullet!), the Rolling Stones (time to call it a day?), Rod Stewart (his standards shtick has morphed into camp), David Bowie (MIA), R.E.M. and Elvis Costello (too scattered; he needs to focus).

Neither of us mentioned Eric Clapton, the Cure or Luther Vandross (before his death), but I'd put them on. Elvis Costello once recommended that Vandross remake Painted from Memory, Costello's 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach and one of his few remarkable CDs since the '80s, from beginning to end. I think they should have just recorded it as a trio. Elton John still has his good moments, as does Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Sting, so they don't make the shit list. And Robert Plant and Billy Joel, for better or worse, have veered so far from the musical paths that made them superstars that it's unfair to compare classic and current.

My fellow music nut had a theory. He thinks that because these geezers now take so much time off between albums, they lose their creative momentum. It's like they forget how to make great music. I'm not convinced by that hypothesis. I think the culprit is simply human nature: We work harder when we're hungry. In music, in art, in movies, people tend to do their best work earlier in their careers. I'll probably get seriously slammed for this, but I think Pablo Picasso topped out in his Blue Period. Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Michael Caine and so many of their contemporaries used to deliver stunning performances in stunning films year after year with multiple Oscar nominations to show for it. Now we get an About Schmidt or a Quiet American about once a decade or so.

Don't get me started on the directors. Clint Eastwood is one of the few (the only?) '70s holdovers who continues to do consistently acclaimed work--though his movies are not particularly to my liking. Robert Altman's final years were hit-and-miss. Sidney Lumet's 2007 creative renaissance with Before The Devil Knows You're Dead may have been a fluke or a swan song (he's 84). Woody Allen has lost it. Steven Spielberg is on cruise control. Martin Scorcese gets Oscar nominations now because he's Martin Scorcese, not because anything he's done in recent years is on par with his classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But hey, even a legend like Billy Wilder stunk up the screen with his last few films.

Or maybe it's a guy thing. Helen Mirren, Julie Christie (who scores an Oscar nomination every time she comes out of semi-retirement to take a leading role), Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Judi Dench still bring it. Sade and Kate Bush take aeons between albums and nonetheless make quality comebacks. Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris continue to deliver the goods, while Cyndi Lauper and Dolly Parton recently have done some of the best work of their careers with, respectively, Bring Ya To The Brink and the The Grass Is Blue/Hungry Again/Halos & Horns bluegrass trilogy.

At the end of the day, Stevie Wonder's considerable legacy is safe and sound (as are most of the others, save Rod Stewart, who, at this point, has produced more crap than quality). But one can hope that somewhere, buried deep in the crevices of Wonder's soul, there's another Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions dying to get out. Maybe he needs the Rick Rubin treatment. It worked for Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. It could work for Stevie, too.
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