The Creative Curve of Decline

Musicians, it seems, are not like a fine wine. How often do they get better with age? Troubled by this distressing phenomenon, Jeff Merrion tries to make sense of the inevitable mediocrity that accompanies aging.

Visualize this scene: it is 1971, and you are among a rapt audience of young longhairs. Your heart leaps as you see Neil Young walk on stage, and sing “Sugar Mountain,” his heartbreaking rumination on the fleeting beauty of youth.

You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain, though you’re thinking that you’re leaving too soon.

Then visualize this scene: it is 1981, a mere ten years later, and you find yourself more or less the same person (a bit aged, perhaps), among a rapt audience of people in their late twenties. Neil Young walks out and sings “T-Bone,” his heartbreaking rumination on the fact that he has mashed potatoes, but finds himself without a t-bone steak.

Got mashed potatoes. Ain’t got no T-Bone. (Repeated ad naseum).

Or, if Neil Young is not your bag, how about this:

It’s 1977, and you (a sexually confused middle-class American teenager) are among a rapt audience of equally sexually confused American teenagers. The Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie, walks out onto the stage, and brings the audience to tears with his heart-wrenching tale of doomed love, “Heroes.”

I remember, standing by the wall. And the guns shot above our heads. And we kissed, so that nothing would fall. And the shame was on the other side. And we can beat them forever and ever, we can be heroes just for one day.

And now, fast forward to 1999. You (now probably a sexually frustrated banker looking to recapture vestiges of your reckless youth) are among a rapt audience of middle-aged professionals and Nine Inch Nails fans who look as if they are about to mug you. David Bowie, looking surprisingly well-aged considering his incredible drug consumption habits, steps out onstage and sings his duet with Trent Reznor, “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

Johnny’s in America, Johnny wants pussy and cars.

I will use these two examples as case studies for the artistic phenomenon that I am most afraid of as a musician and purchaser of music: The Creative Curve of Decline.

When Neil Young and David Bowie started their careers, they were full of youthful wonder. This is reflected in their lyrics, which are poignant and full of awe, and their music, which is experimental, searching, and yearning.

But as Gastr Del Sol says, “Most blues are subtitled by having no sense of wonder.” And unfortunately, as their careers progress, many musicians seem to lose their sense of wonder, creating middling music that never reaches the lyrical and musical heights of their youth. (Although I truly love all of Neil Young’s catalogue, it seems that nothing of late other than Sleeps with Angels has been amazing).

I suppose that nearly everyone loses his or her sense of wonder with age. But it is especially hard for musicians, authors, and other artists, because their livelihood depend on this sense of wonder.

The list of artists that has fallen prey to this phenomenon is long (and completely subjective): Trail of Dead, Barenaked Ladies, Belle and Sebastian, Blur, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen, Everclear [rest of alphabet omitted for expediency], and Weezer. Just listen to Make Believe by Weezer after listening to Pinkerton and tell me the Creative Curve of Decline doesn’t have at least some credence.

And then consider poor Paul McCartney: along with John Lennon, he completely blew the pop music scene out of the water, making some of the most inventive and wonderful music ever recorded. Now he is suctioned to the window of every Starbucks in America, making a sad puppy face and beseeching you to condescend to buy his latest album.

I’m not sure what the remedy to this phenomenon is. Perhaps we could just give artists a massive dose of LSD every ten years or so and put them on the chemical expressway to a sense of wonder.

All I know is that this summer working at Starbucks, when they made me listen to Paul McCartney’s new CD on constant repeat for an entire day, I would have given anything for the sweet release of death.

And I know that if instead Starbucks had made me listen to Sgt. Pepper’s on constant repeat for an entire day, I would have said, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.