Things Have Changed

As these words are tapped, the President of the United States is en route to Madison in Air Force One with The Boss in tow.

Tonight we’ll wind our way to the Alliant Energy Center, aka The Coliseum, to catch another tourist passing through: Bob Dylan, the Jewish kid from the Gogebic Range who became a cultural legend. He’ll be strumming his six-string and growling his beautiful poetry.

Some days our little town can be pretty interesting.

With all these famous folks dropping by, it seems the perfect time to muse about someone who won’t be here tonight.

Neil Young.

For whatever reasons, Neil’s plaintive tenor has always haunted.

For folks of a certain age, “There is a town in north Ontario” is a sure heart toucher. From burned-out basements to harvest moons, the guy has said interesting things in interesting ways for five decades. To many he has had every bit the impact as Dylan.

That’s why a recent news piece caught my eye. Neil Young, rock poet hedonist of the first order, was told by his doctor in “pretty sincere” terms to quit his smoking and drinking and such.

Wait. What? Neil Young, runningmate of rowdy hippies Stephen Stills and David Crosby, is going to quit drinking, smoking and getting high? How can this be? Hell, Crosby gave his entire liver to our generation, the rock and roll equivalent of falling on a grenade.

Neil, however, is unbothered by his retirement from buzzness.

Said he (in a Parade interview, if you can believe that), “I think I’m pretty high from the last fifty years, but I certainly don’t miss it at this point.”

Young’s news came at a wistful time. YouTube has made it easy for a person to visit his past.

On a quiet Sunday morning sipping coffee, I searched YouTube for Poco singing “Heart of the Night,” which led to The Eagles, then Henley, then Joe Walsh, which in turn lead to Tom Waits and Ol’ 55, which then recommended Neil inducting Tom into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a hysterical, beautiful intro.

It was a wonderful digital memory trip, though it came with some sadness.

So many of these artists had such beautiful voices and vices.  

But now they are aging. It is difficult to witness, and to experience oneself. A line I heard in a movie this weekend puts a button on the vague emotion. “The worst thing about aging for a man is that you are no longer dangerous.”

So true.

But the YouTube memory tour revealed something interesting: The self-destructive ways that accompany earlier years can be replaced by other things.

One of the Poco clips shows the band in concert today: heavier, balder, grayer, but still singing wonderfully. Richie Furay walks onstage and exclaims with glee before singing “Kind Woman,” “Wow. Can you believe we’ve been doing this for thirty-eight years?”

He didn’t sound sad. Or depressed. He just sounded happy.

So does Young.  And he sounds driven.  “I want to be a better guitar player and I want to sing better.”

The Bob Dylan we’ll see tonight is now seventy-one years old and still writing, recording and touring.

Perhaps he’ll sing my favorite song of his, “Things Have Changed,” a more recent cut from the droll, smart film Wonder Boys. In the song, Bob sounds weary, diffident and old. “I used to care, but things have changed.” But then, in an instant he  becomes playful and boyish, longing to wheel the next woman he sees down the street in a wheelbarrow.

Does he sound dangerous? Nope. But he does sounds crazy, good and wise.

Which, if you think about it, might be better than dangerous.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

Find more of John Roach's columns here.

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