You know my heart keeps telling me you're not a kid at 33 (Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues- Danny O'Keefe)
I look in the mirror in total surprise at the hair on my shoulder and the age in my eyes (Amanda – Bob McDill)
Childhood climbed up in a white oak tree. I blinked once and it was gone. (I Blinked Once –Steve Forbert)
There's a lady I occasionally see when I make a trip to the local supermarket. You can't miss her. She makes her way through the parking lot with the dispatch of a snail. She is elegantly dressed with her hair perfectly coifed and dyed an unnatural shade of brown. She insists on wearing stiletto heels that are every bit of two and a half inches tall and…she is every bit of 80 years old. It's painful to see her walk but don't try to be a boy scout and assist her across the parking lot. She'll have none of that. You see, there's a part of her that never grew up. When she looks in the mirror in the morning, she still conjures up an image of that 19 year old debutante she used to be.
Steven Tyler, the long time front man for the group Aerosmith is another one of those who seem to live in perpetual adolescence. On one level it's great to have a youthful outlook and remain "forever young" to borrow a title from a Bob Dylan song. On another level, it's pathetic to see a 64 year old man turn himself into a freak show that only twenty-somethings can fathom. But after all, he is a judge on American Idol which has been the de facto arbiter of 20-something singing talent for a number of years now. There's no doubt – they wanna be just like Steven. And while Aerosmith certainly has a certain appeal, a lot of people in the 35-55 age group (their target audience) have moved on. They don't have the benefit of checking into detox mansions or hiring a "life coach" when addictions and frustrations get to be too much. They don't have somebody around telling them that it's not ok to be a juvenile. Most of us don't have the luxury of taking time off "to get our act together". And we don't have that rich dad to get us out of "this" that Warren Zevon sings about in Lawyers, Guns, and Money. You see, at some point in most of our lives; whether it's at 23, 33, 43 or even beyond, you gotta grow up. And even the music we listen to tends to reflect that acceptance.
I accepted the hard reality that I wasn't a kid anymore a long time ago. And while recently listening to John Conlee's Classics (basically a greatest hits collection), the themes of adulthood and responsibility were reinforced. Conlee was one of the last of the great true country music artists. He had a long string of hits beginning in the late 70's on into the '80's. Then the country music industrial complex completely took over and great songs coming from great artists like Conlee weren't heard from anymore. They changed country music into something it was never intended to be – pop singers with cowboy hats, acts swinging on stage from a rope singing about having friends in low places and sporting belt buckles normally reserved for rodeo champions. I was a Conlee fan back when I was a teenager but now songs like The Backside of Thirty mean more to me when age wise I am indeed on the backside of thirty. Making money at thirty with a wife and a son. Then a short five years later it all comes undone. It's not teenage romance stuff anymore. And from that first line, it only gets worse. But Conlee landed a number one hit with that song. The unraveling of the American dream, the dissolution of a marriage, utter despondency and loneliness are things you begin to understand and experience only after you've had a few years under your belt. Ditto the sentiments and lyrics expressed in other Conlee songs like Miss Emily's Picture, Friday Night Blues, his take on the old Harlan Howard chestnut Busted, and perhaps his best known song Rose Colored Glasses. Even the lyrics to "Common Man" — I'm just a common man, drive a common van, my dog ain't got a pedigree — don't seem to be as corny anymore now that I've gotten older.
Mississippi born singer/songwriter Steve Forbert has always been wise beyond his years. Hailed as one of the "new Dylans" at the beginning of his career in the late 70's, Forbert continues to put out one great album after another. His debut album Alive On Arrival introduced the world to his keen observations and lyrical brilliance at the ripe old age of 24. He has only gotten better. You see, he has actually grown up with his audience. Through his songs, you get the feeling he shares the same concerns as his fans – the bills, the kids, the risks you take when chasing a dream, the general trials and travails of day to day living, and the huge responsibilities most of us face. In Responsibility, Forbert laments…I'm in such a hurry now, it starts to worry me, stop and smell the roses? Baby I can't hardly see, no, I ain't forgotten just how good it all can be, but I got so much responsibility . He could be your next door neighbor; he might even take his kids to the same school you take your kids to, he might even drive that same beater car to work that you do. In other words, Forbert understands his audience. I doubt a Steven Tyler understands any of this when he's onstage singing Rag Doll. In New Working Day, Forbert describes the rat race most of us find ourselves in…Life heats up hard in the fire lane, drink nitroglycerine punch, Spin a few plates and shake hands with a snake, While you're running in place eating lunch. And one of my favorite Forbert lines comes from "The American In Me"…and I'm back once again on the car lot, and I ain't even paid for that thing I drove up in yet, well I might make a trade and I might not, but I know I'll remain in debt.
At this point, you might be asking yourself why you should listen to music about work and responsibility when you're trying to escape all of that. Well that's a valid point. And It's not like I wake up in the mornings intent on listening to songs about the drudgery of work, and the frustrations and complications (and yes, Forbert does have a song called Complications) of life, but when they show up on my playlist, something resonates and I can definitely relate. Bob Seeger sings about that old time rock & roll that "soothes your soul", but there's something cathartic about these songs as well. Mick can sing about getting no satisfaction. I understand that, I can't get any satisfaction either but at a certain point you gotta move on with your life. Both Forbert and Conlee have other songs in their repertoire as well – songs about love, commitment (oops, I slipped in a grown up word), and having fun because grown ups like to have fun as well as maintaining a healthy sense of humor.
I've tried to keep all of this in mind when I'm writing my own songs. Vampires At The Campfire (I call it my Dead Skunk – the offbeat, quirky tune by Loudon Wainwright III) is something I wrote very quickly and didn't put much thought into but has been greeted with a warm and strong enthusiasm. It's been the same for another song I wrote at about the same time which is considerably more serious lyrically called In Time. It's about a woman who is constantly searching for something – those lost pair of earrings…some peace of mind. But basically, the song is about someone who hasn't quite matured. Life is a balance between the masks of comedy and tragedy. When one finds just the right balance without losing one's mind and weathers those "growing pains" then one is on their way to adulthood, and that's not such a bad thing.